Pensions Question Time at the PPI
Last night the Pension Policy Institute held a meeting to discuss the impact of next week’s budget on pensions. Expertly chaired by Paul Lewis, it turned out to be a meeting demonstrating the paucity of thinking available to Government if Gregg McClymont doesn’t win his Cumbernauld seat.
As well as our pension minister, the meeting heard from David Gauke (Conservative) and Stephen Timms (Labour). I do not want to criticise two hard working MPs, but frankly they are appeared like minnows to Webb’s leaping salmon.
There were two moments of great humour;- the first where Steve Webb asking Paul Lewis whether he could speak – “or if we were returning to business as usual”.
The second;- Paul Lewis suggesting that for the conservatives to be outright winners and have the pensions brief to themselves, it would be under Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
After the meeting Jo Cumbo was tweeting that she had some pension intelligence from the Scottish Nationalists, that is how fluid the political climate has become.
Life after Webb
The watchword for post McClymont labour would be “consensus”, which could be rephrased “outsourced policy”. All pension decisions would (it seemed) be outsourced to David Blake and Debbie Harrison of Cass Business School who would be used as human shields to hide the paucity of thought on display elsewhere. Much as I like David and Debbie, they are not elected and represent a strand of left-wing thinking peculiar to Cass. Though we have contributed to their reviews, I am not comfortable with such a style of Government that abdicates responsibility for decisions and lacks all conviction. The only thing that Stephen Timms speaks about with certainty is that everyone should be paid the living wage. Noble as this sentiment is, it is not a pensions policy (unless we consider the living wage as total reward including employer contributions).
As for Conservative thinking, it seems to be about everything but pensions. When asked the question “how would you support employers to pay attention to their staff’s pension”, the line seems to be “wind up the staff – or in Treasury speak “apply a bottom up approach”. Similarly, market forces, rather than Government intervention can sort out the chaos that will follow the introduction of the freedoms. The departure of Mark Hoban from parliament looks a sore loss.
I dread to think what Nigel Farage would do to the carefully wrought plans for auto-enrolment; if he can chuck out 30 years of consideration of diversity legislation, why not can further roll-out to SMEs as “red-tape”.
Life with Webb
Despite Paul Lewis’ best endeavours to get David Gawke or Stephen Timms to say anything meaningful, the absence of Chatham House rules, the yet to be published manifestos and the manifest ignorance of two out of the three speakers, meant that this was the Steve Webb show (pt 63).
Webb claimed to have been castigated for not promoting the liberal cause more assiduously. Frankly Steve Webb is the Liberal cause, if the party could re-model itself around his value set, speak with his candour and enthusiasm – it would run rings around the opposition- as Steve did for an hour and a half yesterday.
Pensions should not be a political football. The journey from becoming an eligible jobholder till dying will (statistically) be at least 70 years. Put another way, if we start saving at 22, we can expect- based on current mortality to live past 90. If mortality trends continue as they have done the last 150 years, we will see 60, not as the beginning of the end, but the fulcrum of our financially independent years.
In this context, the management of our national strategy to ensure adequacy of income in later years, should not be subject to whether Gregg McClymont gets elected in Cumbernauld (I’ve a good mind to go up and help him this weekend). Nor should we hand over the keys to the Minister’s office to MPs who clearly have little appetite and less competence.
What yesterday’s meeting told me is that Labour and Conservatives have no leader to put forward who has the knowledge, passion and conviction to match Steve Webb. For the past five years we have been blessed not just with the Pension Minister of the century but with the leadership of a man who has been selected by his peers parliamentarian of the year.
It would be a good thing, whichever party is elected, to keep the pensions brief with Webb. If Webb does not get re-elected (perish the thought) then kick him upstairs and give him the brief from the Lords (as a cross-bencher).