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Fringe benefits

Much like the Edinburgh Festival, at a party political conference, the fringe is where the action is.

You could spend four days listening to prepared setpiece speeches from various ministers standing on a distant podium in the main conference hall. However, if you want to get up close and personal to decision makers, share a platform with industry experts, consumer groups and thinktanks or address a more informal gathering in a second-rate hotel room, the fringe is where you should head for.

The fringe is where the experts get technical in the detail of policy and where ministers are more likely to hint at their true feelings, rather than simply toe the party line. In the main conference hall, they are too busy combating combined policy attacks from the unions and local constituency parties to relax. After an afternoon&#39s policy debate on the conference floor, many a politician is left begging for a nice peaceful interview with Jeremy Paxman.

So what was happening on the fringe at this year&#39s party conferences? Despite being more conveniently located, the Conservative conference in Bournemouth appears to have been neglected by many in the industry. While a host of organisations made the difficult trek to Blackpool to powwow with New Labour, only the FSA and AMP chose to hold fringe events of significance at Bournemouth.

But it is important not to overlook the Conservatives. Although they do not look like making a return to the corridors of power any time soon, they still have an influence on the climate that surrounds financial services reform and are doing much innovative thinking in this area. It is due partly to MPs such as David Curry and John Butterfill that annuity reform has remained at the top of the agenda for so long.

Yet perhaps it is only natural that most attention is turned away from the Conservatives. After all, listening to the latest developments or getting your views across on Sandler, Pickering et al only really matters if you are listening or talking to a Labour minister likely to be making the decisions.

A number of financial services organisations turned up in Blackpool to host fringe events. The ABI and Age Concern were joint hosts of a meeting in a hot, sweaty, packed room on the top floor of the Winter Gardens.

Age Concern&#39s Gordon Lishman is clearly a supporter of radical ideas, including a proposal that there should be no fixed age of retirement. He said the opportunity to retire should come after one has worked for a set number of years.

Andrew Smith, in his first appearance at the conference as Work and Pensions Secretary, also had thoughts on the retirement age. He argued for an end to “cliff edge retirement”, where people are fully employed one day and fully retired the next. He would prefer a system where people move towards part-time work before full retirement.

Mary Francis rehearsed the ABI&#39s familiar list of concerns. She made the emphatic and compelling point that pension red tape means it now takes 12 hours to sell a pension and the current savings gap amounts to £1,400 per person each year. The ABI wants less red tape, simpler tax rebates, more advice in the workplace, more encouragement for employers to make contributions and better information on what people need to do to save adequately.

Scottish Life hosted a meeting with the Pensions Policy Institute which, under the leadership of its feisty director, Alison O&#39Connell, is fast establishing itself as the thinktank for this controversial area of public policy. O&#39Connell raised the prospect of increasing the retirement age to 70 and the need for a consensus on what the state pension is actually for.

Scottish Life&#39s Steve Bee again reiterated the need for simpler regulation although he did point out that, even without compulsion, British people have still managed to save more than all their European neighbours combined.

Co-operative Insurance Society turned up at the conference keen to emphasise its reputation for responsible shareholding – manna from heaven to the Labour delegates&#39 ears. Its fringe event was well attended, with a compelling speech by John McFall, head of the Treasury select committee. Neil O&#39Shea from CIS reminded delegates of the company&#39s success in engineering corporate governance changes in companies such as EasyJet.

The FSA & Demos, a trendy thinktank, repeated their exceedingly successful fringe event from last year&#39s conference on You and Your Money.

Although well attended, the event did not live up to the expectations created by its predecessor, partly because of the lack of the highly entertaining Evan Davies, from BBC&#39s Newsnight, who pulled out at the last minute, and partly because, last year, Ruth Kelly was new to the Treasury and all assembled were keen to hear her thoughts. This year, she said little that was new and industry hacks are by now well aware of her impressive grasp of the intricate details of our industry.

Sir Howard Davies gave a good account of what the FSA is doing to enhance consumer understanding and told some anecdotes about consumer research. The best concerned the AA, which found that men shop around extensively when buying a new car and are proud of their ability to negotiate a few hundred pounds off the price. But most sign up to the first 28 per cent-a-year finance deal on offer. This, Sir Howard told us, negates all the hard bargaining already achieved, leaving the car salesman with a smile stretching from the showroom to Blackpool.

Ilan Jacobs is director of Consolidated Communications

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