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The trashing of George Osborne’s savings legacy

Prime Minister Theresa May began her tenure with a brutal cull of the Cameroons, most notably Chancellor George Osborne banished to the backbenches.

The humiliation of Osborne has continued with the rapid destruction of his policy agenda, especially on savings.

With his 2014 bombshell budget on pensions flexibility and mortgage schemes such as Help to Buy, Osborne can lay genuine claim to a radical savings agenda.

But new Chancellor Philip Hammond has other ideas. He has ditched the first part of his flagship Help to Buy guarantee scheme from December, although it was already due to end.

And this week, he abolished the construction of a second hand annuity market to supplement the pension freedoms. The second hand annuity market concept was the triumph of theory over practice. The idea was that pension freedoms had been given to those pre-annuities so why not offer a similar level of freedom to those with existing annuities?

Former pensions minister Steve Webb was a big fan and saw it as a way of boosting those stuck with low annuity returns to cash in.

The problem was the market was fiendishly complicated to create. The grand idea of free market thinking hit up against the reality of who would buy the annuities? Would consumers be well protected? Would a market function?

In a statement on scrapping second hand annuities, the government said the regime required too many consumer protections to be practical.

The ditching of such an important government policy for these reasons is an important signal about where policy will go next.

Osborne’s priorities were a mixture of ruthless electoral politics and free market thinking, Hammond’s priorities appear to be caution and a lack of appetite for gimmicks.

Here’s what it means for savings policy under Hammond.

Firstly, there will be fewer, if any, “rabbits out of the hat” that we had come to expect on Budget day under Osborne.

The former Chancellor was addicted to the element of surprise. He loved being the showman and shocked many with his pension freedoms, instant stamp duty reforms and minimum wage increase.

The grey Hammond is unlikely to follow his path. Instead he is dripping out U-turns from the Osborne era so they don’t dominate the news agenda of his first autumn statement on 23 November.

Secondly, fewer gimmicks. The end of Help to Buy and distaste for complex annuity re-sale schemes shows Hammond is keen on what works rather than what looks to work.

It is far easier for Hammond to play the serious man when there is unlikely to be an election for four years and the opposition has plunged new depths of unpopularity. But still.

Thirdly, there will be less ideological drive for free market ideas. May and Hammond have shown little opposition to intervention in the economy.

Whether it is cutting immigration, increasing controls on foreign buyers of UK businesses or savings policies, the new government is less wedded to free market thinking.

While Osborne was more ideologically flexible in other areas, he was keen on more freedom in savings policy whether it was removing savings taxes or supply side pension reforms.

This is a shift. And it could lead to further halts in the Osborne pensions revolution. Rather than tinkering with charge caps, the government could be more willing to intervene more forcefully.

Will Hammond really give the go-ahead to the pensions Isa now? Perhaps Hammond will be more concerned about its possible negative impact on auto-enrolment than Osborne.

Will there a stronger presence from pensions guidance regimes? In short: is the government ready to re-assert its grip on pension policy to try and create better outcomes rather than let freedom rip and see Lamborghini sales soar?

And finally, what does it mean for the state pension and benefits system? Osborne’s triple lock (well, Steve Webb and the Lib Dem’s triple lock, to be precise) on state pension rises has cost billions upon billions.

With inflation set to rise with a plummeting Sterling then we could see large increases in the state pension once again in coming years. This could be the moment when Hammond quietly drops the policy in favour of something more sustainable such as a guaranteed 2.5% rise, a slightly less generous version.

His Treasury is unlikely to perform any major shift on restricting pensioner benefits because the money saved is so little and the political cost is so high. But it can not be ruled out from a government looking to make a clean break and take on vested interests.

The Hammond and May era has begun for savings policy and the Osborne agenda is being trashed before our very eyes.

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