The PLSA at 100: A century of change

Edward Bogira begins a series of articles on the past, present and future of the PLSA

clock • 5 min read
The PLSA at 100: A century of change

What do Interflora, London and North-Eastern Railway (LNER), and the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association (PLSA) have in common?

They were all launched into a fast-changing world 100 years ago, in 1923.

The rise of telegraphy and telephony helped two green-fingered entrepreneurs set up their UK-wide network of florists. LNER was one of the ‘big four' railway companies created to streamline the chaos of the Victorian railway boom.   

But why did the UK need an Association of Superannuation and Pension Funds (ASPF) - the PLSA's original name?

Early beginnings

The PLSA's history really began in July 1917, with eleven people in a meeting room at the Conference of Representatives of Superannuation Funds. They had the common aim of lobbying government to make pension and superannuation funds exempt from income tax. 

Heading up the meeting and that mission was John Mitchell of the Omnibus, Railway and Equipment Companies' Staff Superannuation Fund, who would become the ASPF's first elected chairman when the organisation was formally established in 1923.

Mitchell and his colleagues led a successful opening campaign - and the 1921 Finance Act made pension contributions and investment returns tax-exempt, as they still are today. It seems political lobbying, conference networking and contentious debates about tax relief have been part of the PLSA's fabric right from the start!  

Major milestones

From those early beginnings, the ASPF quickly evolved in tandem with the pensions industry.  A 1918 Register of Pensions and Widows Funds (another output from that landmark 1917 conference) listed 41 funds, with a total of almost £5m assets under management (AUM). 

In 1957, ASPF members' AUM hit £1bn for the first time, and by 1970 it represented 2,282 funds.

Between the 1950s and 1980s, the organisation added more staff, wider council memberships, extra committees and changed its name to the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF) in 1967. The organisation's current offices in Chiswell Street are a far cry from the ASPF's first formal premises in 1947, a single room above an ironmonger's shop in Earl's Court Road, London. 

Annual conferences (1934), local groups (1950s), newsletters (1950) and pensions workshops (1971) will all be familiar to current PLSA members. But they've evolved over time: our conference to-do list no longer features a separate social programme for members' partners or TADs - the accompanying delegates - as they were known.

Pensions in interesting times

Some recent pensions challenges would have been familiar to Mitchell and his colleagues (financial crashes, pandemics); others would not (DC dominance, ESG investing). There are also a few that might well have delighted him (auto-enrolment and record numbers of pension savers).

For the PLSA's former chairs, dealing with shocks to the pensions and investment industry have made for interesting tenures.

Alan Pickering, who was chair from 1999 until 2001, recalls one of the biggest criminal acts in pensions history. He says: "In 1995, I was involved in the NAPF's response to legislation following Robert Maxwell's theft of millions of pounds from the Mirror Group Pension Fund. The final legislation was intended to prevent similar future fraud, but created a pensions fortress that sowed the seeds of decline of defined benefit (DB) pension provision. We were disappointed with the government's response and heavily criticised it for creating prescriptive policies in the rear-view mirror."

The aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis proved busy for Lindsay Tomlinson (chair from 2009 to 2011). He explains: "To save the financial system, the authorities crushed long-term interest rates. This exacerbated existing DB deficits and contributed to the pressures to close DB plans. We argued that the objectives of both The Pensions Regulator (TPR) and the Pension Protection Fund should include responsibilities to preserve high quality DB provision as well as safeguarding accrued benefits."

Perhaps the biggest shift in pensions provision this century has been the introduction of auto-enrolment, further establishing defined contribution (DC) provision as the future of workplace pensions.

Mark Hyde-Harrison was chair of the NAPF during its introduction. He explains "DC pensions, which had been treated as somewhat of an add-on, needed to change dramatically and become much more professional. We saw new entrants to the DC auto-enrolment market such as NEST and TPR started to consider how to regulate DC pensions more effectively."

In tandem, the NAPF updated its own committee structure to put a clearer focus on DC pensions, then further embraced the future of retirement saving by changing its name to the PLSA in October 2015. "The relatively simple age of a DB pension or an annuity with a single decision to retire is vanishing fast," explained former chief executive Joanne Segars as she unveiled the new identity.

There is one more 1923 landmark which underlined the start of wider social change. In that year, Dorothy Spiers became the first woman in the UK to qualify as an actuary. Since then, women have become part of a transformed work and retirement landscape with shifting pension savings needs.

We'll continue to evolve to support our industry and future retirees who'll have very different financial lives from the members represented by the eleven schemes who filed into that conference room over 100 years ago. You can find out more about the PLSA's current policy and research work,  as well as its plans for 2023 and beyond on its website.

Edward Bogira is head of digital and communications at the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association

This article, the first of a three-part series celebrating the PLSA's 100th anniversary, was originally published on the PLSA's website. It is reproduced with kind permission.


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