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I will first touch on the housing market and the role of housing benefit, and then move on to the Government’s proposals for pension reform, because they are linked.
According to the Office for Budget Responsibility report, the largest driver in the growth of housing benefit has been a growing case load in the private rented sector. The share of housing benefit spend in the sector is projected to increase to 40% by 2018. The trend towards renting from private landlords and away from owner-occupation is accelerating. The increase in the proportion of the private renting population who claim housing benefit is a consequence of low wages and a rise in rent inflation. The recent rise in housing benefit in the private rented sector has been accounted for by people in work, and the fall in owner occupation since the recession has been particularly marked among young people. I ask Members to bear that in mind when they hear what I am about to say about the Government’s pension proposals.
I agree with the Chancellor that we should trust the people, but I do not have a problem with trusting the people; I have a problem with trusting the financial services industry. I understand why the Chancellor made his announcement on Wednesday, but I feel that his proposals are treating the symptoms and not curing the disease. The Government say that they trust the people, as they rightly should, but what are they doing to ensure that the people can trust the financial services industry? What are they doing to ensure that 40% of the retirement or savings pot will not be lost in hidden fees in the future? Some savers can lose as much as £230,000 in the value of their pensions when a 1.5% fee is charged over their working lives. What are the Government going to do to ensure that those fees are transparent, and what are they going to do to ensure that the financial services industry does not come up with mis-sold financial products, as it has in the past? I say all this because we should not forget that the insurance companies that are selling annuities now will start to present what they will call “innovative and creative products” to fill the chasm left by the collapse of annuities.
There are three measurements by which these proposals should be gauged. First, when is “advice” advice, and not guidance? The Chancellor said that £20 million was to be set aside over the next two years for the right to advice, but the Treasury consultation document calls it a right to financial guidance. There is a big difference between the two: advice means telling people what is in their best interests, whereas guidance means informing them of their options and then sending them on their way. Secondly, there should be a test to ensure that those with low and middle incomes are not disadvantaged but are offered the certainty that they need in retirement, especially at a time when the average pension pot is about £36,000. Thirdly, the Government should ensure that reforms do not result in extra costs to the state as a result of, for instance, higher social care bills, and force pensioners to fall back on benefits. We should not set up a system that socialises the risk and ensures that only the private sector reaps the benefits.
The Chancellor said in his speech:
“People who have worked hard and saved hard all their lives, and done the right thing, should be trusted with their own finances”.—[Hansard, 19 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 793.]
I agree that we should trust the people, but we should also be able to trust the financial services industry. For many people, their pension investments are not just about trust, but about faith. They want to have faith in those who look after investments, and to know that they are doing right by them.
The mis-selling of future financial products must be a big worry. It has happened time and again in the industry, which is why I have demanded, in the House, that a fiduciary duty be placed on those in the financial services industry who look after the trillions of pounds in the existing pension funds. Every practitioner must be able to put his hand on his heart and say that he acted in the best interests of those whose funds he has invested. That should be at the core of the Government’s proposals. I believe in “trust in the people”, but, in this instance, trust must be earned by the Chancellor and the financial services industry.
That brings me back to my original point. As a result of the Government’s reforms, we will see an explosion in the number of buy-to-let properties, inflating house prices and further diminishing the opportunities for young people to own their homes. The challenge for all of us is not the abandonment of the pension system, but the building of a system that actually works, under which money is given to someone who can be trusted to use those savings wisely to generate a retirement income. Holland and Denmark have private pension systems that are collectivist and large, so that risk is shared and fees are low. If a typical Briton and a typical Dutch person save the same amount, have the same life expectancy and retire on the same day, the Dutch saver’s pension will be 50% higher than that of the Briton. There is much to be said for the collectivist approach to pension provision, and it should not be deserted.
The question is not “Should we trust the people?” Of course we should. The question is “Can the people trust the Government and the industry to get this right?” Given the long history of mis-selling by the industry, I believe that the jury is still out.