Diane Lightfoot, communications director at charity United Response explains their auto-enrolment success story

UNITED RESPONSE IS A NATIONAL CHARITY

that works with people with learning disabilities. Its initial staging date was 1 July 2013, but the social care provider took advantage of the three-month postponement window available to all companies.

This allowed United Response more time to get its systems up and running. The company set up an auto-enrolment team that included its finance director, representatives from HR and payroll, plus advisers from consultancy Barnett Waddingham and Friends Life, a pensions provider. The team met regularly – fortnightly and, at times, weekly.

“We developed a detailed workplan of all we needed to do, which was quite extensive,” says director of communications Diane Lightfoot. “As the meetings went on, the workplan grew as we began to unravel the complications.” And there were complications. Of its 3,500 workers, around 1,000 were not saving into a pension scheme.

As well as encouraging those staff to start saving into a pension scheme, United Response had to overhaul its existing system. Lightfoot explains: “The care sector is characterised by low levels of pay, and so if our staff didn’t want to make a pension contribution, they could have a pension allowance instead.

“That was very popular, but with the introduction of automatic enrolment, that is tantamount to an incitement to opt out.” So as soon as the charity knew about auto-enrolment, it effectively removed opting out as a choice. Lightfoot’s team decided to lower the qualifying earnings band to £4,800, meaning that once employees reached earnings of that level, they would receive contributions on everything above £4,800.

Our existing provider wasn’t willing to take on the remaining staff, basically because they were on low wages

They also decided to offer a 5% contribution to all staff. Next, the company selected a provider. “Our existing provider wasn’t willing to take on the remaining staff, basically because they were on low wages,” says Lightfoot. “However, we wanted to keep our existing scheme because we didn’t want the upheaval of moving those on it who were happy.

“So we needed to find someone else who could provide a broadly comparable scheme while maintaining our existing one.”

Lightfoot and her team worked closely with Barnett Waddingham to find another provider, ultimately choosing Friends Life, and put in place a similar stakeholder scheme. Getting the systems and processes right was a major concern, says Lightfoot.

“We have an in-house payroll team, and took what turned out to be a very good decision: to employ an extra payroll administrator for six months.” Once the scheme and processes were in place, the company moved on to communications. United Response’s staff are spread across the UK.

We are still teasing out issues now

“We communicated via our staff representative body, which is the closest thing we have to a union.

“We created a series of email briefings and some detailed, although hopefully very simple, FAQs. We went out to meet people, we gave briefings to our HR teams, to keep reinforcing the message,” says Lightfoot.

The team supplemented these briefings with material from Barnett Waddingham and Friends Life that was specifcally tailored to United Response’s workforce. The company encountered a few complications. They have many part-time and relief staff whose working hours fluctuate.

“We had to make it clear that once they’d reached the [earnings] threshold, that was it. So even if they went below the threshold the following month, they would still be opted in unless they chose to opt out. That was quite a difficult message to understand,” says Lightfoot.

“We are still teasing out issues now,” she says, recalling the moment when the company realised they were including two employees who are based in the Isle of Man, where autoenrolment isn’t law.

I’m happy to say that auto-enrolment worked because we had a crossorganisational project team

“It’s that kind of level of detail that we’ve come across.”

United Response also has a smaller trading arm called United Response for Business, which has a much later auto-enrolment staging date. But some employees also work for the trading group, on separate contracts. Friends Life’s system will only accept one entry for each person’s National Insurance number.

“I’m not sure if we’ve resolved that yet – I am confident that we will,” says Lightfoot.

Lightfoot concludes: “I’m happy to say that auto-enrolment worked because we had a cross-organisational project team, we planned well, and planned the communications up front.”