MM leader: The not-so-isolated case of Pension Wise failings

Natalie Holt, journalist with Money Marketing Photo by Michael Walter/Troika

It is often very easy for organisations to hide behind the excuse that when something goes wrong, it was a one-off failure. To suggest anything else would be tantamount to admitting wrongdoing of epic and endemic proportions. Suffice to say, this is not companies’ preferred PR route.

Sometimes though, stubbornly sticking to the mantra that misconduct was “just a one-off” can backfire spectacularly. Just look at the so-called “rogue reporter” that ended up bringing down the News of the World.

When Money Marketing first reported a Citizens Advice delivery centre was using Pension Wise staff on work unrelated to pensions, we were given the “isolated incident” line. In a mere matter of weeks, another case has resurfaced.

We reveal this week that one Pension Wise employee has been dismissed from the organisation after he challenged management on the rollout of training that was not specific to pensions.

Citizens Advice says the programme was about giving guiders more rounded training. Its argument (paraphrased) is Pension Wise guiders do not have much to do right now, so should be trained on services unrelated to Pension Wise. Training was never about redeploying staff, they say, but to give employees better overall knowledge. They were not going to use this knowledge, you understand. They would simply refer consumers to the people who knew about the subjects they had just been trained on. A convoluted argument if ever there was one.

So why does all this matter? Firstly, it matters because of the £4.7m cost being incurred by advisers to fund Pension Wise. The funding premise behind guidance is that firms which expect to benefit are expected to pay. But what benefit is there to advisers if the activities Pension Wise staff are carrying out are more closely allied to debt, unemployment and benefits rather than pensions and advice?

Secondly, whether it is additional training or full-scale redeployment, the root cause is clear – consumers are not using Pension Wise to anything like its full capacity. What does that say about the service supposed to be underpinning pension freedoms?

Thirdy, there are questions over whether Citizens Advice – with its sprawling network of independently run charities – is the right vehicle to be delivering guidance.

I was told recently that in certain industry circles it quickly became clear following the Chancellor’s “Budget bombshell” speech that pension freedoms had been devised “on the back of a fag packet”. The role of Citizens Advice so far in pension freedoms does nothing to dismantle that perception.

Natalie Holt is editor of Money Marketing. Follow her on Twitter: @Natalie_Holt_MM