Labour’s new spokesman on pensions has hit the ground running, taking on the brief at a time of unprecedented upheaval in the sector. Louise Farrand meets him
Of all the world’s waiting rooms, Portcullis House must be unrivalled for the sheer diaspora of people who pass through its glass revolving doors every day. The World Wildlife Fund are sitting to my left; to my right are multitudes of young people wearing oversized suits and hoping to change the world.
There is one group of people who are quite keen for the government to change rather less of the world. The pensions industry has been transformed, largely by government intervention, over the last three years.
The day before I meet the new shadow pensions minister, Nick Thomas-Symonds, I speak to Ian Neale, director of Aries Pensions, who sums up the views of many in the sector. He tells me: “The priority is to give the industry a break. I know everybody’s saying it and sometimes we say it jokingly, but seriously, there is a growing risk of really some major problems.
“I think the industry is under a lot of pressure at the moment to deliver”
“We’ve got a government and a pensions minister in particular who is keen to continue putting the industry under the cosh. You’ve seen what [Ros Altmann has] been saying today in the press about legacy schemes [Altmann recently urged pension providers to scrap their exit fees and bring down legacy charges]. The industry’s capacity is close to breaking point.”
I put this to Thomas-Symonds. He responds: “I do think that there are huge issues facing the industry. I think the industry is under a lot of pressure at the moment to deliver on all of those things.
“What I would say is it isn’t just about the industry, it’s about government as well, and government can help the industry through this period. I think the advice gap is a classic example of where the government can assist. My message to the industry is the government should be doing more to help you.”
There’s a reason to vote Labour if I ever heard one.
But what of Thomas-Symonds? The 35-year-old is one of the 2015 Labour intake, a new minister who is clearly keen to master the pensions brief. A friend tells me he recently met her to grill her on all things pensions. He doesn’t know that much yet but he’s very keen to learn, she reports.
Before entering Parliament, Thomas-Symonds was a barrister and an academic. He won a precocious nod in the Legal 500 in 2011: “Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds is impressing in chancery and commercial work early in his call, and is already noted as ‘a great asset’ as a junior in the Court of Appeal”. He appeared again in the Legal 500 in 2012 and 2013.
His training is certainly evident in the confident, rapid-fire stream of thoughts he gives me during our 15-minute chat (when you’re a new minister, time is precious).
Thomas-Symonds runs through the top three issues on his desk at the moment. The first is the pension freedoms. He worries about a number of issues facing consumers who are seeking advice. “I’m not sure, as a member of the public, how helpful the distinction between advice and guidance is, if someone wants to access a pension. But it’s a very important distinction in terms of how it’s regulated.”
He is open to the idea of roboadvice, but is worried that it may not take peoples’ wider financial circumstances into account. “When someone is having advice, whether it’s at age 55 or going on, they don’t just want advice on pensions; the wider context is important. What property do they own? What are their plans? What are their care needs?”
He is also worried about freedoms from an adviser’s perspective. “Advisers themselves have to feel comfortable and certain in the regulatory framework, that they are not doing something that is opening them up to criticism and various liabilities … We have the Financial Advice Market Review which will be reporting before the Budget in 2016 and which I hope will provide some indication towards that.”
“I think planning for a structure throughout retirement is going to become more important”
Thomas-Symonds has studied other countries for potential learnings on the pension freedoms. “If you look at Australia, although it’s a different context and I appreciate that, Australia had this system for about ten years and then discovered that what was happening was that people were running out of money at age 75.
“I draw two major conclusions from that. First of all, it’s very important that the government acts now to prevent that type of situation happening here in the UK.
“The second is that the debate at the moment is very focused on advice and guidance at the point at which the pot becomes available. But I think we will have to look in the longer term at what people’s needs are throughout their retirement. People are obviously living longer, and I think someone’s needs between the ages of 55 and 65 are very different to their needs between the ages of 85 and 95. I think planning for a structure throughout retirement is going to become more important.”
Current role: MP for Torfaen & Shadow Pensions Minister
Past roles: Barrister-at-Law 2004-2015; Tutor/Lecturer in Politics at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford 2002-2015; biographer of Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan; Fellow of Royal Historical Society, 2012.
Education: St. Alban’s R.C. High School, Pontypool; St. Edmund Hall, Oxford University; CPE/PgDipLaw at the then University of Glamorgan (now part of University of South Wales); Bar Vocational Course (Cardiff University).
Family: married to Rebecca since 2006, with two daughters, Matilda (6) and Florence (3).
Outside interests: reading, football (fan of Liverpool F.C.), rugby, golf.
His second big concern is auto-enrolment. He says: “I am very keen on the principle of auto-enrolment, it encourages saving, but I do have concerns about those who are falling outside it, particularly women who have a number of part-time jobs.”
His third worry is the move to the single tier state pension. “I think there are issues in the sense that not everybody’s going to be a winner from it, there are certain groups of people – one example is the 700,000 women born between 6 April 1951 and 5 April 1953 – who are not going to be entitled to the single tier state pension despite the fact that a man born on the same day as them would be.”
With Thomas Symonds’ priority list exhausted, I wonder what he thinks of Workie, the contentious purple monster which is fronting the government’s new advertising campaign?
Is Workie patronising? He hesitates. “I think that it has an element of it that is not just an oversimplification… but it kind of takes away from what is a very, very important issue, I fear. Because the actual idea of the workplace pension is a crucial and serious one and I’m not quite sure that a giant, multi-coloured teddy bear is the way to do it.”