The five lessons of AE: Nest report details UK pension reform journey

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Blair: There were obvious challenges in pensions around costs and sustainability
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Blair: There were obvious challenges in pensions around costs and sustainability

Former ministers and policymakers reveal how AE was developed in new research project from Nest Insight and the University of Bath. Nick Reeve reports.

Nest's research arm has teamed up with researchers at the University of Bath on a report detailing the extensive pension reforms that led to the introduction of auto-enrolment.

The research includes new interviews with former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the members of the Turner Commission, and other leading policymakers and pensions industry leaders - all of which will be made public through a new archive.

Speaking at a launch event for the research project last night, Helen Dean, Nest's chief executive officer, said one of the reasons for setting up Nest Insight was to ensure that the lessons learned through the reforms were preserved.

"It's really essential that those lessons are captured, and essential that they're shared with academics and policymakers across the world," Dean said.

The report - Pension Reforms in the UK: 1997 to 2015 - highlighted five lessons from the 18 years of policy development and negotiations that could be used in future policy work.

The report's authors - University of Bath Institute for Policy Research professor Nick Pearce and research associate Dr Thomais Massala highlighted the "small, independent, politically astute" commission, led by Lord Adair Turner, as well as "continuous commitment" from ministers and civil servants across several governments.

The authors also emphasised the importance of a "strong and robust evidence base that underpinned a coherent package of key policy proposals", a "bold sense of direction with proactive consensus building" and the "consistency of the reforms with the historical architecture and political economy of the UK welfare state".

The research was based on dozens of government, academic and media articles documenting the development of pensions policy since 1997. The authors also conducted extensive interviews with policymakers and industry figures from throughout the period.

Interviewees included the Turner Commission's members Lord Turner, Baroness Jeannie Drake, and Professor Sir John Hills, and industry figures such as Nest and BT Pension Scheme chairman Otto Thoresen, former Nest chief executive Tim Jones, and former PLSA chief executive Joanne Segars.

Pearce explained: "The Turner Commission and the implementation of its recommendations is often considered an exemplary piece of policy reform, and with good reason.

"The Commission proposed a coherent and comprehensive package of reforms, based on rigorous analytical work, and built a consensus behind its proposals. The reform process was sustained across more than a decade and was taken forward by governments of different political persuasions. It succeeded in large part because it went with the grain of the UK's welfare state."

Massala added: "By drawing on the expertise and insights of those who were most closely involved in these changes, our hope is that this new research can shine a spotlight on both how and why pension reform was achieved and offer up important lessons to policymakers."

Vogue for commissions

Sir Steve Webb, the former pensions minister who oversaw the introduction of auto-enrolment, said the research would shed light on what helped the project succeed.

"There's very much a vogue at the moment for ‘commissions'," Webb told attendees at the event in London last night. "Everyone says that, because of the Turner Commission, we could fix pensions tax relief or the state pension age, if only we just had a commission.

"I think what is really interesting is how this research will shed light on how much it was about having a commission, and what it was about this commission in particular. I do think there were a lot of very special factors [about the Turner Commission]."

The 54-page document covers the beginnings of the Tony Blair-led Labour government's focus on social welfare and pensions, through to the Turner Commission, the development of auto-enrolment and the rolling out of the policy across the UK.

Find out more about the project here: https://www.bath.ac.uk/projects/the-uk-pensions-policy-project/

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