For reasons that weren’t particularly obvious , a random group crammed into a much too small committee room in the House of Lords on Wednesday night for a round table with the new pensions minister.
It was a hot day that confirmed that the parliamentary buildings aren’t fit for purpose. I had got to the room via a lift that was almost as creaking as the two peers who rode with me.
I’m not sure what status the meeting had, so I won’t report on the outpourings from the participants or who they were, other than to say that if I was setting out for complete auto-enrolment coverage in by the end of the decade, I wouldn’t have started here!
I’m used to meeting Ros in restaurants, at conferences but never formally. Finding her being passed little notes by a private secretary with a retinue of civil servants recording the conversation was un nerving. Rather like seeing a good friend in the dock.
Except Ros isn’t in the dock, infact she’s judge and jury. For years she has been the outsider championing the cause of unheard voices. Now those voices were in the room, we heard the voices of the carers and very good it was too.
We heard from payroll and from insurers and those in charge of mastertrusts and we heard from accountants and book-keepers and I guess I spoke for advisers. In such a meeting everyone is representing someone, but I still missed the voice of the unknown employer and the anonymous employee who’s “in”.
And clearly so did Ros. I could see her exasperation as each of us lobbied for our vested interest. Collectively it sounded like a Tower of Bable. The only thing I could say, was that unless we spoke with one voice, we wouldn’t get through this thing.
That sense of common purpose that had been so strong at the Capacity Crunch Conference of the Friends of Auto-Enrolment was dissipated. We did not speak collectively, we could not even agree who auto-enrolment was for.
Whether we like Ros Altmann or not, she is going to be important in the success of the auto-enrolment project.
She has able lieutenants in her DWP team and at the Pensions Regulator. She has a strong ally in NEST that can be trusted to sweep up after the private sector and she has willing and enthusiastic supporters such as the Friends of AE.
But it was not the people in the room, nor yet those Friends who she must worry about. As was pointed out, even the 1000+ Friends have but a handful of members on the “buy-side”.
Outside, driving in taxis or riding Boris Bikes or busses or tubes are the people for whom auto-enrolment really matters, the bosses who must set up and run the pensions , the ordinary working people who can choose to be in or out, to engage or just come along for the ride.
Engaging- educating and empowering these people to make the most of auto-enrolment is the job of the pension minister. It is a huge job and watching Ros I saw her thinking of those people as she listened to us.
Ros didn’t give much away, as one participant said to me last night, she asked all the right questions but told us nothing but what we already knew.
I don’t suppose we will see anything new coming from her office, some more advertisements perhaps but no great policy initiatives.
What Ros has, and this Steve Webb doesn’t have, is an almost Thatcher like knack for saying the right thing to the people who matter. The people who matter- who really matter- are not in the meeting rooms in Westminster or the Friends of Auto-enrolment.
Ros can speak to the people in the taxis and on the busses, bikes and tubes very much more effectively than this blog or any insurer or mastertrust or representative body, because she has the ear of the nation. She is the person who we trust in pensions and as such she can be a great pensions minister.
I am a great believer in auto-enrolment as a way of including those who are not in pension and improving the pensions of those who are. I do not think we need wholesale change in the project- I am not for turning. I came away from this meeting with Ros comforted that neither is she.