Ros Altmann: Guidance is not good enough in new pensions landscape

By Ros Altmann

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May 14, 2019

With 10 million workers newly saving into pensions as a result of auto-enrolment, there is a tremendous opportunity to help more people plan for a richer retirement. However, without improvements in engagement with pensions and investments, this opportunity may be wasted. Indeed, the key to maximising that potential may well lie with financial advisers.

The level of pensions knowledge across the population is astonishingly low. To be fair, in the past, the industry created an environment where customers had most big decisions made for them.

Since 2016, radical pension reforms have replaced that era of one-size-fits-all approaches with new pension freedoms, giving more choice and flexibility about how and when pension savings are used. This could be brilliant for customers, but those approaching decumulation need urgent help – and advice. Without better-informed customers, the freedoms might be used inappropriately. In fairness, alongside the new rules, the government intended to introduce a system of free financial guidance for all customers before they made final decisions about their pensions. The chancellor announced there would be free financial “advice”, but the Treasury corrected the term, clarifying this was only guidance.

Of course, guidance can help people understand the important questions they need to consider, but it will not give them the answers that are right for their own specific circumstances. Only qualified independent financial advisers are likely to do that. Pension Wise guidance was originally expected to encourage more people to use financial advisers, once they realised the complexity of pension options. Unfortunately, this has not really materialised.

Worrying misconceptions about pension freedoms have been revealed by Department for Work and Pensions analysis. Although most correctly knew you can start taking money from your pension when you turn 55, and you do not have to buy an annuity, around 80 per cent of Pension Wise respondents wrongly believed it was compulsory to take money from your pension as soon as you retire. Well over 80 per cent apparently did not realise you could transfer your pension from one provider to another, and two thirds believed you had to take the 25 per cent tax-free lump sum when you access your pension pot.

It is clear that the public’s pension knowledge remains wholly inadequate, even after using Pension Wise. But despite these worrying errors, the DWP analysis found 97 per cent of customers felt their understanding of pensions had improved. The research suggests Pension Wise has helped people find out more about taking money out of their pensions, rather than why they would want to leave their money in. Indeed, for many people, the tax advantages and penalties involved will mean withdrawing funds could be a costly and irreversible mistake.

When I was pensions minister, we introduced the £500 advice allowance, so that customers could pay for financial advice out of their pension savings, but take-up of this has been extremely low. More employers and providers should encourage their members to use this.

Guidance is just not enough to ensure people make the best use of their pension savings. It is only a first step. Independent, expert financial advice can stop people withdrawing funds when they do not really need to and even encourage them to invest more for longer.

Ros Altmann is former pensions minister

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