NEST LIVE “Their hands in our pockets”

With this phrase Tim Jones, NEST’s CEO and presiding genius thanked his six principal suppliers for funding the drinks reception that concluded proceedings at NEST’s big bash. Freudian slip, deliberate tease or simply a slip of the tongue it initiated unmuted hilarity from his audience.

The elephant in the very fine room in which the great and the good had once again gathered was  and is the £200m odd drawdown on NEST’s £600m loan from the DWP. Everything that NEST displays by way of plugging its “public service obligation” needs to be tested against the debt it has created on public finances. “Their hands in our pockets” indeed.

This was in fact the Tim Jones show; from the moment he announced to gasps of disappointment from his female staff that “after teasing us all summer he intended to come out this autumn” through the delayed arrival of Lord Turner (who was accidentally attending a Harley Davidson convention next door) to the banshee cry he uttered to summon us back to the hall (forsaking our cupcakes), Tim was star of the show, He even brandished an IPAD to demonstrate icons that said NEST.

The IPAD was about as good as it got. NEST has quite embraced the new communication technologies. I found myself explaining twitter to one of its top execs, clearly she hadn’t thought of the event as online and it’s worth conference organisers recognising that situating a conference in a hotel’s basement, precludes tweeting. The sight of irate journalists with no 3G signal for their handhelds was only too clear.

NEST have a lot to do to fully embrace new communications and I was not convinced that the information available on handhelds will be the information people really need, When NEST can promise us personal account values on the phone, I’ll be impressed.

Moving back to the conference, the two key speakers Lord Turner and Steve Webb had their moments. It wasn’t quite the world-wide Steve Webb, we were only 400 yards from the house and this looked one of his less “key” speeches but he acquitted himself alright. The journos all wanted to quiz him on Beechcroft’s recommendation to delay auto-enrolment as part of his red-tape cutting exercise. Stevie was having none of that.

Turner was scathing about private sector pension coverage calling it a “myth”. This kind of thing goes down rather better at an event where most employers are looking for a pension than at an NAPF Conference where most employers are struggling to survive the weight of pensions debt they have taken on. The reality is that the private sector is riven by a divide between companies who cared about their employees’ retirement welfare and those that didn’t. He didn’t quite say that, presumably because the room was full of the latter.

We did hear from some employers. You could tell they were real employers because they mainly came from Teeside, a point of the English Empire as yet untouched by pension consultants. Or so I thought till I discovered that the delightful actuary sitting beside me was from Stockton upon Tees. All the employers spoke with strong Northern Accents about how NEST was changing their lives. This was surprising as NEST has only been going a couple of months but who am I to say southern softy as I am. Bill Dennison of F2 Chemicals revealed himself in the audience is he the acceptable face of NEST’s customer base – sure looked like it.

To be honest I cannot really say my understanding of auto-enrolment was seriously enhanced. The panel of consultants , neatly suited , very male and arranged on “crooning stools” appeared like a middle aged JLS. They were all delighted that NEST was still around and demonstrated suitable gravitas till finally being outed as the pseudo boy band they resembled, The various case studies from Pizza Express, Sodexo The Spirit Group and Travelodge demonstrated that none of these organisation have made up their mind how they were likely to proceed indeed the opinion from those sitting near me was they looked as far from understanding what was going on as we were.

Apparently NEST are sharing their eggs with that notable cuckoo Aviva which has agreed to provide a top-up scheme for those in a NEST pension with a wish or a contractual right to have more than £4,800 pa in contributions. It will be interesting to see how many of NESTcorp’s own employees fall into this category.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the absence of any comment about decumulation. If there was a baby elephant in the room, it was the fate of the 40,000 people a month cashing in their pension savings and buying pensions. We saw signs of NEST’s annuity providers but clearly this was not the time or place to discuss the biggest pension issue facing the UK general public today.

So there we have it, two hours of endorsements from consultants, Lords, ministers, large employers and customers. Demonstrations of the various IT interfaces in development (employer journeys to you and me) and a big piss-up at the end that I missed.

To return to my beginning, this was the Tim Jones show. Without Tim NEST Live would have been pretty ropey – with him, it worked. But with only 100 employers on the stocks and a business model that relies on picking up the scraps from the rich men’s tables, I remain to be convinced that NEST has really changed anything. If you want to see an example of the PR Puffs on which NEST’s reputation is being pinned, try this.

Towards the end, a shadowy figure slipped through the conference-room  door…..Morten Nilson on NOW Pensions. Tim Jones noted his arrival – so did we.

Britain's greyest boy band!

NESTLIFE launch

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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