Visit the rickety offices of the Pension Advisory Service (TPAS) in Victoria and you’re in for a big surprise. Not for TPAS the City style of the Treasury funded Money Advice Service. This is “Macclesfield not Manchester”.
While my pre-match Bovril turned out to be cup of tea and a slice of home-made cake, TPAS is no offshoot of the Woman’s Institute. With only a smidgeon over £3m a year in funding from the DWP, Michelle Cracknell and her team of 40 full time staff took 80.000 helpline enquiries last year. Together with 400 unpaid but highly qualified volunteers it managed over 2,000 cases brought to them by members of the public bemused and disgruntled by Britain’s complicated pension system.
The woman’s touch that’s evident at TPAS is part of a female hegemony that is beginning to dominate UK pension policy. Put Michelle alongside a female management team at MAS and you get a refreshingly different take on our “pension civil service”.
And TPAS, since Cracknell’s arrival, is working. On the day I visited, every call handler was busy either on a landline or on one of the dedicated terminals talking screen to screen via web-chat or dealing with the wall of online enquiries.
The people TPAS helps are often those financial advisers cannot or do not reach. TPAS sees spikes in demand whenever Martin Lewis mentions their service and Cracknell points to low call drops and high user satisfaction surveys as proof of running a highly professional helpline. Cracknell and her team have seen increases in volumes of customers due to pension’s new media profile. She says “This is what we dreamed of, people wanting to talk about pensions.”
But Cracknell admits she’s still playing “lower league football”. From April 2015, she hopes that TPAS will be promoted to the Premier League as it takes on the challenges of up to 300,000 new callers, wishing to discuss what to do with their pension savings. This is down to a promise made by George Osborne in this year’s Budget. Having changed the tax-rules so that people no longer needed to buy annuities, the new pension freedoms that have emerged are baffling to a pension buying public that the OFT has called “some of the worst customers we’ve encountered”.
Osborne, anticipating the issue , simultaneously announced the launch of a universal right for those reaching retirement to receive Guidance delivered as they wanted, including the right to a face to face meeting.
The announcement was long on hope and short on detail. Now plans are emerging on Guidance delivery, TPAS is in the top flight. “Getting people to these guidance sessions is going to be hard work” says Cracknell- our telephone and web-service is an efficient and easy alternative for those pressed for time or far from the beaten track”.
Cracknell is confident that she can scale up and that 2015 will be business as usual, except a lot nosier! Cranking the handle on floor-space and terminals is one thing, but finding the people power who are trained to Guide is another. Cracknell aims to tap into an underused talent pool of pension experts, who have the pension knowledge but also the desire and aptitude to help the man in the street.
The Government aren’t just looking to the phone and the computer. Steve Webb, the UK Pension Minister spent the summer promoting the idea of “one to many” where those who want to hear and speak to an expert can do so at “Question Time” sessions organised in civic amenities up and down the country. “One-to-many” hopes to replace the need for one-to-one sessions for a proportion of the 300,000. The problem with how to satisfy the hard-core insisting on one-to-one sessions remains.
With the overall success of the Guidance Guarantee uncertain, there are calls for TPAS, with its dynamic “can do” attitude to manage the entire project. But Charlotte Clark, Director of Private Pensions at the DWP and, until recently, a senior member of the Treasury’s pension team doubts that even TPAS can extend its scope to resourcing this face to face service. She’s just seconded a DWP team to bolster the Treasury’s resources.
Smart readers will have recognised a political dimension here. With 4m voters already auto-enrolled and 6m to follow by 2018, pensions looks a political hot potato. Start debating changes to the State Pension and pending legislation on collectives and pensions could, for the first time since Beveridge, be an election decider.
The Guidance Guarantee is a political banana-skin. By making TPAS a plank in its delivery strategy, many commentators see Michelle Cracknell’s unit as a barometer for the success of these reforms. Can it manage promotion to the Premier League and what if it can’t?