Pensions minister Steve Webb. Photo: Getty
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How are the government going to build a pension system that works?

Most people want to “give their money away to someone whom they can trust will use it wisely to generate a income when they retire”.

The budget announcement allowing savers to choose how they spend their retirement savings may look a political coup. But to suggest it addresses the issue of how we provide pensions is a misuse of the English language. In fact it begs this question, “if people do not buy annuities, how are they to able to provide for themselves throughout their retirement?” Because an annuity is a pension; that is “a regular payment made during a person’s retirement”.  So, if you don’t buy a pension when you retire, how are you to ensure you have enough to look after yourself as you grow older?

Let us be clear. The Chancellor had good reason to abandon annuities, because they are such poor value for money. Today, someone retiring at the age of 65, who had saved £100,000, and wanted to buy a pension annuity which kept pace with inflation, would only be paid about £3,600 a year. In other words they would need to live until they were 93 just to get their money back. Fifteen years ago, they would have received much more. But the combination of low interest rates, and destructive competitive forces put pay to that. Annuities are bad value, and the government had no wish to face a grey electorate, which it had forced to purchase them.

But it doesn’t address the core problem. Because if you don’t buy an annuity how do you know that you will be able to look after yourself in retirement? For those in the public sector the answer is easy. Their pension savings is designed to generate an income for life. That used to be the situation in the private sector as well. But successive, and sometimes well intentioned regulation, has resulted in that pension system slowly being abandoned.  The government’s latest announcement is just another nail in the coffin. Retirement savings no longer need to be used to buy a pension - they are rather a pot set aside to give yourself a golden handshake when you stop work.

So let’s consider the prudent hard working person who retires, at the age of sixty five trying to plan for their future. If they don’t buy an overpriced annuity what do they do? What happens when, in their late 80s having done everything by the book, they discover they are running out of money. What future do they face, when, despite their playing everything by the book, their savings have run out? Is that the best we can do for people who have worked hard, been prudent, planned and saved?

And that is assuming that they have negotiated their way around the siren voices of financial advisors who will doubtless have gone on a spree of “innovation” to help invest the savings of those who are no longer buying annuities. Those who remember the last attempt to “free pensions” in the 1980s will also remember the ubiquitous pensions’ mis-selling scandals which followed.

What is needed is a pension system which works. In all the research which the RSA has done, most people want to “give their money away to someone whom they can trust will use it wisely to generate a income when they retire”. That simple system, a comprehensive private pension system, is lacking in the UK.

However, across the North Sea, in Holland and Denmark, they have a private pension system that works on that basis. You set aside your money each year and receive a pension in retirement. Indeed their simple well designed systems mean that, if a typical Briton and a typical Dutch person, both save the same amount, have the same life expectancy and retire on the same day; the Dutch saver will get a 50 per cent higher pension than the Briton.

That is the challenge for the government. Not the further abandonment of the inadequate British pension system, but the building of a new one that works. There is no perfect solution, but there are approaches which are far better than those we are pursuing in the UK today. They are systems which have gained political consensus, and stood the test of time. They were not built by surprise announcements in the budget. Such announcements about the pension system, made in haste, and spun as a political coup, are often ones which old people, many years later, repent at leisure. So let’s make sure that the Chancellor’s announcement is not a further retreat from a broken pension system, but rather that it clears the space for a new system that works.

David Pitt Watson is Director of the RSA Tomorrow’s Investor programme. He is an Executive Fellow in Finance at the London Business School, and founder of Hermes Equity Ownership Service, the largest shareholder stewardship programme of any fund manager in the world

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.