Trustees may need to adopt different practices, potentially at short notice, and consider how they can best facilitate trustee meetings and exercise decision making.
For example, face-to-face meetings are likely to be extremely rare given the requirement for social distancing, with video and telephone meetings as the replacement.
Consideration should be given to practicalities of signing essential documents and risks of trustees or trustee directors being incapacitated such that quorate decision making is not possible. Trustees’ advisers should be able to provide guidance in relation to executing documents, and in particular deeds, in light of our current circumstances.
It is vital for pension schemes to maintain strong lines of communication with both their members and providers perhaps now more than ever.
Some pension schemes are encouraging members to register to online services which enable members to view important pension information. This could help alleviate some pressures from administration teams. Trustees will need to carefully consider whether their current methods of communication with members remain fit for purpose (for example if there are changes with mail delivery services).
Trustees may consider issuing communications to members about the current crisis with reassurance that the trustees are monitoring the developing situation, considering its implications and acting accordingly, as well as working with providers to ensure continued provision of services.
Furthermore, trustees should be aware of the contingency plans of their providers, giving consideration to their supply chain and where necessary giving consideration to alternate suppliers to mitigate reliance on third parties.
Trustees should ensure scheme administrators are able to work remotely if needed in order to ensure that the pension scheme is able to function as normal. This may be a particularly important issue for in-house administration.
In case of further staff shortages due to the virus, trustees may wish to consider prioritisation of specific tasks such as retirement processing and bereavement services to guarantee important responsibilities like paying pensioners can continue- and they will need to confirm this with their providers.
Many administrators are maintaining a small team within their offices in order to perform business critical tasks such as receiving post and scanning items, while maintaining social distancing in order to protect their employees.
This approach should enable schemes to continue to function and fulfil their responsibilities to members during this challenging time. In particular, trustees will need to ensure that they continue to comply with their legal obligations including data protection and act consistently with guidance from the Pensions Regulator (which may in due course permit relaxation of certain scheme activities).
Consideration should be given to the practical difficulties members and their families may face in returning forms and certificates by post, and considering what alternatives may be acceptable, whilst managing fraud risk.
Schemes should also maintain effective risk management in order to ensure they can effectively deal with any consequences arising from COVID-19. As ever, but particularly within our current climate, it is vital that trustees remain vigilant to potential pension scams and cyber risks.
Criminals may look for opportunities to take advantage of disruption or changes to the way in which schemes operate or are administered. These risks should also be communicated to members.
Michael Hayles partner in the pensions practice at UK law firm Burges Salmon