Examination of Witness

Savings (Government Contributions) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Calum Bennie gave evidence.

We will now take oral evidence from Scottish Friendly. Could the witness introduce himself for the record?

Calum Bennie:

Good afternoon. My name is Calum Bennie. I am a communications manager at Scottish Friendly.

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

Q You have indicated in the past that,

“We at Scottish Friendly, while recognising LISA will not garner universal support, are enthusiastic about the initiative. It deals with one of the biggest problems society faces in the UK: trying to get under 40s to engage with planning for their retirement.”

Could I ask the hon. Member to speak up?

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

Yes, I beg your pardon. When Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies came to address the Treasury Committee, he said he did not think that the lifetime ISA would encourage new savers. There seems to be a difference of opinion, although I am not saying that there is. Why are you so enthusiastic about it?

Calum Bennie:

New savers are one issue, but we are supportive of the LISA because what it could do is attract people who are currently put off saving for life after work. They are not enamoured of pensions—they have been put off pensions for whatever reason, be it a bad experience of their own or bad experiences that their families have had. They are not interested in pensions per se. The lifetime ISA could be a way of them putting money aside for their retirement, which otherwise they would not have done. That is where we come from here.

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

Q Following on from that—I was trying to tease this out earlier—I get the sense that this is another product: “This one hasn’t worked, so let’s introduce another one; that one hasn’t worked, so let’s introduce another one,” or, “People aren’t saving for retirement, let’s introduce another one.” It begins to sound as if we are saying, “Let’s just try another thing. None of them work particularly well, but let’s just chuck this into the mix.”

Calum Bennie:

I do not think we would disagree with that. As several people have said in the time that I have been in the meeting this afternoon, a more holistic approach to savings and pensions—or saving for life after work, as we would perhaps put it—needs to be looked at. In the meantime, though, we need to do something to get more people putting money aside for that period in their life. As has been raised several times, a key group of people who have not been saving for life after work or have been disadvantaged in doing so is the self-employed. There is a clear benefit from the lifetime ISA, at least for that group. From our point of view, it is quite clear that there is a group of people who are not interested in pensions. They have been put off pensions. This represents a way for them to put money aside for their future.

Q I have another quick question. The witness speaking before you was asked about evidence. I would ask you, what is your evidence that this will make people save? What evidence is there? You say that there is a flexibility in the system, but what is the evidence for encouraging this specific product to encourage people to save more? That was clumsy, but you get the gist.

Calum Bennie:

When you introduce a product or investment that has clear advantages, as this one does, it will attract people to save. We have got quite a long experience of incentivised investment products for all sections of the community. In particular, our focus is on those with low to modest incomes. As a company with roots as a friendly society, for the last 30 years we have focused, initially, on friendly society tax-exempt savings plans. There was a clear tax advantage with those.

Twenty-five years ago, the minimum investment was £10 a month, and that attracted a substantial proportion of C2 and DE investors to put their money in those plans. In more recent years, the child trust fund was introduced. That is certainly going to help a reasonable group of people when they reach 18 with a reasonable start in life, and that has obviously then translated into the junior ISA. We were also a proponent of the insurance ISA that is no longer here, which attracted a mid-group part of the population that may have been put off by stocks and shares ISAs before.

That is why we are pretty certain that this product will also be taken up. It will not be by everyone, because there are going to be clear wealth warnings against it. If we were to introduce it, we would certainly need to make clear what you would be getting yourself into if you decided to try to access the fund before age 60—if you were saving for that length of time. But, all things being equal, savers do know what they are letting themselves in for. In our experience, a lot of savers like the discipline that they cannot touch the money. We have done focus group after focus group and that constantly comes up. That is why they like some of the products we offer—because they are long-term—and that could be a key incentive for something like this.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

Q I was very interested in your main point. May I just clarify? Obviously there is this attraction for those who are self-employed, but are you suggesting that, perhaps because of a lack of faith or trust in pensions, even those who might actually be better off focusing on the pension side will simply be attracted to this, as it is something they have more trust and understanding in? Is that your basic point?

Calum Bennie:

Yes. There are clearly some people who just do not want to touch pensions for whatever reason. The fact that we are having to force people into pensions is almost an indication that for many people, pensions are broke. We are not saying that pensions are bad and LISA is good; we are just recognising what is out there with people and that some people are very comfortable with ISAs.

We were one of the first friendly societies to introduce several ISAs in 1999 when they came out. More recently, we have moved away from friendly society tax-exempt plans, because they were inflexible, to a much more flexible ISA. We launched that five years ago. That was quite a risk. We did not quite know whether the market that we were aiming at—as I said, that is very much the low to mid-income group of people—would take ISAs, because it is a stocks and shares ISA that we market; it is not a cash ISA, because we are offering people growth potential. So there is a learning experience that people perhaps have got to think about before they invest in this, because it is a stocks and shares ISA, but it has been very successful in terms of the take-up of those ISAs.

In our experience anyway, because we are not focusing on the wealthy and well-advised, people are comfortable with ISAs; not everyone is comfortable with pensions. Therefore, this product, in the short-term perhaps—until a more holistic set of savings plans and investment plans, which perhaps has cross-party support, comes about—could attract lots of people who would otherwise not put money aside for life after work.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

Q When this measure was originally brought in, the point was made by the previous Chancellor about the lack of consensus for the big, overarching reform, so these sorts of reforms were proposed. I do not think anyone disputes that they are not a complete answer. Of course, another part of it is Help to Save. You talked about many low-income savers. I just wonder what you think the impact will be of Help to Save on those on the really low incomes, who we want to see saving more.

Calum Bennie:

We do a quarterly survey called the disposable income index survey and we look at people across the UK, and it is quite clear that particularly the 18 to 25 group are really struggling financially. About a quarter of them are spending more than their income. That is not to say that they are all in debt, because they may have other savings or family support to fall back on. Anything that can be done for them to help with a house purchase, which for young people today is a horrendous situation that they are faced with, compared with what many in this room faced when they were first buying their first house—they need all the help they can get, so Help to Save and the ISA are a boon for them.

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

Q You talk about some issues that people have with investing in pensions. Why do you think that is? You described pensions as “broke”. Can you just expand upon what you mean by that?

Calum Bennie:

I said that for many people, pensions are broke. The reasons could be manifold. People I talk to have experienced problems, and their parents have had problems with pensions. They were saving in a pension and whatever has happened to it—maybe the company has gone bust, or something like that—they have not got the pension that they thought they would get. For many, final salary schemes have disappeared. The pension age has gone up. Women have perhaps been affected by the age going up quite recently, which they had not expected. It could be all those issues. Pensions have been tinkered with for quite a long time. The amount you could save and the lifetime limit had gone up, and now it has come down. Tax relief is being looked at. It is for all these reasons that some people feel, “I am just not comfortable with saving in a pension.”

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

Q A lot of these things, of course, are because of a change in Government policy.

Calum Bennie:

Yes.

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

Q If you were talking to your clients about the advantages of an auto-enrolment pension, as opposed to looking at a lifetime ISA, how would you explain the different tax incentives?

Calum Bennie:

We do not do pensions ourselves, and we do not give advice. We market our products directly to customers and they make their own decision. We do not actually give that advice. They would need to get that advice from a financial adviser.

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

Q So you do not sell pensions, but you would benefit directly from the offering of a LISA?

Calum Bennie:

Yes.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Conservative, Macclesfield

You talk about the focus groups that you run, and there seems to be real interest in the LISA productQ .

Calum Bennie:

ISAs in general. We have not specifically asked our groups about LISAs. Savings in general and the discipline of savings—that is the kind of thing that we have asked people about.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Conservative, Macclesfield

Q But your business has a keen interest in LISAs and believes that there is an opportunity.

Calum Bennie:

In ISAs in general, yes.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Conservative, Macclesfield

Q We are talking about LISAs today. With the lifetime ISA, is your business keen and supportive?

Calum Bennie:

In general, yes.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Conservative, Macclesfield

Q As you think about this product, you realise that the inertia out there in the financial services market is sometimes used by financial services companies in an unhelpful way. Clearly, this is an opportunity to help change people’s behaviours for the better. With your own operation, how would you seek to differentiate this product and get behind it to have the best possible success with your potential customers?

Calum Bennie:

I think the key thing here is to make sure that people have enough savings before they commit to a LISA. Obviously, if they are investing in an ISA in general, there is always a risk that they could be disadvantaged if they take their money out in the early years. Even a stocks and shares ISA is very much a longer-term investment. You are talking about people being advised to put their money in a stocks and shares ISA for at least, say, seven years, and ideally 10 or more, but at least they are not going to be penalised with 25% coming off.

Any marketing that we would do on the LISA, and I have to clarify that the LISA would not necessarily be a focus of our marketing—our focus would be on our core products, which are our investment ISAs, as the LISA would not be for everyone—would certainly ask people to make sure that they have enough in their ISA to meet their general savings requirements, and any emergency fund requirements too.

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

Q Good afternoon. One of the key issues we are grappling with today is the potential for the lifetime ISA to derail or undermine auto-enrolment. I have been listening very carefully to your evidence. Am I right to infer that you see the LISA as a viable alternative to pensions, rather than a complement to pensions, for some low to modest income people?

Calum Bennie:

Can I just clarify what you are trying to find out from me here? Are you asking whether we would be promoting having a LISA over and above a pension?

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

Not really. I am asking whether I am hearing you right when you promote the lifetime ISA to people as a product instead of a pension.

Calum Bennie:

For those who do not want to go into a pension, it is there and it is complementary. We would certainly not want to take away from pensions. As they stand in the current framework, pensions are right. Auto-enrolment is right and is working for so many people; it is a success and has been more successful than the many detractors perhaps thought it would be. We would certainly not want to denigrate that at all. What we are saying is that there are some people who are just not attracted to pensions. They do not want to be forced into pensions and the LISA represents an alternative for them.

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

Q Thanks, that is a helpful clarification. I also wanted to come back to something you said earlier about self-employed people. We took evidence earlier today that around two thirds of self-employed people would not actually qualify for a lifetime ISA. I just wondered whether Scottish Friendly had done alternative modelling or had an alternative assessment of the market.

Calum Bennie:

No, we have not.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Labour, Great Grimsby

Q I will follow up along the lines of what the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan asked. Earlier we heard evidence from the Tax Incentivised Savings Association and the Association of British Insurers and their view was very much that a LISA would be complementary to a pension, not in isolation from a pension. Can you clarify your view that people may not actually have a pension and may exclusively go for a LISA? Do you think that will be a secure route for them, in terms of planning for their long-term older age?

Calum Bennie:

In essence, yes. The whole traditional world of retirement is changing and a range of products for people to put money aside for their later years makes total sense. We have done research. With the many customers we have who are saving in ISAs and in other savings plans, when we do the research to find out what they are saving for—financial services companies traditionally market for the holiday of a lifetime, a car, or a home improvement and things like that—our research shows that people are actually saving for retirement. They may have a pension, but they are also saving independently in an investment plan. You cannot just force people to save for their later years in pensions; they are saving in all sorts of vehicles for their later years.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Labour, Great Grimsby

Q But it is very much, for you, a complementary product to pensions—

Calum Bennie:

Yes.

Calum Bennie:

No.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Q I am somewhat sceptical about the myriad private savings schemes and have argued the case for a much more comprehensive compulsory state savings scheme for everyone, on top of which people could save in other ways as well as in stocks and shares. What would be the case against having a universal state earnings-related system with defined contributions and defined benefits, which would be extremely efficient to operate, easy to administrate and which everybody would know they were going to get a good deal from? What would be the argument against that?

Calum Bennie:

I don’t think there is an argument against that.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

Q I want to get to the bottom of the evidence that we were given earlier, especially from the experts and professionals in this sector, that these schemes—whether it is Help to Save or the LISA—are too complicated for those on a lower income really to grapple with, and therefore won’t be taken up and won’t be of use. What’s your experience? Do you think the way that these schemes are being set up is easily understandable and will encourage those on a low income to save?

Calum Bennie:

We certainly don’t see any issue with that. If it’s us who are going to be promoting these schemes, then we will certainly make sure that our communications are clear and that they are researched in the first place. For instance, our ISAs—that is the basis of this product; it’s an ISA, with various add-ons—are as complicated or as non-complicated as you want them to be, and they are understood extremely well by our customers.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

Q Can you understand why some professionals in the financial industry sector are so against these measures, and yet those who promote social mobility are quite supportive of them? Can you understand the rationale as to why some people in your sector are not so supportive?

Calum Bennie:

Perhaps they haven’t actually had the experience of working with lower to mid-income groups.

Would any more Members like to ask questions? If not, I thank the witness for the evidence that he has given. We will now move on to the next panel.