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Compulsion obsessives

Pensions are one of the big issues dominating this year&#39s political party conference season.

By the time you read this, the Labour Party conference will be drawing to a close and, as at the Liberal Democrats in Brighton last week, the state of UK retirement provision will have catapulted itself still further towards the top of the political agenda.

While the number of financial services businesses exhibiting at each of the three main party conferences may be down on last year – an obvious result of the state of world markets – the urgency of politicians&#39 language on the issue has become quite striking.

Earlier this year, I attended yet another conference on pension reform – such is the life of a political consultant. The keynote speech was delivered by Labour MP Frank Field, a thinker known to everyone who reads Money Marketing. He warned of the consequences of prolonged inaction over the death of final-salary schemes.

As ever, Field noted not just the policy need but also the likely reaction of ordinary voters. He said the death of final-salary schemes was perhaps the single biggest issue facing Middle England that the Government would have to deal with and, if not resolved quickly, would cause considerable angst in the country. How right he is turning out to be.

Organisations such as the FSA, Standard Life, Scottish Life, AMP, Unison and Age Concern are all attending the party conferences this year to talk about pensions. So far, these organisations are certainly getting their money&#39s worth. Every meeting on the issue is full to the brim, which demonstrates how the issues have bubbled to the surface in the past 12 months.

The ABI has been running a series of fringe meetings at the conferences focusing on the savings gap. This is the oft-quoted but much misunderstood figure of £27bn which represents the extra amount that we need to save in the UK to provide a decent retirement income.

At the Liberal Democrat conference, Mick McAteer from the Consumers&#39 Association made some interesting new input into the debate. He opened by making the usual calls for compulsion and simplification. He also called for the creation of a Financial Futures Commission. Its purpose would be to help the industry model product design based on economic and demographic developments.

Some might say this is all very Orwellian but I think it makes an interesting contribution to the debate at a rather opportune time. It is fresh thinking we need to see in the coming months.

LibDem work and pension spokesman Steve Webb MP echoed McAteer&#39s comments on compulsion and, increasingly, more and more backbench politicians are starting to utter similar noises. The mailbag from constituents angered by the compulsory annuity purchase rules or by the disappearance of their workplace pensions continues to grow.

“Pensions are sexy,” said Webb. I think that is political speak for: “My God, we can&#39t keep up with this.”

Compulsion is becoming an increasingly palatable truth for voters who desperately want to save their company schemes.

When all is said and done, MPs will return to Westminster at roughly the same time as the Government produces the Green Paper on pensions.

Now, many politicos have groaned that this is just another Green Paper and they may well prove right. However, such a momentum is building among backbench MPs, unions, employers and the wider electorate which is, hopefully, feeding into the thinking process.

There are very few times in politics when the national mood allows MPs to take action which, while initially unpopular, will transform opportunities in future. There are also few times when a financial services issue such as pensions takes centre stage.

But there is a major challenge here. Despite the activities of many of the organisations I have mentioned earlier which have actively campaigned for change at the party conferences, much of the rest of the financial services industry remains relatively silent on the issue. In particular, it is the asset managers who are not engaging on pensions right now and leaving it to the life companies.

While they may argue that life companies still have all the pension power, asset managers should be in pole position to become the engine rooms of future provision and now is the time to make these arguments to the Government.

No doubt, the Conservative party conference in Bournemouth next week will be mixed with talk of pensions in crisis.

This year, I have found the sea air a little more bracing than usual. Perhaps it is because the current climate has injected some realpolitik into proceedings. Long may it continue.

Iain Anderson is director and chief corporate counsel at Cicero Consulting

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