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Nic Cicutti: Thatcher’s big personal pensions failure


I don’t generally like Members of Parliament. Greedy, mendacious and self-aggrandising are among the kinder terms to describe their personalities. However, I do have a soft spot for veteran Newport West MP Paul Flynn.

Flynn is one of that rare breed of politicians who says what he believes in. As a result, he has always been denied preferment and will stay on the backbenches for the remainder of his Parliamentary career. Thankfully, he has grabbed at the opportunity this offers and speaks out regularly, usually with a great sense of humour.

On the day of the bogus and unwarranted Parliamentary “debate” held to discuss the death of Margaret Thatcher, Flynn pointed out that he once “unwisely” put down a written question, asking her to list the failures of her premiership. “The answer was disappointingly brief”, he told MPs last week.

“Another MP tabled a question asking her to list the successes of her premiership. The answer cost £4,500 and filled 23 columns of Hansard. Modesty was never her prime virtue.”

Possibly more significantly from the perspective of Money Marketing readers, it was also Flynn who – along with a number of opposition MPs – warned in the late 1980s that plans to introduce personal pensions in the 1986 Financial Services Act, without protecting occupational scheme members at the same time, was a recipe for disaster.

For those with short memories, it is important to understand how bitter the debate was at the time. Back in 1983, after the Conservative general election victory, Norman Fowler, then Secretary of State for Social Services, set up a committee to reform pensions, which included Sir Mark Weinberg, of Abbey Life, Hambro and SJP fame.

Unsurprisingly, the committee found itself supporting the idea, promoted by the free-market Centre for Policy Studies think-tank, of a new “portable pension” to replace old-style occupational schemes.

The government threw its weight behind these proposals, notwithstanding warnings from the Opposition that there would be “over-selling” and that many would end up worse off.

Michael Meacher, Labour’s spokesman on social security matters at the time, told me: “Despite the fact that we were raising a whole series of valid points, ones on which we have subsequently been vindicated… there was a blind refusal even to acknowledge the merit of any facts that conflicted with [theirs].”

Not only, but in an attempt to weaken the state’s own provision of a pensions safety net, the government dangled the carrot of an additional tax rebate as an incentive to encourage contracting out of Serps and into private schemes.

The result was predictable: as FT journalist Norma Cohen wrote years later, by the end of the 1988-89 tax year – the first year in which they were available – more than one million private pensions had been sold, twice the government projection. By the end of the following tax year they totalled 3.9 million, rising to 4.3 million at the end of the 1991 tax year.

In July 1992, a gathering of ministers and civil servants at Chevening was told that while “personal pensions have been a tremendous success… there are a few time bombs ticking away”. Such as a report by the National Audit Office which had found that while £9bn was paid in rebates from 1988 to 1993 to people who had agreed to contract out, the Serps bill had only been reduced by £3.1bn.

Meanwhile, all of Meacher’s predictions – and then some – about the likelihood of a massive misselling scandal had come true.

Which brings me back to Paul Flynn. Back in March 1990, he asked the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher a question: “Will [she] join Lautro and independent consultants in denouncing the wickedly dishonest advertising and overselling of personal pensions?

“Already, over one million people are likely to be worse off… Will the Prime Minister guarantee that when the time is right for those cheated millions… there will be a full- blooded Government advertising campaign to inform them of the truth?”

Thatcher replied: “People are perfectly free to take out personal pensions… Many people have exercised their choice. I recognise that choice is anathema to socialism, which is why socialism will be rejected in this part of Europe as it has been in eastern Europe.” Even on a subject as sensitive as this, Thatcher could only respond in ideologically confrontational terms.

As we now know, Flynn and Meacher were right and Thatcher was grotesquely wrong. More than £11bn was spent putting right the misselling scandal and even now there are hundreds of thousands whose retirement prospects have been permanently scarred as a result.

I have chosen to focus on pensions. We could also discuss the merits of the poll tax, of Mrs Thatcher’s use of incapacity benefits to massage down unemployment figures, of the virtual destruction of publicly-owned housing stock through Right to Buy or the blind belief in the benefits of financial de-regulation that she had and which she was happy to ram down the throats of people like Flynn.

My guess is none of these found themselves on the catalogue of “mistakes” Flynn asked Thatcher to outline. But at a time when hagiographers are rewriting the history of that period and Thatcher’s role in it, we should remember there is another, equally compelling version that will not go away.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at



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There are 41 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Thatcher was right people have choices she allowed people to make grown up decisions. Later they ( the politicians ) wanted to protect them from the opportunist hence lack of clarity from parliament led to the opportunist taking advantage and the public having made choices ( tricked, manipulated by media / Banks /financial service provider’s ) No politicians grappled the issue with any vigour after all no votes in it. What’s more we now have the politicians in charge of the money flow due to the banks and failure of regulation in the crisis oh umm

  2. “I recognise that choice is anathema to socialism, which is why socialism will be rejected in this part of Europe as it has been in eastern Europe.”
    What a woman. The greatest leader since Churchill
    who took Britain out of the hands of socialists who were hell bent on destroying it.

  3. Whilst hindsight is a great thing I have the following points to make:

    Why do advisers still pick up the bill for Government policy?

    Three of the biggest financial issues were all the result of Government policy:

    1. Pension Transfers – remember the adverts paid for by the government.
    2. Low cost endowments – introduced by providers under pressure from the government who wanted to encourage people to buy their own homes.
    3. Sub prime mortgage – again as a result of a government policy to increase home ownership

    And yet the Government then ignored its own complicit involvement and used the FSA to blame the adviser communit

  4. Well said Nic.

    She also failed to provide any protection from the onerous charging of personal pension plans for those for whom they were suitable.

    Ding, dong.

  5. Nic’s right again. we should repeal the anti franking and revaluation legislation and reintroduce frozen pensions.

  6. Not exactly a balanced review of pensions as you appear to have forgotten the biggest “problem” – the withdrawal of Dividend Tax Relief by Gordon Brown.

    While this lot are not much better as they have not reintroduced the relief, Brown single handedly wreck all pensions not just personal ones.

    Bottom line – don’t let any politician near financial services!

  7. Incompetent regulators 18th April 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Nic that’s just half the story and typically pc. So by not introducing the pp people would be better off eh? Ok so where would the money come from, growing on trees comes to mind?

    All people should have to make their own provisions, period. That’s why we have too many people sucking off the tax payer in today’s society. Get rid of all public sector pensions and make everyone save for their retirement. And if they end up with nothing, tough. Interestingly our poorer Chinese counterparts who get nothing save more if their income as is westerners.

    Ps and who are you to make such comments? A pension specialist? I think not.

  8. What started out as a critique of personal pensions seems to have developed into an indulgent expression of Nic’s political views.
    Why does he and MM think they are of interest to anybody?

  9. Michael Meacher, Labour’s spokesman on social security matters at the time, told me: “Despite the fact that we were raising a whole series of valid points, ones on which we have subsequently been vindicated… there was a blind refusal even to acknowledge the merit of any facts that conflicted with [theirs].”

    This sounds quite a bit like the FSA/FCAs refusal to listen to anything they are told from within the industry and I dont just mean RDR!!!

  10. Sadly this article seems only seems to discuss half the picture, if that.
    We should also consider COMPs and CIMPs which allowed many firms to set up group schemes which have benefited their staff.
    How about Group PP did this not benefit staff
    Oh yes Free Standing AVCs
    We must not forget SIPP
    No lets go back to the days of just Sec226 and Finial Salary schemes
    If you are going to discuss pension provision surely as JF pointed out Gordon Brown’s efforts have to be included along with Stakeholder. Wonder why so many Life Offices disappeared after this one!
    After 30 years in the pensions world, it is sad to see individuals are not encouraged to save as they were in the Thatcher years.
    Certainly true it was not perfect but there was HOPE

  11. Alister Darling also contributed to the demise of DB pensions and took great pleasure in the uptake of the stakeholder scheme, ingnoring the demise of final salary schemes. then add Aday pensions are a great thing if managed and funded well.

    Thatcher did good and bad I think the intent was good though.

  12. If it had been up to the Liebor party in the 1980’s I think things would have been VERY different. i.e. I don’t think the Soviet Union would have collapsed and Nic probably would not be able to write what he has here, but then again he probably would have been the Press commissar.
    As Neil Kinnock said, M Thatcher and Arthur Scargill deserved one another. Without either one of them the world would be a very different place. Whether it would be better or worse is immaterial. We are where we are.

  13. The Elephant in the Room 18th April 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Well done Nic! An intelligently written and particularly brave article, considering most of your readership are Thatcher loving Southerners who in the main are entirely ignorant of the destruction she caused to anywhere north of Watford. Thatcher famously said “There is no such things as Society” and the ‘me, myself, I’ culture we now live in is its direct descendent.

  14. I hate to say this, but I must…..
    I , yes me- Hugh Jarse, AGREE with Nic C.

    I need to go and lie down now……

  15. It didn’t take long for the shop steward to dust of the donkey jacket and return to good old picket lines of yore.

  16. Thatcher did not say ‘there’s no such thing as society’ – famously or not. This is a mis-quote that has gained traction.

    Something else that has been wrongly reported is that her funeral cost £10m. It cost £1m – the remaining £9m was Blair’s appearance fee!

  17. Yep nice left wing bias article that the BBC would be proud of.

    As we all know if Maggie hadn’t been elected we would still have ship yards on the Tyne and Clyde, hundreds of pits would still be open, British Leyland would now be a world beating car manufacturer, ships would still be unloaded by salt of the earth dockers rather than via modern container depots, Newspapers would still be printed using 100 year presses in Fleet street, and Nationalised trains would be providing a a world class,

    Yep had Maggie lost the election the North (above Watford) would now be a heavy industry coal powered world beating manufacturing powerhouse

    and of course any one reading this article would no doubt believe that if Maggie hadn’t been elected we would all be retiring on fantastic state funded pensions

  18. Half a job Cicutti, they call him.

    Talk to the Welsh Steel workers about safe final salary schemes, talk to the civil servants about the same.

    What Thatcher’s “ideology” meant was simple and that was take responsibility for yourself.

    Share ownership is a risk and so is property ownership. Final Salary schemes are a risk now days and so are personal pensions.

    But at least they are your risk and you in effect have the ultimate control in what you do with them.

    You wont hear many complaints from people who bought their council houses in London for a song and sold them years later for 10 x plus the value they bought them for and retired very happily. Thank you very much Margaret rest in peace content in the knowledge that you gave this country and the people in it the chance to take responsibility and some control for and of their own lives rather than remain under the yoke of the unions, sponging socialists and small minded government officials.

    The people who did not embrace the ideology of responsibility for self then, now drowned by inertia are still moaning about it.

  19. Everyone that talks about council homes being sold – you do realise it was the taxpayer that subsidised this, yes? We all chipped in to help people buy their homes and now we have a housing crisis. Yay!

    Anon @ 5.03. You are just as unreasonable as the posts you attempt to dismiss. Few would say that things wouldn’t have changed. It was the uncaring, dispassionate ‘let market forces have their way’ attitude that galls many of us. Managed decline was what was needed.

    And this point on the earlier page about Gordon Brown’s tax raid on pensions. People do understand it was a dividend tax credit he rescinded? What does that reduce annual growth by? 0.5%?

  20. @Tim Jeffs

    Yes she did. It was in her speech at the Party Conference 9th October 1987.

  21. @ Darren Council properties did not belong to the people renting them any more than privately rented properties belong to tenants. They were and should have continued to be be a socially owned asset, for other people to live at times of need. By forcing councils to sell them off at a discount, Thatcher enriched a minority and, removed two million homes from publicly rented stock. The housing bubble of the past decade was partly caused by the Tories refusal to allow councils to use receipts from council house sales to build more homes.

    Still, given your generosity in terms of giving away property you don’t own, I’m sure you will back the next Private Members’ Bill that forces any private landlord whose tenant has lived in their house for five years to sell the property at a massive discount. Sounds fair to me….

  22. Brian - retired IFA 19th April 2013 at 6:58 am

    Nic seems to have “forgotten” to mention that it was Paul Flynn MP who said, when labour were in opposition, that the SIB should be publicly funded. Now remind me, when Flynn’s party came to power, did that happen Nic?

    Perhaps Nic could elaborate on the consequences of Regulatory failure, especially under the FSA which was created by Paul Flynn’s party (oh dear Nic, a chink appearing or just selective memory ?) and perhaps Nic could explain why the law is no longer blind because , under Paul Flynn’s party, it is biased e.g the 15 year Longstop is disallowed by the FSA despite the Law Lords (previous to he FSA they were the highest law in the country) defining the Longstop and it’s use and never once disallowed one section of society.

    I could go on, but I suspect Nic will continue to ignore fact in favour of biased reporting.

  23. My parents exercised the right to buy under Maggie’s government.
    They did get a discount but by my reckoning, after paying rent for 40 years, they had already paid for a very modest home many times over.

  24. You can always tell someones political stance when they call the conservatives ‘Tories’ like a swear word.

    The council homes policy was an absolutely fantastic thing and allowed people who thought they would never own their own home and would always be ‘working class’ to move up in the world. My single parent mother purchased her council house and gave her huge pride that her working and bring us up was not a waste of time.

    What didn’t happen of course was that purchased money being ploughed back into more public housing which would have been the best option, but as I said Maggie made mistakes.

    Unfortunately ‘Benefit loving looney left’ (I can’t think of a Labour nickname that would be insulting as the name already is) won’t acknowledge the big picture and some Conservative supporters won’t accept there are some negatives to Maggie’s premiership (actually more do than Labours accept the positives).

  25. R.e. the ‘no such thing as society’ quote, she did say it… but it was followed with ‘there are men, there are women and there are families’ which always gets left out.

    The first part of the statement seems callous in the extreme. Followed by the second, I have always understood this to mean that policy planning for society means one size fits no one. Policy has to be responsible towards the individual, and the individual has a responsibility towards themselves and others.

    Personal pensions are a good thing. Greed is a bad thing. This industry has been far too greedy in the past and I live in hope that this industry will be at the forefront of responsibility in future.

  26. Nic said: “I don’t generally like Members of Parliament. Greedy, mendacious and self-aggrandising are among the kinder terms to describe their personalities.”

    Hmmmm…. pot. kettle, black

  27. RegulatorSaurusRex 19th April 2013 at 9:38 am

    Speaking ill of the dead.

    Yes it was a failure, so was “breaking the chains” and pension transfers, however Stakeholder and other ideas also failed.

  28. The other thing that Maggie did was give people aspirations, the aspiration to have to fantastic retirement by saving money or buying your house.

    Unfortunately a lot of people do get upset that their life isn’t planned out for them any more “My granddad was a miner, my dad was a miner and I’m going to be a miner” and can’t cope with “My dad was a miner, I’m going to be a teacher/ballet dancer/IFA”

  29. To all the socialist posters including Nic let me ask you one question;

    If there was a tick box on your PAYE/Tax return which said; “I wish to voluntarily pay more tax” and another box which allowed you to indicate how much more i.e 1%, 2%, 3% etc

    How much more tax would you voluntarily pay?

    Would you put society first or are you just like the rest of us me myself.

  30. The full “society” quote is as follows:

    “They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation”

    I have never seen a member of the entitlement species actually make a genuine attempt to dispute the above statement rationally – they simply misquote it. This says a lot about how their minds work.

  31. A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well.1Timothy 3.12
    No point in trying to sort out the rest of society if you cannot manage your own house. This is what Maggie was on about.
    As true today as it was then.

  32. The Elephant in the Room | 18 Apr 2013 1:50 pm

    As a proud northerner I think you will find that industry in this country was already being destroyed by unions who thought they ran the country rather than the elected government, be that Labour or Conservative; or have you forgot the 3 day weeks and power cuts?

  33. @ Sean
    I certainly have not forgotten those miserable days.
    It was like living in a third world country. Everything was bleak and Maggie was a breath of fresh air.
    Perhaps those bemoaning Maggie’s approach think scargill or kinnock would have done a better job.
    The unions were running the country in those days.
    Now it is the quangos.
    We need someone with Maggie’s steely determination to come in and smash their grip on the country.

  34. Grey Area – the ‘society’ stuff was not said in a speech to the Conservative Party, it was in an interview with Woman’s Own and was taken wildly out of context full interview here

    Actually, Nic’s article is one of very few I have read that has been written from a left of centre viewpoint (which he has every right to have) which is based on thorough research and evidence and isn’t just a load of hate-filled, vacuous rubbish about witches and pitch-forking miner’s babies and stuff. Well done Nic – I don’t necessarily agree with the conclusion but the argument has been well made and was well worth reading. Thank you.

  35. @Elephant in the room. Not only selective quoting of M Thatcher’s society quote, but total ignorance of what WAS south of Watford. My grandfather helped commission the Kent Coal fired power station at Rich borough, I went to school with friends who became miners or deck hands on cross channel ferries, In served in the TA with about 15% of us being miners and another 15% being involved with the ferries.. TIMES CHANGE, if we don’t change with them we become extinct, just like the Soviet Union. As someone else posted the Quangos are a similar undemocratic problem to what the Unions in the 70’s had become.

    I was always a union member when I worked in an industry where I could be one, but I was never so blkinkered to always vote for a political party rather than based on the MP, coujncillor and stated intended policies at the time.
    I have voted Labour, Tory, Lib Dem mom and Green depending upon the issues. Never voted for J Aitken as I thought he was dodgy (and provided to be so)

  36. In the past I have often been pilloried for being a Nick Cicutti sycophant. However, concerning his latest piece, “Thatcher’s Big Personal Pension Failure”, I find myself very much in disagreement. That Nick is anti-pathetic to Mrs Thatcher and I being in the opposite camp is not entirely surprising. However I would make the following points in response to his article.

    First of all with regard to personal pensions I don’t deny that the detail was perhaps lacking, but then successive Governments, particularly those that Mr Cicutti might favour, have done even worse. The fault lay not so much with the idea, but with the usual opportunistic and venal way the industry took advantage of the loopholes (some may say opportunities) and the abysmal failure of Regulators to prevent damage before it occurs. Governments have always demonstrated their lack of detail understanding when it comes to retail financial products in general and pensions in particular.

    She may have got the detail of contracting out somewhat wrong but that she was right in principle is proved by what is happening today in so far as S2P, as contracting out has become, is going to be done away with entirely as she recognised more than 20 years ago that this element of State Pension was unsustainable. Indeed the whole ethos of low taxation and allowing people to make their own decisions is written right through the whole idea. That we now have a Nanny State ready to wipe any nose is nothing to be proud of.

    But in broad outline the Personal Pension idea of the Thatcher Government was absolutely right. I have never made any secret of the fact of my antipathy towards the Final Salary Pension Scheme which was always a calumny against shareholders and a grotesque open cheque book burden on companies. The real killer of Final Salary Pension Schemes was surely the Labour Governments of Blair and Brown who made the regulation so onerous and expensive as to make the whole operation even less worthwhile than it ever was. Again the philosophical idea of Personal Pensions is hidden in the word Personal which was very much along the lines of Mrs Thatcher’s ethos, that people should be responsible for themselves; which of course is diametrically opposite to Final Salary Pension Schemes where the responsibility of Pension provision is hived off. Of course it is also forgotten that companies are not there as benefit agencies. That doesn’t mean to say they shouldn’t treat their employees well, but their first obligation is to make sure that the firm is robust, that their employees are looked after by paying decent salaries and having decent working conditions and that shareholders are properly compensated. When their role is confused with benefit agencies you then see the problems that have arisen subsequently to great names such as General Motors and the struggles that firms such as BT, British Airways, the Post Office, Et al have in wrestling with their obligations rather than concentrating on running a business.

    We could also indeed discuss the merits of the Poll Tax. Unfortunately this excellent idea suffered from very poor marketing. The name itself didn’t help and perhaps a title such as Individual Council Tax might have smoothed the path. To this day I fail to see what was so terrible about asking wage earners to contribute to local taxation rather than have the burden entirely on the home owner. The old adage was that you could have two neighbours, one with an elderly pensioner couple in one house paying £X council tax and their next door neighbour with four earners paying the same council tax. Under the Poll Tax recommendation this chimed exactly yet again with Mrs Thatcher’s democratic principle: each according to their means – which of course doesn’t always sit well in certain circles.

    I always like to try and agree even when I seek to disagree and I very strongly agree with Nick’s first sentence in this piece. But at the same time regarding Mrs Thatcher, although one might agree with much of what she did, there are always points of disagreement, for who can agree with everything and there isn’t anybody who gets it all right all of the time.

    But overall, much to Nick’s disagreement I am sure, I seem to be in the camp that feel Mrs Thatcher achieved a huge amount for this country and set against the other Prime Ministers of the 20th Century and those so far of the 21st, I don’t think it is unfair to say that she was a giant amongst pygmies. She overturned the statist post war consensus and recognised that all too often consensus means constipation.

  37. The issue of council housing riles me quite a lot because I struggle with my bills and live in a normal rented property. Many of the people I know who live in council housing either earn more than me / the same as me (so I think why should I struggle and not you with your reduced rent! And you complain about the budget of free money they give you to decorate – p*ss off!) OR they are lazy so and so’s that choose not to work (often claiming copious amounts of medical benefit for a bad back or whatever that yes might keep them off work for a few days a year at worst but does not stop them lifting heavy items and working cash in hand) AND this ANNOYS THE HELL OUT OF ME. However the other people I know in council housing are elderly people (and I am quite happy with that) and people who are or have been struggling financially at some point (eg: single mums). The idea of selling council housing appeals to me as well as me feeling envious that I can’t buy a nice well built house with a huge discount as a hard working person. However on a positive at least when they buy the property that means us subsiding the rent STOPS. And if the money they pay for the purchase (which will almost certainally be cheaper than the cost of building a new property and acquiring the land) is received by the local authority they should use it to build more COUNCIL HOUSES – not these other types of affoable hosuing which are harder to get mortgages on. Plus they will make a little profit from the sale that can be used for other purposes.

  38. Oops sorry error in my post above at 9.29 today:

    Meant to say the money the council tennants pay for there house even after the discount has been applied to the purhase price, is likely to be MORE than the amount it would cost a council to build another similar property and purchase the land. This should leave the council with a surplus of cash.

    Anyway – Nic I thought your article was meant to be about pensions?

  39. “I don’t generally like Members of Parliament. Greedy, mendacious and self-aggrandising are among the kinder terms to describe their personalities.” Any article that starts off like this can’t possibly have any value. Foolishly, I read on right to the twisted end. Perhaps MPs don’t like this reporter. As far as understanding the history of the personal pension is concerned, there was little evidence of that.

  40. @ Ken Durkin

    “Any article that starts off like this can’t possibly have any value.” Good grief Ken, are you actually an admirer of that useless bunch? For me that was as near a perfect description of those numpties as I have seen for a very long time. It was precisely this sentence that whetted my appetite to read more. I didn’t happen to agree with the rest of it – as you can see from my comments above.

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