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Pension security can't be solved by tighter regulations

Originally Published 29 March 2004

The lack of pension security in the UK is a scandal, according to ESRC research at the University of Warwick. "The Government has continued to push a private solution to what is essentially a public problem," says Professor Noel Whiteside, who conducted the research. " The consequent regulatory morass has raised administrative costs, provoked confusion and destroyed the market signals that such a system was supposed to offer," she explains. "Moreover, the archives show that this solution has been promoted assiduously since the late 1950s. This is an old policy. It did not succeed in the past and cannot do so now"

The research, which is part of the ESRC Future Governance Programme, draws on the experience of French and British policymakers in the 1950s and 1960s to analyse the ways in which both countries adapted occupational pensions in response to the problems of pensioner poverty. France and Britain both opted for a similar strategy, but the way in which these have been developed reflects very different institutional structures and policy priorities, Noel Whiteside says.

"In France, pension security was viewed as essential to labour mobility and industrial modernisation, whereas in the UK pension funds were seen largely as sources of inward investment and as the means to limit state liability," she explains. The research findings demonstrate how differences in labour law allowed the French to negotiate a national umbrella organisation charged with guaranteeing occupational pensions (ARRCO). While in the UK such schemes remained vulnerable to employer bankruptcy, erosion of value and offered little or no protection for women (who make up the vast majority of the pensioner population.)

The bad press surrounding British commentary on the current French pensions' crisis springs from the cost of pensions in the French public sector, which is quite a different issue. Although its terms were renegotiated in the early 1990s, ARRCO still provides pension security today and retains the confidence of the French working population in the private sector. Although the scheme is Pay As You Go (PAYG), security rests on reserves roughly equivalent to one year's contributions. In the UK, on the other hand, conventions underpinning the privacy of employment contracts made direct state intervention in industrial agreements much more difficult. The result was a mass of small, voluntary occupational schemes, some without actuarial accreditation and many not viable in the long term.

Recent concern about the value of private pensions, and public scandals such as the troubles faced by Equitable Life, have stimulated the growth of regulation in the UK. However, Professor Whiteside warns that top-down regulation is not the answer to the current crisis: "An ever-expanding dossier of new rules and standards has been introduced, all aiming to improve pensions markets," she says. "However, security remains elusive and we should reflect whether a system based on caveat emptor is an appropriate basis for guaranteeing income in old age."

For further details contact:

Professor Noel Whiteside
University of Warwick
Telephone 0247-652-3173, Mobile 0797-443-1577, Fax 0247-652-3497