Examination of Witnesses

Savings (Government Contributions) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:05 am on 25 October 2016.

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David Wren and Tom McPhail gave evidence.

Good morning and thank you for coming along. Can you please introduce yourselves? First, Mr McPhail.

Tom McPhail:

Hello. I am Tom McPhail. I am the head of retirement policy for Hargreaves Lansdown.

And Mr Wren.

David Wren:

Good morning. I am David Wren from the British Bankers Association, where I look after tax policy.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

Q Mr McPhail, in the information you provided, you give your views on the Bill, and then you say:

“However, in the longer term we believe that the LISA is a misguided policy, emerging from a fudged review of pension taxation and that its introduction makes the decision making process for investors harder rather than easier and that it will therefore potentially undermine savings behaviour.”

Could you elaborate on that, please?

Tom McPhail:

Yes. The context the lifetime ISA came from was a review of pension taxation, which was aborted, to a large extent, in that it did not ultimately change the overall structure of the taxation. It largely left pension taxation unchanged and it introduced a new product as an alternative.

An important point to acknowledge is that all the problems, inconsistencies and illogicalities that exist within pension taxation are still there and still unaddressed. What we have instead is a product that, as we heard from the previous witnesses, will serve purposes for some investors in some circumstances—for a minority of self-employed people, for example, and for people who cannot benefit from an employer contribution into a pension. It will have some benefits but, in the process, it will make the investment landscape more challenging for most investors.

We are in danger of sending ISAs down the same road as pensions, making them more and more complicated. Our business is to make it simple for people to save and invest and do the right thing—to invest responsibly for the future—and when clients ring up now and say, “I’ve got £100 a month I want to save,” we are going to be faced with asking, “Do you have access to a workplace pension? Do you want an individual pension? Do you want a cash ISA, an innovative finance ISA, a stocks and shares ISA or a lifetime ISA? Are you saving for the short term or the medium term? How soon will you need to have access to the money?” It is getting more and more complicated and, frankly, in terms of the big picture in the long term, I think we are going down the wrong road.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

Q You referred to the fact that there are more challenges for investors, and to the effect that those challenges will have. Can you elaborate on what the effects of the challenges will be?

Tom McPhail:

The more complicated you make the decision-making process, the more you put people off doing the right thing. One of the things we have worked very hard at as a business is to make it simple for people to save and invest. Going back 10 or 20 years, a typical pension application for someone who wanted to save for their retirement would run to 20 pages. We have stripped that down to one sheet of A4, and more people are investing in pensions as a consequence. We have 800,000-plus private investor clients—ordinary individuals —and more of them now log into their investment accounts using an app rather than online. We are making it simple for them to save and invest. Every time we have to ask them another question, every time we knock them back by making them think about one more thing, it slows the process down and we lose a few of them. It makes it more complicated. So half of the challenge for all of us here is to make it as simple as possible for people to save and invest for the long term.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

Q Are you concerned, in the light of the fact that you believe that the area is becoming increasing complex, that there is the capacity out there to give the good information and advice that we seem to be getting told we need? It seems to me that the answer to everything we asked was, “More information, more information, good information, good information,” without it being said exactly what that meant. Would you agree?

Tom McPhail:

A lot of the time, the answer is less information. I could send you a 50-page document and you might well not read it. We had that problem with the open market option on pensions: people would get to retirement and we would send them a big stack of papers saying, “You have a right to shop around,” but there was so much paper that people did not shop around, so they bought a poor-value annuity. Actually, the answer is to send them less information but to make sure it is the right information. The Government’s recent work around the financial advice market review was enormously encouraging. It gives us more latitude to give people simple, helpful information that will steer them towards making a good decision.

However, your point is absolutely right: if we do not give them that information and that support to steer them towards the right answers, risks do exist. We heard about workplace pensions earlier and the risks of people opting out of them; that is a good example of where it is really important that we support them with good information, to make sure that they do not do the wrong thing.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

Q I have a final point and, if I may, Chair, I will ask Mr Wren to make an observation as well. You say that this will potentially undermine savings behaviour, which is exactly the opposite of what anybody wants. Could you tease that out more? It is fine to say that it is complex, but could you put some more meat on the bones? Why will this undermine savings behaviour?

Tom McPhail:

We have a lot of people putting long-term money into cash. They are being excessively conservative. The bulk of ISA money sits in cash accounts. Auto-enrolment works from an inertia point of view: it gets people into pensions and it is proving to be a great success. The challenge thereafter is to encourage people to take some responsibility for that pot of money, to take an interest in their long-term savings and, as they move into their 50s and 60s, to think about what they are going to do with that pot of money, whether it is adequate, whether they have been saving enough and how they are going to apply it to draw an income in retirement.

Currently, we have a lot of people just putting money into cash ISAs—short-term money—and sometimes it ends up sitting there for 20 years. That is not a good outcome. It is about striking that balance: making it simple for people, but also drawing them in and getting them increasingly engaged. So the answer to your question is that the more complicated it is, the more we will lose people and the greater the risk that they will just make no decisions at all, as we saw with the open market option on annuities, for example.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

Mr Wren, have you any observations on that question?

David Wren:

Yes, I think a few of the questions that Tom has answered are things we are concerned about. The introduction of the lifetime ISA adds considerable complexity to a market that is not simple anyway. This will be the sixth type of ISA on the market. It directly competes with the help to buy ISA for certain savers with certain aims, and it has an overlap with pensions, savings and various other products. The hybrid nature of the product—between saving for a house and saving long term for retirement—also adds considerable complexity for people who are choosing where to save and what to do. For a single product to try to do both things, which are often competing aims in terms of what someone is saving for, is really challenging.

One of the things Tom spoke about was whether you save in cash or in stocks and shares. Saving for retirement is typically a long-term activity. Stocks and shares are probably a better investment for many people in that context, if not funds and others. Saving for a home was historically a short-term activity. Unfortunately, for many people it is probably becoming a mid-term activity, but the security that cash and similar investments bring is still probably more suitable. Balancing that within a lifetime ISA is going to be very challenging for savers and for organisations that want to offer them to their customers.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

Q In the information you provided, you say:

“There are concerns that savers may end up with the wrong investments leading to the wrong outcomes as a result of the route through which they enter the market rather than as a result of a conscious investment decision.”

Again, it is important to try to unwrap that. Could you unwrap it a little more for us, please?

David Wren:

Absolutely. There were some questions in the previous session about the risks in a lifetime ISA. Ultimately, the lifetime ISA is a wrapper around some assets, and the assets are for you to decide. There will be people who offer only cash lifetime ISAs; they do not offer stocks and shares to any customers, and they will not be offering it for this. There will, presumably, be people who offer only stocks and shares lifetime ISAs. The fact that you have picked up the phone to someone who offers only one particular product may not mean that that is the best product for you. There will hopefully be information out there, and we very much hope the Government will work with us to provide good information to customers on getting the right product.

To answer Tom’s point, to have cash sitting somewhere for 20 years is probably a bad idea, particularly with interest rates as they are at the moment. Similarly, going into stocks and shares for three years is a bad idea—there were questions earlier about the risks that people were exposing themselves to. Helping people get the right access to the right product at the right time is going to be a critical part of making sure that the lifetime ISA is successful.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

Tom, I want to go back to your point that this would make the market too complicated and crowded in terms of what products are available. Is it not true that for a long time, many people have been left out of savings altogether—I am particularly thinking of people on low incomes, the self-employed and those with multiple, low-paid occupations? Actually, there is a lack of culture around savings; it is just not the norm for some people. While the auto-enrolment pension will go some way to addressing the pensions issue, as we heard in the previous session, this is in addition to, not instead of, auto-enrolment. Is it not that the product is right, but the key is getting that advice available to people so they can make that decision? This will open up the market to people for whom savings have not been an option beforeQ .

Tom McPhail:

Given where we are now, six months before the intended launch, our starting point would be to go ahead with this. However, in the longer term we are still of the opinion that it is not going to achieve those aims you have just described.

We also looked at the 2017 auto-enrolment review as an opportunity to adjust some of the thresholds to recognise the changes that have come about as a result of the pensions freedoms and the importance of giving more people more access to retirement savings, to bring some of the lower paid into the pensions system. We have looked at ways to revisit those questions that were not answered around pension tax reliefs and ways to reward people for saving for retirement, but the lifetime ISA is not going to achieve that.

You heard some numbers about the self-employed. Actually, two thirds of the self-employed are already ineligible for the lifetime ISA. So we have a situation where the one group of the population that, more than any other, sets to benefit from the lifetime ISA is ineligible for it. In what way is this a good policy?

You are right about the low-paid: we need to do more for them. We think there are ways we can do that through the pensions system. I am sure you will hear later about Help to Save, which is not an area I want to comment on, but there are other ways to address that. The lifetime ISA is not going to fix those problems.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

Q You say that in the short term it might work, but in the long term it is not going to help. Why is that?

Tom McPhail:

Just because we keep moving the goalposts. It was really interesting doing some consumer focus groups around the pension freedoms. When we talked to people about all the risks around pension freedoms, we thought they would say they were worried about running out of money or not knowing where to invest, but pretty much everybody we spoke to said that their main worry was that the politicians would move the goalposts again, that they would change the rules again. It happens particularly with pensions, but it happens elsewhere as well. Every time this happens, it undermines people’s confidence and trust in the system.

The recent decision around the secondary annuity market was interesting. We think that was a good decision. We are actually quite glad that the Government made the decision to pull back from the secondary annuity market, but what did we see then? We saw headlines in the Daily Mail saying, “People have been denied pension freedoms—once more the opportunity has been snatched away from them”. Every time we do this, it chips away at people’s confidence. We need to think about how and when we make these decisions and these changes. Our preferred option would be to go ahead with the lifetime ISA, because this is where we are at now, but in the longer term to move towards consolidating all these different ISAs we have been hearing about into one simple super ISA and, separately, to go back and address the questions around pension taxation that we failed to deal with last time around.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

Q To push you a bit further on that, a lot of people only have a pension thanks to auto-enrolment. Do you not agree that anything that gets people saving and that encourages them into a culture of saving, whether it be for their first home or for later in life, is a good thing?

Tom McPhail:

But it is not a zero-sum. We could give people a 100% top-up on their money, but we cannot afford to do that, so we have to make choices about how we go about doing things.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

Q Is it not better that they have a savings scheme rather than not save at all?

Tom McPhail:

We need to get them into the auto-enrolment system. That is the way to help them save for the longer term. If we want to address their short-term savings, there are other ways to do that.

Photo of Eilidh Whiteford Eilidh Whiteford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Social Justice and Welfare)

Q I can see why lifetime ISAs are a very attractive savings option for the very wealthy, high-earning young people, and those who have maxed out their pensions allowance, but to my mind, the real challenge has been encouraging people on low and middle incomes to save for retirement purposes. From what I have heard in evidence so far, you seem to agree that auto-enrolment is an important step forward. Reflecting back on the questions I asked the earlier panel, would you agree that most people on low and middle incomes would be better advised to invest in pension schemes?

Tom McPhail:

The numbers overwhelmingly point to the fact that, if you have any kind of employer contribution, you are almost invariably better off going through the auto-enrolment system at work and saving in a pension than going into a lifetime ISA. Separately, we think that there is more we can do with the incentives to save in a pension that would improve that equation even further. Yes, absolutely, for most people most of the time, for long-term savings, the pension should be, and is, a better answer.

Photo of Eilidh Whiteford Eilidh Whiteford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Social Justice and Welfare)

Q Could you say a bit more about the sort of incentives that you think might actually help?

Tom McPhail:

There was a lot of work done last year around the idea of a flat-rate incentive—breaking the link between pension incentives and the tax system altogether. There was quite a lot of support across the industry for that concept, with talk of around a 30% top-up as an alternative to tax relief. All contributions would be made out of net income, and when you made a contribution to a pension you would get a flat-rate top-up. I think there was quite a lot of traction for that idea.

I think we can go further, and it would be quite desirable to weight those incentives particularly towards younger savers. You could get the benefit of compounding. If the incentive were progressively reduced the older you got, it would provide a behavioural incentive, because with every year that passed, you would lose out. That is a very powerful message that the industry and the Government could harness: to say to people, “If you wait another year, your incentive will drop a little bit.” We have been working through some ideas on how we could develop that as an alternative incentive. Either way, you are taking it away from the current messy, unfair, lumpy, illogical tax-relief system that continues to operate today.

David Wren:

I think complexity is definitely the enemy of success in getting people to save. There are lots of subdivisions of pensions and savings. Helping people to find the right place within that for their needs is really challenging. The risk of complexity is not just that people go into the wrong product for them at the start, but that they are put off by the whole experience. To give an analogy, it is very similar to internet sign-up processes: each additional question you add to an internet sign-up process puts off a disproportionate number of people from continuing through that process. Having a dozen different products out there with different features does not necessarily push people to the wrong one; it encourages inertia, where you simply cannot decide and therefore do not invest in any of them.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

Q You keep touching on the complexity of this product. I have read the blurb in the overview of the Bill and I understand the eligibility criteria—I am too old—and the withdrawal terms. I am inviting you to bamboozle me, as it were. What is so complicated about this product that I am missing?

Tom McPhail:

To the credit of the Treasury team that worked on this, they listened to feedback from the industry and were really good at working to create as simple a product as possible. My answer to you is that it is a lot simpler than it might have been.

When you ring us up, we will still have to walk you through the circumstances in which you will be eligible to take the money out without a penalty, and the circumstances in which you will be able to take money out but would have to pay a penalty, so there is still a customer engagement process that will have to be undertaken at the front end. I think I made the point in the brief written submission I sent in ahead of this session that the problem is not the product itself. The product itself is reasonably simple—there are simpler products, such as the cash ISA; that is really simple—but you have dropped a moderately simple product into a complicated landscape, and you have just made it more complicated.

That is exactly what happened when we launched stakeholder pensions getting on for 20 years ago. Stakeholder was simple, but it was dropped into a complicated landscape, and—guess what?—it made life more complicated. This is analogous to that.

David Wren:

That is what will really cause the challenge. When someone tries to open one of these products, the first question is going to be, “What are you saving for? Is it a home or a pension?” If it is neither of those, this is probably not the right product for you. If you pick house purchase, you have to decide between the lifetime ISA and, at least in the short term, help to buy. People have said that the lifetime ISA looks better, because you are getting the Government top-up and earning growth on that, but you cannot have the money back without a Government penalty. The help to buy ISA does not have that, so if you need flexibility, help to buy might be better for you. If you go down the pensions route, we need to ask about whether you have maxed out auto-enrolment and taken full advantage of employer contributions, and whether a different pension route might be better for you, again recognising that there are different features as to whether you benefit or not.

It is worth adding that I have been involved in this since it was announced in March—my work has a tax background—and it is not immediately obvious to me whether I would be better off topping up my pension or putting money into a lifetime ISA. The reason for that is that I would need to know what tax rate I would pay on that money when I retire, and I do not know that. It is far from simple in any one of those particular places to work out which is the right thing for you. It requires value judgments about a number of the elements. The risk is that complexity leads to inertia and dissuades people from saving at all. There is not just the risk of going into the wrong product.

Just one final thing, which the previous panel touched on: because of the Government penalty on withdrawals—you lose not only the bonus, but 6.25% of your contributions, because of the way the numbers work—there is no easy exit route from a lifetime ISA. If you make a mistake and a month down the road you say, “Gosh, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I should have gone into a different product,” you will lose some of your money in getting that money back out and into another product. Again, we have real concerns about that and what it will mean for customers.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

Q I have one more question. This takes me back to my misspent youth, more than 25 years ago, when for four years as a student I worked for Abbey National as a cashier and customer service adviser. We would sell this type of product. We had a whole suite of products that had penalties if, say, you were five years into a bond and withdrew early. This is not rocket science. We could explain that to our customers, and that was without the benefits of the internet. I am still a bit sceptical about why this landscape is so complex to your members; it does not seem that different, and we were easily able to sell things 25 years ago.

David Wren:

The landscape has probably changed slightly in 25 years. We very much welcome the Financial Conduct Authority consultation on this, because its view on how we engage with customers and make sure that they get the right protections is really important. Yes, a range of products are available, but as Tom said earlier, a lot of people will now buy online, through a call centre or through an app, so they are not going to see someone face to face. Again, we need to make sure that people are given access to the right information to allow them to make the right decisions. That is absolutely doable, and, as I said earlier, we hope that the Government will work with us on getting the right information to people. It is the landscape that is complex, as opposed to the individual products.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions)

Q David, in your submission, you say:

“In particular, there is a concern that cash held in LISAs will only be suitable for those looking to buy a home, whilst stocks and shares will be more suitable for those investing for later life, looking towards retirement.”

Is there not a risk that if an individual invests in stocks and shares and then buys a home at the wrong time because the market has fallen, we inadvertently expose consumers to risk as a consequence of this policy?

David Wren:

I think that is exactly right. That is exactly why we need to make sure that people are getting the right support in picking a product, and in the underlying investment for that product. I am sure that Tom is more expert in this than I am, but for pensions, stocks and shares are typically viewed as the right investment. Those ups and downs will average out over the course of your life. I assume that most people are saving for a home in a relatively short time-window—five to 10 years. Stocks and shares are inherently more risky. The point at which you are starting a family and want to buy a home may be the point at which the market is not going through a particularly buoyant phase.

We also need to recognise that for a lot of people—bear in mind that lifetime ISAs are available from 18—buying a house is a medium-term activity. That may well be over a more than 10-year timeframe. That becomes a very challenging time. It is not obvious that cash is the right investment; it is not obvious that stocks and shares are the right investment. That is a very difficult decision for someone to make.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions)

Q There was this debate about moving from “exempt, exempt, taxed” to “taxed, exempt, exempt”, which was taken off the table. Was this not really just a back-door way for the previous Chancellor to bring forward this policy?

David Wren:

I do not think I could comment on what the previous Chancellor was thinking when he introduced this. This is a “taxed, exempt, exempt” product. When I said earlier that it was difficult for me to work out whether I should open a lifetime ISA or pay into my pension, it is for exactly that reason: it is the difference between the money being exempt when I take it out, hopefully, at 60, versus paying tax on a pension at 60. Having both products in the market is incredibly complicated. Explaining the concept of “taxed, exempt, exempt” or “exempt, exempt, taxed” to someone is challenging. The Institute for Fiscal Studies wrote a very good study earlier in the year, in March-time, in which they talked about how this worked for different investments, but it is a thick document, and it requires a dark room and a lot of peace and quiet to really get into the detail.

Tom McPhail:

We did some client research early this year on entry; everybody was under 40 and did not own a house. However, they were all Hargreaves Lansdown customers, so I cannot claim that this is representative of the population as a whole. Having said that, 14% of them said that they would look to use the lifetime ISA to save for a property, and 68% were looking to save for their future, so there was an emphasis on the longer term there.

The majority who expressed a preference did so for stocks and shares investing, rather than looking to cash, so there was a weighting—a sense that people were seeing this as a longer-term savings product, rather than a short-term cash product, in contrast to something like the help to buy ISA. This suggested to us that they were seeing it as being closer to a pension than a help to buy ISA. Clearly, there was a bit of both going on in there in the mix.

On your point about taxation, clearly we have different personnel at the helm now, so perhaps priorities and agendas have changed, but I think that it is worth reiterating that all the reasons why pension taxation was examined in the first place are still there and are unresolved.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

Q I want to carry on with this point about complexity, because it seems to me that you are using the word “complexity” where others might use the word “flexibility”, dare I say. As we discussed with the previous witnesses, it is surely not unreasonable for a young family to be entirely focused on buying property, particularly if they live in areas that are very expensive. Perhaps they are on a short-hold tenancy with less security, and so on. Therefore, when presented with a savings option, they will want to opt for a deposit.

I take your point about help to buy ISAs, but they are going in two years, we understand. Do you accept that the flexibility that comes from a pseudo-pension product that could be used for a mid-life event—in other words, buying a house—is what makes LISAs unique, unlike auto-enrolment? There is a big market for this, and there are a lot of people who would welcome that choice.

Tom McPhail:

We think there are other and better ways of addressing that problem that would be simpler and more sympathetic to investors’ needs. We support the auto-enrolment agenda, and we think it is important to get as many of the people you have just talked about as possible into an arrangement where they are saving for their retirement. Some of them may choose to opt out of a pension and eschew the benefit of an employer contribution, and to save into an ISA instead. For some, that might be a logical, rational and appropriate decision to make. That would, of course, mean that they were not saving for retirement in the most tax-efficient way available to them. In fact, potentially, they would not be saving for retirement at all, if they had opted out of a pension to achieve that goal.

One of the risks is that the lifetime ISA will subvert the pension-saving agenda. It is critical that pension providers and human resources managers—anyone involved in pensions—are communicating effectively around those trade-offs, the risks of giving up the benefits of the employer contribution, and the long-term consequences of that.

The help to buy product gave people taxpayer support in buying a house. There was actually relatively little wrong with it. It was there as a vehicle for saving in the short term, to build up a cash pot specifically to buy a house. The idea of trying to have your cake and eat it—of trying to save up for a house and for retirement within one product—that is where the complexity comes from, and that is where you are trying to do two things with one bag of money. If you use it to buy your house, it is not a savings product anymore.

We have already talked about eligibility for the lifetime ISA, and the fact that most self-employed people—for whom this could be a really good idea—are not eligible because of the age restriction. So I agree with you, but I am not sure that we are going about this in the best way.

David Wren:

We really like the help to buy ISA; it is clear and unambiguous. Are you saving for a house? Are you a first-time buyer? Put money in. It is cash, and there is no confusion about whether you are also saving for your pension at the same time, because that is not a feature of the product. It is a really nice, neat product, which says, “Here’s what I do; here’s how I help you; and the Government will provide you with some help to buy your first house.” It is a shame that it will be removed in 2019. It has been very successful, and something like 250,000 were opened in the first six months of the product. That kind of really clear labelling and signposting that others have talked about is something that help to buy really had, and that the lifetime ISA risks not having.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

Q From an industry point of view, which product would make you most money from selling it, a lifetime ISA or a pension scheme?

Tom McPhail:

We make the same money on all of them.

Tom McPhail:

Correct. We have the same platform charge, irrespective of the arrangements you are going into. Where we lose money, or where we potentially end up having to charge the customer more money, is when things get complicated. The more complicated it is, the more it costs us money, and the more, potentially, we have to pass on to the customer in costs, but we will make no more money on any of these products.

David Wren:

As a trade body, I do not think that we have access to that kind of information.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Q I have listened to you both with interest. I have to say that this scheme will do nothing for a high proportion of our population who are less well off and less sophisticated. Again, all these schemes seem to be designed for the better-off and the more articulate. I have had to ask to have my life insurance schemes explained to me two or three times, but I have not got a clue what those who explained it were talking about—and I am a graduate in economics and mathematics. Half the population are not numerate, and a fifth of the population are not functionally literate. We need a state automatic scheme to help people like that, going beyond auto-enrolment—a defined-benefit scheme, and that can only be done in the state sector.

Do you want to comment on that?

Tom McPhail:

I am not sure that it was a question, but I think the simpler and more accessible we can make things for investors, the better. It is beyond my remit to talk about the state pension here today.

If there are no further questions, may I thank our two witnesses for a very informative session?

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Stephen Barclay.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.