Anthony Arter: 'A great privilege to help'

As he prepares to step down, the ombudsman reflects on his career and hopes for dispute resolution

Hope William-Smith
clock • 14 min read

Anthony Arter has a heart for justice. And while it can be argued that law and justice are cousins at best, it is evident the pensions ombudsman and former lawyer has been fuelled throughout his career so far by a strong sense of fairness.

This has seen him take on an extraordinary number of cases and commitments at The Pensions Ombudsman (TPO) since his appointment in 2015. 

Arter's firm belief that pensions should be just, simple, and accessible for savers has provided the anchor through which he has campaigned, developed, and implemented some of the biggest changes to pensions governance the industry has seen. 

Now, as he prepares to step down from his role as ombudsman, Arter shares this journey, and lays out - with the same constancy that has underpinned his time in the hotseat - his expectations and hopes for his successor. 

The road to TPO

The "human element", as Arter describes it, is what drew him to pensions, starting with his early involvement in pensions law.

"It's important for trustees and companies to abide by the rules and protect individuals," he says. "As well as protecting the investments from a company point of view, it is making sure they're doing the right thing for their employees but also protecting the viability of the company."

Arter spent six years as a solicitor at Eversheds (now part of Eversheds Sutherlands) before becoming a partner in 2001. Over the next 13 years with the law firm he involved himself in work with its pension scheme and was head of pensions between 2005 and 2013 as well as the director of Eversheds' trustee company, Bridge Trustees. Arter was elected to the main committee of the Association of Pension Lawyers in 2008 and upped his workload again with a nine-year stint as a trustee, and later chairman, of the FMC Chemicals Pension Plan.

After Eversheds, Arter moved to TPO where he feels "it is a great privilege to actually be in the organisation".

"I really do believe I'm very lucky," he reflects. "I've always been involved in charitable work, wanting to help others, and so the role of the pensions ombudsman just ticked every box for me."

The credibility and impartiality of TPO's service is vital, he says. "I really believe in that, so that the service is respected by the pensions industry and the public alike."

The ombudsman is not just championing causes but "looking at an issue from both sides" to reach a right outcome, he adds. "I was also quite keen to have the ability to put some things right that I felt were wrong with the way things were when I arrived."

Facilitating change

Central to Arter's professional mission as ombudsman has been the streamlining of services for the public. With The Pensions Advisory Service (TPAS) having been set up as a form of charity in the 1980s and then TPO's establishment in the 1990s to resolve disputes, Arter laments that two bodies were doing the same work in only "slightly different ways".

"We all know pensions are complicated for members of the public and really complicated for those who have never been involved in pensions," he says. "Suddenly a member of the public has an issue: where do they go? Do they go to TPAS or TPO?"

He explains: "They could go straight to the ombudsman, and not go on TPAS - although if they do go to TPAS, they might have a quicker result. On the other hand, if the complaint isn't resolved by TPAS, it ends up going to the ombudsman to begin the whole process again."

The process created a "muddled waste of time", Arter says, with many pension savers waiting for more than a year for simple issues to be resolved. "It didn't make any sense to me, and I just felt it should be one body," he adds. "There was a triennial review in 2014 that said we should be working to simplify the whole-customer journey, and for me this was a simplification opportunity to merge the two."

While Arter wrote to then pensions minister Richard Harrington, the services were not merged until 2018.

"I felt quite strongly about trying to reduce the time in which complaints took to resolve," he continues. "The number of complaints were increasing when I arrived, and there were limited results."

To combat this, Arter began to spearhead a change to an informal approach and an expansion of TPO's roster of volunteers. 

"Before I arrived, 95% of complaints ended with a determination by the ombudsman. Today, 95%-plus of complaints are actually resolved by informal resolution with consent, and that saves a lot of time," he says. "It's really made a big difference to the way in which we operate."

Arter would also like to see changes to schemes' internal complaints processes. "We urge schemes to adapt a one stage process," he says.

"Many schemes still have a two-stage process, it actually takes them a further six months or maybe more to resolve a complaint going through their internal processes before it comes to us which is obviously a resource cost for the organisation, and also an additional stress to the member."

Planning ahead

A career of balancing work priorities with voluntary engagement and activities also saw Arter take a leap forward in championing work/life balance initiatives at TPO, including flexible working.

"I introduced flexible working for the office in 2018, which meant that people only had to come in two or three days a week," he explains. "I wanted to allow more flexibility for the staff who had young children or were carers, but I also just thought it was the right thing to do." 

There are no core hours for Arter's staff either, which he calls "a big trust thing". He continues: "It's been a huge success, and I also have my call centre and it's the same rules for them - they could operate from home." While the Covid-19 pandemic sent many organisations into a frenzy last year - squeezing many with legacy rules into the realities of modern working - Arter's staff were able to make a far more seamless shift.

"All I had to do was say ‘right, we're 100% at home' and that was that," he recalls of March last year. "It was a major boost for the office, because we weren't suddenly stopped from working."

Along with some challenges in assembling volunteers effectively throughout the pandemic, Arter admits a new concern was born in how the working reality shift would begin to affect his staff as the difficulties of 2020 dragged on.

"The challenge for me, in running the organisation, is to make sure that every individual has support, and we all know the mental effect it has had on a lot of individuals over the past year," he says. "The isolation, and in some cases, there are those whose life revolves around their work and not around their home, and that all suddenly came to a stop."

Key to Arter's approach is strategising to ensure TPO can identify staff who are vulnerable. "It's sometimes quite tricky and difficult," he says, adding: "I'm making sure we give support, and run quizzes and the sorts of things that keep people connected and informed."

These same staff face a momentous challenge in the coming years and will not be able to close the chapter on coronavirus. Arter warned the Work and Pensions Select Committee about the potential workload increase on TPO due to the steep incline in scam activity back in July, admitting his service was already "inundated". 

Arter told the committee that he had met with other ombudsmen recently to discuss the expected increase in new cases as a consequence of Covid-19. While he feels TPO is yet to "hit the high figures" in caseload numbers, he has already labelled 2022 "a very difficult year".

"I think there will be an increase in those who are unemployed and desperate for money. Scammers will be active in encouraging people to part with their money and those who are desperate to pay their rent or pay their mortgage or whatever it is, perhaps provide food for their children, will be tempted."

While the numerous industry-wide actions on combatting scams are a positive help, Arter believes there will be "more and more in spite of great campaigns running". TPO, he fears, will face one of the heaviest burdens from the problem.

"Government finances are now obviously extremely stretched, so I can't see much in the way of extra resources," he says. "The challenge for my successor will be managing the increase of complaints with the same resource, and providing a service that delivers what it always has done."

Kicking goals

Four more non-executive directors were appointed to TPO's board last month by the Department for Work and Pensions. Along with the permanent appointment of Caroline Rookes as chair last November, the board will finally be at full capacity as recommended in a tailored review more than two years ago.

Now just Arter's role remains up for grabs, the filler of which is set to receive an annual remuneration package of more than £143,000. 

"Interpersonal skills will be really important," Arter notes. "They'll need those skills internally within the office but also externally, meeting other people, whether it be public stakeholders or whoever it is, it's really important skill to have."

And Arter's successor won't just have ombudsman duties to consider. "They have two roles. They are the chief executive, not just the judicial decision maker. They are running the organisation, and in doing that, they require business skills and to understand the art of what is possible to make the business successful." 

The new ombudsman will also need "a good eye on reserves". "Bearing in mind that it is a limited resource, they will have a budget which they can spend in different ways, and it'll be a matter of experience, but they will have to understand how to use that money to achieve the best outcome," he stresses.

The next range of skills is investigative, Arter says. "Making sure that they understand the issues, examine them properly, and have the experience and understanding to be able to do that is a skill in itself. Ideally, they would also be legally qualified, because they are acting in a judicial capacity; their Determination can only be overturned if they get the law wrong. The ombudsman's opinion regarding the facts can't be and won't be changed by a higher court."

Arter admits the role calls for "quite a mix" of skills, adding: "Ideally, they will also have pensions experience, because that's what they're dealing with, pensions disputes, day in and day out." 

"Pensions are complicated when you consider all the different types of arrangements, and when you look back in history, there are so many layers that are still there, be that of legislation and types of schemes, and the new ombudsman has got to be able to understand that when they're looking at a complaint. Maybe they will have to consider things that happened a few years ago and the impact of different regulations at that time."

While the next ombudsman may not have all the ingredients, Arter says the perfect dish can be made by relying on TPO's other staff.

"Fortunately, they will have an experienced team, and they should listen to the team, and learn from them. They need to be able to learn quickly."

Charity work

Charity work has been a pillar for Arter throughout his career, starting with being in charge of his company pension scheme while a senior partner at Eversheds. In addition to his position as trustee director of the Action for Children Pension Fund, Arter has in the past worked extensively with the business volunteering organisation Business in the Community, and has been Prince Charles' London ambassador for volunteering.

"It's really important for me to be able to give something back," he says. "Not everyone is as fortunate, not everyone has sufficient, and many people are putting up with an awful lot in life; they need support and help."

In his time as ombudsman, he has continued to promote the benefits of volunteering activities to his staff, who are able to take a volunteering day each year.  

"I think those of us that have been fortunate enough to be successful and not have to worry about paying bills, etc , should perhaps give something back to those less fortunate," he says, adding: "It is in itself is almost being selfish because you get such pleasure from doing it - it's always surprising what you can get from giving."

Arter continues: "I've been able to volunteer a lot throughout my career but having said that, my priority is my job, whatever I do in a voluntary capacity has to fit around it. I feel you have to get your priorities right. It  would be no good spending my time volunteering and then falling short in my role as the pensions ombudsman.

"It is that balance that needs to be achieved, but I don't mind being a busy. I'm an active person." 

Life lessons

The biggest lesson Arter has learned in his career, he says, is not to jump to conclusions. His broader  approach of careful consideration and giving space to an issue that cannot be solved are also borne from this. 

"When working through an issue, I think it's very important to challenge yourself, but also be humble as well because it is important to listen to other people's opinions, not just rely on believing you know the answer to everything.

"Not jumping to conclusions, whether that be particular wording - and what that means within the context of the trust and the rules of a particular scheme - is important. Often when you reflect, it's sometimes not worth making a decision in that moment, it's best to give yourself a breather, perhaps go away and come back to it, and then look at it afresh."

Arter also says that not working in isolation has been key to his success. "It's important to have a team approach as well as to work with other and help other," he explains. "They are the lessons I learned as I went along, first as a solicitor, but then also of course focusing on pensions."

Part of this approach was formulated in a chance meeting with Nelson Mandela during his time as a solicitor which remains, in Arter's own memory, one of his most poignant work-related experiences.

"I was able to spend maybe 15 or 20 minutes with him, that was a special privilege. He had a calming aura. The other thing was that there was a famous person waiting to see him, but he saw me first, and I thought that shows you the type of person he is, treating everyone the same and a true leader of people."

"I came along beforehand, but I wasn't then pushed to one side. It was quite a learning exercise and for me, that was quite special, and it's still in my memory as clear as a bell."

Back to the drawing board

While personal goals have been fulfilled, one wider issue that has not yet been addressed is Arter's mission for service simplification between TPO and the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). 

"It's difficult - you've got two different bodies using a different approach with different powers but dealing, perhaps, with the same disputes and possible different outcomes. It makes no sense, and in my view, what should happen is that the FOS deal with the sale of products and financial advice in respect of selling financial pension products, rather than pensions administration which should be solely dealt with by TPO - this simplifies the customer journey at one fell stroke."

"I just cannot see anything against it, it just makes absolute sense to me," he says. "And TPO can become more accessible through it, and through simplification in systems and approaches."

Better harnessing of technology and developments which could allow people to file, monitor and receive their complaint all online through a streamlined service or app and via a smartphone is another hope. Essentially, "anything in information or communication that is simpler".

While admitting he always wants to achieve more, Arter is confident he has achieved what he set out to do as ombudsman as he closes the door on the role.

"You never get to the end of that rainbow but by an large, I've absolutely done what I hoped," he says. "And now I'm going to have a break, because whatever I take on next I have to have the time for. I can't not give my all to what I'm doing."

Arter is carrying on his Action for Children work for now and outdoor activities, such as cycling, and water sports, are also on the agenda, as is picking up a good book.

"I used to really enjoy reading, but I rarely have time to read a serious book and I'd like to have more time to read," he says.

"There are so many good books being published that I read about and think ‘this is one I must read', but unfortunately, it just hasn't happened while I've been so busy."

 

This article was written in May 2021 before Anthony Arter accepted a one year extension to his role after the Department for Work and Pensions said it could not find a suitable candidate to succeed him.

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