Examination of Witnesses

Part of Savings (Government Contributions) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:27 pm on 25th October 2016.

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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.