The bee side - My pensions bill's better than yours.
The so-called debate that has accompanied the pensions bill in its passage through its second reading and committee stages has finally moved on from the 'is, isn't; IS; ISN'T! - touched you last - you're IT!' stage to the 'all right, so what, but that doesn't mean we're sulking' stage. It'll probably have to go through the obligatory 'does, doesn't; DOES, DOESN'T!!!' stage too I suppose, but it will eventually calm down by the time playtime is over.
In the end it looks as though we will have new pension legislation heading for the statute books. But that may come with the prospect of retrospective legislation to follow sometime whenever. It's part of the deal that seems to have been brokered to get everyone to put their toys back in their prams and back into the classroom with their shirts tucked in and, after being sternly warned, agreeing not to keep staring at each other all afternoon. Evidence, I guess, if any is needed, as to the truth of the well known adage that people who like legislation are like people who like eating sausage: they're better off not knowing how it's made.
The big row over this particular pensions bill has been around the unfortunate fact that widespread means-testing for the elderly these days puts a finite limit on the number of people for whom saving is suitable. That's a bit of a problem for the government ministers charged with auto- enrolling something like 10 million citizens into pension saving in 2012. Any one of the 40% of today's working population who will be in line for means- tested handouts when they hit retirement will find the value of their private savings diminished by something between 40% and 100% as a result. That could be seen by some as a bit of a blow after a lifetime's hard graft and, by any measurement, must surely represent bad value for money.
Government ministers have been through the usual stages of denial and eventual acceptance on this issue. To start with, the threat to the value of people's savings by means-testing was not accepted at all. I even had a petition on the Number 10 website with thousands of signatories asking for a guarantee that a pound saved in a pension would make savers at least a pound better off than non-savers dismissed as missing the point. That rejection was a sign of those times and it's interesting that things have now moved on a bit.
Where we got to after that was somewhere along the lines of 'well it might be a problem, but it's not a big one' which, of course, begged the question: 'So how many people will be affected then?' The astounding response to that appears to be something like: 'Well we don't know, but we'll go away and find out if we can just get on with making the pensions bill law in the meantime anyway.'
I don't know whether it's just me, or if other people think the best thing to do if we don't know what we're doing is to stop for a while until we know what we're dealing with. As things stand, the new laws will be with us in the summer, but the review into means-testing won't be out until next winter. At that stage we'll need retrospective legislation to enable us to change horses in midstream and people like me will be in real danger of running out of cliches to use for future articles.
First published in Pensions Management, March 2008