The Bishop of St Albans spoke in a debate on financial stability on 3rd November 2022, focusing on the effects of the current financial situation and cost of living crisis on low-income workers and on pensioners:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, we are living in challenging times, with inflation rates at a 40-year high. Turbulence in the financial markets, with higher interest rates and larger mortgage payments, is adversely affecting people in all walks of society. With the wholesale price of energy and gas increasing due to Putin’s appalling and illegal invasion of Ukraine, it is vital that His Majesty’s Government do all they can to protect renters, those with mortgages and, of course, pensioners.
To put a human face to this debate, I thought it might be worth while just quoting one of a number of emails I have received from communities in my diocese this very week. One person emailed me on Friday: “In my role as chair of a food bank, we are having to make decisions around both frightening increases in demand and a growing decline in donations. This summer, we increased our warehouse capacity to handle food for somewhere around 500 food parcels a day. The problem is in-work poverty which is growing substantially. In the past few weeks, we have been approached by a hospital, a large business, schools and a local council about whether they can refer low-paid staff to us.” He went on: “Apparently, employers are not prepared to talk about the problem of in-work poverty, feeling ashamed. They would like to raise wages and want the best staff welfare but can’t because that would move them into a deficit budget.” The human reality of what we are facing is stark. Unfortunately, the mini-Budget of 23 September made a challenging financial climate much worse.
I want to say a few words about the challenges facing pensioners. Statistics show that more than 2 million pensioners are living in poverty, with this figure increasing by around 200,000 in the last year. Age UK has suggested that one-quarter of elderly people are being forced to choose between heating and eating. These pressures are being felt particularly by those who are reliant on the state pension alone. I know many of us are hoping that in the forthcoming Budget we will be given some assurances about the commitment to maintain the level of state pensions.
I turn to private pensions for a moment and particularly raise concerns about the use of LDIs, which other noble Lords have mentioned. According to the Pensions Regulator, 60% of defined benefit pension funds incorporate LDIs. Without the Bank of England’s promise this September to purchase £65 billion in government debt, it is near certain that some of these funds would have been imperilled—that is perhaps a very mild description. The Bank of England has described this scenario as capable of
“driving a potentially self-reinforcing spiral and threatening severe disruption of core funding markets and consequent widespread financial instability”.
I understand why LDIs are being used. Nevertheless, as in many things, the issue is how and to what extent they are being used. I have heard reports that some of the funds were using too much leverage with too little protection and in so doing potentially causing a great deal of danger not only for themselves but to more responsibly managed pension funds and markets. We have to ask, and I hope the Minister will give some reassurance on this: are these LDIs being properly regulated? Are the risks really understood so that we are protecting pension funds? Are they subject to adequate stress tests? Indeed, I am tempted to throw in the question: if we are worried about LDIs, are there other financial investment mechanisms that might threaten the long-term stability of pension funds?
The Government must ensure that pensioners, some of the most vulnerable in our society, are protected from the riskiest of investment policies adopted by some pension funds. Will His Majesty’s Government investigate the use of LDIs by pension funds and ensure that pensions are properly protected?
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP): Stability demands resilience and resistance to shocks. It is not just our financial markets that need resilience but our entire society in this age of shocks: pandemics; geopolitical earthquakes; the climate emergency and nature crisis; and demographic shifts such as our ageing population. In the past we tried to deal with such issues with stress tests. To quote the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Jon Cunliffe, in a recent letter to the UK Treasury Select Committee,
“the scale and speed of repricing leading up to Wednesday 28 September far exceeded historical moves, and therefore exceeded price moves that are likely to have been part of risk management practices or regulatory stress tests.”
A stress test can only ever be as effective as the stress that it can imagine, and we are now in an age of shocks like we have never seen before.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St. Albans asked whether we should not have better stress tests but, practically, this is not enough. No one truly understands the current system and, as the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, so powerfully outlined, we have an innately risky and unstable system that is absolutely stock-full of fraud and corruption, as well as a lack of transparency.
Baroness Kramer (LD): Last week I was at Mansion House to hear the Lord Mayor of London trying to impress on the Government and regulators that the City and financial services depend on the accreditation and confidence that regulation provides. If ever we needed to understand that regulation, having standards and getting it right are important, it is in light of the crisis triggered by LDI.
Numerous speakers picked up that point, including my noble friends Lady Bowles and Lord Sharkey, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, who looked specifically at the need to reform the way we think about and structure pensions. These are not deregulatory actions; they will often incur different, but firm, regulation. Regulation is a mechanism for enforcing standards, and the casual notice that a deregulation agenda somehow leads to growth is something most of industry is pleading with the Government not to adopt.
In the end, it is ordinary people and small businesses that pay the price of decisions that fly in the face of the real world and the experience we have been through. The noble Lord, Lord Kestenbaum, made the point that market instability hits many ordinary people. I will not repeat the many conversations that have taken place today on the impact of the rising cost of living, mortgages and rents; that has been very well laid out. The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, made the point that we cannot ignore poverty, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans talked about the problems of in-work poverty, and all the conversations about rental reform very much feed into these concerns. I have simply no idea how most families manage when the cost of the very basics for living are up by 17%.