Why don't we save? Because we don't have the money

The biggest reason for a failure to contribute to pension plans is not having the money to do so.

Aviva, the insurance firm, has released its second Working Lives report, analysing the sort of benefits businesses give their employees. One particular passage jumped out at me:

Almost half (45%) of employees who do not contribute to a scheme they are offered say they simply cannot afford it, 19% are repaying debts and 17% are saving for other things. Of interest, the number of workers who say they cannot afford to pay into a scheme has dropped 10 percentage points from 55% (Q2 2012) which suggests that while general finances remain tight, retirement saving is becoming more of a consideration.

The problem that Britons don't save for retirement plagues public policy, and novel solutions are forever being proposed. For instance, one of the responses to this report, from ILC-UK, called for Government and the pensions industry to "work together to develop and promote a savings rule of thumb similar to the ‘5-a-day’ healthy eating message."

But if Government needs to do one thing to boost the number of Brits saving for retirement, it's pretty clear that that one thing ought to be aiming to increase the incomes — or at least, the disposable income — of the poorest 45 per cent of the country. It's not a lack of responsibility that prevents them saving, it's a simple lack of funds.

(It's similarly not a lack of responsibility that a 19 per cent of employees decide to pay off debts rather than save in a pension; saving when you have interest-bearing debts is, as a rule of thumb, a stupid thing to do)

Those figures also only count for employees with a workplace pension scheme, an increasingly rare situation to be in. Such schemes typically involve employer matching of contributions, which makes it even more critical that employees feel they can afford to actually take the employer up on the offer. As with other in-kind compensation like healthcare or company cars, such benefits are usually a way for an employer to "top up" an otherwise-low salary. If it is disproportionately poorer employees aren't making the most of them, that hurts them twice over.

Of course, whether employees think they can afford to contribute into pensions is different from whether they can actually afford to. It may be that if the urgency of saving for retirement were properly impressed upon employees, they would be able to make savings in their daily lives elsewhere. But that's a very different proposition from merely reminding people that they ought to be saving more.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity