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Re-assessing Steve Webb: Was he really a great reformer?

Former pensions minister Steve Webb oversaw an era of huge change for the sector. He has earned a reputation as a great reformer.

The new state pension, auto-enrolment, charges reform and the pension freedoms all came on his watch, so the argument goes. He’s the pensions expert who compares so favourably to the transient Labour careerists who came before.

Since he lost his seat in May he has been feted by the industry, collecting a number of prestigious industry awards with breathless tributes to his expertise and achievements.

But his reform record is very mixed. Let’s look at the big changes since 2010.

Firstly, auto-enrolment. Proposed in the 2005 Pensions Commission by Lord Adair Turner, the last Labour Government bequeathed the fundamental details so how much credit can be given to the new minister?

Some in the sector credit Webb with making crucial improvements to make the detail of auto-enrolment work and keeping it on track. Much of the detailed regulations still needed drafting when he walked into the DWP and some policy was still up for grabs.

For example, a Conservative-commissioned report into employment law in 2012 recommended small firms were exempt to cut their costs. But DWP held firm and it was rolled out in April this year to every firm in Britain.

That is no small feat but it was the successful management of someone else’s ideas. Was it down to the effectiveness of the DWP civil service rather than Webb?

Secondly, pension freedoms.  According to a new book on the last five years in Government, Cameron at 10, George Osborne was planning a 2014 budget for savers since at least 2012.

By the end of 2013 he was asking the Treasury for ideas for reform and spent months developing policy. Webb was only consulted two weeks before the budget.

Although Webb says he was enthusiastic and it chimed with his thinking, it is more than far-fetched to claim this was his reform. This was driven by the Treasury and Webb was merely consulted as a trusted and expert outsider.

“When they came along he was surprised as anyone else,” says one pensions insider.

Thirdly, charge cap. Labour shadow pensions minister Gregg McClymont first banged the drum for charges reform in 2011 when Ed Miliband backed intervention.

Webb dismissed it as “scaremongering”. In January 2013, Webb was even more opposed. He said: “Why doesn’t the Government set a price cap on a tin of baked beans? We don’t need to because there’s a vibrant market, people have lots of choice.”

But last year, Webb caved to pressure to back a charge cap. Dragged to reform rather than in the driving seat.

Fourthly, pot follows member. Last week, pensions minister Ros Altmann scrapped the plans to introduce it anytime soon. It is on hold indefinitely.

Pot follows member was opposed by Lord Turner, John Hutton, Labour and Hargreaves Lansdown among others. It is hard to see how it comes back from this setback.

Fifthly, collective DC. Altmann also scrapped plans for defined ambition and collective benefits last week – another key plank of Webb’s legacy. It was unpopular and complex and now it is destined for a life in Whitehall’s legendary long grass.

Sixthly, the second hand annuity market. Despite being within the Treasury, this was certainly driven by Webb and proposed in the March budget allowing existing annuitants to trade in their deals for cash from 2016.

In Cameron at 10, the authors describe the policy as a concession to the Lib Dems, who have now been decimated.

But as soon as Osborne had his own budget in July, just three months later, the scheme was delayed by one year to 2017.

It is very complicated and needs a skilled political operator to drive it through. That could be Altmann, who supports it, but it is one to watch.

Stories of providers not offering freedoms in April and concerns of exit charges have not gone unnoticed in the Treasury. Bad headlines about pensions spooking the grey vote are extremely unwanted.

Finally, there is one area where Steve Webb has had one significant victory and that is the creation of a new flat rate state pension.

Pensions are incredibly political and Webb guided through major reform with Labour support. You only to have look at some of the problems faced in education, welfare and health reforms in the last parliament to know this is no mean feat.

But some see major landmines ahead from poor communications of the reforms initially claiming everyone qualifies for a flat rate pension from next April, which is not true.

“His successor is now having to clean it up,” says founder Alan Higham. “His department briefed everyone would get flat rate It was an unnecessary bit of subterfuge. It was good policy and didn’t need spinning to embellish it.”

Higham says it is even more important now because pension freedoms and it could create scandals waiting to happen.

The reforms will endure as will his backing of a triple lock meaning the state pension will rise by inflation, earnings or 2.5%, whichever is highest. That is now backed by all parties and costs £6bn a year in extra spending.

But on private pensions, Webb’s influence was clearly very limited. He was either forced into action on charge cap, merely consulted as on freedoms or inherited popular reforms on auto-enrolment. And his big plans on pot follows member or annuity sales are in danger of being ditched.

His record is a mixed bag, at best.

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