Promoting caring or signalling virtue?

At the start of yesterday’s excellently run CA Master Trust and GPP Conference , Steve Webb warned delegates against spurious research from leading questions that tells us a story we want to tell , not the truth. He cited scaremongering on auto-enrolment opt-outs , pausing and cash-outs all of which are considered a “bad thing” in terms of judging auto-enrolment.  He told the audience there was no evidence of the punters jumping ship.

No sooner than the former pension minister sat down , than up popped a very stern Riffat Tufail who is the “vulnerable customer lead” at Standard Life. She told us the story of someone who’d been saving into a Standard Life pension and phoned up to ask for £80. He told the call handler he hadn’t eaten for three days. The call handler passed this on and the money and a pack of groceries were dispatched for next day delivery.

We were given quite a lot more of this and then asked to go to Standard Life’s stand to don headpieces and gloves that would simulate what it would be like if we were partially sited or suffering arthritis. Apparently this is the wellbeing training for the vulnerable customer team, who literally feel their client’s pain.

We then had a truncated session on how to engage with the diverse needs of scheme members, with more empathic exhortations from business development experts from the same Standard Life, Aviva and Wealth Wizards, bookended by some acerbic comments from Rob Reid, whose miserable utterances I find strangely comforting.

Indeed I found myself quite grumpy by the coffee break , especially as we hadn’t had much chance to ask questions.  I chose not to spend time on the Standard Life stand because I had a streaming cold and was feeling  quite vulnerable enough, but I hope that they will be writing a fat cheque to their charity based on £20 for everyone who put themselves through it.

I turned instead to a couple of articles in Redington’s DC newsletter.

Paul Enderby of Quietroom tells us to stop Scaremongering

We need to recognise that for many people, the current financial climate means they just can’t afford to maintain their contributions or leave their pension untouched.

Instead of scaremongering, we should be offering helpful thoughts and suggestions. We prefer using a pragmatic, sensible tone. It’s more helpful, and it’s how we advise our DC clients to better communicate with their members. If we can engage with our clients, we’ve got a much better chance of helping them.

While Redington buddies Quietroom continue in the same vein suggesting that Pension Schemes should help members opt-out.

trying to talk someone out of stopping contributions could easily be misconstrued as trying to hold onto their hard-earned money. It also goes against the grain of common mantras which seek to ‘empower’ members to take control of their finances. The beauty of auto enrolment is that members can opt in and out as they please, and muting that control is hardly empowering.

As people who have to process opt-outs and pausing will tell you, inciting opt-outs can lead to prosecution from TPR while getting people back in (other than at re-enrolment) can be a nightmare.

By now , not helped by my cold, I was ready for a lie down but more was to come. After the break we had a shortened hello from Matt Rodda – who sounded like Alex Burghart (remember him) and promised to listen to anything we had to say. I asked him whether he had any bright ideas for getting a Labour Government’s Treasury and DWP departments to talk to each other. Mind you , Labour’s future DWP team could start by telling us what job’s their doing – we are still waiting on the Tories to fill us in (open Government alert).

Cost of living respite

We had some respite from social and political crisis’ in the form of two very strange sessions where first the policy and regulators explained what they were thinking about consulting on with regards VFM and then a panel of consultants argued amongst themselves on how VFM was being (ab)used in assessing master trust propositions. For some reason, Danny Meehan of Cushon was allowed onto the panel which led to a lot of good-natured argy-bargy with Michael Ambery. You can tell that I didn’t get much out of either session other than VFM is going to be consulted on for a long long time.

Cost of living  (part two)

After a very good lunch, we resumed in the afternoon with a very miserable session on climate change targets where I found out that I knew even less about what is going on measuring our way to net zero than I thought I did. The whole business has moved into grey areas of interpretation. Small wonder that Rob Gardner is trying to get Biodiversity measured in a standard way using the block chain,  emission measurement was supposed to be something we could understand by reading TCFD reports. I have finally had my first Master Trust TCFD report (thanks Scottish Widows), but TCFD was not mentioned once (and there was no time for questions). In climate terms , the cost of living seems to be the expense of a lot of hot air about too much hot air).

Having sat through fake stats from Webb, been empathised by Standard Life, read stern lectures from Redington and Quietroom, been bamboozled over VFM and swamped by the battle over net zero-targets, I was ready for some good news. It was not to come. What followed was a barrage of data analysis first from LGIM telling me that women were getting a bad deal out of auto-enrolment and then Scottish Widows who explained to me that they had more data than anyone else  and were therefore best placed to tell me what was actually going on with this “cost of living crisis”.

I think I make that seven sessions that delivered bad news from data , one session telling me not to listen to bad news from data and a short interlude from a politician who wanted us to send him all our data.

You really need to find some more diversity of message! Telling us that you have the data to make you authoritative on the issues of the day, does not make me want to change my behaviours. Hitting me over the head with my failure to help vulnerable customers does not make me admire you. I go to conferences to find out stuff that can empower me , but all too many sessions just made the subject inaccessible.

There were exceptions; a really interesting presentation givi9ng insight into longevity (thanks Mark Sharkey) and positive contributions on scheme assessment from Mike Ambery and a thoughtful presentation on CDC from Simon Eagle.

But too many presentations are too clever by half , too many panels ended up talking to each other and not the audience. Only a handful of sessions all day gave time for audience questions.

The well-being of those saving into and spending their workplace pensions is of course the most important thing, but self-promotion as the guardians of that well-being is “virtue signalling” – there was a lot of that yesterday.



About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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1 Response to Promoting caring or signalling virtue?

  1. Dr Robin Rowles says:

    My worry, Henry, with all of this is that those who pontificate the most are not those who know what is best, well, sorry, yes, they do know what is best – for them! Should you be someone who has made b/millions from running “pensions schemes”, guarantee (and do it) that if it all starts to go wrong, you will prove how much you care by putting YOUR money in to shore it up! THEN I’ll believe what you say (?). Sorry, was that someone shouting “don’t be silly”?

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