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I&#39m dreaming of a Green Christmas

As the final proposals on the future of pensions slowly emerge, you would be forgiven for feeling like a child waiting to open your Christmas presents.

You can tell from Chancellor Gordon Brown&#39s pre-Budget report – just as you might from the size and shape of a parcel put under the tree – roughly what you are going to get. You also know that Christmas will come early. The publication date for the Pension Green Paper has been officially set for December 17.

The long-awaited Green Paper will propose a simplification of the pension tax regime but it is already known that the tax-free lump sum will remain. What this means in practice is that there will be a lifetime savings limit which will be eligible for tax relief. The review will look at some form of annuity reform and other changes will be made at the margins.

Whether or not the Chancellor&#39s Christmas cracker will explode with a big bang is anybody&#39s guess. But pension legislation is now such a complex minefield that I am not sure anyone at the Department for Work and Pensions has the will to get to grips with it.

This opinion has only been reinforced by the backtracking we have seen over the last few weeks, with Government sources retreating from their previous pledge of radical pension reform. Kind of like your dad holding out the promise of a Play Station 2 for Christmas but then you discover that he has come over all tight-fisted and on Christmas day you get a handheld Gameboy instead.

Given that you already know what you are getting for Christmas, your attention naturally turns to those nice little stocking fillers – presents that are easily accessible and simple to unwrap, less noticed but capable of bringing intense pleasure. I refer, of course, to the announcement that further progress has been made on the child trust fund. The Treasury has said that child trust funds will be available on the open market. In other words, everyone from the high street to the direct provider will be able to sell them. The alternative model, where the Treasury would only allow the product to go to a licensed provider, has been booted into touch.

I do not know why more people do not concentrate on child trust funds. They seem to me to be a product packed full of potential. You should be leaning over the barriers cheering these wee products across the finishing line. Sure, you can sell kids a pension nowadays but children and pensions are not words that feel comfortable in the same sentence. And, sure, excellent organisations such as Tunbridge Wells Equitable Friendly Society are already big in the market of providing savings for children but the child trust fund is different. It does what it says on the tin so no hard sell is needed.

The Government will kickstart child trust funds with £500 for low-income families or £250 for the rest of you, according to reports. Whether this means complicated means-testing is yet to be revealed. But they are open to all – grannies, mums, dads and godparents can contribute. It is like having a wedding list for the whole of your childhood. Can&#39t think what to give your godchild? Shove £50 in little Jonny&#39s account. Spent a lovely weekend with friends? Give each of their little nippers £20 for their child trust fund.

Without thinking too hard, the Government has stumbled on a coherent saving strategy for the middle classes. A child trust fund rolls into an Isa and then into a stakeholder pension, all with the same annual charge, terms and conditions.

The Conservatives have realised this and proposed their own universal product, the lifetime savings account, which can be dipped into in emergencies. That is surely what will eventually emerge and most likely it will be a marketing wrapper created by the industry. A financial adviser is not just for Christmas, he&#39s for life.

Of course, this solution is essentially provided by the private sector. The real pension crisis needs urgent Government action. Low-cost savings cannot exist in a highly-regulated environment. The jungle of bureaucracy must be cut back. This applies particularly to employer-backed occupational plans.

Saving cannot be encouraged when the state system is so confusing. Most people feel the minimum income guarantee and state second pension muddy the waters but we still need a bold approach which brings about a funded state pension scheme based on NI contributions and an element of redistribution. Of course, the savings crisis will not go away until the stockmarket picks up.

Finally, the Government must grapple with the problem of cliff-edge retirement. People will work for longer and many will want to move gradually out of work and into retirement, taking some of their savings as income but not being penalised for continuing to earn. Again, there is a possible role for a suitably flexible lifetime savings account here.

Christmas comes but once a year. We will wait to see if the Pension Green Paper is all it promises to be. The pension crisis seems complicated but simple, straightforward solutions are waiting to emerge. They just may not come quickly enough for some of us.

Edward Vaizey is a board director of Consolidated Communications


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