Examination of Witnesses

Savings (Government Contributions) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 25 October 2016.

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Martin Lewis OBE and Jonquil Lowe gave evidence.

We will now hear oral evidence from MoneySavingExpert.com and the Women’s Budget Group. Could the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record? I start with Martin Lewis.

Martin Lewis:

Yes, I am Martin Lewis, founder and executive chair of MoneySavingExpert.com.

Jonquil Lowe:

Hi, I’m Jonquil Lowe and I am senior lecturer in economics and personal finance at the Open University, and part of the policy advisory group for the Women’s Budget Group.

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

Q I will make an assertion here: I think the consensus of opinion today is that the pensions landscape is broken. However, in the absence of more structural change to that landscape, any product that helps—even if it is only a little bit and even if it’s for a limited number of people—is welcome. Mr Lewis, you have made this comment about the LISA:

“For retirement savings it works the same way, but whether it beats a pension or not is a much trickier conversation.”

Could you give us a view about that consensus claim that I just made?

Martin Lewis:

If we just look at lifetime ISAs as a pension product and ignore the homebuying element, which of course is a substantial element, based on pure numbers—well, actually there isn’t really anybody who should get the lifetime ISA, if you’re contrasting it with a pension. Certainly, if you are employed, you want to be auto-enrolled. If you are not employed and are a higher-rate taxpayer, there is a clear distinction—it is far better to be in a pension than it is to be in a lifetime ISA. If you are a basic rate taxpayer, the numbers are much of a muchness, but you have the two key factors: one, in your inheritance tax planning, the LISA is part of your estate, whereas your pension isn’t; and, two, LISA counts for benefit cap purposes, which could have a massive effect on many people, whereas the pension doesn’t. Those two factors mean that if you really break it down and make this a black-and-white binary decision, don’t put your money in a LISA.

Having said that, there are some people, especially self-employed basic rate taxpayers, for whom the idea of putting money away into one of these schemes is attractive, and therefore I support this as a good concept. Remember, we are only talking about pension saving there; not the other side, where it is a complete, utter no-brainer. Do you want a house? Put your money in a lifetime ISA. There are some arguments about whether Help to Buy is not in those transitional arrangements and I have issues with the help to buy ISA, but overall it is a no brainer.

I think my great concern over the lifetime ISA, though, is the one that goes back to the point about explaining a product that has a level of complexity, although it is not that complex. In my career, I have learned that what people want—I have just told you what it is—is a trusted source. That is enough for most people— a trusted source who says, “Don’t put your money in a lifetime ISA rather than in a pension unless you are a basic rate taxpayer who is self-employed.” There you go. People do not really need to know why. You have put the proofs: you’ve seen it on the website, so you are therefore on it. That is pretty much all you need.

All products are complicated, so we make them simple. You get trusted sources to do that, and it works. My great concern, and I have the same concern with Help to Save, is not the product in itself—I support both of them—but that there are certain dangers in misprioritising your finances. In the lifetime ISA, the danger is in wrongly opting out of auto-enrolment and putting your money into a lifetime ISA. In Help to Save, it is not paying off your expensive debts, and saving when you should be paying off the expensive debts.

I am aware that there is a new guidance system being set up, which is right and I approve of that. The problem with that is that you have to be proactive to go there. I would strongly urge you, when you set these up—it is much easier with the National Savings and Investments product—to ensure that at the point of application, whether that be online, by phone or in branch, the questions are asked, and that people are forced to ask them. So at NS&I, when you are setting up the Help to Save, it asks you, “Do you have debts? Are they expensive?”. If they are, some information is given about the fact that you may be better off paying those down. You do that not in a leaflet, but at the point of application.

With the lifetime ISA, which in many cases will be an online or on-the-phone product, rather than a branch product, I would say at that point in the online form, the question should be asked, “Are you an employee? Does the employer have auto-enrolment? Are you planning to do this instead of a pension?” and at that point, information is given that explains that generally you will not be better off with the lifetime ISA.

There is no problem with the product; there is a problem with how we communicate it and how we stop people making bad decisions. The way that you do that in the world that I work in is you signpost it once, you signpost it again, and then you signpost it a third time, and now you might just be starting to start the process. I will tell them when I talk about it on the telly or on the website; you will have it in a brochure for the product; and you will hear it from the pension guys. Then when you are signing up, you will have a final warning. If we do that, we will probably touch 50% of the people we should, but not all of them. That is my biggest caution to you today: just make sure that people know when it is not right for them. Then we can all be very excited about two new products that are out there, and which should, in general, be beneficial to the people who should be using them and are a good thing.

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

Q Can I pick up that last point on knowledge? That is another issue we have touched on today. In an ideal world, people have complete control of their faculties and decision making, and have capacity and so on, but out there, that does not always happen. The concern that has been expressed today is about that knowledge landscape, and people’s ability to grasp that, without it sounding patronising. Do you think that, out there in the world that this product will be sold in, there is enough information and knowledge for most people to make a reasonable decision?

Martin Lewis:

I do not think there is now, because the products are not out there. The truth is that it is mainly people in this room and the industry, and a few nerds like me, who will be interested in them before they launch—why would you be? Once they launch, we need to get it right. For my TV show, next February, I have already got a lifetime ISA special booked in; it will probably be the second or third week of February—half an hour of prime time on ITV—and we will get the message out, because people need to understand how it works. We will get that out, but that communication needs to be right and consistent; the messaging needs to be right.

My concern is about product-provider level, where product providers and different people within businesses have incentives to sell products. Even in wonderful building societies, the savings managers do not ask their customers whether they have debts before they encourage them to save. Will you do it as a blanket? That is not the right way for anybody to go.

As we are starting two new products, we have a very interesting point where you can set up the regulation before we start to make it proactive, which is what I am encouraging. With Help to Save, the message is: “If you save £50 a month, after a couple of years, we will give you 50% on top.” Yes, I know there are complexities about exactly how much you have saved and whether you can take it out, but that is all you really need to know. For the lifetime ISA, it is: “You can save up to £4,000 a year. You have to be under 40 when you start it. Then you can use it towards a house, in which case we will give you the bonus then, or at the age of 60, when we will give you the 25% on top, with a maximum bonus. If you have ifs and buts, do your reading—but do your reading.” Those are all the messages that you need to get people interested in it.

These two products have a very simple advantage: it is called free money. Go and have a look at the green deal. Until the cashback section came in, no one was interested in the green deal. Once you started giving people free money, suddenly it became very popular. Well, you have two free money schemes. Done right, talked about right and communicated right, they will be very popular. Unintended consequences are possible—the lifetime ISA might pump the housing market, which is a concern, and we have already seen it somewhat with Help to Buy—but done right, this is free money for people. As for looking at this at a macroeconomic level—are we skewing it? Are we giving it to the wrong people? Does it have the right political consequences?—that is not necessarily my bag, but I have some concerns over it. However, if you are talking about whether you can communicate these products in such a way that people will take them up, free money does a pretty good job of getting people interested.

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

Q Thanks. I have a question for Ms Lowe. I do not know whether you have a comment on my original statement. If you do, please feel free to give it. Also, a distributional analysis by the Women’s Budget Group shows that by 2020, single female pensioners will experience a whopping drop in living standards. Is there anything in this product, for the sake of argument, that you think will help to deal with, alleviate or mitigate that?

Jonquil Lowe:

No, we do not. That is the short answer. Martin touched on this: is the money being given to the right people? Certainly the lifetime ISA is less regressive than the existing system of pension tax reliefs, in that it gives a flat-rate 25% bonus to everybody. However, we still think that this is a very regressive way to use taxpayers’ money. Simply making a product available to everyone does not make it gender-neutral. You also need to take into account people’s opportunity to take up these products.

The lifetime ISA targets people who can already afford to save. There are huge swathes of people, mainly women but some men, who are contributing to the economy in the form of unpaid work, rather than paid work. Their decisions on care—caring for children and adults—mean that they are more likely to be in part-time work and are more likely to have periods out of work. When in work, they are more likely to be in sectors where their earnings are low, which tends to affect them not just at that time but for the rest of their working life. It is much more difficult for women to take advantage of these products, so we do not really see the lifetime ISA as a solution to women’s poverty.

We are also concerned, as Martin said, that the lifetime ISA may be a simple product, but it throws up complex decisions. The worry is that people may well choose to go with the lifetime ISA, rather than a pension, simply because it seems a simple product and they feel that they have more control, but in doing so, they are going to lose the employer’s contribution under automatic enrolment. They will be making decisions that are actually not in their best interests, which is a concern to us.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Conservative, Macclesfield

Q Mr Lewis, you mentioned some concerns about transitional arrangements between help to buy ISAs and LISAs. Could you expand a little on that? I then have a question to both of you. One of the issues with financial service products is getting younger people interested in them. The great thing about the lifetime ISA is that it applies to youngsters at 18. We have some young people in the audience from Macclesfield. How would we seek to get young people more interested in these products early on?

Martin Lewis:

First, there is a difference between the two. The help to buy ISA is available at 16, which is one issue. The second issue is that help to buy ISAs are limited to properties worth £250,000, or £450,000 in London, but for the lifetime ISA it is £450,000 across the country, which is a good thing.

Here’s where it gets rather complicated. You can use a help to buy ISA effectively after three months. You need £1,600 in it; that’s £1,200 in the first month, and £200 each month for two months. We have some people who have done it in two months and thirty days. We are allowing people to transfer their help to buy ISA into the lifetime ISA within the first year, which is a good rule, because it allows people to move it across and then they can put more in their lifetime ISA. However, the lifetime ISA has a one-year minimum hold before it can be used on cash, so I could have had a help to buy ISA for three years, transfer it across into the lifetime ISA and then save more money in, and then suddenly discover that I cannot buy the house that I want and have found, even though I have been saving in the help to buy ISA for three years, because I have to have held the lifetime ISA for a year.

A simple arrangement to fix that would be to ensure that the trigger-point, if you transfer a help to buy ISA into a lifetime ISA, is the start-point of the help to buy ISA, not the start-point of the lifetime ISA, so you would have had your year. Those are the types of transitional arrangements I am talking about. They are not big-picture, I think, even at this stage of a Bill Committee, and they are ones that we have had a discussion on the phone about.

The other classic thing that I would be very wary of—I will throw this in while we are talking about this—is that, as I have suggested, both these products will not be perfect. There will be unintended issues, such as the help to buy ISA issue—that it was a mortgage deposit, and some people thought it would exchange. It always was at that point, but it was revealed by the newspapers. I would strongly suggest that with both these products, there is a pre-arranged one-year review, where minor terms can be tweaked to make better products, and where we discover the things that none of the clever people who have given evidence or who are sitting around the table have thought of yet. That’s a sensible way to introduce products such as these, which are so complicated—especially the lifetime ISA—to be honest with you. Those are the types of transitional arrangements I am talking about. Forgive me, what was the second part of your question?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Conservative, Macclesfield

Q With young people, how do you get them interested in these sorts of products early on?

Martin Lewis:

Young people are interested in buying a house, but it won’t be their financial priority. For many of the young people who have help to buy ISAs, it is money put in by their parents, and we need to be straight on that. That has a distributional impact too, because the people who are able to do that are people whose parents have the spare money, and you have to question whether that is right or wrong.

With help to buy ISAs, it depends on your definition of young people. It is a great product for 18-to-30s. If that is “young people”, it is a good product, and potentially, once they have started saving in their lifetime ISA, they may then continue it for their retirement savings. I again sound the caution, because of auto-enrolment, that we want it to be a complement, as opposed to an either/or.

There are problems with the help to buy ISA. I cannot put more than £5,000 a year into it, so I then have to have another ISA product. I would not mandate that all providers had to do that, because if you did, we would have lower interest rates on the lifetime ISA than we would have otherwise in the savings version.

As an aside, I have to tell you that when I tweeted and Facebooked that I was coming here today, the big point that everybody made was that I should tell you—I’m sure you know this, but I will tell you anyway—that interest rates are horrendous. People cannot earn money on their savings. You are helping two small blocks at the moment. People feel that our interest rate policy is penalising savers right now. Even with all the tricks in the world that I can play, we have worked out that you can put £35,000 away at 2% interest. That is the best you can get with every single trick in the book played. That is it right now. That is horrendous—a disincentive to save. Of course, a 25%, 55% or 50% bonus is a great encouragement on the back of that, but savings in the United Kingdom at the moment are in a crisis that we have never seen before, and there is a bigger picture here than the two Government-supported saving schemes—I am aware what this Bill Committee is for—that are going on right now.

The honest truth is that this will encourage some, but it will not encourage many. Children’s savings—even Halifax Kids’ Regular Saver, the last bastion of good rates for children at 6%, has now dropped down to 4%. There are big issues in the savings market, and this won’t fix them. This will help some people.

Jonquil Lowe:

Perhaps we ought to keep in mind what the whole aim underlying all these schemes is. Certainly, when you are looking at housing, it is affordable, high-quality housing for all. Will the lifetime ISA deliver that? Will it excite young people? I think it will not, because what we are likely to see is that the people who can afford to save can save in it, and the people who have wealthy parents will see their parents transfer money into it. I think it will be very important to evaluate this scheme, to see whether it really does generate new saving that improves people’s financial resilience.

Help to Save is very similar to Saving Gateway. I do not know whether you recall this, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies did some evaluation work on the pilots for Saving Gateway and, in contrast to some of the other evaluation, came to the conclusion that Saving Gateway did not generate new saving. What it did was encourage people who had already built up a stock of saving to transfer that into that scheme, and I fear that we might see that with the lifetime ISA as well. It is just shuffling the money on the balance sheets; it is not actually generating new saving.

I think the lifetime ISA is not necessarily going to help more young people to buy the house that they may aspire to. The money can be drawn out for use not only on new build housing but existing housing stock, so there is a danger that it will just push house prices up. Although it may help some people at the margin to transfer from being renters to being owners, for other people, it is going to put the dream of home ownership even further out of reach.

We also have another concern, which is whether this is just another part of the transition of moving away from the collective risk that society bears to individualising risk. The lifetime ISA legislation allows the Government to consider early withdrawals without penalty for reasons other than house purchase. At the moment, that is not something that they are going to do when the scheme is first introduced, but schedule 1, part 3 allows for that option.

That starts to look very similar to a scheme that was tried in the Netherlands and abandoned in 2012, called the life-course savings scheme. The idea was that employees could build up some savings, tax-free, through deductions from their salary, and that those savings could be withdrawn to pay for periods caring for a frail relative, for example, or for the cost of childcare. Again, that is absolutely fine if you can afford to save, but if you cannot, that form of welfare is not helpful and excludes a lot of people. The evaluation of that Dutch scheme found that, as you might expect, fewer women and part-time workers took part. The amount saved went up dramatically with earnings, and the vast majority of people said that they were doing it because it was tax-free and would allow them to retire early. That scheme did not really address the aims that had been set out and was, again, a very regressive form of welfare.

Martin Lewis:

I do not fully agree with this analysis. I think there are certain parts, and on the distribution part, I absolutely accept where you are going. Of course there is an issue of distribution, but we have to be very careful. Certainly there is a feeling out there in the country that it is the people who struggle and push to sort themselves out on their own who get the least help. Some of this does go towards addressing that; it goes towards addressing the fact that those people who have struggled all their lives and would like their children to buy houses will get some help with that within the lifetime ISA.

Where I perhaps disagree most strongly is that I think the help to buy ISA has encouraged people to save for a home; some of them would not have done so anyway, and for some, it would have taken a lot longer and been a rather depressing period of their life with no wellbeing. We already have a problem with disaffected young people who feel that they are not being given a chance out there, and this does go some way towards redressing that. You paint too dark a picture; I agree with some of the analysis, but I think that is too dark a picture.

The help to buy ISA has been a very positive thing that people have liked. There was this glitch over the exchange versus mortgage deposit point, which I think was a communication glitch from some of the product companies. I know it was in our guide from very early on that it could only be used at mortgage deposit. Actually, the lifetime ISA allows you to do both those points. We need to be very careful. If we look at a product in isolation, we see there are certainly distributive problems and there are certainly gender distribution problems. Looking at this product and simply saying not to do it for those reasons, rather than redressing that balance in a more direct manner, is not the right way to go forward.

Yes, I think this will have an impact on house prices, but because it affects only first-time buyers and we are talking about a level of deposit as opposed to the overall price, it would take a far better economist than me to work out how much will trickle down into the system. I do not think that every £1,000 the Government put in as a bonus will increase the need for a deposit by £1,000. I do not think it will work on that basis. I suspect a far, far smaller figure—way below 50% and probably below 20%—will trickle across. I am not sure that is a reason not to do it.

We need to try something to encourage people to save and there is a bigger picture out there. Whenever I talk about saving on the television, I am asked, “Why are you helping all those people who have got money?”, and I get lots of people saying, “Who can afford to save?”. The fact is there are something like five to six times more savings accounts in the UK than debt accounts. Those people are a big part of our population and in many ways they have been relatively the worst done by since 2008 because of interest rates. Our policy is so down on people who have saved hard all their working lives to put money across. I think we must be very careful not to bite off our nose to spite our face.

I think you are right and all the points you make have some semblance of good distributional analysis and good economics, but the bigger picture is that these are not bad products that are trying to do good things. Yes, they will certainly help some people whom we should perhaps not be helping, but they will also help other people whom we should be helping.

Jonquil Lowe:

The point is that taxpayers’ money is scarce, so you must be careful how you use it. There isn’t even a great deal of evidence that tax incentives work. After all, we have automatic enrolment because decades and decades of tax incentives did not persuade people to put enough savings into pensions.

Martin Lewis:

But the help to buy ISA has been a huge success for a huge number of people.

Can we have one person at a time? Have you finished, Mr Rutley?

Six more Members want to ask questions, so perhaps everyone could be concise.

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

Q Thank you, Mr Wilson. We have talked about the need to save and the success of auto-enrolment. Should we not be targeting those who are being missed out, such as the self-employed and those earning less than £10,000—many women are caught up in that? That is the priority we should address first.

Secondly, when you talk about the exercise people will go through to apply for an ISA and those who can engage in auto-enrolment but choose not to, do you not think there will be an issue of people ending up in a LISA when they would be better off in auto-enrolment?

Jonquil Lowe:

Is that for me?

Jonquil Lowe:

Automatic enrolment, yes, is definitely superior. The employer’s subsidy is very valuable so it would be extremely concerning if people switched to lifetime ISAs. The problem for women with caring responsibilities is that they simply do not have a lot of money to save. It is very nice that they can have a bonus if they can save, but if they cannot save, where does that leave them?

The value of unpaid caring is huge. The Office for National Statistics tries to measure it and reckons the value of unpaid childcare is about £320 billion a year and unpaid adult care about £57 billion a year. The figures are huge—about a fifth of GDP. Countries address the problem in different ways. For example, Finland has a home care allowance that recognises the value of unpaid work and gives some income that can be used to buy childcare to release the woman for work, or perhaps for other matters, which might be setting money aside to save for emergencies or later life. Simply saying, “If you save, here’s a tax bonus,” does not solve the problem of the people who cannot afford to save.

Martin Lewis:

It doesn’t, and some people should be paying off their debts, which again is a problem I mentioned earlier, especially with the Help to Save scheme. I would stretch Help to Save a little lower and allow younger people to engage in the scheme as well as people who work fewer hours but do work. If I were in charge, I would bring it lower down the net. I agree with you on that point.

The problem about the people who do not auto-enrol going into lifetime ISAs when they should auto-enrol is that products, once they become commercial—effectively Help to Save is not because it is from NS&I, but the lifetime ISA is—are sold, and they are sold to encourage people to engage. Therefore, you have competing sales messages.

That goes back to my original point of mandating messages at each point in the journey towards getting it to try to block people out. The person in charge of lifetime ISA savings at one of the big banks is incentivised by how many lifetime ISA savings he brings in and his staff, some way down the line, will be incentivised—or at least their jobs will be contingent on it—to get people to bring in lifetime ISA savings. They will not have a vested interest in telling you to put money in your pension instead, so you need to make sure that they cannot avoid doing so.

That is a subtle point, but it is about misprioritising. Every single product we have on the market, from credit cards to savings accounts and bank accounts, misprioritises someone’s finances if used incorrectly. That is not a reason for not doing the product, but this is the joyous point: we are creating a new product in our nice internet and app-based era where it is rather easy to mandate people to give certain messages. That is why I suggest you do so, in a way that you could not when everything was individually sold by incentivised sales staff sitting in a closed-room office of a bank branch, as it was 20 years ago. Now, most of these things can be automated, so make them automated.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

Q Mr Lewis, this morning we heard from some of the representatives from the financial services industry, who seemed to think that this was a complex product.

Martin Lewis:

They are not very bright people.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I will leave it to you to say that. My question for you—perhaps I should have asked them—is: do you think there is a danger that, as we advance and these products come on stream that people can follow by using the internet, all of a sudden fees will be lost, as people do not need their investment adviser? Perhaps that is why the industry pooh-poohs products such as this and dresses them up as “too complicated”.

Martin Lewis:

One of the problems you will have with the lifetime ISA for pensions is that the vast majority of money will go into savings, not investments, which over a long period is probably not a good move. That is another issue, whereas pension money really goes into investing. I think most people who put money in a lifetime ISA will put it in a cash version and they will not need an investment manager because of that. I think there is an issue going on there.

Are these products complicated? All products are complicated; all products can be explained. I have always been anti the simplicity agenda—all that does is cut down choice and competition and take away flexibility of lifestyle to enable products to be different for different people. These products are no more complicated than those we have out there. It is always said of the state pension that there are only two people who understand it: one of them is dead and the other is still not sure whether he really does get it.

When you contrast these products with the state pension, they are pretty easy products to understand. They have to be explained and they have to be communicated. They will take time. We need to ensure that we use nice, easy and real terminology and not jargon when we do so. Certainly with the lifetime ISA, it is going to take five, six or seven years before it becomes a steady part of what people do. Certainly on the pensions side, the lifetime ISA is easier because it is really the help to buy ISA with some tweaks—that is all it is—and we have already started to do the education process on that.

The argument that they are too complicated is just a complete load of palpable balderdash. It sounds like an industry that is already making a lot of money from one product that does not want to see competition to it. I do not want to see competition to it when it is not right for punters, but when it is right for them and it is a good product, we should be offering it, and we should be slightly careful not to listen to people making bogus excuses because they are rent-seeking.

This will have to be the last question.

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

Q I want to come back to the potential gender differential impacts of the policy and of the LISA in particular, because generally how we ensure that women are able to benefit from public policy decisions is critical. You said that the Women’s Budget Group had concerns that not many women would be able to benefit from it. We also know that, in later life, women are far more likely to be on means-tested benefits because they have smaller pension pots or do not have an occupational pension at all. Has the Women’s Budget Group crunched numbers on that or modelled that in any consistent way?

Jonquil Lowe:

No, I do not think we have the detailed number crunching that you are after. It would be a really interesting thing to do, but it is always difficult to have these discussions because you are talking about different cohorts of people. The women who are currently retired and on low pensions did not experience the same set of circumstances as women today. Certainly, the state pension system now has much better protection for people who are caring, which is unlike the private pension system—

Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions and, indeed, for the sitting. I thank our witnesses on behalf of the Committee for their evidence.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till Thursday 27 October at half-past Eleven o’clock.