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Nic Cicutti: Why we should welcome Ros Altmann’s exit from Govt

Nic Cicutti

Amid all the ministerial reshuffles of the past couple of weeks, there is one departure that stands out for me for being both entirely expected, in hindsight, and – in a curious way – a completely welcome development.

The “resignation” I am referring to is that of pensions minister Ros Altmann, who stepped down a few days ago, a victim of Theresa May’s rather brutal and unnecessary cull of David Cameron’s appointees.

I will come on to what I mean by “welcome” in a minute. But I should first acknowledge that Baroness Altmann was, at first sight, one of Cameron’s more inspired appointments.

She neatly filled the shoes of Steve Webb, himself one of the few genuine visionaries to hold the Government’s pensions brief in the 18 years since the post was created.

Altmann was a candidate for whom the post of pensions minister was unlikely to be an intellectual challenge. It also had the potential for the continuation of a dynamic and reformist approach to pensions, unlike so many of Altmann and Webb’s predecessors in office.

Her depressing replacement is Watford MP Richard Harrington, a former property developer, whose appointment as an under-secretary as opposed to a minister of state marks a downgrading of the role.

Not only does it suggest that May will not be expecting any radical ideas to come from his department in the coming months and years, but the downgraded role is also more likely to form part of the old ministerial merry-go-round so common under Labour before 2010.

But if this is the case, Altmann must take some of the blame. Of course, no prime minister ever gives reasons in public for bringing ministers’ careers to an early end but, to my mind, Altmann paid the price for the decision to publicly criticise her former boss, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, after he quit earlier this year.Altmann claimed Duncan Smith had been looking to resign for some time as part of his campaign to get Britain out of the EU. According to the Financial Times, “her remarks irritated many Westminster Tories, who felt she was politically naïve”.

A similar naivety applied when, shortly after her prospective appointment as “consumer affairs” minister was announced by Cameron just before the 2015 election, Altmann sent an email to hundreds of financial journalists and other contacts telling us all how important it was to vote Conservative.

A few months later, it was discovered that even after taking up her role as pensions minister, Baroness Altmann was a member not just of the Tory party, but of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, having joined all three in March 2014 as director general of Saga.

Why anyone, even a campaigner, should feel that membership of all three main political parties is still important as a means of gaining access to government decision-makers, is beyond me.

Then there was the Government’s treatment of women who discovered too late that the accelerated raising of their retirement ages in 2011 meant their pensions were unexpectedly delayed for up to 18 months.

You do not have to be a “Waspi” and call for a repeal of the 2011 Pensions Act to see that what has happened to hundreds of thousands of women born between April 1953 and April 1956 is wrong. Altmann’s half-hearted defence of the Government on this issue also left a bad taste in the mouth.

After her departure, Altmann complained to the Jewish Chronicle that her time as a minister “has been the most terrible experience for me. I have felt under pressure the whole time; you have been squished and squashed in every direction and you just want to explode sometimes.”

At the time of her appointment, I wrote that I hoped her time in Government would not end up like that of former CBI chief Digby Jones, who was briefly trade minister in Gordon Brown’s “government of all the talents” in 2007.

Jones wrote of his time in office: “What I hadn’t expected was the omnipotent suffocation by process and the obligatory emasculation of original thought and initiative. The governmental machine demanded complete obedience in a way which anyone outside the Westminster bubble wouldn’t have believed.”

Altmann’s media interviews in the past week suggest almost exactly the same thing happened to her: many of her projects ended up on the back burner, possibly because of ongoing EU-related rows but also because if there is one thing civil servants hate is ministers with ideas and a burning zeal to carry them out.

Having criticised her time in office, I now need to explain what I mean by her “welcome” defenestration as a minister. Within hours of Altmann stepping down, I received the first email in more than a year from her, setting out trenchant views on pensions issues.

Last week The Times published an article calling for the Lifetime Isa to be scrapped, which she had previously argued for at length in a Money Marketing interview.

Her Twitter account, meanwhile, was busy calling for the lifetime allowance to be scrapped on the grounds that you should not penalise good investment performance. All great stuff.

In other words, Altmann is back to her campaigning best, what she is brilliant at. Welcome back Ros, we have missed you.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk

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Comments

There are 10 comments at the moment, we would lover to hear your opinion too.

  1. Julian Stevens 29th July 2016 at 9:27 am

    Pensions policy is decided by the Treasury. The post of Pensions Minister is just a token PR role. Ros Altmann can twitter away to her heart’s content but it’ll make no more difference than anything she said when she was speaking from a supposedly official platform. Steve Webb seems to be a decent bloke but I’m hard pressed to think of any aspects of pensions policy that were of his devising. It’s generally accepted that he had no hand in nor even knew in advance anything about George Osborne’s ill-considered (IMV) Pension Freedoms initiative and he himself has since done nothing to dispel that perception. In fact, his reluctance to do so merely confirms it. So what does it matter who is Pensions Minister?

  2. Neil Liversidge 29th July 2016 at 9:38 am

    I really don’t have a lot of time for those who get involved in politics then whine about how rough and tough it is. Those who can’t stand the heat shouldn’t go into the kitchen in the first place.

  3. I said as much at the time. Why any sensibe person would wish to enter the pig pen is beyond me. Perhaps she naievely thought she could influence things. Well she knows better now. Keep clear of the stench of politics and you can now go back to giving them Hell, Ros.
    Ask them what is the difference between Phillip Green & the 2011 Act?

  4. Why is there no Financial Adviser ‘industry’ / ‘profession’ that is on the ‘case’ for all of the pension issues that we all know about’ LTA, AA, Tax Relief, MVRs, Protected TFC, Pension penalties/restrictions remaining at the ubiquitous age 75, unregulated SIPP assets etc etc.
    eThe PFS is about education, the FCA is about jobs for the boys and protecting their a….s, Sales Lead / referral companies are running amok saying all sort of misleading statements or publishing emisleading statements from advisers / ‘client. No wonder FS is in such a mess and going nowhere.

  5. Andy Robertson-Fox 29th July 2016 at 1:01 pm

    There is little doubt that when she was outside of government she was able to influence decisions on certaiın aspects but as she has said she is a policies person not a politicıan.
    I would anticipate that as a minister she expected to get a fair hearing but with IDS and Osborne in particular followıng their own Universal Credit and Budget Balancing Acts the door for her was probably never even ajar.
    Now she has thrown off these shackles with her resignation one hopes she will be able to keep Damian Green and Co on their toes from the benches and pursue the cause of the frozen pensioner with even more zeal than before.

  6. Julian Stevens 29th July 2016 at 3:31 pm

    Ted Shaw ~ I think bodies such as the PFS do point out these issues when asked by representatives of the Treasury for their views on why such a large proportion of the population isn’t saving enough (if anything) for retirement. The bottom line is that the Treasury can’t have it both ways ~ if they won’t stop endlessly screwing around with the pensions system, then how can they be surprised that people are turned off by it?

  7. David Cameron was wise to find someone who knows about pensions to fill the Pension Minister’s chair but how stupid to then gag her and cause her grief, not to mention those pensioners whose issues are denied a fair hearing.
    He has lost any credibility in my view and no doubt that of many others.
    As Julian Stevens said “Pensions policy is decided by the Treasury. ”
    The politicians should have the right to free speech and put it where it’s at but and that is the problem with today’s government and politicians, they do not listen to those that they represent and follow the part line . Pity that the Conservatives gained a majority at the last election.
    Now that Ros Altmann is free of her gag, then I would hope and expect more from her in highlighting and hopefully helping to resolve the frozen pension and women’s pension issues and remove any other discriminative policy.

  8. Wether ROs was niaeve or not, she took the opportunity to try to change from the inside! She tried, and if everyone had the same attitude, maybe we would be in a much better position. It should confirm to the not so aware what government is about, the game where people’s lives can be ruined by lack of forethought. Proud of Ros for at least trying. Credit that she will not let it go and maintain a campaign for real people.

  9. The frozen state pensioners were so pleased to have Ros on the ‘inside’ to fight for justice on their behalf but it soon became apparent that when questioned on this scandal that she was spouting the same words from the DWP script that Webb was given whenever this subject came up. Yes she was unprepared, and no doubt disheartened to realise that the real power in the country is with the treasury. I know she took a lot of flack from the frozen 4%, who unlike the WASPI women who get all the attention, remain largely ignored and have been fighting for equality and justice for decades. I hope they can now look forward to Ros being in their corner once more.

  10. I agree with all of the above and Nic!

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