The Pensions Regulator's (TPR) enforcement activity hit a record high in 2017/18 after it intervened in twice as many cases as the previous year, Clyde & Co research has found.
Between 1 April 2017 and 30 March 2018, TPR undertook around 102,000 enforcement actions, almost exactly double the 50,000 its activity in 2016/17, and representing 63% of all enforcement action since April 2013.
The watchdog also received nearly 5,000 whistleblowing reports, up more than a third on the previous year, while also dishing out £11.5m of fixed penalty notices (£4.9m in 2016/17).
The 2017/18 period includes the end of the rollout of automatic enrolment (AE), with the final small and micro-employers staging by February this year.
The regulator has seen a trend of increasingly needing to intervene with these employers, while there was also a significantly higher number of those staging in this period.
However, the regulator has also been involved in a number of criminal cases over the past year. In May, Crest Healthcare and managing director Sheila Aluko were together fined more than £20,000 after failing to provide information to the regulator and also failing to comply with AE duties. Earlier this month, TPR revealed an accountant is facing similar charges.
Clyde & Co head of pensions Mark Howard said "alarm bells should certainly be ringing" as fixed penalty notices, in particular, were climbing.
"Six years on since the introduction of AE, the regulator is bearing its teeth and employers are now feeling the full force of its enforcement powers," he said. "The biggest concern for all employers should be the rate at which enforcement activity is increasing."
He continued: "The primary driver of the uptick in whistleblowing reports is almost certainly AE compliance failures. Over the last year, the regulator has been on a significant publicity drive to ensure employees are aware of their rights and employers are aware of their obligations. In some respects, it appears to be paying off."
The regulator recently revealed it had received over 100 reports of employers encouraging staff to opt out of pensions, although it was unclear how many of those led to enforcement action.
A TPR spokesperson said: "AE has been a huge success thanks to the vast majority of employers who do exactly what they should, but a small minority fail to complete their workplace pension duties. AE is not an option; it's the law. Those who break the law by denying their staff the pensions they are entitled to should expect to be punished."
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