Earlier this month a group of Conservative peers met to discuss the Pensions Bill. After debating how the reforms could be improved in the House of Lords, conversation quickly moved to the lack of Tory pensions expertise in the House of Commons.
With Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith focused on the complex and stuttering roll out of universal credit, the key policy area has been left almost entirely to Liberal Democrat pensions minister Steve Webb.
And Webb has been busy. He has pushed one Pensions Bill on a single tier state pension through the Commons and is already proposing another on collective defined contribution schemes.
The daily political debate on pensions is between Labour Shadow pensions minister Gregg McClymont and Webb. The Tory frontbench is nowhere to be seen.
Centre for Policy Studies research fellow Michael Johnson says: “There are almost no Conservatives in the House of Commons who speak the pensions language.
“I’m already struggling to come up with anyone on the green benches remotely interested in pensions. It’s all pretty amateur.”
From a Government that has cocked up and U-turned on areas as varied as NHS reform to badger hunting, pensions reform has been relatively smooth and popular.
The disparate group of Conservatives who do talk pensions, such as DWP minister Lord David Freud who is guiding the Pensions Bill through the Lords, agree with Webb. No coalition differentiation strategy from the parties here.
Prime Minister David Cameron lifted the Lib Dem triple lock on pensions as his first general election pledge. Treasury financial secretary Sajid Javid and Treasury exchequer secretary David Gauke are responsible for retail financial services but are silent on pensions.
There are some backbenchers interested in the area such as MP David Mowat pushing for more transparent charges. APPG on pensions chair and Conservative MP Richard Graham hosted a Westminster Hall debate on annuities earlier this month.
Tory MP Harriett Baldwin, who is APPG on pensions vice-chair and used to sit on the DWP select committee, says: “I am not always a huge fan of Lib Dems but I do think Steve Webb is an absolutely fantastic pensions minister.
”There are many other Conservative colleagues that follow pensions issues closely whether calling for reforms on transparency, charges, annuities or tax treatment.
“All these things are ingrained in the DNA of the Conservative party. I am sure there are many colleagues feeding into the manifesto development process.”
Baldwin says the Tories will need to put someone in charge of pensions before the election. Former Treasury financial secretary Mark Hoban is a likely candidate and has started to raise concerns about annuity shopping around with his new found backbench freedom.
Hargreaves Lansdown head of pensions research Tom McPhail says: ”The Tories are not devoid of expertise. I am impressed by Hoban’s insight and understanding of the pensions industry, he is still very much on the ball.
”My guess is that as we move towards the next election we will start to see a couple of people emerge as party spokesmen on pensions.
”The Conservatives have already flagged up a triple lock and will jointly claim credit for the single tier state pension. They could also look at decumulation reform as it is a Treasury area and therefore more Tory.”