Duncan Buchanan described himself as pessimistic about pensions at the Society for Pensions Professionals’ annual dinner, Sara Benwell finds out why

Duncan Buchanan is surprisingly chipper when I meet him on a wet and windy winter’s afternoon.

It’s perhaps surprising, because during his swansong speech at the Society for Pensions Professionals’ annual dinner he described himself as pessimistic about pensions – a complete turnaround from the previous year.

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Despite his upbeat mood, Buchanan assures me his outlook remains gloomy. It’s an obvious place to start our conversation and I’m intrigued as to what’s changed his opinion so drastically in the last twelve months.

His worries are threefold and they all have communications at their root.

The problems start with the state pension changes. “For every winner there’ll be a loser,” he explains, but he is most fearful for those who have worked all their life but will be worse off under the new system.

For every winner there’ll be a loser” 

He thinks that the changes have been communicated poorly.  He points out that The Pensions Advisory Service has already been inundated with calls, even though it has just begun sending people their COPE (contracted-out pension equivalent) statements. ”People don’t know they were contracted out,” he laments,  “they just thought they were in a pension scheme”.

He believes the advice gap could cause real problems, too. “We need a system of financial advice that’s accessible and affordable,” he says, but argues that the focus on “regulated advice” means it is too expensive for most people.

We need a system of financial advice that’s accessible and affordable”

He’s not happy with the government’s overall approach to communications. He says: “Sometimes people at the Treasury and the Department for Work & Pensions think old people can’t use the internet, but that’s not the case.”

He suggests that one solution could be “retirement-specific advisers” who can help people navigate the myriad choices available at retirement and thinks technology could help with this.

The gap between the young and the old clearly bothers Buchanan. He’s concerned about the triple lock coming at the expense of younger taxpayers, particularly against a backdrop of unaffordable housing and student debt.

And he’s worried about how we can persuade young people to save in the face of such challenges.

Factfile

Duncan Buchanan is a partner in the law firm of Hogan Lovells, and the outgoing president of the Society for Pensions Professionals. He has been a pensions lawyer since 1992. Before that, he was a corporate finance lawyer for a couple of years but got bored of sitting in meetings not practising the law (which is why he chose pensions).

Married with two sons, he has a sailing boat on the south coast.

He’s not all doom and gloom, though – he says he’s astonished by how much defined contribution pensions have improved – and believes that better communications could help. For instance, better engagement could help people to start saving earlier – although he realises that for many young people saving more is not an option.

DC contributions are so low – people are going to have to retire later”

At the other end of the scale he believes more engagement can encourage people to work longer and leave their money to accrue for longer.

He tempers all this with realism. “DC contributions are so low – people are going to have to retire later.”

An increase in state pension age would help, he says, but he doesn’t think any serious rises are on the cards, especially since the new freedoms have proved so popular. “We should be honest and say pensions are to fund your living expenses in old age, not the nicer things in life in middle age [i.e. 55].”

“But why would [politicians] come up with an unpopular policy just because it’s better for society?”

When I point out that the latest ONS figures put longevity estimates up to 100 he laughs, saying “see – 55 really is middle-age now.”

Why would [politicians] come up with an unpopular policy just because it’s better”

We discuss priorities for his final months in office, such as the outcome of the Financial Advice Market Review, the Budget and changes to allow people to re-sell their annuities. He is particularly worried about the latter. “That’s another challenge, to make sure that people are protected from themselves,” he says.

However, he seems most concerned about possible changes to tax relief.

When I ask what he’d like his legacy to be, he says he would be happy if he can help stop the ‘pension Isa’.

Turning his thoughts back to the Society he is most proud of the renewed vigour he feels he’s brought, and pleased with the educational evenings and debates that have been introduced.

And for his successor – more change ahead.

George Osborne turned the world upside down”

“When I said I’d like to be considered for president, I thought it would be a relatively easy ride, but then chancellor George Osborne turned the world upside down.”

“There is going to be more change,” he concludes.