Profile: SNP’s voice on pensions says Pension Wise is too constrained

Nearly nine months after entering Parliament as a newly elected Highlands MP, Ian Blackford admits he is still getting used to Westminster.

The pensions spokesman for the Scottish National Party says the traditions and frippery of his new workplace are “daft” and outdated compared with the more modern devolved assemblies.

He says: “Even when you take the basics of voting, we all have to troop through the lobbies. There’s eight minutes after the division bell rings until when you’re allowed to vote, and then of course the tellers have to verify the votes and all the rest of it.

“The whole process of each vote takes 15 to 20 minutes. And some days you might have as many as half a dozen votes. That’s an awful lot of time wasted. If you look at the Scottish Parliament, voting is electronic. That seems like an obvious thing but a lot of the ways of Westminster are frustrating. It’s not efficient but you’re not going to change it, so there’s no point getting too angry.”

It is one of the many teething pains for a new MP like Blackford, who was part of a wave of newly elected representatives sent down to Westminster from Scotland after he unseated former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.

It was Blackford’s third attempt to enter parliament after the voters of Ayr and Paisley South rejected him both at the 1997 general election and a by-election later in the same year.

By a quirk of fate, Blackford was defeated in the latter by Labour’s Douglas Alexander, the man whose own parliamentary career was terminated by Blackford’s SNP pensions teammate, and Parliament’s youngest MP, Mhairi Black.

“After I didn’t win in 1997, and also having stood in a by-election, I’d taken the view that door had closed and decided to concentrate on my career for a while.”

And so the Edinburgh native returned to the financial services world, where he was working at Deutsche Bank, ultimately running its equity business in the Netherlands. In 2002, he left to set up a consultancy business with his wife.

He says: “We did investor relations consultancy, some refinancing of smaller companies and some stuff on leadership and management. I sat on the board of a number of companies and did a fair amount of company mentoring. And today we run our own croft on the Isle of Skye as well. It’s sort of a jack of all trades and master of none kind of thing.”

Following a change of heart, running his own consultancy allowed Blackford to become a full time candidate in the build-up to the 2015 election, as he took on the task of unseating Kennedy, who Blackford admits was a well-loved local institution, having first been elected in 1983.

He says: “When you look at the tsunami that took place in Scotland, however, a lot of it wasn’t about individual candidates, it was about the fact that Scotland had changed.

“The [independence] referendum changed everything. And people saw the SNP as a party that was best positioned to stand up for their interests in Westminster.”

And so, both he and Black gained their seats, with Blackford leading as the SNP’s new pensions spokesman, while Black took the party’s seat on the Work and Pensions Select Committee. The duo have proved a formidable pairing in Parliament, securing attention for the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign, in particular.

Blackford says the responsibility to take the Conservative Government to task is heightened by a Labour party more focused on its own divisions than its role as Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.

“It is unfortunate, to say the very least, that they have not been as effective an opposition as they should be.

“There are times when we have worked together when we’ve been seeking to hold the Government to account on things like the Waspi issue, and I certainly welcome that.

“But there’s many other issues that are going to come up like pensions freedom, and we’ve had a more robust line than Labour.”

In particular, Blackford says he is concerned about the progress of automatic enrolment and its failure to encompass self-employed workers or those earning less than £10,000.

He asks: “We’re currently discussing what’s going to happen to pensions tax relief, but if you start to think about that pot of cash which goes in the form of tax relief, how could it be used more to wider auto-enrolment?”

He also says questions should be asked about the role of Pension Wise, and whether it has a responsibility to encourage certain decisions.

“The Government has abdicated their responsibilities with freedom. It should still be the default position that people are encouraged towards securing a regular income in retirement. As it is, I would question how effective Pension Wise has been. Part of that is because it is constrained, and it’s not in a situation where it can give effective guidance. It’s far too heavily constrained because it doesn’t take that default position that I would like to see, which is to tell users the preferred option for most people should still be to secure a regular income in retirement.”

For Blackford, these are the kind of topics that need long-term thinking and it is with this in mind that the SNP has begun pushing for an independent pensions commission.

It is a long mooted proposal that recently returned to the spotlight thanks to a pre-election push from the Association of British Insurers, the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association and the Trades Union Congress. The Labour government had previously considered similar proposals following the work of the Turner Commission although it was ultimately rejected by then Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton.

Nonetheless, Blackford maintains a commission is an idea whose time has come. “There’s a whole host of things that can be looked at, but it has to be taken away from day-to-day politics and really looked at in a more academic way. I would prefer to see a cross-party consensus as far as that can be done, but the vision that we have is something independent of government.

“It should be about how we get that architecture for policy to serve the needs of our population for decades to come.”

Five questions

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

From a friend of mine to apply to research and consultancy group Wood Mackenzie in 1982.

What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?

Pension freedoms.

What keeps you awake at night?

I tend to sleep reasonably well at night but probably whether Hibernian will ever win the Scottish Cup.

If I was in charge of the FCA for a day, I would…

I would not take on such a role and certainly not for a day.

Any advice for new advisers?

Always remember the old Stock Exchange motto: my word is my bond.


May 2015-present: Member of Parliament for Ross, Skye and Lochaber

2003-present: Director, First Seer

1993-2002: Managing director and head of Dutch equities, Deutsche Bank (Deutsche acquired the Bankers Trust equity business, formally Natwest Securities)

1989-1993: Director and head of Dutch equities, UBS Phillips and Drew

1988-1989: Analyst, Smith New Court

1987-1988: Assistant fund manager, Mercury Asset Management

1979-1988: Various roles in financial services