The business column - Patrick Hosking on the cost of being old

It may be only a matter of time before a pension fund member sues the trustees for dereliction of du

We are all mini-capitalists now. Well, those of us outside the public sector. The slow death of the final-salary pension fund is imperceptibly, but profoundly, changing the economic landscape. Within a generation, in the private sector, the responsibility for ensuring a minimum of financial security in old age will have shifted largely from employer to employee.

Apart from the state pension, workers in the private sector will enjoy no guarantees about a minimum income in old age. The guarantee of some proportion of final salary at retirement will have disappeared other than for a small minority. Instead, the vast majority of workers - who are now placed in "money purchase" or "defined contribution" pension schemes - will depend on the performance of asset prices: shares, bonds, property and the like. Employers still usually chip in to these pension schemes, and the more responsible ones are raising their contribution levels in an attempt to offset rising longevity and falling investment returns. But, crucially, employers give no guarantees. The employee is entirely at the mercy of financial markets.

Who sticks up for the pension-fund members in these circumstances? The trustees, of course, who have a fiduciary duty to act in members' interests. But one wonders whether they have the expertise, the time and the hunger to pursue every last penny on behalf of members. As we reported in the Times in July, British pension funds and other institutional investors are already missing out on £4.5bn by failing to collect compensation won on their behalf in class action lawsuits in the US. We may be sniffy about America's litigiousness, but it's surely madness not to claim our share of the spoils?

Executives can be negligent. They can also be fraudulent, as we know from the case of Dennis Kozlowski, who has just gone to Rikers Island to begin a jail sentence of up to 25 years. The former chief executive of Tyco, the components maker, and his finance director lent themselves $170m (£95m) of company money and then simply wrote off the debt. Kozlowski also famously used $31m of company money to furnish his Manhattan flat, complete with $6,000 shower curtain, $15,000 umbrella stand and - I particularly like this touch - $2,900 worth of coat-hangers.

An awful lot of British pension funds were invested in Tyco, so it's probably fair to say that millions of British workers in a small way helped subsidise those deluxe coat-hangers. But how many of their pension funds have the appetite to pursue Tyco for compensation? Too often in such cases, the attitude on this side of the Atlantic is to shrug, sell the shares and move on.

Alan Owens, a partner in the law firm Irwin Mitchell, has identified at least seven cases in the UK in the past three years where there have been corporate governance failings of sufficient magnitude to justify legal action, yet no writs were served. It's telling that all the legal action against Royal Dutch/Shell for misleading shareholders over its oil and gas reserves is taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. It may be only a matter of time before a pension-fund member sues the trustees for dereliction of duty. As employers no longer provide guarantees to the pension funds they sponsor, they have much less interest in making sure every penny is well invested. It is going to be up to employees - and their trade unions - to step up to the plate.

For the past five years it has been received wisdom that ministers raise fuel duty at their peril. Ever since Gordon Brown scrapped the "escalator" - the formula by which he yanked up the tax on petrol and diesel by more than inflation - there has been the view that somehow Middle England just won't tolerate higher duty. The soaring crude-oil price has produced more converts to this view. But the feebleness of the latest hauliers' protest perhaps suggests that public opinion is starting to change.

Is there really such a groundswell of outrage about the price of fuel? Sure, people can be persuaded to froth about it. After all, they have seen prices going up month after month in foot-high letters on the forecourt. But petrol duty can be seen as a blessing. Does anyone really want the extra congestion, pollution, noise and road accidents that, say, US levels of tax would bring about? Even now, the component of tax in fuel is less than in other sin products such as cigarettes and spirits.

The money raised in fuel duty pays the entire education budget, or one-third of the cost of the National Health Service. If the £24bn a year wasn't raised this way, other taxes would have to go up. An extra 8p on basic-rate income tax would do it, for example. When the case is put that way, cutting or even just freezing fuel duty doesn't sound quite so wonderful. It's cheap to collect, difficult to evade and tends to fall on the better-off - who drive longer distances in thirstier cars. It's a near-perfect tax. It just needs much better PR.

Patrick Hosking is investment editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Vote Brown: get Blair!