Tom Kean: Politicians are suffering from ‘detail fatigue’ over pensions


I am not sure this is a universal law of life but I am pretty confident many will empathise with me when I suggest that, after 20 or 30 years of work, one starts to form strong opinions based on actual experience rather than the “folly of youth”.

As you accumulate experience (and, regrettably, it is perhaps some of the more negative elements that stick) you finally begin to understand that even the most impressive entities can get things completely wrong.

Standing in the inspiring £4.3bn Heathrow Terminal 5 building this summer, my mind started wandering to matters of a less-than-critical nature, namely the enormous graphic display indicating the waiting times to get through security checks.

Both North and South had three characters lit standing in line. Now, I guessed the physical dimensions of the sign might indicate there was enough room for, say, eight people symbols but as the maximum capacity was not marked it could have been anywhere between three or 10 for all I knew.

I asked a bored-looking “person with no discernible purpose” if they knew how many characters constituted a full house, and they did not know either. Three hours early for our flight and somewhat bored meant it had little impact on our party but if you were late for a flight I suspect it might add to your woes. It seems £4.3bn cannot buy decent signage.

If T5 can get such a simple thing wrong and deem it unimportant what hope do we have in our overly complex and confusing world? I am not sure what this malaise is called but I am going to call it “detail fatigue”. And it is something that happens quite a lot.

The ever-splendid Ros Altmann’s social media output has given us all an insight into similar phenomena at the highest level of government, which makes for seriously worrying reading.

Against the “keep quiet and it might go away” school of policymaking, Altmann appeared to do her very best to try and advertise the fact certain types of pension schemes do not (or cannot) always facilitate basic rate tax relief to some low earners. She also made valiant efforts to bring to light the inequities of the new state pensions scheme to an unsuspecting public.

I particularly liked the way it took many months for the penny to drop about the new flat rate pension not being quite flat rate if you had previously contracted out. Her pained accounts of what happens in the higher echelons of power has been a real eye-opener and simply compounds the belief that we are all just pawns in a big game no one really understands.

I would rather believe it was just widespread apathy and ignorance in particular government departments, because the conspiracy alternative is really unpalatable. But from what Altmann is saying, it actually seems to be mostly deliberate with a smattering of detail fatigue. I can imagine that as a collective everyone assumes everyone else understands these things, when in fact they probably do not. Fearful of appearing stupid, such matters are only then mentioned in muffled tones with knowing nods and grunts until someone like Altmann comes along and exposes things for what they really are.

Unlike ergonomic disasters at T5, misunderstandings with certain elements of public finance can have devastating consequences that should be making the FCA squirm with discomfort.

Tom Kean is director at Thameside Financial Planning