Friday, 15 December 2017

    Why the PLSA's Lesley Williams is on a mission to simplify

    Lesley Williams, group pensions director of Whitbread is on a mission to simplify, Sara Benwell finds out more

    This article was taken from our special Pioneers of DC edition of Pensions Insight.  For more case studies of some of the most well-established DC schemes, read the full issue here.

    ”I say that I’ve been involved in one way or another with DC since it kicked off,” says Lesley Williams, group pensions director of the Whitbread scheme and chair of the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association.

    williams lesley 2015 photo

    She’s not wrong. Her first brush with DC was in 1988, setting up personal pensions plans for an insurer, back when DC was still in its infancy. Since then she’s been involved in the creation or management of a number of DC schemes, including setting up the Pearl Group DC scheme.

    Over a career spanning more than 30 years she’s seen DC grow from a little understood alternative to DB into the most common form of pension arrangement – something reflected in the momentous rebranding of the National Association of Pensions Funds to the PLSA.

    LEARNING LESSONS

    During that time, Williams has seen attitudes to pensions change, from being seen as something that should be very technical and complicated, to something that needs to be easily understood by everyone.

    She says: “Back then we kind of thought the world should be multiple funds and lots of choice and complex protections and quite a lot of technical detail, probably because (if I’m going to be damning of my industry) we start with what we think people ought to know and be concerned with before we wake up to what they really want to know and be concerned with.

    Now, we are more member friendly”

    “Now I think we are more member friendly. It’s still complex, the products are still complicated behind the scenes, but we tend to try to present them more suitably than we used to.”

    As a result of this drive for simplification, Williams has stripped out fund choices at Whitbread with the result that the scheme no longer offers employees any choice whatsoever.

    She explains: “I’ve tried to make sure that as we’ve developed, we’ve developed things that work for the people who are on the receiving end, rather than things that work for us.

    “I know we are unusual but I don’t offer any fund choice at Whitbread anymore. I reduced it and with the support of my trustees we’ve gone one step further in that we’ve removed choice altogether because people have told me they don’t want it. They want those experts looking after those decisions for them.”

    MEMBER COMMUNICATIONS

    Communications is another area that Williams believes need to be simplified, particularly when it comes to auto-enrolment. She believes the shift to online channels allows schemes to present things to people more simply and there has been an increased emphasis on getting people to put more money away.

    She says: “There has been a growing focus on whether people are paying enough and less about the messaging around what your choices are. The realisation was that what we have in DC is inadequate for many people.”

    What we have in DC is inadequate for many people”

    In the Whitbread scheme this meant a step change in how the trustees communicate with members.

    Williams says: “We of course obey the disclosure regulations in what we make available to people, but our communications have become much simpler and much more single message, so we don’t come out with the complex statutory money purchase information.

    That information is there but we’re much more focused on the positive messaging about employer contribution and pot size and encouragement to pay more.”

    THE FUTURE

    For Williams the future means further simplification, whether that’s in supporting people through ‘freedom and choice’ or explaining the new state pension. Most of all, however, she’d like to see more coherent, long-term pensions policy.

    She concludes: “We need to get that focus back on why we have pensions in the UK and why we need them. Auto-enrolment was a really, really good example of great long-term policy. Somewhere between working that through and now we’ve lost the end goal. I think we have done some fairly mad things.

    “Most of all I’d like the future to have some joined up long-term social policy for pensions and long-term savings. Otherwise we’re going to have a disproportionately large elderly population supported by much smaller younger generations and if we don’t fix it, it will be a big UK issue.”

    This article was taken from our special Pioneers of DC edition of Pensions Insight.  For more case studies of some of the most well-established DC schemes, read the full issue here.

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