BLOG: The nine month Minister

Written by Natalie Tuck

At a recent conference, a panel of pensions experts welcomed the newly-appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary for Pensions and Financial Inclusion Guy Opperman “for his forthcoming nine months as Pensions Minister”.

As mad as it sounds, nine months might not be far off the mark. If we look at the past two Pensions Ministers, there does seem to be a pattern emerging. Since Steve Webb’s five-year stint, we’ve had Ros Altmann, who served in the role for 13 months, followed by Richard Harrington who lasted 11 months in the job. If this pattern is to continue then Opperman may well only be in the role for the next nine months.

The pace at which we have new Pensions Ministers only serves as an unfortunate reminder of the days prior to Webb, when, for several years, there was a new Minister appointed every year. Not only that, it signals a move back to pensions being used as a political football.

Not only do we have a Pensions Minister who appears to have no pensions experience whatsoever, but we have also witnessed how quickly pensions policy has been changed to serve the government’s own political gains. Whether you agreed with the Conservative Party’s plans to scrap the triple lock, or not, it was kicked offside in order for a deal to be reached with the Democratic Unionist Party.

The Conservatives also side-stepped plans to means test winter fuel payments and were late on publishing a response to John Cridland’s review of the state pension age, breaking its legal deadline.

It was also revealed earlier this month that plans to ban pensions cold calling have been ditched. Prior to the General Election it seemed that the cold-calling ban was a definite, following a consultation by the government. However, speaking in the House of Lords recently, Parliamentary Under Secretary for Work and Pensions, Baroness Buscombe, said the government does not plan to ban pensions cold calling at this time.

Delivering his first speech as Work and Pensions Secretary, David Gauke told pensions delegates that he hopes the industry will “feel the benefit of consistency” as he is keen to build on the “continuity and consistency” that the industry is hoping for, noting that pension reform is a “long-term game”.

“We need a well thought out approach built on a solid evidence base. As we consider the repercussions of increased life expectancy on future generations, I welcome the contributions of John Cridland and the Government Actuary’s Department on the future state pension age…it represents exactly the sort of longer-term approach I want to cultivate in my department and across wider government,” he said.

Gauke is right. The industry has been hoping for stability ever since the pension freedoms were sprung on it back in 2014, but it also wants to see policy developed with long-term views in mind, not for short-term political gains. Ideally, many would like to see the creation of an independent pensions commission, but perhaps a Minister in position for (much) longer than nine months would be a good start.

Opperman certainly seems to have been thrown in at the deep end; he recently attended Gauke’s first speech to the pensions industry, and his own debut debate as Minister was on the subject of women’s state pensions. Let’s hope he’s in it for the long run.

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