Webb for Regulator?
This rumour has sparked a twitter storm among those who think Steve Webb is conflicted in potentially exercising the powers of the Pensions Regulator on policies he initiated as pensions minister.
Exclusive: Sir Steve Webb, the former pensions minister, is in talks to become the next chief executive of The Pensions Regulator as the incumbent, Lesley Titcomb, prepares to step down. https://t.co/cwzKwnPmWt
— Mark Kleinman (@MarkKleinmanSky) December 7, 2018
Personally I see any conflicts as manageable. It is after all tPR who advise the minister on policy in the first place. It’s an open secret who in tPR advised Steve when he was minister and as that person is influential in Government policy today, we might logically consider him conflicted too.
Following this path, we would have no-one talking to anyone; a state of affairs that would be quite the opposite of good Government. The pension policy successes of the past ten years have resulted from open government – the failures from the diffidence of civil-servants and politicians to get things done.
The assumption that Steve Webb should play no further part in the governance of pensions is silly, we don’t have many people of Steve’s calibre and he’d make a good pensions regulator.
I’m not sure I want him as my pensions regulator for two reasons. Firstly there are others who could do the job – probably as well and secondly Steve is doing a very good job where he is – at Royal London. But that does not mean Steve shouldn’t be considered for the job of CEO of the Pensions Regulator.
The good that they do
Conflicts between those in public life are most apparent when they look to monetise their experience in private life. Steve is doing just this at Royal London, Gregg McClymont at B&CE and Ros Altmann at PensionSync are all being paid not just for their experience but for their influence.
Do we object to those who have served as MPs (or in Ros’ case as an active Baroness) influencing as lobbyists? All three are very vocal, very prominent in public debate and are all getting things done. Steve’s petition, Gregg’s work on health issues for builders and Ros’ campaigning on net-pay are examples of the practical application of influence for the public good. There is a dividend in having former politicians in the private sector, they move things along.
We may feel awkward that they are leveraging their positions in Government for personal gain but I think the judgement should not be “Whether” they do this – but “how” they do this. As they are opinion formers, they need to be challenged and I have challenged them on this blog.
In the case of these three, all are quite accountable, all engage in debate and all three have been highly effective in their work. The proof is in the pudding and the pudding tastes good.
The good they might do
There are examples of conflicts that go un-reported which worry me more. I worry when I see senior civil servants from both FCA and tPR working within consultancies and influencing the course of policy through what can only be called “insider knowledge”. I have made these points in relation to the RAA of BSPS (as an example). There are plenty of civil servants who have served time in Brighton or Canary Wharf who could be tempted to arbitrage against regulatory weakness for commercial gain. We should call that out.
Does this mean that we should stop figures as disparate as Rory Percival and Andrew Warwick-Thompson from doing the work they are doing – NO!
We need experience in the private sector , but we need transparency. What we can’t have is the kind of kiss and tell relationships between former regulators and those currently in the job. I don’t think there is a lot of this about because we generally have the controls with the regulators to stop it. We also have scrutiny from the media, social and otherwise.
The good they will do
Someone will take on Lesley Titcomb’s role when she leaves in the spring of 2019. There are several candidates and I doubt that many will be life-long civil servants. I expect to see people who have worked in the private sector prominent in the selection proceedure.
I am pleased that Steve is being mentioned, not least because imagining him in Lesley’s place, makes me realise that she leaves big shoes to fill. She succeeded Bill Galvin who is now CEO of USS ( a highly political role). I hope that Lesley can do more work in the public sector but would feel comfortable working with or competing against her in a commercial role.
The jobs that people like Caroline Rookes , Charles Counsell and Michelle Cracknell do is important to pensions. All three will I think be under-employed in months to come. All three will be looking at how they can make a difference without creating conflicts for themselves.
People like these don’t get to the positions they’ve enjoyed without having done good work. Their potential to do more is great. We should not be stopping them applying for roles on the basis that they are conflicted, we should be asking them how they will manage those conflicts.
We don’t have such a talent pool that we can discard the talented on the basis that they’ve done their bit. If they have a bit more to give – we should be grateful!