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Alison O’connell

James Phillipps interviews the Pensions Policy Institute director who believes the PPI has an important role in assessing the pension debate independently of lobbyists who are just setting out their own cases and she says the media and some financial services figures are causing confusion for the public over pensions and need to get their facts right

Pensions Policy Institute director Alison O’Connell has overseen the growth of the thinktank from an ad hoc council into a leading independent body with an established presence in the pension reform debate.

She was the first staff member at the PPI which has become a team of five experts with secure funding and an office on London’s South Bank. Before joining the institute, she spent nearly two decades working for firms such as McKinsey and Mercers.

Her mission now is to provide unbiased fact-based research on the pension conundrum and to set out the pros and cons on the solutions being put forward to reform pension provision.

In its early days, the PPI was focused on producing its own research and struggled at times to get access to key policymakers but now commissioned research is the fastest-growing line of business for the institute and O’Connell and the PPI team enjoy access at ministerial level.

“That is one thing I have noticed over the last three years. We now have good access to officials and ministers,” she says.

Although disappointed that Labour’s Alan Johnson and the Conservatives’ David Willetts have moved on to pastures new, she says the Labour ministerial pension team of David Blunkett and Stephen Timms are very engaged and open to advice. She also speaks highly of the Liberal Democrat pension team of Lord Oakeshott and David Laws.

She feels the role of an organisation such as the PPI is crucial, as most other organisations with an interest in the pension debate are lobbyists with their own agenda.

“All lobby groups have a job to do but what they say has to be interpreted with their membership in mind. The advantage of being independent is that we can lay down the pros and cons of every proposal. I would not call our views left or right-wing either, just sensible and well informed.”

O’Connell is critical of the media’s role in the pension debate. Although many have seen the higher profile afforded the subject by the media in recent months as positive, she says the press has broadly served to spread misinformation.

“The media have a lot to answer for. When you think how much the media could be helping the debate in terms of explaining the fundamentals, such as the cost of pensions, it is disappointing.”

She says that perhaps the most recent example of this is the coverage of David Blunkett’s speech on the citizen’s pension. A few members of the public were asked to spend three days brushing up on their pensions knowledge and how best to solve the crisis. They advocated a move to the citizen’s pension model, as used in New Zealand. Blunkett, in his speech, warned that if this model were chosen, safeguards would have to be put in place to ensure benefit tourism did not bleed the system dry but it has been reported as Blunkett ruling out the citizen’s pension. “It is so wrong and stupid on many levels,” she sighs.

Other examples abound, such as the Government’s own pension research undermining the Pensions Commission. “It is total media speculation. The Government has no need to undermine Turner,” she says. “In fact, it already said it was going to publish its own set of proposals next spring. Politicians of any colour have no need to pre-empt the Pensions Commission. Inevitably, the Pensions Commission can only advise and it will be the politicians who make the reforms work.”

But it is not just the media who are getting it wrong. O’Connell says many highly regarded industry experts have also been misguided. Some of this can be explained by the fact that senior industry commentators at provider companies have sound expertise on personal pensions and related issues but are moving away from their knowledge base when straying on to the topic of state provision.

She says an example of this is the ongoing attacks on Chancellor Gordon Brown’s removal of advance corporation tax relief on pension funds equity dividends in 1997. “Brown’s 5bn a year raid on pension funds” has become common pensions parlance but is wrong. Even the experts are saying the Government is taking 5bn a year from pension funds. We are not saying whether removing advance corporation tax relief was right or wrong but if you are going to disagree with it, at least get your facts right. Our research shows that it cost between 2.5bn and 3bn in the first year and has been declining ever since. If that is the level of debate, then we need to move on.”

Away from work, O’Connell likes to immerse herself in a good book or play. She is not a fan of TV and is more likely to be found listening to the radio to unwind.

Her eight grandchildren help her keep a sense of perspective and she is looking forward to a walking holiday in Italy, ahead of the rush around the Pension Commission’s second report.

O’Connell says she is happy to be in a job where she can help people by advising policymakers on to shape a sustainable and adequate pension system.

Born: Gloucester, 1963

Lives: Southwark, London

Education: MA, Mathematics, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge University. King’s College, London, Msc, Gerontology. Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries.

Career: 1985-1991 Mercantile & General Reinsurance and Mercers actuary, 1991-97 McKinsey management, 1997-2000 Freelance management consultant, 2000-01 Swiss Re head of strategy, 2002-present, Pensions Policy Institute

Likes: Radio, iPod, fresh air, contemporary art, theatre, poetry and food

Dislikes: Smoking, litter and TV

Car: Public transport and taxis

Favourite book: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Favourite album: A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim

Favourite movie: Woody Allen’s SleeperHeroes: Jennie Lee, MP

Life ambition: Impossible to say

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