Vaxxing the unvaxxed – top tips from revolutionary actuaries!

                                                                                                                         http://www.covidactuaries.org

Friday Report: Issue 59

By: John Roberts, Adele Groyer, Matt Fletcher and Dan Ryan

COVID-19 Actuaries Response Group – Learn. Share. Educate. Influence.

COVID-19 is still one of the hottest topics for scientific papers and articles. The COVID-19 Actuaries Response Group provides a bi-weekly Friday update with a summary of key papers and articles.

Vaccines

COVID-19 Cases and Hospitalizations by vaccination status and previous diagnosis

A study released by the United States’ CDC examined age-adjusted incidence and hospitalisation rates among adults in the states of New York and California between May and November 2021. Their study population was divided into four groups to account for the possible combinations of previous laboratory confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis as at March 2021, and COVID-19 vaccination status as at May 2021.

The authors found that people who were both unvaccinated and had no prior COVID-19 diagnosis had the highest case and hospitalisation rates throughout the study. Prior to July, the lowest case and hospitalisation rates were among those who were vaccinated. In the later weeks of the study, those with prior infections, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, had lower case and hospitalisation rates than those with vaccination only.

The table below shows the hazard ratios (with associated 95% CIs) for the unvaccinated with no infection prior versus each of the other groups in the week beginning 3 October 2021.

Unvaccinated without prior infection vs
Vaccinated, no prior infection Vaccinated, prior infection Unvaccinated, prior infection
Cases – New York 5.5 (5.3 -5.7) 20.8 (17.2 – 24.5) 15.7(13.6 – 17.9)
Cases – California 7.2 (7.0 – 7.4) 33.5 (28.5 – 38.6) 30.0 (26.0 – 34.1)
Hospitalisations – California 20.8 (19.2 – 22.4) 58.5 (30.2 – 86.8) 56.3 (28.3 – 84.3)

 

The authors suggest that this may reflect greater waning of immunity among the vaccinated than among the previously-infected.

Given the high numbers of hospitalisations and deaths from primary COVID infection, the authors conclude that vaccination remains the safest and primary strategy to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infections and associated complications.


Booster Progress

Since the New Year progress with booster jabs has continued to slow, with fewer than half a million done in England in the last week. Whilst some will be unable to come forward having recently had an Omicron infection, it’s clear from the chart below that engaging with the young has been more difficult, even though these will have previously come forward for their full primary course.

On the positive side though, 91% of those over 50 who have completed the primary course have now had a booster, so those at most risk have largely had all the protection available to them.

Booster doses are now available for those aged 16 and 17 who have the requisite three months’ elapsed duration since their second dose. In due course around 600,000 will be eligible at these ages.


Socio-Economic Variations in Booster Take-Up (link)

It’s been a feature of the vaccination programme that minority groups and those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum have seen lower take-up rates. New data from ONS show that this differential has continued into the booster programme, with lower take-up of the booster (when measured against all those who have had two doses) in the socio-economic groups that were associated with low vaccination uptake previously.

The data are age-standardised, thus allowing for the fact that many minority ethnic groups have a younger population. We can also see that take-up in London has been lower than in other regions, even after allowing for its younger population.

When this is added (or more accurately, multiplied) to the disparity seen in the original programme, some very wide variances are seen. As an example, whereas White British take-up of all three doses is 68%, it is exactly half that for Black Caribbean at 34%. Regionally the range widens to 70% in the South West to just 57% in London.


Vaccinating the Unvaccinated (link)

The above analysis moves us neatly onto the next review, where research on behalf of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change investigates the reasons for hesitancy. Polling 1,500 people, of which half are unvaccinated, it finds that access to the vaccine is reported to be an issue for around 20% of those yet to be jabbed. Of the others, the main reasons given are concerns over the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

Maybe surprisingly, when asked who they have listened to in deciding whether or not to come forward, 75% say that nobody has told them not to have it.

This analysis should be a useful tool for anyone involved in trying to increase uptake in the remaining vaccine hesitant population.

This research was conducted as part of a much more wide-ranging report published by the Institute, titled, “Living with COVID” (link). Recommendations in the report include offering a fourth dose to the Over 70s and immunosuppressed, implementing an antivirals strategy, and revamping the testing infrastructure.


Variants

Outcomes of laboratory-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection in the Omicron-driven fourth wave compared with previous waves in the Western Cape Province, South Africa

A pre-print cohort study included 5,144 public sector patients in the Western Cape with a laboratory confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis between 14 November-11 December 2021 (wave four). The study also included 11,609 patients from equivalent prior wave periods. The authors compared the risks of death (as well as hospitalisation) between the waves, adjusting for age, sex, comorbidities, geography, vaccination and prior infection.

Risk of death was lower in wave four compared to the Delta-driven wave three. The adjusted hazard ratios for death, with 95% confidence intervals, were as follows:

  • Without adjustment for vaccination or prior infection: 0.27 [0.19, 0.38].
  • With adjustment for vaccination or prior recorded infection: 0.41 [0.29, 0.59]
  • With adjustment for vaccination or prior recorded infection, as well as undiagnosed prior infections: 0.72

In arriving at the 0.72 estimate, the authors assumed that prior infection reduces risk of death by 80% and that 15% of prior diagnosed infections were ascertained, based on the comparison of case and seroprevalence data.

The low rate of case ascertainment in South Africa makes it difficult to determine how much of the lower rates of severe outcomes during the Omicron wave is attributable to lower virulence as opposed to previously acquired immunity. This information is important for translating the observed South African experience to countries with different immunity profiles.

The study also reported on the relative risks of death in wave 1 (wild type) and 2 (Beta) relative to the Delta wave. After small adjustments for vaccination and prior infection, the death hazard ratios were

  • Wave 1 vs wave 3: 0.55 [0.40; 0.77]
  • Wave 2 vs Wave 3: 0.60 [0.48; 0.74]

Sensitivity of SARS-CoV-2 antigen-detecting rapid tests for Omicron variant

The emergence of each novel SARS-CoV-2 variant of concern (VOCs) requires investigation of its potential impact on the performance of diagnostic tests in use, including Antigen-detecting rapid diagnostic tests. A pre-print study by the University of Geneva compared performance for Delta and Omicron using clinical samples from vaccinated individuals with either Omicron or Delta breakthrough infection. Tests were also carried out using cultured virus (to compare to the results for the clinical samples). Four out of seven rapid test types showed significantly lower sensitivity to detect Omicron when compared to Delta. The remaining three had comparable sensitivity to Delta.

The Flowflex test which is in common use in the UK was one of the three test brands that showed similar sensitivity of detection for Delta and Omicron samples.


Omicron sub-lineage BA.2

On 6 December 2021, BA.2 was designated as a sub-lineage of Omicron. In their Technical Briefing 34 which summarises the latest information on SARS-CoV-2 variants, UKHSA recorded that an increase in the number of sequences of this sub-lineage has been noted in the UK and Denmark. As of 10 January, 53 sequences of BA.2 have been identified in the UK and 2,093 sequences from 22 countries were reported on GISAID. This represents around 2% of the worldwide ‘clades’ (ie tracing back to a common ancestor) captured by GISAID.

Unlike BA.1, BA.2 does not have the spike gene deletion at 69-70 that causes S-gene target failure in TaqPath PCR tests. This means that caution is now required when interpreting comparative analyses which use S-gene target results as the only determinant of Omicron and Delta.

It is also not clear how the mutations will affect transmissibility and severity, although growth in sequence numbers (albeit from a small base) suggests it may have some transmission advantage over existing variants.

Other variants, such as Delta, have also shown development of sub-lineages, as illustrated by this schema from Nextstrain. 21I was Delta variant AY.2 whilst 21L is the BA.2 sub-lineage of Omicron.

Late today, the UKHSA declared BA.2 as a variant under investigation (link) with 426 cases identified so far in the UK, of which 243 are in London and the South East.


Clinical and medical news

Vaccination, Infection & Fertility (link)

A study by the US National Institutes for Health of over 2,000 couples reports that vaccination had no impact on the fertility rate. By contrast, a prior infection of the male partner within 60 days was observed to reduce the likelihood of a conception by 18%, although there was no longer term effect observed.

The study contains analysis by number of vaccinations for each partner, the type of vaccine given, and demographic factors such as nationality, but similar results were observed for all groups. It therefore concludes that the best way to avoid any short-term reduction in fertility is to be vaccinated, rather than risk a short-term reduction through infection.


Association between Vaccination Status and Long COVID (link)

A study from Israel has investigated whether being vaccinated makes any difference to subsequent Long COVID symptoms following infection. 951 infected people and 2,437 uninfected were studied, and the results show that those who had been vaccinated were between 50% and 70% less likely to report typical Long COVID symptoms than those who were unvaccinated.

It is noticeable from the chart below that for many conditions there was a lower reporting of symptoms by those double vaccinated and infected than for those who were uninfected. This appears counter-intuitive, so it is possible that the degree of benefit of vaccination in reducing ongoing symptoms is overstated. Nevertheless, on the evidence of this study, whilst vaccination may not prevent all infections, if one is infected it is likely to reduce the likelihood of long COVID symptoms by some degree.


EAVE II

The COVID pandemic has been a potent catalyst to data collaborations and research, particularly in respect of electronic health records. At the end of last year, the EAVE II cohort was established in Scotland bringing together electronic data from 1.2 million patients and 250 general practices, looking at vaccine and anti-viral effectiveness (link). This cohort built on the earlier EAVE cohort focused on pandemic influenza, and will enable COVID progress to be tracked in near real-time. It was the EAVE II cohort that provided early UK evidence that the impact of the Omicron variant could be milder than the Delta variant (link).

A more recent study examining the whole population of Scotland through the EAVE II dataset investigated COVID complications for those with asthma (link). This found that 12.3% of infected adults with asthma had been admitted to hospital, 4.1% had required intensive care and 3.1% had died.

The study further identified that those who had recent prescriptions of oral corticosteroids for asthmas were more likely to have been admitted to hospital during the Delta wave of the pandemic than in the first wave in 2020. In addition, the data provided further evidence that vaccination provided protection against COVID-19 hospitalisation for those with and without asthma, and hence the importance of prioritising boosters for those with asthma.

The benefits of these large population datasets for evaluating and guiding interventions are significant, and this is a great boost for public health in Scotland.


Distribution of anti-virals gathers pace

Back in October 2020, Sajid Javid announced that options on 480,000 courses of molnupiravir and 250,000 courses of paxlovid (link) had been purchased, subject to approval by the MHRA. Anti-virals interfere with the replication of the virus and reduce the severity and duration of symptoms. Oral anti-virals offer the opportunity to treat patients at home, outside of hospitals. Approval was granted by the MHRA for molnupiravir in November, and for paxlovid at the end of December.

As noted in a previous Friday Report, molnupiravir was initially made available to very vulnerable groups, such as cancer patients and transplant recipeints (link). The distribution of molnupiravir is controlled rather than on the basis of self-reporting, with distribution to the patient’s home via 70 NHS Covid medicine delivery units (directory attached).

The figure below provides an overview of the layered treatment pathway, involving COVID Medicines Delivery Units, GP practices and NHS 111 Referral (link)

The broader multi-centre PANORAMIC study of molnupiravir is focusing on those who are over age 50 or between ages 18-49 with an underlying health condition. 3,000 of the 10,000 participants have been recruited by Public Health Wales since 8 December, requiring individuals to have a positive COVID test and symptoms for less than 5 days (link).

The UK increased its order to 2.75 million courses of paxlovid (link) in December following clinical trials that indicated that paxlovid reduced the risk of hospitalisation or death following mild to moderate Covid infection from 7% to 0.8% in high-risk groups (a relative risk reduction of 89%). The PANORAMIC study has deliberately used a “platform” design so that further antivirals or antibody treatments, such as paxlovid, can be included if indicated. The significant procurement reflected the expectation of a tsunami of Omicron cases when there was significant uncertainty over the relative severity of Omicron as compared to Delta, but would also enable the possibility for use with household contacts.


Modelling

We first monitored actual hospitalisations in England against projections in Friday Report 48 (link). This updated our bulletin (link) summarising papers from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Warwick University and Imperial College London which modelled the move to step 4.

We noted in Friday Report 54 that the group of universities had published updated papers, setting out projections from October through the winter, and focussing on the impact of boosters and the mixing behaviour of individuals. The papers set out a large range of possible outcomes – the trajectories in the chart below show two example projections from these papers.

Following the discovery of the Omicron variant, on 11 December, LSHTM issued an updated report (link), modelling the potential consequences of the variant on transmission and health outcomes in England. It’s worth noting that this is currently a preprint, and has not yet been peer reviewed. On 22 December, an update was published with additional scenarios.

As with previous papers, there are a large number of projections, which vary by the assumed extent of immune escape, various aspects of the booster rollout, and the reintroduction of control measures. In the chart, we have illustrated the numbers of hospitalisations projected, based on their “High immune escape, High booster efficacy” scenario.

In their new papers, LSHTM did not publish a single projection for each scenario, instead they have produced a range based on their simulations. In the chart, we have illustrated the middle 50% of their projections (that is, based on their modelling, there is a 25% chance of an outcome better than the simulation, and 25% worse).

It is clear that, based on the modelling, the Omicron variant has significantly increased the projected number of hospitalisations expected, and that until recently the numbers were broadly in line with projections.

The most recent data suggests that hospital admissions from the Omicron wave have peaked – assuming no further uptick, the peak will be significantly lower than the modelled scenarios.

We will continue to monitor how actual experience lines up with this projection.


Data

Global Excess Mortality

A recent article in Nature describes models that compare global excess deaths to the 5.5 million COVID‑19 deaths recorded to date. The IHME estimates between 13 million deaths with a confidence interval of 9 – 19 million deaths.

The Economist magazine estimates a range of 12 – 22 million excess deaths worldwide. Their model used machine learning to identify more than 100 national indicators that seem to correlate with excess deaths in more than 80 countries where data are available. These features include official deaths, the scale of COVID-19 testing and the results of antibody surveys, but also geographical latitude, the degree of Internet censorship and the number of years a country has been a democracy. The Economist’s models suggest a greater extent of under-reporting in lower income countries.

The article describes the difficulty of setting an appropriate baseline for the current year’s mortality. In particular, using a 5-year average without adjustment will understate the baseline for growing and ageing populations – we describe these issues in our recent blog, noting that the ONS has decided to use the five years 2016-19 and 2021 as a comparator for 2022 experience.

The World Mortality Dataset, which is described in more detail in our guest blog by Ariel Karlinsky, estimates that there are around 6.5 million excess deaths compared with the 4.1 million COVID-19 deaths recorded for the countries represented in their dataset. Their approach fits a trend through deaths counts in recent years which implicitly allows for population ageing and growth.

The Nature article also described the creative methods employed by various researchers to estimate deaths in countries where reliable data is difficult to come by, including telephone surveys asking households about deaths and counting graves using satellite images.


ONS Infection Study (link)

With ONS now providing a welcome flash summary two days early, only four days after the end of the week being studied, the latest data are more encouraging, with substantive falls in three of the four nations. Only Northern Ireland is showing a small increase, although not statistically significant given the small sample size. England has fallen from a peak of 6.9% to 5.5%.

Only the North East showed an increase, with others falling, notably London and the North West. By age, the youngest age group (age 2 to school year 6) bucks the trend, while the 70+ group appears a little later to peak, which is slightly worrying given the greater potential for serious illness.

 

Note that the ONS study is a randomly sampled exercise, and recent changes in the PCR testing regime for community testing will not affect it.


ONS Antibody Report (link)

We’ve seen over the last few months how antibody levels have waned and then increased again as the booster roll-out has progressed. The ONS has now enhanced its graphs to show the booster roll-out, and has also introduced a new, higher, threshold of antibody level.

The impact of the waning and subsequent booster effect is much clearer in terms of this new higher threshold, showing the restorative effect it has in terms of higher levels of antibodies.

Overall levels of antibodies is now put at 97% – note that this will include those who have not been vaccinated but have naturally acquired immunity from having been infected at some stage.


Hospital “Primary Diagnosis” Data

One of the first things the current Secretary of State for Health & Care did on his appointment was to ask the NHS to provide data in respect of those in hospital with COVID, to identify what proportion of them were in for some other condition but had also tested positive. Accordingly we now have a weekly update of beds occupied in acute hospitals, split between those for whom COVID is the main reason for the treatment (colloquially “for COVID”) and those for whom it is not (“with COVID”).

Recently we have seen the proportion where COVID is the primary diagnosis fall, to around 50%, with London falling first. With a rapid rise in community infections, we’d expect unrelated admissions who test positive on admission to increase first; COVID-related admissions will have the usual lag (7 – 10 days).

In addition, the notes accompanying the report are clear to caveat the data by explaining that many “incidental” admissions will have COVID as an underlying cause (eg a COVID-induced stroke).

We can see from the graph to the right that there has still been an increase in the number of beds occupied by those with a primary diagnosis of COVID, although it’s encouraging to see that there has been a levelling off, and in recent days early signs of a reduction in beds occupied by “for COVID” patients.


2021 Age-Standardised Mortality

The ONS (link) has today published its provisional figure for age-standardised mortality for 2021, which at 984.7 per 100,000 is 5.4% lower than 2020, but still 7.1% higher than 2019. (This latter figure is very close to the Continuous Mortality Investigation’s figure of 6.9%.)

In relation to previous years, 2021 is broadly comparable with 2015, (which was seen at the time to be an outlier due to a particularly bad flu season), but prior to that one needs to go back to 2010 before mortality rates climb higher.


And Finally … (link)

Meanwhile, not content with launching space rockets and building electric cars, Elon Musk, followed by a staggering 71m on Twitter, has suggested population projections can be simplified to a multiplication of just two numbers. 

We recall that two years ago he expressed an interest in recruiting revolutionary actuaries, and wonder whether this is the result of his new expertise.  We are hoping, for his next trick, he can advise insurance actuaries on how to streamline Solvency II calculations down to one simple spreadsheet!

 

 

22/01/22

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Nick Smith MP is right – the British Steel pension transfers are a special case.

MP Nick Smith is right to renew calls for a specific redress scheme for former members of the  British Steel Pension Scheme. The overall complaints of steelworkers are reckoned by FOS to be valid two thirds of the time but when it comes to whether the advice to transfer was suitable- almost all of the cases are being upheld. Jo Cumbo is right to call this second stat “staggering”.

There were over 7000 transfers, only 22% of them are in the compensation pipeline .

It is reasonable to expect more people to come forward, not least because the FCA is now promoting steelworkers to bring their cases to FOS.

The FCA are already treating BSPS transfers as a special case. This blog argues  that so should FOS and FSCS.

I had my meeting with the National Audit Office who are close to completing their inquiry into the regulation of the transfers that mainly happened in a short period in 2017-19 named the “time to choose”.  The NAO say they are likely to report in March.  In my view there are five strong grounds for treating the BSPS transfers separately and giving them a redress scheme of their own

  1. The management of the Regulatory Apportionment Agreement. The RAA appears to have been  an expensive mistake. It originally would have benefited a few well pensioned executives within BSPS who would have lost most if BSPS had gone into the PPF and Tata not supported it. As it happens, Tata did support the scheme and it came out of the PPF rendering the RAA and the establishment of the new BSPS unnecessary. But by giving steelworkers the choice of PPF and BSPS, they kept open a window to transfer which panicked members into transferring , fearing it might be shut. Had the scheme gone into the PPF assessment without the RAA, it would have been closed for the assessment period to transfers – and the panic would not have happened. Hindsight is a fine thing and there would have been a lot of anger at Tata , the Pensions Regulator and the BSPS Trustees , had the RAA not been set up, but without it, transfers would have been available only after it exited the PPF assessment on November 9th 2021. Ironically, the highest pension members who transferred to new BSPS may have been better off staying in the original scheme.
  2. Transfer values rocketed prior to Time to Choose. The Pensions Regulator required the Trustees to de-risk the scheme assets in advance of it entering PPF assessment. The de-risking reduced the discount rate applied by the actuaries and this meant that CETVs could in some cases double,  which they did. This made transferring more attractive  It has not been properly spoken of, but Tata’s support for the pension arrangements is quite at odds with steelworker’s expectations and turns out to have made both the de-risking and acceleration of transfer values unnecessary. The cost to the scheme of underestimating  Tata’s covenant has been passed on to Tata in demands for more funding – demands that have been met at a cost to investment and jobs. This is relevant to all steelworkers whether they took the transfer or not.
  3. The Trustees were blind to the impact of higher CETV’s. Both in my discussions with the trustees prior to Time to Choose and in a meeting with the Chair subsequently, the trustees saw no historical evidence of high transfer take up. But this was because IFAs could not recommend transfers at the old CETV rates (BSPS was run historically run with higher discount rates which calculated  CETVs in cohorts , making them less attractive, especially to younger members). The Trustees chose not to provide practical help to members thinking of transferring, instead offering a guidance helpline that talked to the different expectations of BSPS and BSPS2. The Trustees were out of touch with their members expectations and blind to what now seems obvious, that if you double transfer values, you court transfers.
  4. The steelworker’s expectations of what would happen if they transferred to         “BSPS2” or remained in the old BSPS were coloured by a long history of disillusionment with cuts in their pension entitlements. There was  a perception that Tata were not supporting the scheme. This view made them vulnerable to suggestions by advisers that transferring out of the scheme was a “no brainer”. Many steelworkers – especially those who had lost their jobs as a result of redundancy programs, were only too pleased to listen to such arguments. The vulnerability of steelworkers was underestimated, they should not have been exploited by advisers selling transfers , a failure both of advisers and of those who designed the RAA. Access to this advice was all too easy.
  5. Access to poor advice was easy. In Scunthorpe , one firm set up in the Union offices. In Port Talbot , respected steelworkers were paid to get colleagues to chicken dinners where they were sold on the idea of transferring by unscrupulous advisers. There appears to have been a blind eye turned to what was being said by unions and management. Indeed there is evidence that payments for access were being received by people who had the trust of the less financially confident. There is also evidence that Darren Reynolds of Active Wealth sat at the top of MaPS, list of transfer advisers, inadvertently endorsing him and his activities. Far from providing  a list of reputable advisers, the trustees set out a pathway to many firms who have subsequently had their transfer permissions removed, these firms have generally folded leaving members to be compensated by FSCS (with further issues)
  6. Social media stoked the flames. There was ample evidence before , during and after the Time to Choose that herding was going on. This is from their Facebook pages early in the crucial decision period. This blog reported the impending problems at the time as did journalists from the BBC and in particular the FT. The steelworkers were organising themselves on Facebook because they couldn’t find another forum.
  7. The existing workplace pensions were ignored. There is a general question as to why this was not picked up by Trustees and Regulators and a more particular question as to why Tata and British Steel in Scunthorpe, did not offer their workplace pension schemes as a value for money alternative to the solutions being advised on.
  8. IFAs misrepresented themselves as “managing the money”. Many IFAs had three opportunities to take money from the transfer values. They could take fees for advice (paid contingent on the transfer happening), they could take ongoing fees for financial planning (supported by adviser charging arrangements from some providers) and they could take further fees by providing investment solutions which were paid on top of advisory fees. Many IFAs offered services that weren’t fulfilled or were fulfilled incompetently and members paid through the nose. The members were not in a position to tell if the IFA was good or bad, many assumed that FCA registration protected them against nus-selling.
  9. The FCA were not protecting members as they should. Megan Butler’s flustered testimony at the Work and Pensions Select Committee , showed just how little hold the FCA had on regulated advisers at the point of sale. I am quite sure that the NAO will have been told how the FCA only arrived in Scunthorpe and Port Talbot, months after the bulk of the transfer applications had been made. Caroline Rookes’ report has made this point. The steelworkers who had been wound up by Tata’s redundancies , previous pension cuts and the closing window of the RAA and pension cuts, given access to advisers who stoked the flames and often sold shoddy products , were not protected by the FCA when they needed protection.
  10. Compensation has been too slow and erratic; It is now nearly five years since transfers nearly doubled in the spring of 2017. Many members have chosen not to be compensated being happy with their decision and the advice they took, markets have generally been favourable and many steelworkers are resilient (as was proved in March 2020). But I suspect that the pipeline of compensation claims has been shortened by the time steelworkers see it is taking and by the seemingly arbitrary way compensation is calculated. We now know that the basis of compensation is often dependent on the actions of former members whose claims are curtailed if they have drawn down on their pots. The current compensation basis established by FSCS is regarded by Al Rush, myself and many others as not fit for purpose.

And generally the

…was a suitable scheme for almost all steelworkers. This is a most important point and it is seldom made. Far from being the train crash it was presented as by some advisers, BSPS was and is a well invested scheme. It’s administration was also good (though it was never designed to deal with so many transfer applications in the Time to Choose). This is why so many suitability claims are being upheld. Wage for life pensions are just what steelworkers in retirement need and for generations they were what they got. By comparison, a huge financial reservoir that can rise and fall from day to day by more than a monthly wage, is not so suitable for most steelworkers and their families. Underpinning the argument that those who transferred from BSPS have a general claim is that 98% of claims made on the suitability of pension transfer advice – have been upheld.

Taken together, I think these 10 arguments for treating steelworkers as special , make a compelling case. What happened at Port Talbot and Scunthorpe in 2017 will be unlikely to happen again, the lessons will no doubt have been learned. There remains a worry that the next episode will happen in a different way and let’s hope that (as with the pandemic) the risk of the unknown is better prepared for.

But right now, we have t0 do something to redress the wrongs that have been done to the former members of BSPS. I agree with Nick Smith that they need and deserve their own compensation scheme. BSPS was and is a special case. Undoubtedly there will be many authorised firms(including AgeWage) which will have to pay higher levies as a result and there is an argument that this special compensation should come from Government and general taxation, but this is detail.

The important thing is to put those steelworkers who were treated wrong – right.

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Here they grow again – Cushon buys Creative – Pension Bee doubles assets in a year!

Cushon have won the race to absorb Creative Benefits and its highly popular master trust. Its blog tells us  that the acquisition of Creative  doubles Cushon’s sits reach  to over 400,000 members and increases AUM (including ISAs) to £1.7bn. Money is now pouring into Cushon at £300m a year,

With its focus on its carbon footprint , Cushon now has both definition and scale. It also has a highly diversified group of participating employers, many of whom will find their staff in a default fund that is radically different. Creative has an extraordinary 14,500 employers participating in its trust.

Also transitioning from Creative to Cushon will be the staff of Creative benefits , many of whom I worked with when I was working within the Alexander Forbes group. The pensions expertise of the likes of Sally Webber will be important to Cushon as it grows into its new skin as a major workplace pension.

Cushon’s success mirrors that of Smart five years earlier. They have managed to tap into private equity through Ashgrove Capital , proving that the market sees its financial technology and commitment to sustainable investment as commercially attractive.

Cushon is now competing in the same space as Smart and it will be interesting to see how these two compete.

There are more master trust consolidations on the way, as Hymans Robertson’s Rona Train tells us on these highlights  from this week’s Pension PlayPen coffee morning


Pension Bee doubles in a year

Pension Bee’s latest figures continue the remarkable success story of a firm that was but a start up five years ago.

It is now trading on the High Growth Segment of the London Stock Exchange’s Main
Market and these results see its assets doubling in a year, well ahead of market guidance.

As with Cushon, Pension Bee has benefited from the trend to consolidate pension pots and as with Cushon, there proposition has been shaped by people’s desire to use technology to manage their pensions.

Pension Bee has the added advantage of growing organically, it has made no acquisitions and its substantial customer base have signed up without the nudge of auto-enrolment.


Engaging savers

It will be interesting to see to what extent Cushon’s intention to engage its membership with their savings can be achieved with its inorganic membership. It will also be interesting watching Pension Bee’s growth as a platform for sustainable investing (it is now focussing on LGIM’s Fossil Fuel Free Fund – a fund which it co-created.

These two firms are not alone in looking to capture the hearts as well as wallets of savers. The next wave of hi-tec sustainable investment platform  is already on its way in the form of Circa 5000 which will be looking to eat Pension Bee’s lunch in due course.

This tells me that there is competition for our savings from a new wave of investment platforms using pension wrappers as a means of building wealth. Watch this space- you won’t be the only one.

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A shameful shambles? The state pension needs help!

This blog argues that the issues around the State Pension are both larger and more urgent than those with the accessing of private pensions. It argues that DWP’s limited state pension helpline resources should  be bolstered by MaPS staff who can help reduce the current acute problem.

This is the summary of the Public Accounts 33rd report into underpayments of the state pension. You can read the full report from here. Reading the report has been an eye-opener to me.

The Department for Work & Pensions (the Department) estimates that it underpaid 134,000 pensioners over £1 billion, with some of the errors dating as far back as 1985. The errors happened because of the Department’s use of outdated systems and heavily manual processing, coupled with complacency in monitoring errors and a quality assurance framework that is not fit for purpose. In January 2021, the Department started an official exercise to correct the errors, the ninth such exercise for the Department since 2018. Some of those affected have died since the Department made the underpayments, meaning that the Department owes the pensioners’ estate.

It is difficult for pensioners potentially affected to know what to do. The Department has set little guidance for people who are concerned that they have been underpaid and has left people in the dark over their entitlement. It will only contact pensioners if it finds they have been underpaid and, as the Department is prioritising living pensioners, there is currently no formal plan for contacting the next of kin where the pensioner is now deceased. The Department also admits that many other pensioners are underclaiming their State Pension and need to contact the Department to receive an uplift to their payments. These pensioners need clearer information to act, or risk missing out on significant sums.

Fixing the Department’s mistakes comes at great cost to the taxpayer and is expected to cost £24.3 million in staff costs by the end of 2023. It requires experienced specialised staff who must be moved away from business-as-usual activity and, as a result, the Department has already experienced backlogs in processing new State Pension applications. There remains a risk that the errors that led to underpayments in the first place will be repeated in the correction exercise.

Managing Public Money requires Departments who make mistakes to put them right and restore people as far as possible to the situation they would have been in had the error not occurred. However, the Department is seeking only to pay people their legal entitlement in arrears, in some cases many years after the event, and has treated people inconsistently in paying interest on their arrears. Apart from the tax treatment of a lump sum arrears payment, the Department has, until recently, had little understanding of or interest in finding out further about the financial consequences for pensioners, such as the impact on social care provision.

The report validates the work of Sir Steve Webb and the efforts of LCP to help pensioners who suspect they may have been underpaid. Their help is available free of charge from this link.

We should also be grateful to Tanya Jefferies of the Daily Mail’s This is Money service.

We have been assured that the DWP is now on top of this issue, but clearly the problems are larger than previously supposed. Just under 1% of all pensioners are thought to have been underpaid with 90% of those 134,000 being women. The largest amount found to have been underpaid is £128,000. The underpaid are receiving the pre-2016 version of the state pension and the problems arise from incomplete NI records and/or inherited rights from spouses.

This is not a political issue but it is a matter that needs the further attention of the Pension Minister.

The report has a number of immediate actions for the Department and I hope that Guy Opperman will seize this moment to act on the Public Accounts Committee’s recommendations.

As a matter of urgency, the Department should consider
whether there are cost-effective ways to upgrade its IT systems and enhance its administrative processes to ensure the quality and timeliness of management information and reduce the risk of repeated errors. In prioritising what IT infrastructure to upgrade, it should factor in the opportunity cost of not upgrading old systems, including the cost of errors and underpayments to the citizen.

When we consider the amount of public funds that is being spent at  the Money and Pension Service to help people with private pension savings, it is indeed shameful that many who are in their later years are finding so little help. While the Pensions Dashboard project should be ring-fenced as a priority, much of MaPS IT spend is wasted on frivolities such as the Investment Pathway comparison site. Can some of MaPS’  IT resource be redeployed to the Pension Service

The Department should start treating underpayments on State
Pension as seriously as overpayments and set out to the Committee in its Treasury Minute response to this report what it is going to do both to prevent future errors and to strengthen its detection of systemic issues that lead to errors.

The implication is clear, the DWP needs a cultural upgrade in the way it treats its customers. But there is a lesson for the private sector here too. We must take the strain off the DWP by making private pensions self-sufficient. We should not rely on MaPS to manage the guidance of future pensioners, we should deal with these issues ourselves , through better allocation of resource to customer support and through the creation of better products that do not need advice to work properly.

The Department should improve the clarity and availability of
information on State Pension underpayments, and what people who are concerned that they have been underpaid should do. This should include information for groups the Department finds hard to reach such as the next of kin of deceased
customers

Unglamorous as the state pension is. it is the cornerstone of our retirement income

As I have said in recent blogs, it is a magnificent thing to look  forward to

And if MaPS were to turn its attention to explaining to pensioners , the value of their state pension, its time could be more effectively used.

The Department needs, in the short term, to minimise the
knock-on effect of moving experienced staff to work on the correction exercise on other service areas and, in the long term, to ensure that it retains expert staff on the old State Pension rules so long as they are needed to administer the benefit
over the following decades.

The report also sees scope for further errors to occur, noting that there is no process in place to deal with divorce in retirement , meaning that divorcees are also in peril of underpayment. Steve Webb has highlighted this problem and the Public Accounts Committee is adamant that this issue should be dealt with.

The Money and Pension Service – to give MaPS its full name, is here for those who need guidance about their later life finances. Pensions and in particular state pensions are critical to this. Other forms of income – from, drawdowns from DC pots,  investments, equity release and later life work, form less than 20% of retirement income.

Why is so much effort having to be put into helping people access their private pensions when so little effort is being put into managing the pension that we most rely on?

 

 

 

 

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Keeping private pensions as simple as the State’s.

Next month I am due to talk for an hour to the CIPP on the state pension. It would be easy to talk technically about the process behind the recalculation of the state pension age but I want to connect more with an audience of people who care less about technicalities and more about their and their customer’s needs. The CIPP is the Chartered of Payroll Professionals, their customers are the people they pay.

This is what I see when I want to see how much I am getting from my state pension. It is not a guaranteed amount, it will be more than this, but so will the cost of living, it tells me that I have paid national insurance long enough to get my full state pension.

I can compare this with a precious statement which tells me just how much my prospective pension has benefited from the triple lock and shows the importance of my getting another four year’s credits towards the full entitlement.

Although it is initially hard to get to the pension forecast (you need to sort out your Government Gateway) , once you have got access, it is worth it. The forecast tells you everything you need to know (and nothing you don’t).

When I speak with the CIPP , I can compare this forecast with the kind of forecasts they are used to getting about their other pensions. This blog does not have space to show a wake up pack or even a full standard  statement

This is the simple pension statement and it only shows you what might happen if you bought a certain type of annuity (many other options are available).

The reason why the wake up packs and statements are so hard to digest compared with the state pension forecast, is that they aren’t forecasting a pension at all – they are advertising the freedom that you get when you don’t get a pension. Which for many people is no freedom at all.

There is space in the market for a product that can market itself as a pension currently paying a specified amount per week based on a simple formula for accrued rights – offering no guarantee.

If the state pension can do it – why can’t the private sector? I think this is the proper job of a CDC pension.

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The impact of inflation on those with lowest pensions.

Many will be hitting the buffers this year

Inflation is at a thirty year high. It will hurt the poor much harder than the rich. This is why.

The real cost of living for those for whom these items are part of a staple diet has increased by more than inflation , which is why the poor will suffer from food inflation more than middle and upper class people (you and me). People who have the time and education to read my blogs are not worrying for themselves (but I hope they are worrying for others).

In little more than two months, energy bills will rise by 50% and we know that the poorest over-pay on energy too.

In that same month, the state pension will go up by 3%. By the time we count in fuel price increases, that could mean benefits-dependent pensioners getting a real pay cut of 5% or more. Unlike us, people who spend their income have no buffer for pay cuts like this.


For those who spend all of there income, there is no buffer.

We talk about buffers in pensions all the time. We want to build in contingencies to protect incomes from falling (we call it prudence). It’s a marketing thing, it makes products and services more appealing as we can promise no nasty surprises.

But if you are spending what you are earning there is no buffer when prices go up and pensions go down (and the state pension will go down in terms of CPI, more in terms of RPI and even more in terms of Jack Monroe’s food basket.

Financial products are not built for everyone. Just look at the way we have ignored the cost of pensions for the 1.7m low paid who have not been given savings incentives because they were in the wrong kind of pension scheme. It will take 10 years of campaigning to get them any redress and then the redress will only be going forward.

We talk of the importance of advice but paying for advice is way beyond the budget of people on low earnings. We tell these people to have an interview with Pension Wise to understand the difference between annuity and drawdown products, but if you are living hand to mouth, you aren’t buying drawdown or annuities, you want an increase in your retirement income, a top-up to your income whether through wages , benefits or from whatever your pension savings can give you.

Many people think that it isn’t worth paying a pension of a few pounds a month, but a few pounds a month is what can make the difference between relying on a food bank or going to a supermarket. You don’t need to be Goerge Orwell or Jack London to know what it’s like going to a food bank -it’s degrading.


Pensions for everyone

We want a pensions system which is more inclusive, we want to tear down the barriers to entry to auto-enrolment, taking away the LEL, reducing the earnings trigger, including the self-employed and starting people saving at 18 not 22.

But if we do that, we need to think about the benefit of auto-enrolment to those who enter the pensions poor and leave them poor. We need to think about efficient ways of converting this extra saving , from those who are saving out of subsistence wages, into extra income which rewards their saving.

That means excluding pension saving from means tested benefits (something that doesn’t happen today) and it means paying people with small pots , fair pensions. By “fair”, I mean not excluding those with limited savings from pensions (as happens with annuities and drawdown – where the costs at entry and in management are prohibitive).

It means thinking of pension payment systems that can distribute a few pounds a month (or a week) directly to a pensioner with minimum intervention. This can and is achieved all over the world through the use of digital payment systems. It means using collective means of pooling savings and managing mortality for the benefit of the pool, as can be done with CDC). It also means recognising that the kind of buffers which we have built into the system to protect those in DB schemes are a luxury that cannot be afforded. We cannot afford to invest in financial products such as gilts and cash deposits that offer a negative real return.

Above all else, we cannot exclude the poor from a pension from their savings, when we have coerced them into saving for a pension through auto-enrolment. The millions of people with pots less than £10,000 can’t just be abandoned as pension failures and left to their own devices when they get past 55. They need a pathway to a pension.

The State Pension remains the most important benefit for the low-earners. It is exactly what a pension should be and it offers people on low incomes a clear promise which improves as time goes by because we have a triple lock. We need to maintain the triple lock and use the state pension as a benchmark for how we communicate pensions to ordinary people.

I include three recent screenshots of my pension entitlement as an example

And if the financial services industry cannot come up with a cost-efficient pension scheme for the poor, we should considering opening the state pension to “transfers-in” of small pots, with a view to paying to extra pension for people’s meagre savings.

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The Hymans master trust default fund review; “in the midst of life….”

https://readymag.com/p14287617

I am pleased to see Hymans Robertson publishing data from a number of master trusts that puts the member’s experience to the fore. They have produced a framework for understanding the impact of default investment strategies that they claim makes for

enhanced scheme governance, informed investment decisions, improved member engagement and, ultimately, better member outcomes.

What is important is that anyone gets access to this information, including members. Most members will struggle to draw too many conclusions about long-term value as the survey only covers the period leading up to and through the current pandemic. But the charts show that with a couple of exceptions (National Pension Trust and Aon) , most trusts are radically reducing risk for members in what Hymans call the “consolidation and pre-retirement phases”.

This is graphically demonstrated by a chart that will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in DB liability modelling

The retirement journey is seen as a steady series of valuations (what members see on their annual statements, with each year better than the next till a peak is reached , after which the fund reduces in an equally smooth way to zero, the end of life. This is a “journey” as imagined with a number of assumptions based on a very conventional view of work and retirement.

It also paints a picture of an ordered retreat from an ambition to grow assets (the blue line), to a more cautious approach (the green lines are about consolidation) to a point where a member is de-risked and ready to start drawing income.

In the midst of life we are in death

The common book of prayer introduces us to the phrase “in the midst of life we are in death”.

It seems very odd to me that with life expectancy into the eighties, we are consolidating for the “endgame” in our forties.

Maybe actuaries read the 1559 book of Common Prayer, which reminds us that in the midst of life we are in death.

Despite the demographic changes we have seen in the 80 post war years, the concept of de-risking ahead of “retirement” with retirement being defined by a scheme retirement age determined by the scheme funder/provider.

It would be interesting to see how these “retirement ages” differ from scheme to scheme- some will assume state retirement age at 67, others a younger age. Some schemes start consolidating 10 years before the scheme retirement age , some sooner. The pre-retirement phase, where money is shifted into bonds and cash is similarly arbitrary. But one thing that almost all master trusts have in common is a view that from retirement on , you should be invested with “increasing caution”.

This orthodoxy is grounded not in “member experience” but in a consensus that people in their sixties are not able to take much volatility in the value of their investments and need to be locked down in low yielding assets with limited scope for growth. This is a concept that is founded in DB cashflow modelling but which bears very little relevance to the average persons real life experience.

Real life experience

I am 60 and working. We know that most people in their sixties are still working, the ONS working lives studies tell us so

So the idea that we are dependent on pensions from this notional retirement age should be challenged. People’s retirement income is mainly determined by the state pension, DB pensions (including annuities) and work.  Investments provide more income than personal pensions (the source of income from drawdown- illustrated by the pink wedge)

The pink wedge is tiny for men and a slither for women, it is not the source of retirement income that we like to think it is. That’s because DC pots are not yet very big but also because the default investment strategies of most DC pension schemes  pre-pack  savers for pot-encashment into bank accounts, cash ISAs and debt repayment.

Hymans master trust fund review is confusing about this. This comment is on the chart below it showing the incomes achieved by the providers surveyed in terms of the impact on pensions

Note, the language at this stage is about risks to “pensions”

But scroll on a little and we are asked to think about what members actually do.

Investment strategy in this phase should be aligned to members’ likely decisions at retirement. Reducing risk should be the norm, particularly as most people currently withdraw their DC pot as cash.

Again, our projections illustrate a range of investment approaches being implemented by providers. While the shorter horizon and more conservative investment strategies mean the range of potential member outcomes is generally narrower than in other phases, there is evidence that members in this phase may be assuming very different and potentially inappropriate levels of risk.

This is worth some push back. Firstly, Hymans are modelling a pot that at outset was £200k, these don’t get “drawn as cash”. Secondly,  Hymans are using some conversion rate which turns a pot into a pension (not stated). Thirdly it is quite clear that the happiest members will be those in the National Pension Trust and Aon, who have taken the most risk. Hymans use the adjective “inappropriate”, presumably about these two trusts.

Just how much risk is being taken can be seen from the preceding chart

It is as if Hymans are pointing to all the providers with 10% + volatility and accusing them of cheating.

But if you are getting 10% + returns , do you really mind if your provider took a lot of risk? Well you might if you were wanting to cash out, but let’s remember, this is modelling on people with £200,000 looking at their annual income to come from their pot.

And whether you have a big or small pot, you are reaching this artificial retirement date with a life expectation of another 25 years. Why is risk taking  “inappropriate” for someone in their sixties?


So are we judging member outcomes correctly?

I think we need to be clear about what a member considers a good outcome. If we are preparing members for cashing out their pots, then I can see that delivering with a high degree of certainty means lots of de-risking and that a lower outcome might be “appropriate”.  But if members are looking for a pension from their workplace pension, then de-risking to an “increasingly cautious” fund at retirement, makes no sense.

It is as if we are giving up on pensions and accepting that people only want cash. But we know from a number of surveys that when people are asked what they want from a workplace pension , they describe something remarkably like an annuity.

I do not think we should be censuring the providers who are to the right hand side of the box above. Even those like Smart, Mercer and Lifesight – which haven’t seen their bets pay off, have at least been ambitious.

The failure of some master trusts is that they do not offer continuation options through retirement which enable defaults to pay income through drawdown. This means that money has to be encashed to be sent off to the SIPP that can do the income thing. This explains a strategy which targets as little risk as possible. But this is simply giving up on pensions and cannot be applauded.

For defaults targeting a point at which people start drawing on their pensions (in whatever way), we should not be targeting cash but growth. Because if you de risk to the point that many providers on the left of the chart are doing, you are signposting to members that in the midst of their retirement journey, they should be ready for death!


A better way than de-risking

As you can see, Hymans get themselves tangled up between those with big pots who think in terms of “pensions” and those with little pots who think of pots as “cash”. Treating those who want pensions as wanting cash is bad for those with big pots and the reverse is also true. Some master trusts – Aon and National Pension Trust for instance, seem to be saying to members, “stay invested and draw a pension”, others like NOW and Workers Pension are saying “cash out”. But NOW is Now Pensions

NOW PENSIONS!

And Workers is a Pension Trust (and inside Cushon).

If master trusts are to maintain the word “pension” in their title, then they should be aspiring to pay pensions, not accepting that they will pay cash. That means taking a long term view on investment and risk and not assuming that in the middle of the retirement journey – the investment strategy rolls up like a shrivelled snail and growth and volatility are killed off. That is DB thinking and what’s more “closed” DB thinking.  Neither pensions or life deserve to be de-risked half-way through.

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The customer experience surveys that are a menace!

Part one

For my birthday, a member of my family bought me an Ordinance Survey app which allows me to see where I’m walking O/S style. Lovely present, lovely thought.

When it came to downloading the app, I was told to input a number to unlock the service. There were many numbers on the documents I was given, I tried them all.  none unlocked the app. One of the numbers was a helpline to Ordinance Survey, but I always got an office closed reminder.

I asked my partner, I asked the donor, nobody could help. I finally got through to customer services, a nice bloke – but he couldn’t help at all – he just told me there was another number I had to find.

Finally, I accidentally scratched off a bit of a yellow panel on a card I’d been sent. Like an archaeologist, I continued scratching and like a happy archaeologist, a secret number was revealed. The app was downloaded and I was away – out on the Isle of Dogs – plotting my progress – using contours, spying landmarks – it was like orienteering without the Silva compass!

Part two

Since downloading the app ( two weeks ago) , I have had an email every day from O/S trying to sell me more of their goods. For the past three days  I got a request to fill out a survey on their customer experience. Today I got my final reminder…

 

My final reminder!

It came from Alex Alderson, their customer contact service manager (to whom there is “no reply”). Just what the consequences are for not responding to the final reminder  are still not clear but I took notice alright.

Part three

Fearing the finality of the mail, I decided to participate.  I explained what had happened.

The customer desk was usually closed and when I got through- it was hard to explain my issue. It came down to me not understanding that the unique number I needed to download the app was behind a scratch card. This had never occurred to me and we only discovered that this is how we got the app to work by accident. Nobody at OS mentioned this – perhaps because it seemed too obvious. But it wasn’t obvious to us!

And then I was asked if I would allow someone at O/S to follow up on this. Short of blocking O/S, I don’t see any chance they won’t! Albeit it will be Mr No-reply at work.


Customer experience emails are a menace.

When you have a bad customer experience, it can be sorted by customer care. It cannot be sorted by a customer experience email, The questionnaire wanted to know who else I shopped with and how O/S compared, it wanted to have my phone number as well as the email it already had (again). In short I now feel thoroughly fed up with an organisation that for 60 years has been my map!

I can only think that Ordinance Survey have put the marketing of their products in the hands of a robot as there is no empathy here at all. Mr No Reply (aka Alex Alderson), if you get to read this, you are not doing your job. You are alienating a customer and I suspect I’m not the only one.

 

How many of these mails do you get – and how do you feel about them?

 

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WPSC concludes we have no framework to assess how we’re turning pots to pensions.

Stephen Timms,; WPSC Chair

The Work and Pension Select Committee has published its report into how we are accessing our pension savings.

It is full of good things and is a major contribution to thinking in this area pulling together the views of those in the private and public sectors under the Chairmanship of Stephen Timms.

The report remarks that

Six years on  (from the introduction of the Pension Freedoms), there remains no framework against which to evaluate the success of the freedoms or make judgements about the need for—or effectiveness of—support interventions

Throughout the report’s 73 pages we are reminded that the two interventions of this century that impacted people’s pension savings the most –  auto enrolment and the freedoms – are still young in policy terms.

And the report moves with astonishing speed from one idea  to another,  calling for an investigation into the decoupling of tax free cash (to improve decision making on the remaining pot) , for the FCA to consider regulating contract based CDC plans, for Pension Wise to be nudged at us whenever we think pensions, for mid-life MOT’s , simpler statements and statement seasons, for innovation through hybrid products, for mix and match purchasing using investment pathways, for the better promotion of advice and so on.

With so many solutions under consideration , it is hard to work out the big idea. Guy Opperman tells the Committee at one point that the entire focus of Government policy is to make pensions simpler. But Pensions are clearly not getting simpler. They appear to be getting more complicated .

Overall, the Committee supports the Government’s intentions to make pensions simpler but suggests that recent changes, such as the increase to the Normal Minimum Pension Age, have had the opposite effect.

It added that “simplicity alone is not enough to improve outcomes for savers” adding that the Government needs to “increase saver engagement, encouraging and enabling people to make their own decisions, or take a more interventionist approach with passive savers to ensure that they do not default to a decision against their best interests.

Which gets me thinking, just how will this vast array of information and views collected , collated and published by the Committee get used. I hope that it will encourage policy makers to consider what is actually going on when people try to get to their money.

People are accessing their savings , but we really don’t understand what is behind their behavior. LCP, who feature very prominently in this report, are distressed that people are doing this in a hare-brained way. LCP rarely open their mouths without evidence and I’d be interested in hearing more about their proposals for de-coupling (for instance).

Much of what is being said about Pension Wise is based on anecdotal evidence that people find Pension Wise useful, but there is no evidence of what difference it makes to their behavior. The Pension Dashboard looks like being popular, when it arrives, but again there is no plan as to what it will lead people to do. Indeed the report supports the view that the dashboard should do nothing but show and tell people what they’ve got.

Paul Lewis, writing in Money Marketing , asks

What does ‘guided signposting’ mean for the advice gap?

He concludes that

In nearly 40 years of financial journalism, no one has asked me to ‘signpost’ them about their money

The 73 pages of the report feel like “guided signposting” is our best bet with nudging and simple statements helping us to take life-changing decisions on how we turn our pots to pensions.

But I’m not sure that all this pensions paraphernalia adds up to a simple system – as the Pensions Minister would have it. It seems like a lot of clutter with words like innovation, regtech, robo-advice and dashboards being thrown around to make us feel we are making some progress.

The simple thing that people want – and I suspect that Guy Opperman wants, is to get back to getting paid a pension at a reasonable rate. “Accessing a pension pot” is not a simple thing to say, or think about or do. For all the pathways and guidance we still do not know how well the pension freedoms are doing in helping us turn pots into pensions.

But if the result of this report is that the

the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury  jointly produce an annual assessment evaluating these measures holistically.

We will be going some way towards working out what progress is being made. And Stephen Timms signs off his report with an aspiration about how it will be used.

We would expect several of the recommendations we have made in this report to appear in that publication.

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Ageism in the UK

Lucy Kellaway has written a good article in the FT about ageism. Frances Coppola seems to have had a light bulb moment when reading it.

So did I.

The article starts with the story of  Ian Tapping, a project manager at the Ministry of Defence, called a meeting with HR. He had been in dispute with his employer and wanted to make a bullying and harassment claim. In the course of the conversation his HR manager asked when he intended to retire — Tapping, who was in his early sixties, subsequently quit and sued the MoD for age discrimination.

Kellaway remarks drily  “last month he won his case”.


Demography is our destiny

If you recognise that phrase, you’ve probably been listening to Amol Rajan’s excellent podcasts on rethinking population

The podcasts are based on  an amazing insight  = that to have a positive destiny a country must either procreate faster, open its borders to other ethnicities or make an ageing workforce more productive; infact he argues you have to do two out of three . Even if demographic isn’t the only pointer to our destiny as a nation, it is a powerful pointer to why things have happened in our past. Think Japan, Nigeria, Indonesia, continental Europe, then think UK.

Asking people when they are expecting to retire, isn’t encouraging people to work longer but until recently people had to leave jobs because they had reached normal retirement age. Retirement wasn’t a choice, but an obligation (with a pension as compensation).

Lucy Kellaway rightly points out that Britain is doing a good job of keeping older workers productive. It’s a lot easier working longer than it was even 20 years ago. And we are taking steps to get people to think of pensions as a moveable feast which are paid when we need them rather than when we want them (well at least that’s how the State Pension looks to work).

The idea that older workers should move out of the way for younger and thrusting colleagues is still prevalent, but as I have found at AgeWage, the choice of moving into a “senior” position in an organisation, is quite an easy one to make. I enjoy having the chance to use my experience and not compete with more energetic colleagues for work I am no longer best placed to do.

If this represents a happy scene of intergenerational harmony , then good. We want happiness in our workforces. We do not have the problems of other countries with gerontocracy, where companies are dominated by the old that they stagnate. Diversification includes age and apart from a few professions (pension trustees being one), I had thought , till I read Lucy’s article that  Britain is remarkably un-ageist.

But this is what Lucy is saying

Not only is age the poor relation in diversity policies, it is still perfectly acceptable in polite society to be rampantly ageist.

And she argues that we are as a society institutionally ageist.

These assumptions about older workers — that we lack energy, can’t do tech, can’t generate new ideas — are not only widespread but are acquired so young they seem to be almost innate.

A side of me wants to be outraged with Frances and Lucy and a part of me wants to put my feet up and conform to the lazy, tech-stupid fogeyism that I’m supposed to enjoy.

Maybe I will go gently into that deep night but I suspect that my next 30+ years (let’s hope), will be spent wondering whether I’m acting my age or becoming a victim of age (and maybe ageism).

Some days I can relate to Lucy’s self characterisation in a peice she wrote on her 60th bithday

Though I don’t object to being classed as Young-Old, the phrase does not quite capture how I feel right now. A better description would be Aged Adolescent

I do not have Lucy or Jo’s or Frances’ boundless self-confidence, but I do feel more certain with age that I have a place in society and that I am one of the lucky few.

But there are 2m older people in the UK , in age poverty and for them there are diminishing opportunities. For them it is both passion but compassion is needed.

Rather than pulling up the drawbridge and enjoying the fruits of a lucky working life, I would like to labour for a reduction in age poverty through the creation of better means of targeting those who need financial support- with financial support.

Having worked for forty years in pensions, I am at last finding the purpose of that work, which is one of the benefits of getting older. That’s my anti-ageist cream that’s keeping me going!

Lucy Kellaway

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