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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.