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Pensions: Automatic Enrolment — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:54 am on 10th June 2010.

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Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 11:54 am, 10th June 2010

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on his speech. We have spent most of our time in the other place and here debating against each other, but it is extremely good that on this, and I suspect many other issues, we are very much on the same side. He made an excellent speech. I also congratulate the Minister on his appointment. He comes with a wealth of knowledge and we wish him the very best of fortune in his new post.

I start in a way which may seem a little away from the detail of automatic enrolment, but I hope that the House will soon see the relevance. Next week is the 40th anniversary of my coming to Westminster in June 1970. I spent 31 years in the House of Commons and nine in this House. I have to say that 1970 was another age. There was no Portcullis House with private offices and research assistants. I shared an all-party office. On one side I had Kenneth Clarke with his smelly cigars and dark brown Hush Puppies-or was it the other way around? Facing me was John Prescott-soon to be of this parish-who visibly scowled as I dictated down the telephone press releases defending the Government of Ted Heath. At the end of the room was our very much non-coalition partner, Cyril Smith, who happily did not come too often to the office. The noble Lord, Lord Pendry, and I tried to find space as best we could. To add to my problems, the first Queen's Speech of the new Government abolished my then constituency of Nottingham South. It was not altogether a happy beginning at Westminster.

What is the purpose of this example, apart from alerting news editors throughout the country of this significant anniversary next week? My purpose is to make a fundamental point about the history of pensions policy in the 40 years that I have been at Westminster. In this period, we have had one government scheme after another. In my first Parliament, we dealt with the pension plan of Dick Crossman and then that of Keith Joseph. When in opposition I became my party's spokesman on pensions and social security-to universal surprise, including my own-we had to deal with the Barbara Castle-Brian O'Malley plan and, in particular, the unlovely-named state earnings-related pensions scheme, SERPS. I learnt during that first debate how it is in Westminster that when the subject of pensions goes up on the screen, Chambers-here and in the Commons-miraculously empty, much to the disadvantage of our debates.

I admit that when I got into office, Parliament had to deal with the Fowler plan on personal pensions and the end of discrimination against early leavers. Then we had the plans of Peter Lilley in the Conservative Government, while under the party opposite the ideas of Frank Field were considered-briefly. His ideas were so unthinkable that he was immediately sacked. Later, when plans were subcontracted to the noble Lord, Lord Turner, we made more substantial progress.

In the past 40 years, we had the basic pension which was earnings-related; then it was price-indexed; now it will be earnings-related again. Also, there has been one variation after another of the state second pension. We have had SERPS; we have had modified SERPS; we have had son of SERPS; and now we have an ailing cousin of SERPS called S2P. At the same time, we have seen the decline, and almost fall, of final salary occupational pension schemes in this country, for which, frankly, the party opposite must bear some responsibility. I am trying to put that in the most moderate way by saying "some responsibility". The noble Lord on the Front Bench shakes his head but I think that the party opposite must bear some responsibility for it, although I certainly accept that it does not have total responsibility. However, we should now be trying to get as much agreement between the parties as we possibly can on the way forward.

Pensions are a long-term investment and require long-term policy-making. In the current economic circumstances, it may not be possible to introduce every part of such an agreement at the same time, but I do not think that that should dissuade us, even at this point, from seeking as much agreement as we can. Indeed, I think it can be argued that in the past we have been too impatient in trying to introduce pension plans-not least in implementing the original Beveridge proposals. Therefore, my first point in this debate is that we should seek to agree on the goal of a pensions policy, getting as much agreement between the parties as we conceivably can and, above all, seeking to avert a pensions crisis whereby many of those in retirement will be living in hardship. That, I believe, is a cause that all parties can embrace.

I suggest that the basis for such an agreement-in a sense, it is what I proposed 25 years ago-is a twin-pillar system. The first pillar is undoubtedly state provision. The second pillar is personal provision, very much including workplace pension schemes of the kind that my noble friend has described. I say in parenthesis that such a twin-pillar system has been in place in Switzerland for many years, and it has worked to the great satisfaction of the public there. However, the important point is that both sides are essential. Without good state provision, you will not sufficiently encourage personal saving. The basis must be as generous a platform state pension as can conceivably be afforded. The structure that we have at present is not particularly generous but it is, without doubt, extremely complex and administratively extremely expensive. It is, above all, ill understood by the public. I remember that when we carried out our own pension review in the 1980s, most people who were members of the state earnings-related pension scheme did not know what the scheme was. I wonder how many today know the detail, or even the outline, of S2P. I would guess not very many. I also wonder how you can plan for old age if you do not know the basis of your pension provision.

Therefore, I think that the basic state pension should now be put together with the state second pension with the aim of lifting the pension level above pension credit. There would then be a decent platform pension. I accept that it may not be possible to do all that at the same time but affordability can come, for example, from adjusting the pension age. Again, it was a quarter of a century ago that I advocated flexible retirement up to the age of 70. As for paying the pension, I propose-it has already been proposed and I think it is very sensible-that you start with the over-75s and then move down the age scale. However, my basic point is that even in the present circumstances we can make some moves towards the goal of better pensions in this country.

I then come to the second pillar-personal provision. Here workplace pension schemes are fundamental and I certainly support everything that my noble friend has said about that, particularly what he said about automatic enrolment. As he said, the policy must be right in the long term. Automatic enrolment is an important step forward. I listened with concern, as I am sure the House did, to the figures of the survey that he quoted. That is not good news for future policy. He made important points about the detail of the automatic assessment. I shall not repeat all those points but they are important.

The essential point is that we know enough about how people put off making a contribution to realise that something of this kind is needed in the public interest. It is also entirely fair that personal pensions should be a combination of personal contribution, employer contribution and tax relief. Again I remember when we were going round this course in the 1980s with the state earnings-related pension scheme. At one stage we were proposing that it should go and considering what we should put in its place. I proposed exactly the kind of workplace pensions now in legislation. I think that we proposed a rather bigger contribution from employers than that being proposed today. The Treasury predictably opposed us on grounds of the tax relief bill and the decisive intervention in that debate came from the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who supported absolutely our proposal, including employer contribution.

It should be emphasised and underlined that a pension contribution is a very good investment for any company that is intent on trying to keep good staff and employees. We are also trying to make saving as attractive as we possibly can. In that respect I welcome very much the decision of the Government to do away with the absurd restriction that you must take an annuity at the age of 75. We have been fighting about that in the previous Parliament and before. There was never any particular justification for that policy and it is encouraging to see the Government moving so quickly. I am sure that my noble friend needs no instruction here, but I observe that not all pensions policy is made in his department. I am sure that the ex-Pensions Ministers from the previous Government who seem to be around the House today did not have their hearts set entirely on defending compulsory annuities at 75. I note that the noble Lord does not shake his head on this occasion.

However, that is what the Treasury decreed. Let us make no mistake; it is not something exclusive to Labour Governments. I say from personal experience that such interference is not unique. I could write a chapter of a book on how my own review was damaged. In fact, from memory, I think that I have written a chapter of a book on that. Let us hope that the sensible decisions on annuity marks a new era in the intervention of the Treasury.

I always said when carrying out my own review that we were making policy in a cold climate. If it was cold then, it is positively arctic today. Even so, I believe that we can make progress. The Chancellor has already shown that on annuities. As for the parties, we can certainly debate the speed of improvement and the other important improvements that can be made for, say, married women and the details of automatic enrolment. It would be of enormous benefit if the parties, after 40 years of debate, could agree the principles and the structure of what we want to achieve. That would be an enormous step forward and it would also be in the spirit of today when we are all seeking as much common ground as we conceivably can in all areas of policy-making. We are seeking to prevent hardship in old age and pensions policy is a crucial part of that.