Ros Altmann v the Plowman over 13 rounds

Ros Altmann and I are at loggerheads, I side with Paul Lewis in seeing the current version of Pension Wise as a basket case that should either be revamped along the lines of the FCA’s proposed guided sales model….

or put to sleep.

Paul and Martin Lewis are much more influential than the Government in guiding us to do the right things, but most people continue to use their providers to manage their retirement affairs. It is not unreasonable, when you buy a pension plan, you buy a pension as part of the deal.

Ros has written a comment on my recent blog and I am happy to reply. She is articulate, energetic and engaging as always, but she is (IMO) wrong! Her comment is in black, my comment is in blue – see what you think.

Round one

I must admit I am astounded that you seem to be so unsupportive – and indeed critical – of PensionWise.

You are right to be surprised. Supporting Pensions Wise has become an article of faith for the pensions industry. It is surprising to hear anyone dissent from the consensus. 94% of people who use Pension Wise recommend it. I must be mad!

Round two

Yes, it was set up by the Government, but it is funded by the financial industry as a free service to help consumers and it does just that.

But it is not a free service, is it? The cost of Pension Wise is factored into the price of the financial services we purchase, everything from financial advice to workplace pensions is impacted by the levy.

Round three

The problem has been that it has not been promoted to people at least partly because so many in the industry want their customers to buy only the products that their existing pension company offers.

This is a mysterious view Ros. I am not aware that the guidance on offer is about “shopping around”. It is very much in the interests of the pensions industry to make people aware of the advantages of staying put in a pension rather than transferring the pot to a bank account which is the default option for many  people. The shopping around that MaPS and MoneyHelper encourages , is the appalling mess which is their Investment Pathway Price Comparison Site.  It is simply not fit for purpose. If Pensions Wise is encouraging its use, then I am shocked!

Round four

The PensionWise service is hugely valued by those who use it.

We know the statistic. More than nine out of ten customers using the appointment service (94%) are satisfied with their experience of Pension Wise. Nearly all (97%) of appointment customers are likely to recommend the service to others or have already done so. Despite this, use of the service is at 14% of expected capacity. Why do 6 out of 7 people not use this service – are people as mad as me?

Round five

To help more people, we need to increase take-up, rather than abandoning this impartial guidance service in favour of a paid-for ‘helpline’ from providers who are selling their own products.

Firstly, any help-line is “paid for”. Impartiality is grossly over-rated. What people want is excellent service and certainty. The people who use Pension Wise have a nice time on the call and feel good about the experience, but the stats tell us they are unlikely to do anything because of the appointment. I suspect that they are left wondering how they are going to pay for independent financial advice or find themselves trying to navigate the hopeless Investment Pathway Price Comparison site. Why do organisations as diverse as Phoenix and SJP prosper? It’s because people have simple pathways to achieve what they want to do, which counts for a lot. We should be focussing more on the providers delivering value for money and less on the needs of a wealthy few for whom shopping around is already an option. 

Round six

The Government’s interest in PensionWise is to make sure that people have an understanding of the risks of taking money out too soon, the options open to them across the whole market and how to assess what their pension position is.

These laudable objectives are being better achieved by Martin Lewis than Pensions Wise (and at considerably lower cost to pension scheme savers). Nearly 400,000 people have viewed his pension TikTok in a matter of days

@martinlewismse Employee aged 16 to 74 earning over £6,240/yr? How to ensure you don’t give away a hidden payrise! From #ITVMartinLewisMoneyShow ♬ original sound – Martin Lewis

Can you spot the difference between watching Martin Lewis talk about pensions and watching a Pension Wise advert? My answer is that Martin Lewis is listened to.

Round seven

Any provider of guidance who is offering a service will be seeking to promote its own interests. The Government does not have financial interests in guidance, it has already given huge amounts of tax relief to each person’s pension and there is, therefore, a clear taxpayer interest in helping people make the best decisions they can.

I wish I shared your trust in the public sector. The public sector is made up of individuals who have their own agenda. Though public policy may say one thing, the execution of that policy may do another. We were told when Pension Wise was in its infancy that it would be a universal service, the assumption was that everyone would take its free “advice” (Osborne’s word). The reality is that most people look to their pension providers for options on what to do with their pensions and it is they who the FCA are enabling to offer “sold guidance”

Round eight

Obviously, the ideal would be for everyone to have impartial and independent financial advisers to work with them to find out the best way forward (which in their 50s will usually be to do nothing right now and let their funds accrue inside the pension wrapper, rather than going into drawdown too soon).

Is this what people want? When people sign up to a workplace pension , are they signing up to drawdown with the need for an independent financial advisor to tell them how to do it? Is Martin Lewis not able to tell people this? Aren’t you? Do we need a Pension Wise service to provide impartial guidance of this kind?

Round nine

Could a ‘paid-for’ guidance service really be relied on to tell people not to do anything, which would mean they are not receiving any return for their investment and risk of running the guidance service.

Doing nothing is a very good option for financial services companies who make money for just managing the assets. The Duty of Care they have is to ensure that where customers are not making decisions on the management of their money, they find themselves in defaults that make sense for the majority of them. This goes for the spending phase of a pension plan as much as the saving phase. Supposing that people who have spent their savings careers in defaults , will have an Eureka moment and wake up to self-managed decumulation is a bit fanciful – isn’t it?

Round ten

The way forward that is best for the public, in my view, is to seriously improve PensionWise take-up, via some kind of auto-enrolment before they take money out of their pensions.

Auto-enrolment into what? If you mean into a sensible default, ideally with longevity protection and a simple single investment strategy, I agree. This is what I write about a lot. If you mean an automatic meeting with the nice people from Pension Wise, absolutely not! There are so many reasons for me saying that, I can’t list them all, but I am horrified that we consider Pension Wise, in anything like its current form, is fit for that purpose!

Round eleven

The industry has so far resisted this, for understandable reasons, but if we care about helping people then let’s promote the benefits of PensionWise and help it reach a much wider audience.

So long as Pension Wise is in the hands of its current management and pursuing its current strategy, no amount of coercion of the public via “stronger nudges” will help.

Round twelve

It is not funded by the Government and I struggle to see what conflict of interest there is for the customer with PensionWise, but such conflicts of interest would be pretty clear with providers offering this.

As with other issues such as the Dashboard Availability Point, we strive for 100% perfection only to deliver a 14% solution (or in the pension dashboard’s case- no solution at all). I have never found any solution that could not be said to be conflicted. Martin Lewis is paid by the view.

Round thirteen

Martin Lewis is brilliant and I hope people listen to his clear messaging. Pensions need a proper promotion campaign, like the ‘five a day’ for fruit and veg – they are good for you!

Absolutely right. So can you remember one statement that MaPS, MoneyHelper or Pension Wise has made that has had national impact?  Pension Wise is so scared of being seen to give advice that it caveats everything it says. The only thing it is clear about is that it wants more people to use it.

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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5 Responses to Ros Altmann v the Plowman over 13 rounds

  1. Brian G says:

    I agree with some of your points Henry. But taking your fight analogy, ros has taken off her gloves and bandages whilst you hit her after the bell.has gone. Some of the things you say are based on your opinion but you present them as facts. I happen to agree that the current format of pensionwise is flawed and not fit for purpose. But you present your arguments as though there is no option to change and improve the service. And you have not replied to any of the points I made in your previous blog.

    • henry tapper says:

      I’ll come to your comments over the weekend Brian. Expressing opinions as a matter of fact is of course what any good salesman does. Ros has her blog to argue from and I comment on it – she comments on mine – that’s the way it works. I look forward to being hit after the bell – all part of the fun!

  2. John Mather says:

    How do you measure the value for money and success of the current tools available to the consumer say relative to the regime that existed prior to 1988?. There is no clear objective here beyond explaining an overcomplicated regime with layer upon layer of failed initiatives

    Maybe if the FCA provided advice direct to the individual using what ever model produces the result of a living wage beyond work all would be resolved. Begin with the end in mind

    The model would be refined over time based on practical experience.

  3. Stuart Trow says:


    I think a number of issues are being conflated here.

    Listening to Martin Lewis doesn’t require any commitment. It doesn’t require you to reveal anything about yourself or to expose yourself to an “expert” who you might perceive will make you feel stupid.

    Inertia and not wanting to contemplate your own mortality are huge factors too. So, expecting more than a nominal level of engagement is frankly naïve. Even so, it would appear PensionWise reaches far more people than the IFA community does!

    I listened into one of your coffee mornings recently about advice and guidance and it was clear that few, if any, of the participants could even conceive of the financial issues most normal people face (i.e. people without £500,000 pots). One gent, fortunately I can’t remember his name, very clearly implied there was nothing that could be done for people without a large pot!

    If you were a finance industry outsider it is tempting to view IFAs as umbrella salesmen who will only sell to you when the sun is shining. If you’re not interested when I’m poor, why should I give you business when I’ve got a £500,000 pot and, by definition, must be doing something right by myself? PensionWise is at least a step away from the elitism that is baked into finance.

  4. Tim Simpson says:

    Hello Henry,

    Reading your ‘contest’ notes I don’t think that (in reality) the two of you are very far apart. I will leave the detailed coments to those who understand it all better, e.g. those above. I read your blog as being pivoted on Round 4: The PensionWise service is hugely valued by those who use it. (Ros being defensive) ‘Why do 6 out of 7 people not use this service ‘ (your query).

    Martin Lewis’s website tries to discuss the situation in bite-sized chunks. No doubt the ‘trade’ won’t be short of criticism of what he’s saying but he is trying to help get Joe Public interested. The tricky question then arises of how best to convince future pensioners of their need to seek to make their retired life more comfortable. With,say, energy prices set to surge, God knows they’re going to need it. Yet, even when the Government spends excessive amounts on the benefits of Covid vaccinations, many do not participate for whatever reasons; reportedly 90,000 in the NHS alone!

    I agree with you (and Ros) that the essential need is to get the public interested in looking and then, to keep looking. Whether they wish to choose something appropriate or something a bit risky is a different question.

    Even the NS&I Guaranteed Growth Bonds have doubtful aspects, as I’ve just found out…!

    Kind regards,
    Tim Simpson

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