TPAS (the Pensions Advisory Service) is Britain’s best kept financial secret. On a tiny budget of £3.4m, Michelle Cracknell and her team of volunteers quietly deliver a service to the nation that is indispensable, scale able and one that could help bridge the AE advisory gap;- the advisory gap opened by 11.4m new employees and 1m employers new to workplace pensions.
The pent up demand is frightening! A couple of weeks back, when Martin Lewis name-checked their website (as a means to find lost pensions), their call centre went bonkers. Put together the words “free” “pensions” “advice” with the endorsement of the Moneysavingexpert himself and you have pretty well the perfect advisory brand.
There are only 42 full time staff at their HQ in NGO Central, 11 Belgrave Road . But they are supplemented by 349 volunteers, both retired and still actively at work. All staff are Samaritan-trained to deal with stressed-out punters (and why wouldn’t you be if you were sorting your pension!).
Together they provided information and guidance to 75,000 people last year providing mediation on 5000 disputes. This year they’ve got a grant to help advise on auto-enrolment and are already up and running answering member queries. Fingers crossed they’ll be able to extend this service to the representatives of employers charged with setting up workplace schemes from later this year.
They’re open 9-5 and they do a late night session from time
Of course , TPAS is not without its detractors, many advisers see them as a threat to their livelihoods, others consider them another group of well meaning bureaucrats in the DWP’s pocket.
My visit to their offices dispelled both myths in my mind. Michelle Cracknell and her able lieutenant Charlotte Jackson do not miss a trick. The systems I saw on display looked every bit as efficient as you’d find in any commercial call centre, there was even a web-service in operation manned by a man in a blue Spurs tee-shirt. The people I spoke to had numbers on their minds, talking of the calls they’d received and the success rates as if they were fired by sales targets. This was not a civil service atmosphere – this was real customer service.
One thing that shone through, was the relief with which advisers spoke that they were able to advise unconflicted by house views, commercial or political considerations. These people were genuinely offering independent pensions advice. For anyone who has worked within pensions, the opportunities to work in this way are all too few. The enthusiasm displayed by these volunteers was understandable, I could see how they could be motivated without being paid.
But that is not to take away from the achievement both of TPAS, or of their volunteers. For me, TPAS volunteers are to cherished , applauded and promoted as the very model of good citizenship we need.
Michelle spoke of her guilt when arriving at the organisation, realising how little she had given by way of service to others. I felt the same way. Michelle has done something in her short tenure to drive things forward and knowing her, she will do much more. I am quite sure that had she chosen to continue to work in the commercial sector, she would have earned more but she could hardly have been more effective.
What little I can do for TPAS I will do via this blog. If you are an employer or trustee of an occupational pension scheme, your members should know of TPAS, if you are struggling with your retirement planning, you should contact TPAS and if you are one of the 1m employers yet to stage but wanting to do the right thing by your staff, you should watch this space, TPAS may be able to help.
The light shines on…