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THERE IS some­thing I very much want to ban.’’ Baroness Ros Alt­mann of Tot­ten­ham (her favourite foot­ball team) leans in and fixes me with the kind of steely, de­ter­mined gaze that I imag­ine will be fa­mil­iar to many who have worked with her in Labour and Tory gov­ern­ments.

‘‘That aw­ful road sign of pen­sion­ers cross­ing the road with a stick. I hate it! Most peo­ple are not old over 60; this is the start of a whole new phase of their life. I want to ban that whole con­cept of dod­dery re­tire­ment — psy­cho­log­i­cally, that sign is an im­age not just to peo­ple but their em­ploy­ers, about what the word “old” means. It’s wrong.’’

That con­cept of right and wrong is at the core of the 59-year-old Baroness’s iden­tity. In an era of politi­cians of­ten ret­i­cent to spell things out in the way the rest of us might, the Min­is­ter for Pen­sions is re­as­sur­ingly forth­right.

‘‘I know how lucky I am to have had a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in the pri­vate sec­tor [she ran Chase Man­hat­tan Bank’s in­ter­na­tional equity depart­ment as well as stints at Roth­schild and Nat West ] and now to be at the heart of a pen­sions rev­o­lu­tion that I’m de­ter­mined will make life sim­pler and more ben­e­fi­cial to ev­ery­one. But I’m still a mother, wife, daugh­ter and friend. So I have that con­nec­tion to peo­ple and what drives them, what they fear and how they want to live their lives.

‘‘I’ve al­ways had this sense of right and wrong, that there should be jus­tice. It was in­stilled in me from an early age. Part of it comes from re­li­gion, for sure. But that isn’t the only rea­son I have such moral stan­dards. There’s a quote that is al­ways etched on my mind: ‘All it takes for evil to tri­umph is for good men to re­main silent.’

‘‘Much of my fam­ily was wiped out in the war, so maybe it stems partly from that. At school (Hen­ri­etta Bar­nett), if some­one was be­ing bul­lied I would try and help them. I would never join the ‘in’ gang and in the end that got me bul­lied, too. But I was al­ways look­ing af­ter peo­ple who were be­ing wronged or needed help. Not just peo­ple. I used to bring home wounded an­i­mals and birds and it would drive my mother crazy.

“But it al­ways seemed the most nor­mal thing to me, that I must do what I could to put things right.’’

Such earnest­ness in West­min­ster is nor­mally the cue for one’s in­ner-cynic alarm to buzz fu­ri­ously. But Baroness Alt­mann — brushed off in the past by politi­cians who feared she’d rock the boat too en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, and threat­ened by a pen­sion in­dus­try hor­ri­fied by her at­tempts to clean it up — has turned her­self into a for­mi­da­ble force for ‘‘do­ing the right thing’’, in­clud­ing giv­ing 20 per cent of her salary to char­ity.

So it’s not sur­pris­ing that the Prime Min­is­ter put her in charge of a chaotic, dis­cred­ited and mis­trusted pen­sions sys­tem to make it fit for gen­er­a­tions to come. It’s an in­dus­try that has grown in­fu­ri­at­ingly more com­plex as suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have en­abled layer upon layer of schemes, opt-outs, an­nual as­sess­ments, add-ons and a be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of acronyms to turn what should be one of the sim­plest el­e­ments of a work­ing life — you’ve saved this, we’ve looked af­ter and added to it, now it’s yours — into one of the most in­com­pre­hen­si­ble.

Un­der her guid­ance, the state pen­sion is tak­ing on a more sim­pli­fied, cor­po­rate ap­proach, while younger gen­er­a­tions are be­ing en­cour­aged to save for their later years by be­ing au­to­mat­i­cally en­rolled in a work­place scheme.

So does a life spent out­side govern­ment mean she’s any bet­ter equipped to solve the mess and give peo­ple the se­cu­rity in later life that they de­serve?

‘‘Ob­vi­ously, things are very dif­fer­ent in the min­istry than when I worked in the City or was self­em­ployed. Back then, if I wanted to get some­thing done, I got it done. It doesn’t work like that in West­min­ster, which can be frus­trat­ing. But I do be­lieve that, if you think some­thing is wrong, you shouldn’t be fright­ened to say so, even in govern­ment. There is a mo­ment, of course, when you have to shut up — and I am try­ing to learn it here. But I’ll al­ways have that at­ti­tude of want­ing to get things done.

‘‘My whole life has been spent try­ing to talk about pen­sions in lay­man’s lan­guage, to use com­mon sense but, when it comes to pen­sions, most peo­ple don’t talk in that man­ner. To me, pen­sions are about peo­ple, not about money. It’s peo­ple at the end of the day that need to live on a pen­sion. I un­der­stand many in the in­dus­try think it’s about money and profit. But un­less you un­der­stand the peo­ple, you can’t serve them prop­erly.

‘‘I’ve got friends who have PhDs who don’t un­der­stand pen­sions, which has al­ways as­ton­ished me be­cause they’re not that com­pli­cated. Un­for­tu­nately, they’ve been dressed up in jar­gon. Be­cause com­pa­nies sell­ing them had an in­ter­est in mak­ing it sound com­pli­cated so you were will­ing to pay lots of money to them or to a sales­per­son.

“Fi­nal-salary schemes de­vised by ac­tu­ar­ies were also com­pli­cated and ex­pen­sive. And be­cause the method­ol­ogy of state pen­sions has been based on com­plex cal­cu­la­tions on in­di­vid­ual cir­cum­stances over each year, things have be­come mind­bog­glingly com­pli­cated.

‘‘So, from April, there will be just one type of state pen­sion that you build up, re­gard­less of your age, earn­ings, whether you’re on ben­e­fits, and so on. Such sim­pli­fi­ca­tion is quite a chal­lenge to an in­dus­try which has not been used to think­ing about things in that way. We are mov­ing in a pos­i­tive di­rec­tion but some­times that mes­sage gets con­fused; there’s mis­un­der­stand­ing and mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion.’’

I as­sume she’s re­fer­ring to sto­ries that have, in re­cent weeks, put added strain on her depart­ment. Such as those spec­u­lat­ing about the abo­li­tion of tax re­lief on money put aside for re­tire­ment, and

I have al­ways had this sense that there needs to be jus­tice’

I alerted Blair but sadly the Trea­sury saw me as the en­emy

to the 500,000 or so women born in the 1950s who’ll be ad­versely af­fected by the ris­ing pen­sions age.

But she’s well used to be­ing in the cross­fire. In 2002, she found her­self in the cen­tre of an­other mael­strom when the Wales-based Al­lied Steel And Wire went into re­ceiver­ship and all those still work­ing lost their pen­sions in an ap­palling case of theft.

It was the mo­ment when she re­alised the sys­tem was fa­tally flawed and that, like the bul­lied school­friend in the play­ground, she had a com­pul­sion to stand up for what was right.

‘‘The irony is, of course, that I never wanted to be a cam­paigner,’’ she says. ‘‘It just so hap­pened that be­cause of my ex­per­tise in the in­dus­try (in­clud­ing time spent at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and Har­vard) and the fact that I had ad­vised govern­ment on the so­cial as­pect of pen­sions, that, by ac­ci­dent, I be­came a cam­paign­ing per­son.

‘‘I was work­ing with Tony Blair’s pol­icy unit at No10 and with Gor­don Brown at the Trea­sury about the in­vest­ment of pen­sion funds, and pro­tec­tion that was in place for scheme mem­bers. I alerted the PM that the new leg­is­la­tion de­signed to pro­tect mem­bers didn’t do what it said on the tin.

‘‘The Trea­sury, sadly, con­sid­ered me the en­emy. Then schemes started col­laps­ing and I be­gan speak­ing to the me­dia about the risks inherent in the sys­tem.

‘‘And the mo­ment I met those Al­lied work­ers, it all hit home. Won­der­ful peo­ple ter­ri­bly wronged by a pen­sions sys­tem that wasn’t safe. Peo­ple who had hit re­tire­ment age and had lost their whole life sav­ings while the com­pany di­rec­tors, who un­der­stood the law and could see what was go­ing to hap­pen, took early re­tire­ment, got their pen­sion pots and went on to high-pay­ing jobs.

‘‘I as­sumed I was in a po­si­tion to help. I un­der­stood their grief and how the sys­tem failed them. They saw me as a ray of hope, as did many oth­ers of sim­i­lar schemes that were fail­ing at the time. And yet the Trea­sury wouldn’t lis­ten — I was fu­ri­ous with Brown but it wasn’t his pri­or­ity.

‘‘When I be­gan high­light­ing the prob­lem, the pen­sions in­dus­try threat­ened me. They said I was un­der­min­ing con­fi­dence, bring­ing the in­dus­try into dis­re­pute. One lawyer said to me: ‘Lis­ten Ros, they’re just the poor bas­tards it’s hap­pen­ing to but most peo­ple are fine. Why are you caus­ing trou­ble?’

“What an hor­ren­dous thing to say. The in­dus­try not think­ing about peo­ple but money. And that made me want to change things for the bet­ter. The in­dus­try has learned and moved on but things tend to move

I was brought up to think for my­self and not hold grudges

slowly. I wish it was faster but at least it’s in the right di­rec­tion.’’ The sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of a sin­gle state pen­sion rep­re­sents much of that di­rec­tion, to­gether with new rules her depart­ment has pi­o­neered con­cern­ing auto-en­rol­ment.

From 2018, all em­ploy­ers will have to pro­vide pen­sions pro­vi­sion for staff aged over 22 and earn­ing more than £10,000 a year. Close to six mil­lion em­ploy­ees are al­ready signed up with the opt-out rate of around 10 per cent.

Th­ese changes, she hopes, will en­cour­age Bri­tain to wean it­self off debt and in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion and once again be­come a coun­try of savers — like her grand­par­ents, who es­caped as refugees from Vi­enna and opened a lit­tle ‘‘Bar­gain Shop’’ at the front of their house in Hale.

The Baroness’s re­forms are a type of be­havioural eco­nom­ics — peo­ple know they should be sav­ing, so, by auto-en­rolling, the in­dus­try helps peo­ple not with a stick but a car­rot.

‘‘I was brought up to think for my­self and that’s re­flected in the kind of work we’re do­ing here. My father, a den­tist, wasn’t religious but my mother went to shul ev­ery week and they taught me to think for my­self, to make my own mis­takes and not to fol­low the herd. Not to hold grudges, lis­ten to oth­ers’ points of view and al­ways put my­self in some­one else’s shoes. That way I would do the best for my­self.’’

A mes­sage that she’s passed on to her own chil­dren – she and her hus­band Paul, a man­age­ment con­sul­tant, have three grown-up chil­dren, live in North Lon­don and are mem­bers of Kin­loss Syn­a­gogue.

Putting her­self in some­one else’s shoes is also re­flected in her cham­pi­oning of Bri­tain’s more ma­ture work­force — cross­ing the road not with a walk­ing stick but a swag­ger.

‘‘One of my big pas­sions is to help peo­ple un­der­stand the value of later-life work­ing. Not just to em­ploy­ers who can ben­e­fit from the life ex­pe­ri­ence and wis­dom of such work­ers. But it’s also good for those in­di­vid­u­als and the econ­omy — they’re work­ing, earn­ing, sav­ing and con­tribut­ing. Re­tire­ment then be­comes a pro­duc­tive process, not a sud­den mo­ment.’’

What makes Ros­alind Alt­mann such an en­joy­able in­ter­view for some­one like me, who tends to glass over when pen­sions are men­tioned, is that she speaks about peo­ple rather than things and sys­tems. She even at one point im­plores me to ‘‘think of a pen­sion with warmth, it is yours af­ter all’’.

A few hours af­ter we meet, an aide asks whether I want more tech­ni­cal de­tails about the au­toen­rol­ment thingy be­cause, as you’ll no­tice from this ar­ti­cle, I didn’t ask too many ques­tions about bor­ing pol­icy is­sues. Which demon­strates pre­cisely why she’s such an as­set to a depart­ment in some tur­moil over how ef­fec­tive it cur­rently is at get­ting the core mes­sages across. She knows bet­ter than any­one that, rather than be­ing a ‘‘thing’’, a pen­sion is in fact an ex­ten­sion of our­selves.

The in­for­ma­tion needs to be per­son­alised, some­thing she’s rather good at. ‘‘That’s where I come from, the peo­ple, not the sys­tem,’’ she con­cludes. And one’s left feel­ing that, un­like much of what the govern­ment’s ca­reer politi­cians try to nanny us about, if Ros says it’s a good idea, then it prob­a­bly is.

So, de­sign­ers of road signs, will you rise to the chal­lenge?


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