Jane Vass took an unconventional route to financial services after becoming disenchanted with her job in publishing. In her search for an alternative career, the Oxford University English graduate joined Hambro Provident’s equity-release team in 1981. She says: “One of the attractions of financial services was explaining this complicated world to ordinary people.”
That financial services can play such a central role in people’s lives and yet be misunderstood by most people can make it a rewarding but often heartbreaking world to work in and Vass cites this as the reason behind what she is doing now as head of public policy for Age UK.
“I went to meet a man in Birmingham who was desperate to take equity release. He had sold all his furniture and had nothing. One of the hardest things I ever had to do was explain he was not eligible because he was on such large amounts of means-tested benefits.”
After leaving Hambro Provident, Vass took a role as head of research on the Which? money team. She later moved into freelance work while she had young children and headed the Security Investment Board’s first research publication on financial education. However, her interest in helping older people drew her back into full-time work and she joined Age Concern as financial services policy adviser in 2006.
In 2010, Age Concern merged with Help the Aged to form Age UK, for which Vass is now head of public policy, and she believes the merger has strengthened the voice of the charities. She has seen some changes for older people since she joined but says Age UK still has a lot of work to do. “The challenges that face older people are starting to be recognised but as a nation we still see an ageing population as a problem rather than an opportunity.
“The older age group is diverse. Not everyone is on the breadline but not everyone is in receipt of a big pension. There are huge differences in life expectancy between different local authorities. The challenge we have is meeting the needs of this diverse group
“Some parts of the industry are very helpful. For example, IFAs play a key role in helping people spend down their retirement savings.”
However, she thinks the sector could improve on its support to the elderly. “We welcome products such as impaired annuities and drawdown but some providers are moving away from the elderly. Some banks do not advise people above a certain age and while we accept automatic age limits in some financial services, we are uneasy about them.”
Since its inception, Age UK has developed ties with financial services, in the form of an equity release referral service with Just Retirement and an annuity advisory service with Premier Retirement. “Equity release is not the right course for everyone but it is an important option to give to people.”
She is unsure if equity release will be included in the Government’s white paper on long-term care in April but says clear proposals must be drawn up. “After two commissions, we still have no settlement on the single biggest issue facing society.”
To help achieve meaningful reform of social care for the elderly, Age UK launched Care in Crisis earlier this month. The campaign aims to get 100,000 signatures demanding change to the system and submit the petition to the Government in advance of the white paper.
Care in Crisis is proposing 10 key points the Government needs to keep in mind when drawing up its plans for reform. These include a guarantee of sufficient quantity and quality of care for those on low incomes, a non-means-tested entitlement for care regardless of income and an introduction of a national entitlement to care to end the postcode lottery.
“Money must be spent on care, even in this economic climate.”
The charity has also been active in the retirement income market and in 2010 it launched the Age Annuity Service to help retirees get more for their money. It has been a supporter of the open market option for some time. “The aim is to help people shop around. It is the most useful thing people can do to boost their retirement but we will have to wait and see what the DWP comes up with,” she says.
Another issue Vass is awaiting movement on is auto-enrolment. “We were strongly behind it but I am extremely disappointed it has been delayed for small businesses.”
Age UK has been pressing for an Independent Pensions Commission to prevent decisions such as the auto-enrolment delay being taken for short-term political aims.
Vass says it is not just central Government that needs to adjust to the changing needs of an ageing population. “Local government will have a larger role as the Government moves to decentralise and so will the private sector. It needs to take account of an ageing population through-out all its designs, rather than creating a specialist minority product.”
Age UK’s focus this year will be long-term care. “Care in Crisis will remain a priority. We are also supporting the Dignity in Care commission, whose final report is due this spring.”
Vass says a lot of the changes Age UK is calling for are straightforward and inexpensive but make a real difference to people’s quality of life as they get older.
“A lot of the things that can make a difference to the ageing population are relatively easy, such as building more time into call-centre processes or talking to customers.”
Vass remains hopeful these changes are embraced by the UK. “They must be – this is our future we are talking about.”
Born: Sudan, 1959
Lives: High Wycombe with family
Education: St Hughs, Oxford, reading English
Career history: 2010-present: head of public policy, Age UK; 2006-10: financial services policy adviser, Age Concern; 1993-2006: self-employed consumer consultant; 1983-93: head of financial and economic research, Consumers’ Association/Which?; 1981-83: equity-release consultant, Hambro Provident Assurance
Likes: Sailing, making music, cycling around London
Dislikes: False assumptions about age
Drives: Whichever car I can find the key for
Book: The Master & Commander series by Patrick O’Brian
Album: Gallianissimo! by Richard Galliano
Career ambition: To retire knowing other people have a chance of a decent retirement
Life ambition: To keep learning