Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)
Today we are covering a subject that in many ways is both dull and important. “Annuity” is a difficult word, which lacks a simple definition, and it is not something that a man or woman under the age of 50 would wisely bring up in discussion with friends. However, 400,000 people this year will buy an annuity. That figure will grow substantially over the years, and anything that affects such a large percentage of our country’s population is therefore worthy of the first Westminster Hall debate in 2014. Annuities are dull, but important, and absolutely ripe for review and improvement. It is therefore timely that Mr Speaker has chosen the subject for the first Westminster Hall debate of the year, and it is a pleasure to participate in it under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.
I will first outline annuities and their market as it is at the moment, who buys them, for whom they are best and least suited, and whether we need them, before looking at specific issues raised by recent investigations and considering what more might be done to improve the world of annuities. Historically, pension structures have required individuals to bring certainty to our savings, effectively by exchanging whatever pool of savings we have for known income, by drawing an annuity or by having income draw-down—two technical terms already, which are perhaps better described as “income for life”. That is what an annuity was designed to deliver, and it is derived from a complex calculation that involves bond yields, longevity and charges. In due course, I will return to discuss the last especially.
The concept of an annuity is relatively simple: to provide older people with the certainty of knowing what their income will be in an otherwise uncertain world of costs and, perhaps, care. In a world of defined-benefit pensions, we had such certainty, but that world—outside the public sector—is going fast, so certainty of income is a bigger issue than it was, and in today’s world many people are searching for it. We might therefore imagine that an annuity is the product for today. As auto-enrolment expands, reaching about 8 million new pension savers, net of opt-outs, the number of new annuity customers will surely grow. It will be a slow burn, because most of those auto-enrolling over the next few years will not reach annuity-type age for some decades, but eventually the figure used in the media—the number of annuity customers doubling—will be reached. As a result, instead of more than 1,000 new customers a day in 2014, before long there will be 2,000 new buyers of annuities every day.
The annuities market will therefore soon have 500,000 customers a year, predominantly in their 60s and 70s, making what for most will be the second most important financial decision of their life—the first being their home. As Ros Altmann has pointed out, as things stand with an annuity, unlike buying a home, there is no going back: someone buys it and that’s it—no change, no transfer, no flexibility and no equivalent of renting out, moving on, selling or downsizing. An annuity therefore best suits customers who know exactly what they are looking for—because they are well versed in the language of annuities, such as open-market options, enhanced annuities or comparisons with income draw-downs—and perhaps already have a defined benefit pension and are looking to convert a smaller defined contribution pot, which is a modest percentage of their total savings.
Such customers use the comparison tables of the office of the Pensions Advisory Service, provided by the Money Advice Service. They shop around for alternatives offered by online and household-name providers. They know that they will keep the same wife, husband or partner for ever, that they will live long enough for the income draw-down to exceed the capital exchanged and the commission charges, and that, ideally, both partners will exceed the lifespan expectations of their current health and the geography of where they live—alternatively, perhaps they will buy their annuity in a poor city and thereafter move to an idyllic village where people live longer. Such a customer should do well in the current world of annuities. Unfortunately, he or she is as exotic and rare as a sacred ibis on the banks of the river Severn in my constituency.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for the way in which he is presenting it. He rightly highlights the fact that the transaction is extremely complicated—that is exceptionally important—and he has used a range of phrases that are commonplace to financial advisers, but not necessarily understood by the clients. Does he accept that the retail distribution review, although perhaps painful in the short term, will deliver significant benefits over the longer term, but that the charging structure and the change in the culture might well put some people off seeking advice for annuities, thereby making this extremely complex transaction far more difficult for the average punter to decide on?
My hon. Friend has spent a lot of time working in the sector and knows the issues well. He is absolutely right to highlight the unintended consequence of the retail distribution review, which in a sense is to put people off the idea of buying up-front advice on a complex product such as an annuity. For those who have a relatively small pot of savings, such as £20,000, £30,000 or £40,000—a lot of money for some people—the idea of paying £400 or £500 for advice is not attractive. My hon. Friend is right to highlight that, because it is one of the issues.
I drew attention to the perfect customer for an annuity; let me now give the other side of the coin. By contrast is the customer who is told by the provider of their direct contribution pension—his or her only modest source of savings—that they need an annuity, has no idea what an annuity is and asks the pensions provider what they can offer; who has no idea whether that offer is good, bad or indifferent, goes for the cheaper of the options available, probably leaving out any cover for his or her partner and certainly any provision for inflation, and forgets to mention perhaps a hereditary heart weakness; and who moves from a suburb to the inner city to be closer to shops and a hospital, lives for a few years and then dies, having drawn only a small percentage of income from a capital sum that has now disappeared, leaving their wife, husband or partner on the state pension. For what purpose did he or she save?
With longevity the way it is, we might argue that such a customer scarcely exists, as we would all hope, but the reality is that some of his or her characteristics are a reality—as the Pensions Advisory Service has confirmed—especially in the understanding of what they are buying. Ros Altmann has estimated that insurers will often keep between half and three quarters of a pension fund they take over and convert it into an annuity.
I did a quick reality check on the word “annuity” in a Gloucester pub last weekend. Of the 22 people I asked, six said it was a financial thing like a pension, one of those said it gave income and most of the rest said they had no idea. I accept that it was a bad weekend for Gloucester rugby, and trying to discuss annuities in a pub was pushing my luck, but I do not believe that the people of Britain know what an annuity is or that the average response would be any different. Why is an annuity useful? Do people have to have one? The answer is no. How do they go about getting one? An annuity is potentially the second biggest financial purchase of our lives, so the current state of information about them is worrying.
In any market that size—£12 billion a year is big—if a customer feels that he or she has to buy something but does not really know what it is, the definition of good value is elusive. Customers need a lot of knowledge to pick the right product and the market is dominated by a handful of big names, so there is a danger of high charges, a lack of transparency and inadequate protection. The annuities market more than lives up to all those risks. I rang the Pensions Advisory Service yesterday to get some initial advice—just one man in his 50s ringing in to ask questions about annuities. I got good general advice on a whole number of issues, but when I asked about charges, I was told confidently, “You will never be able to work out what the charges are.” I asked the helpful adviser whether he thought that was right. “Not for me to say,” he replied, which was fair enough. However, it is right for hon. Members to raise and challenge the situation on behalf of our constituents, who ought to know what they are being charged for a product as important as an annuity.
Almost 20,000 of my constituents in Gloucester are between 50 and 64. For all of those people, some understanding of annuities would be useful. It is not good enough to have a product for which people will simply never know the charges. The situation for annuities sits oddly beside that for their stepbrother or sister, the pension. Huge efforts are being made to clarify, and make as simple as possible, all the costs and charges for pensions; to estimate a management fee that is neither rapacious nor drives investment managers to the lowest common denominator; and, above all, to make charges transparent to the client. The status quo is tantamount to an insurance firm—everyone is under the same roof, in the same organisation—saying, “Right, over here is a team of investment managers managing pensions: you need to be squeaky clean, work out all the costs and charges and report them completely. Your margins will be tight. Over here, in this corner, we have the annuities guys: your pricing is roughly what you want it to be, and there is no need to explain or declare anything.” That has to be wrong. When such efforts are being made to ensure transparency about money coming into a pension, it is especially strange that, at the moment, the system does so little for moneys coming out of a pension and into an annuity.
For today’s debate, we have the benefit of the detailed investigations by the Financial Conduct Authority’s consumer panel and The Daily Telegraph. The latter found that differences between annuities offered amounted to as much as £1,444 a year on a pot of £100,000. The FCA’s consumer panel found that commission charges vary by up to £1,000, which might, for the cynical, explain why the industry is so shy when it comes to explaining what the charges are.
The FCA found in general that the industry was “very dysfunctional”, with “possible exploitative pricing”—up to 6% of a customer’s pot could go in commission. In a rebuke to any of us who thought that the answer might simply be to provide more information, the consumer panel found that customers are put off by the mountain of jargon and “information overload”. Frankly, I am irresistibly reminded of the endowment mortgage I was obliged to buy in the 1980s: however it was explained, it was absolute gobbledegook, and there were high commissions, often from one insurer to another. The consumer panel found that 3.5% commission for an introduction from Zurich to Legal & General seemed to be the going rate for annuities today. In the 1980s, if someone wanted to buy a house, they had to have an endowment mortgage. Later on, of course, the fabulous projected investment returns did not materialise, the mis-selling was investigated, fines were levied, the product was binned and the financial sector moved on. Will we see a repeat of that?
I chaired a seminar recently on annuities and asked the Association of British Insurers whether there was a danger of any of its members being sued for mis-selling. There was a long pause before the answer came: “Not yet.” It is therefore not surprising that the FCA consumer panel has recommended urgent regulatory and Government-led reforms to protect and benefit millions of our constituents.
I will turn now to what changes have already been made, and then move on to what could or perhaps should be done next. I start by recognising what the Government have already done. Some of the changes made by the Treasury should have been made a decade ago. For example, it has removed the default retirement age and the effective requirement to purchase an annuity by the age of 75. That is a vital change: it means people no longer have to buy an annuity, and, if they do not, they can take 25% of their savings tax-free and draw an income from the rest. That is a serious option for many people. The starting point of a debate on annuities for every individual should always be whether an annuity will be useful and helpful to them, and what the alternatives are.
There have also been changes to the capped draw-down rules—more jargon, I am afraid, but those rules have been reformed, and that matters within the sector. The Treasury has also encouraged the ABI’s new code of conduct for retirement choices, which has come into play and has made modest steps forward on explanations and general advice, but I do not believe that that is enough. At the same time, the Department for Work and Pensions has promoted open market options and obliged DC schemes to provide what it calls a “wake-up pack” of information, pre-retirement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. On that point, when people previously received their packs on coming up to retirement, there was every chance that there would have been a standard form in the pack from a chosen insurer detailing a chosen product. That has now gone, and people are given a form listing their options and saying where they need to go for each. That is a great step forward.
My hon. Friend is knowledgeable and absolutely right to highlight that all ways of giving people more options and widening the market to give them choice must be steps in the right direction.
The changes that the Treasury has made do not in themselves answer the nub of the issue, as highlighted so well by the FCA consumer panel. The uncomfortable truth remains that very few people understand annuities or make the informed choices that increased choice should enable them to make. They do not understand what they are buying or whether it is the right product for them, and they have no idea what charges are being levied and whether they are appropriate. As the consumer panel concluded, much more needs to be done. The fundamental issues that I flagged up at the beginning of the debate remain unresolved. An annuity is still something that is bought once and that lasts for ever; however, the circumstances of the buyer might change.
I will finish by touching on some of the issues that could and should be addressed. I do not want to make too much of the structure of the market, but it would be interesting to hear the Minister’s views. In a way, an annuity is an offshoot of the pensions sector—it is what happens after a pension—but because it is provided by the insurance sector, it is regulated by regulators that are ultimately responsible to the Treasury. The Pensions Advisory Service is DWP funded; the Money Advice Service is separately funded, and the appointments of its chairman and chief executive are approved by the Treasury, but it is answerable for its strategy to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. There is therefore a sense of different advice being offered by different agencies that are responsible to different Departments. That situation does not seem wholly satisfactory to me. It is interesting that the Opposition have today chosen to put up their pensions spokesman rather than someone from their Treasury team.
There is the structural issue of how annuities are regulated and whether the gap between increasing regulation on the pension side, especially in the context of defined contributions and auto-enrolment, could be mirrored by more regulation on the annuities side. I hope that the DWP’s consultation on charges will also shed light on the charges on annuities. Perhaps the Treasury will be able to absorb that when the FCA investigation gets under way.
The broader issues remain, and the nub of the problem is that annuities are unchangeable and inflexible. It is well worth considering the suggestion floated in The Sunday Telegraph by the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb)—that annuities might be changeable when circumstances change, so that they become more like mortgages that may be fixed for a period and thereafter traded or renewed.
A couple of hon. Members have highlighted advice. There is a strong case for believing that annuity brokers are not adding value for customers and that hidden commission should be revealed and consideration given to whether it is appropriate. More specific advice should be offered. When someone rings the Pensions Advisory Service to talk about annuities, they are told straight away that the service cannot discuss an individual’s specific circumstances and cannot access information about their pension or anything else. The advice, although good, is generic, but specific advice about people’s individual situations is most needed and least available.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend called today’s debate because I have received a letter from a constituent, Mr Tejpal Singh of Stenson Fields, who asked me to ensure that the House had a debate on annuities, so a new year resolution has been kept. Mr Singh’s point was that people were given specific advice to save and were given to understand that when they took out an annuity at a specific age, the return would be £10,000 or £7,500 a year, but they are lucky to get £4,000 or even £3,000 now. That is difficult for people who have done the right thing on this important cost-of-living issue, but then the market has collapsed. I wonder whether the advice that my hon. Friend is referring to could help with that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises an important point. There is no doubt that annuity rates have dropped sharply from 10% to 5% over the last few years. Rather like charges on pensions and on investment management generally, it is only when a market becomes more difficult that it becomes more important to shine a light on charges and commission structures, because they become a much higher part of the total cost. If someone’s significant pension pot does not generate a significant income, they want to know where the money is going. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue, which has propelled the annuities issue on to the front pages of newspapers from the business and financial sections.
I must sound a warning to the Opposition. We have heard from them over the last few weeks and months a sudden and dramatic cry that something must be done urgently. That rather prompts the question why they did so little during their long 13 years in office, with almost as many pensions Ministers. Some of the issues have been around for a long time. I am pleased that the FCA took up the issue of annuities relatively soon after its birth, put its consumer panel on the case and has now come up with research showing, I think without further question, that the annuities market is not working satisfactorily.
I want to make three points to clarify the matter. First, the annuities market is no longer working for many people in this country. It needs to be reformed, and if that is to be useful, it should be welcomed by everyone in the industry; otherwise, annuities will have no real role in future financial planning. Secondly, the opaqueness of the market stands in stark contrast with the increasing amount of light in the pensions industry as a whole and is therefore more of an anomaly than it was. Thirdly, the reports now coming in from regulatory bodies provide the Government with a wonderful opportunity to do something that millions of people throughout the country would be grateful for and reform an imperfect market so that it works much more effectively than at present. It falls to our Government to have that opportunity, and I hope we will seize it in the remaining 18 months of this Parliament.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate. He is spot on in saying that annuities represent an important market and that we must ensure that it functions properly, fairly and to the benefit of those who have saved for their retirement and done the right thing but now face the second most difficult financial decision of their lives. The cost of getting that decision wrong is clear.
The National Association of Pension Funds has suggested that, every year, pensioners lose between £500 million and £1 billion by not shopping around for the best annuity rate, and that they make the wrong choices for a variety of reasons. We must tackle that. The research suggests that more than half of retirees do not shop around for an annuity but roll over to one of their existing pension provider’s annuities.
When I was a Treasury Minister, I worked with the Association of British Insurers in drawing up its code of conduct, which helps to shift the balance away from the default option of staying with the pension provider and towards shopping around. My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) referred in her intervention to the change in the wake-up pack and the forms in it. However, I question whether that code of conduct is working; we must look carefully at whether the effective default is to shop around. I am not sure that the evidence exists that the code has been as effective as it should be.
My second point, raised in the report produced by the Financial Conduct Authority’s consumer panel, is about what happens when people do shop around. It is clear that the quality of help available is variable. There are some good sources of advice, but too often they are less than satisfactory. Some websites are not clear about the charges and commission earned from putting someone in contact with an annuity provider. It is sometimes not clear whether the website is offering a view of the whole market or just part of it. I looked at the Money Advice Service’s website this morning and it is clear that its comparison tables draw information from a panel of annuity providers. Firms must be much clearer about what service they are offering when people are shopping around.
We must consider whether consumers are being ripped off by hidden charges when they are shopping around, whether they are comparing the whole market or a segment of it, and whether they understand the regulatory protection when using such websites. We must ensure that consumers are properly protected and think about existing sources of information and whether they are adequate. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester referred to the Pensions Advisory Service. The Money Advice Service also provides information on annuities; one recommendation from the consumer panel was that the support given through the Money Advice Service and the Pension Advisory Service should be beefed up to help consumers.
We need to bear employers in mind, as they are another important player in the market. The reason why our constituents have to make difficult decisions about how to spend their pension pot is that employees are moved away from defined benefit schemes to defined contribution schemes. We are putting much more risk on the shoulders of employees. Although a large number of employers support their employees in making such choices and put them into contact with a pension adviser at retirement, we need to encourage more employers to do that, so that more employees who are coming up to retirement know exactly what they should be looking for and who they should be consulting.
We need to look at how the annuities market functions, because a poorly performing market has a detrimental effect on income for pensioners and also, in the longer term, reduces the incentive to save. If people feel that they will not get good value for money when they retire, they think, “Why should I put money into a pension? Why shouldn’t I put money into a house instead, or into an ISA?”
We need to make sure that we have a properly functioning market. That is not to say that all that providers should be doing is the bare minimum set out in regulation. Providers should recognise that they have a role to play in having high standards, so that consumers feel that they are being treated fairly and they know, for example, what they are being charged, that they have the best possible rate and that they have explored all the options. Providers have a role to play, too, in ensuring a high standard of conduct in those sectors. A low standard of conduct will lead to potential mis-selling risks in future and, as we have seen in the banking sector, that costs the industry dear.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban) is making a compelling argument about the need to open up the market. I have been doing some research and it is clear that more than 400,000 people a year are making this decision. That is a huge number and it makes the case for opening the market up even more important. He talked about trying to delink product choices; we can look at what has gone on in the mortgage industry, for example, in decoupling household insurance. If we move forward to a more retail approach to the segment, it will help more people have a wide range of options as they consider this very important decision.
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. We need to ensure that there is a more retail-type approach. One reason why people are able to shop around and compare mortgages is that there is good-quality information out there.
It is easy to compare the different rates on mortgages and the monthly payments people will make on different mortgages. The charges are very transparent as well. We can learn things from the mortgage market and its transparency that can be applied to the annuities market. I do not often disagree with the pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), but I am not entirely convinced that being able to trade in annuities will work and be effective. There are some comparisons with the mortgage market that we cannot necessarily draw.
Finally, I want to make a broader point. Over the course of the past decade, there has been quite a lot of focus on, to use another bit of jargon, the accumulation phase—what happens when people build up their pensions savings. The previous Government commissioned Lord Turner to look at pensions. I think there was some dispute between Tony Blair and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) about whether Lord Turner’s recommendations should be implemented, but they were, with cross-party consensus. There is considerable consensus over the introduction of the single-tier pension. One area that we have not debated in enough detail today starts that process. What happens when people spend their pension pot? What choices are available to them?
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester talked eloquently about an asymmetry of knowledge between someone seeking an annuity and an annuity provider, and about the circumstances that people face. Alternative products, such as income draw-down products, are out there, but that transfers both the investment risk and the longevity risk to the investor—the pensioner. We need to look carefully at the products out there, recognising that this very polarised market, with annuities on the one hand and draw-down products on the other, may not necessarily be in the interests of consumers. Other alternatives might be out there.
My hon. Friend is making his points with typical perspicacity. Before he concludes, will he consider what I think is one of the biggest factors in the market—the role of the Bank of England, both in terms of what it does to savers and what it does to the annuities market?
We were not going to get very far in the debate without that being mentioned; I am surprised that we got to four minutes past 10 before my hon. Friend raised the role of the Bank of England. I do not want to digress too much into that, but the Bank of England’s research into the inpact of quantitative easing on the pensions market demonstrates that there are upsides and downsides—that QE has stimulated the economy, and that has improved the value of equities as well as having a potential impact on gilt yields. However, let us leave that to one side.
We are moving to a situation in which people coming up to retirement will have a number of different sources for income in retirement. Those may be part-time work, equity in their houses or ISAs. There will certainly be a DC pension pot and there may be a DB pension. People’s income sources and needs will change over their retirement. Given that we are all expected not only to work longer, but to live longer, we will have choices to make. We need a proper debate about how we equip people for that post-retirement phase and how they can have the information they need to make the right choices—not only about what costs they will face in retirement, but about how to maximise their income in retirement.
Annuities are an important part of the market, but they are not the whole of it and we need a bigger debate to look at what is happening. That debate needs to involve not only pension companies and fund managers, but representatives of those in retirement, as well as those approaching retirement. It needs to ensure that the regulators—the FCA, particularly—are involved, as well as the Money Advice Service.
It is important that we get the issue right, because if we do not, many of our constituents will enter retirement with a lower income than they expect—perhaps lower than they feel is necessary to meet their financial needs. That is not good for them and it is not good for us. This debate has helped to spark a much wider process of debating how we ensure that people approaching retirement get the best financial deal possible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate and on his chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on pensions, which has aired these issues on a number of occasions.
Over the lifetime of this Parliament, we have discussed the pensions industry a number of times. To date, the discussion has mostly been of the accumulation part and not, to use the jargon, the decumulation part, which we will talk about today. However, the issues are similar. I am a little less sanguine than some hon. Members who have spoken about the fact that we have fixed the transparency problems in the accumulation part of the industry—I believe we have not started to do so yet. The same problems of market failure, asymmetric knowledge and lack of transparency exist in the industry. Whether hon. Members represent the party of the cost of living or the party of hard-working people—Conservatives seem to have won in terms of numbers, at least in today’s debate—the issue really matters.
The fact that annuities are talked about so little compared with, say, energy prices, is a function of the point my hon. Friend has made. People understand annuities so little—annuities take people outside their comfort zones. That is a terrible thing when 400,000 people a year sign up for such products. This morning, during the time of the debate, 250 people will have signed up for an annuity. By lunchtime, a constituent of every Member in the Chamber will have signed up for an annuity. Approximately a third of them will have bought the wrong product within the market, even by the terms of the market. In my opinion, the market is inappropriate and a great disincentive for people to be part of the pensions industry. It is one of the reasons why so many people who should be investing in pensions would rather bite their arm off than get involved in either the accumulation or decumulation part of the industry.
Let us step back and think about the structure of the industry, because my solution responds a bit to that. It is an artificial industry, fed by tax relief. We have made the decision in the UK to have a pensions industry that is predicated on the relatively low basic state pension—it is low compared with the rest of Europe—but one that is supplemented by tax relief and private sector provision, of which the annuity is one of the final products. The tax relief that we pump into the industry is about £30 billion a year, which clearly behoves the Government to get involved. With auto-enrolment, that urgency is becoming much greater. It is not acceptable for us to leave it as an industry that has failed, on any measure, at any time when it has been looked at. It is reasonable that the Government get involved.
There are two parts to the failure. The one that gets most attention is the failure of people to shop around—the open market option—notwithstanding the progress that the ABI has made with its code of conduct. It is in that context that one third of people are currently making the wrong choices. However, that is not the only aspect of the failure. The industry is not subject to the market pressures that would cause better performance. Within the context of the industry, one third of people are choosing wrongly, but the whole industry is failing to provide products that are competitively priced and transparent.
The industry has fairly viciously applied the term “caveat emptor”. It is playing it long, because it is only a matter of time before a Conservative Government or a Labour Government take the matter more seriously and start to fix things. In discussions of energy companies, in which I have also been involved, it has been said that they operate a cartel. I do not like to use words such as “cartel” lightly, but we have to look at the return on capital employed in industries and at transparency. Anybody who compares the pensions industry with the energy industry will know where the evidence of a cartel, such as it is, exists.
The National Association of Pension Funds and Cass business school report estimated that about £1 billion a year was being misappropriated, or at least was not going to the pension holder, because about one third of people buy the incorrect product. We could fix that through the application of the OMO—more attempts to make the market transparent—but the view I took as I was doing research for the debate is that that is not actually the solution for annuities market. The solution is that the Government should offer annuities. People will say, “You want to nationalise the industry.” I do not want to nationalise the industry—I am a free marketeer. I was about to say that I am as much of a free marketeer as anyone in the debate, but then I saw my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker), who possibly would challenge that. However, I really do believe in the free market. I believe that the free market is a panacea and a great mechanism for allocation of capital and all that goes with that, but the annuities market is not working. When a market does not work, particularly a market that is at the centre of Government policy on retirement and incomes in old age, and all that goes with that, it is reasonable that we look at what we might do about it.
Our national savings organisation in Glasgow offers interest rates as the Government sell gilts. I see no reason why an organisation like that cannot offer annuities in the same way. It is basically a very simple product. Because of the interest of the industry in developing the asymmetry and all that goes with it, the product has been overly complicated.
I apologise for missing the initial part of the debate because I was in a Select Committee.
The market is not completely free. The Government have already intervened to say that people should be contributing to pensions. People do not have a choice or increasingly will not have a choice not to take part. The Government have a responsibility to the people they have placed in that position.
That is absolutely the point that I am making. It is not a free market, and it behoves Government to do more than they have done so far to get it right.
One approach is to try to make the market work better—that was the subject of some of the points that have been made already. The other way of dealing with it is more dramatic. I believe it is reasonable that the Government think very hard and seriously about providing products that would compete in the market with the industry guys, because, in any event, the principal thing that annuity providers do is match Government bonds. One reason why QE has been an issue is that the industry is buying Government bonds in order to match income and liability. It is a classic middleman thing. It is entirely reasonable for the Government—a Government of either complexion—to look long and hard at that suggestion. I believe that will happen, because we cannot continue with the market abuse that has occurred over the past two decades.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point on which we will no doubt hear more from the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont). Does my hon. Friend really believe that nationalisation of the annuities sector is in the overall interest of large numbers of taxpayers, who will in effect see the risk for their product transferred to them?
The point that has been made, I think, is that that risk is currently with the annuity providers; that seems to be the implications of that point. If that is my hon. Friend’s belief, it would be reasonable to say that their profits should be transparent, understood and not abusive.
Does my hon. Friend not see that that is precisely the argument for reform? The case I have made is that the opportunity is there. The initial research by the consumer panel provides enough light to justify a more detailed investigation, which is happening. The Government can then make decisions to reform the industry. The mortgage sector was reformed, but the Government are not providing the country’s mortgages.
My hon. Friend is right that the Government do not provide mortgages, but they do provide people with interest rate products. There is an analogy with annuities, which are an extremely important transaction. In any event, the industry is an artificial one, because it is driven, as I have said, by tax relief. Annuities are not optional—we can draw down, but, broadly speaking, until very recently, everybody has had to buy an annuity.
By the way, I did not advocate nationalisation. I am advocating that the Government offer a product. They can compete with the existing market, rather like the National Employment Savings Trust competes with the existing market. That is not nationalisation. If the existing market is pricing things in a certain way and making very clever decisions on longevity and actuarial things and so on, it will win, and so be it; good luck to it. However, I suspect that that may not be the case. We must bring trust back. I agree that it is important to make the market work. I floated the point about national insurance because I think that that proposal will have to happen, but I also think that there are a number of things we could do to make the market work better.
One objective of the FCA is to promote competition. It is currently undertaking a thematic review of the annuities market. That would be a very good starting point for it to undertake a market study to look at the economics of the annuity industry, to see whether it is making excessive profits, and to understand the charging structures in order to help to inform what the next stage of the reforms of the annuity market should be.
I have absolutely no problem with any of that. In fact, the next point in my notes is on the Office of Fair Trading. We should try to make the annuities market work better, in the same way as we should make the accumulation market work better. The fact that NEST has been introduced is not a reason not to have that happen. My proposal on the Government offering annuities alongside the market is not a reason not to make the market work better.
The point was made earlier on education in the market, the retail distribution review and all the rest of it. I do not agree that the charging structure is a disincentive, if that was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), who has left the Chamber. It might be a disincentive, but it is no worse than a charging structure that pays people to recommend products based on commission and all that that means. That is not a solution in its own right, but I agree that we should try to make the market work better. We should hold the ABI to account on the application of the OMO.
We could try other things. If one third of people continue to stay with their existing supplier and buy inappropriate products as a consequence, there is a case for enforced separation, meaning that people buy the decumulation product from a different provider from the one from which they buy the accumulation product. That is entirely reasonable if the OMO code of conduct does not work better—it is currently rather patchy.
Another thing we could do to make the market work better is enforce the simplification of annuities, exactly as we have done in the energy industry, with bands to allow the comparison of products from different providers. The case for that is even stronger in the pensions industry than in the energy industry. I want recognition that draw-down might be used on smaller pots than at present, so that it receives wider application. When I speak to anybody who is about to make a decision on whether to use an annuity or a draw-down, I recommend that they think long and hard before they go down the annuity route. We could do more on that.
We need to make the market work better. The point I made about national insurance also applies to accumulation. NEST is working quite well, and it will be an incentive for reform in the industry. We could do the same with the decumulation part of the industry.
I have a couple of final points. It is interesting that a Treasury Minister is replying to the debate and a pensions spokesman is speaking for the Opposition. In a way, the issue has suffered because it has not wholly been owned by either Department and has tended to fall between the two. I hope that that does not continue. I also hope that people in the industry listen to the debate—I see that a couple of them are in the Public Gallery—because it is not right for the current situation to continue. It is not right that the industry response is to play it long. In the time I have been speaking, 40 people will have signed up for annuities, 15 of whom will have bought the wrong ones. We owe it to all our constituents to get that fixed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate, because annuities continue to rise up the political agenda. I was struck by the hon. Gentleman’s speech, which I interpreted as a clear message that the market is not working properly. Indeed, I understood him to say that the annuities market was broken and cannot be fixed simply through individual engagement by consumers. The repeated references to the Financial Conduct Authority’s consumer panel report were helpful, because the whole thrust of that report was that the market cannot be fixed purely by increased transparency.
Several Government Members referred to mortgages. A big difference between mortgages and annuities is that annuities are one-off products, so consumers cannot learn more about annuities over time through repeated purchases. I agree with the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban) that the idea of tradeable annuities, which was floated over the weekend by the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb)—I was a little surprised that the hon. Member for Gloucester repeated that suggestion—will not get far.
The hon. Member for Gloucester provided compelling evidence of the fact that the market does not work effectively and cannot be fixed by individual engagement. His speech might stand as a metaphor for the Government’s approach, because there is general agreement that the market does not work properly—the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) made that argument eloquently. Moving from diagnosis to solution, however, the Government’s cupboard is pretty bare. I listened carefully to the solutions that the hon. Member for Gloucester suggested at the end of his speech. He noted that the Treasury had acted to remove the default retirement age and that people are no longer required by law to annuitise by 75. As the House of Commons Library made clear earlier this year, however, someone with a secure pension of less than £20,000 essentially has to annuitise by 75. Draw-down works well for those with big pension pots, but the rest of us still have to annuitise our defined contribution pot, so that is not a solution.
The hon. Gentleman was good enough to mention the Association of British Insurers code, but he was absolutely right to say that that is not enough. Let us be clear about what the ABI has done so far. The open market option gives people more information about their ability not to take an annuity from their existing pension provider. The hon. Member for Fareham was somewhat generous when he suggested that the results were not in yet to show whether that will deal with the lack of shopping around. It will not deal with the problem. All the evidence in the market shows that inertia is a powerful force on consumers that leads to excess profits for providers.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Turner commission. The thrust of its conclusions—and, indeed, of the auto-enrolment pensions policy pursued by the previous Labour Government and the current Government—was that inertia is a fact of pensions markets. Auto-enrolment is an attempt to use inertia for the good of the public and the consumer. That is the basis on which pensions policy is developing under the pensions Minister—a process that began under the previous Labour Government.
There is a massive lack of engagement and involvement in pensions. Leaving aside the ABI, there is general recognition in the pensions world that the open market option is simply not going to do the job. That is the thrust of the FCA consumer report, which has been mentioned several times. Having looked at the matter closely over two years, and based on the Turner commission consensus, which we wish to maintain, I am prepared to say that inertia in the annuities market is a reality that leads to excess profits. That is not only my description, but the description given by the pensions Minister, who said in a recent television documentary that excess profits were being made by insurers, which is a product of inertia.
The interesting point about inertia is that that is precisely the context in which I recommended that a change be considered to the current requirement for an individual to buy an annuity for life, whatever their circumstances or however those circumstances change. That crucial change would affect the inertia about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned, because it would enable people to reconsider and change their annuity if circumstances demanded that. Does he agree?
No, I do not agree. The problem in the market is that people do not shop around, but the hon. Gentleman suggests that we should solve that problem by creating an even more complex product, in which people will magically start to engage in trading and moving from one annuity to another.
No, let me continue. It is simply not feasible or credible. The idea of tradable annuities is a non-starter, and I will set out the response to it from across the industry. Phil Loney from Royal London said they had not been thought through by the Minister. Mark Wood from JLT Employee Benefits described it as misleading to compare annuities to mortgages. Tom McPhail, who is present in the Public Gallery, said that the Government
“should not try to invent products which…aren’t likely to be…value for money.”
The Actuary magazine described the wider response from the industry as “scathing”. The idea is a non-starter.
We have heard from the hon. Gentleman, who gave a long and interesting speech, and it is now my duty to respond. I shall make a little more progress and then I will let him back in. He diagnosed the problem effectively, but provided no solution. The airy-fairy, half-baked suggestion that we should think about tradable annuities does not deal with the reality, which more than one Conservative Member has set out this morning, that hundreds of thousands of people are annuitising every year, right now. What are the Government doing about that now, in real time?
Interestingly, the hon. Member for Gloucester diagnosed the problem very well, and understood that transparency will not solve it. The solution cannot be based on a utopian hope for greater individual engagement; it must be like what the OFT report did more widely for pensions. The demand side—the buy side—is too weak; how can we strengthen consumer weight or consumers’ ability to get a good deal? My view is that although individual engagement is a good thing, and anything that encourages it should be welcomed, it will not solve the problem, given that inertia is a central fact of the pensions marketplace.
The Opposition tabled a sensible amendment to the Pensions Bill which would at least have begun to tackle the problem, by ensuring that in the existing market—in the real world, right now—those who annuitise would get access to properly regulated, independent brokerage. That is not a panacea, but it is a reasonable starting point. It bears positive comparison with the Government’s lack of action. They have done nothing on annuities; there are no clauses about them in the Pensions Bill. That may or may not be an indictment of Government policy. No one says that the problem can be solved overnight, but surely an amendment of the kind tabled by Labour is a reasonable starting point.
More widely, the only answer is more purchasing power on the side of the consumer. That means we need to move to mandatory independent brokering, ideally in-house rather than external. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) looks puzzled. In 2012, the National Association of Pension Funds, which is represented in the Public Gallery, rightly suggested that the annuity-buying process should be part of a pension scheme—that goes to the point that building up a pension pot is entirely part of the same process as producing an income at the end. Pension schemes should have a role in providing annuity brokering advice—that is what I mean by “in-house”.
Of course, that leads us into the argument about pension schemes being big enough for that to happen. I know that the hon. Member for Gloucester is aware, although it was not mentioned in the debate, that the market is fragmented. There are hundreds of thousands of pension schemes, but the providers of annuities are four or five insurance companies and three or four specialists. It is worth asking why market entrants do not emerge to compete with the giants. It is probably to do with the amount of capital needed, and the fact that on the insurer side it is possible to cross-subsidise products, because of being involved during the phase of building up the pension pot, as well as in the creation of a retirement income at the end. We need pension schemes to be involved as a matter of course in ensuring that their members get the best possible annuity at the end of the saving process. That seems a sensible way to proceed.
The hon. Member for Warrington South, who has done doughty work in the area we are debating, suggested that there should be a Government-backed annuity provider, and the hon. Member for Gloucester intervened and said that that was nationalisation. If it is, then so is the National Employment Savings Trust, which the Government support. NEST is a Government-backed scheme intended to bring down the benchmark for charges during the phase of building up a pension pot, and it has been very successful. That is not nationalisation, and nor is the suggestion of the hon. Member for Warrington South.
The hon. Gentleman’s earlier reluctance to give way is uncharacteristic, especially as 45 minutes were left in the debate for Front-Bench spokesmen. He has two or three times confused issues, especially on my exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South about nationalisation. My hon. Friend clarified that and explained that he was looking for participation in the market, not domination of it. Members on both sides of the House have an opportunity today to express their views and reach a consensus; the review by the Financial Conduct Authority and the consultation by the Department for Work and Pensions provide an opportunity for the House to move forward on an issue of concern to all our constituents. Does the hon. Gentleman agree? He should surely reach for consensus, not political division.
I am not sure what the point of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention was, other than to show that he had not understood the point made by the hon. Member for Warrington South. Everyone else understood that he meant proceeding in the way NEST does, rather than nationalisation. For people who understood the point, no clarification was needed.
There is a fundamental difference between NEST facilitating the building up of pension pots and the state bearing additional longevity risk by providing annuities. The additional longevity risk would be borne by taxpayers if it were not correctly assessed. That would add to the existing longevity risk that taxpayers face through changing demographics and increased care bills and pension costs.
That sounds a plausible point; I should say it is for the hon. Member for Warrington South, who put the idea forward. My observation is that the idea is not nationalisation, but something along the lines of NEST, and that it would at least be worth thinking about for the Government.
Since we are discussing the point I made, I feel I should chip in. Of course it was about participation. Two of my hon. Friends have made points about risk. The state already carries risk of inadequate pension provision, which is manifested daily. To talk about further risk in that context is disingenuous.
That is clearly a matter for Conservative Members to debate among themselves after we leave the Chamber.
We face a broken market; the question is what to do about it. It seems to the Opposition that the way forward is increasingly to involve pension schemes in—I am wary about using this term, as I try not to use the jargon—“decumulation”. Pension schemes are involved in building up savings pots for members. They should also be involved in turning those savings pots into retirement income, which is what the process is all about, after all. Moving to a system in which pension schemes ensured that their members got decent, well regulated brokerage advice would mean bigger pension schemes, because many very small pension schemes do not now have the ability.
We have mentioned NEST. What does it do about annuities? It has sealed panel bids from annuity providers for each cohort coming to retirement. That is not the whole of the market, because NEST must annuitise for people with very small pots, as part of its public service objective, but that is the road we must go down. The Royal Mail pension scheme is another one that recently announced that it would provide an in-house brokerage service for its members.
The hon. Member for Gloucester was absolutely right in his analysis of the market. The problem—it is not his problem; he is an august Back Bencher, but not on the ministerial team—is that so far the pensions Minister and, I assume, the Treasury have not come up with anything concrete. Until they do, the hundreds of people who are annuitising as we speak and the 400,000 people who annuitise every year will surely look at the Government and ask when they will end the rip-off and the excess profits. If the pensions Minister says that insurance companies are profiting excessively from annuities, when will the Government act? Surely it must be sooner rather than later.
I make this point again to the Government, in the hope that they might listen. Any solution that depends solely on increasing individual consumers’ engagement in the process of buying an annuity will not succeed. The whole thrust of Government pensions policy since Turner, which this Government have continued, is that inertia is a reality that we must make work in the public interest, rather than in the interests of pension company shareholders. That has been the thrust of pensions policy for a decade now. Any solution to the annuities market dysfunction must start from that assumption. In the spirit of the Turner consensus and co-operation on auto-enrolment, I urge the Government to take heed of that reality in the annuities market.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate and opening it so well. He brings to the matter his professional experience before entering the House, his experience as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on pensions and his experience of discussing these matters in Gloucester pubs, all of which have helped our deliberations. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), who served with such distinction as a Treasury Minister dealing with such matters for more than two years and made a substantial contribution to the Government’s achievements in the area. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), who spoke with great passion and demonstrated his determination to ensure that consumers—our constituents—are served well by the annuities market.
It is a priority for all of us that the annuities market should work in consumers’ best interests. When people have saved hard for a pension, it is right that they should get the best out of their savings on retirement. The decision that people make about their savings on retirement can determine what income they receive for the rest of their lives. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most important financial decisions that a person can make. As we have heard, more than 400,000 people purchase annuities each year, and studies show that there can be more than a 30% difference in the incomes offered by providers, highlighting the importance of making the right decision.
The Government want to ensure that the annuities market works in favour of the consumer and that consumers can make well-informed decisions to secure the best rates and exert effective competitive pressure on the market. The Government have been working with industry and consumer groups to make effective changes in the market, including work carried out by the open market option review group, which has introduced a number of measures aimed at encouraging consumers to shop around on the open market when buying an annuity.
For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester pointed out—as did my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham, who worked so hard on the matter—the Association of British Insurers has introduced a code of conduct for retirement choices, which came into effect on 1 March last year. The code is binding on all ABI members that sell annuities, covering almost all the market. In addition, tailored advice and tools have been developed by the Money Advice Service and the Pensions Advisory Service to help consumers understand their choices and promote the benefits of shopping around.
The ABI code has brought about an important change in how annuity providers communicate with their customers, a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham and my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler). The removal of application forms from pre-retirement packs actively encourages consumers to engage with the important process of choosing their annuity type and provider, ensuring that they do not automatically settle for the default. Through requirements on providers to provide better information to retirees in their wake-up packs, and new and improved tools such as the Money Advice Service’s comparison tables and the Pensions Advisory Service’s online planners, we can ensure that consumers have the resources that they need to make informed decisions.
The ABI will evaluate the impact of its code in March this year, one year after its implementation. The OMO review group will also evaluate its wider package of measures and their effectiveness.
I apologise for not being here in time, Mr Dobbin. My plane was an hour late, so I could not be here. I also apologise to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). I wanted to speak in this debate, but I did not have the chance. Does the Minister agree that the language used in the selling of annuities, especially to elderly people, must be such that they can understand what they are getting themselves into? I believe that they do not.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. It must be right that we should do all that we can to ensure as much transparency for consumers as possible. That includes a number of aspects, some of which I have mentioned. Let me go further.
The code and other measures will only be as successful as the outcomes that they prompt. We want clear evidence that more people are making active, better choices about their retirement income as a result of the changes. If we do not, we will not hesitate to consider further action. In addition to the ongoing work to help consumers make better choices, the FCA is currently conducting a thematic review of the annuities market and how well it is working to serve consumers’ interests, a pricing survey of all annuity providers and a comparison of the rates available to consumers through a range of distribution channels. The review will consider whether firms create barriers that can restrict consumers from shopping around, and what risks and potential for detriment those barriers may present for consumers. I look forward to the report’s initial findings, which will be published next month.
Although it is imperative that the annuity market works in the consumer’s interests as an effective option for retirement income, it is important to consider the retirement income market as a whole to ensure that consumers have income flexibility in retirement. To increase flexibility, the Government have removed both the default retirement age and the effective requirement to purchase an annuity by age 75. Whether they annuitise or not, individuals are permitted to take 25% of their accumulated pension savings as a tax-free lump sum before going on to secure an income with the remaining savings. To ensure that that income can best serve retirees’ needs, the Government have reformed the capped draw-down rules and raised the annual withdrawal limit from 100% to 120% of the value of an equivalent annuity. That can help to raise the retirement incomes of individuals in draw-down arrangements who may recently have experienced reductions in income due to wider economic conditions.
There is additional flexibility for those with a guaranteed income of at least £20,000 a year. With income already secured, they have the option of a flexible draw-down arrangement, in which they can withdraw any amount from their pension pot. Those coming to retirement will benefit from having more flexibility in deciding how to provide an income for themselves in retirement, and for those with small pension pots, the Government have taken steps to reform the trivial commutation pensions tax rules. An individual who is aged 60 or over with total pension savings of less than £18,000 can withdraw the entirety of their savings as a lump sum. The first 25% of that lump sum is normally tax-free, with the remainder taxable as income. In addition, small occupational pension pots under £2,000, and up to two small personal pension pots under £2,000, can be taken as a lump sum for those aged 60 or over, even when people have savings in excess of the aggregate limit. All those options add flexibility.
Having a decent retirement income is driven by two factors: saving enough for retirement through working life, and making good choices at retirement to secure a reliable and maintainable income throughout retirement. It is important to remember that the biggest determinant of how much income someone receives in retirement is how much they have saved during their working life. With the introduction of auto-enrolment, the Government have taken a huge step forward towards ensuring that consumers start to save for their retirement and carry on saving throughout their working life. Auto-enrolment is the most important pensions change for a century—around 6 million to 9 million people will make new savings and increase savings for their retirement. It is estimated that that will generate around £11 billion in extra pension saving by 2020, which will mean an extra £11 billion coming to the retirement income market within the next six years and a new wave of retirees with robust defined contribution pension pots, making it all the more important that we ensure that the retirement income market is working effectively.
The Government are also acting to protect those valuable savings. We recently consulted on proposals to cap pension charges and introduce a range of transparency measures as a means of ensuring that savings are not eroded by charges. We are currently assessing the responses to the consultation and an announcement will be made when that work is completed.
The Minister is right that the Government are consulting on pension charges. I have two questions for him. First, have the Government given any thought to annuity charges and to capping them? Secondly, approximately what level of charge does he believe is reasonable on an annuity of £100,000 during the lifetime of that annuity?
I suspect that my hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I am not inclined to be drawn into specifying what I believe is a reasonable charge for an annuity. What I will say to him—I will expand on this in a moment—is that we want to ensure that the annuities market works. We want to ensure that there are competitive pressures in that market. In the light of the consultation that we have undertaken on pension charges, the work undertaken by the FCA and the analysis of the evidence that has already emerged on the ABI code of conduct and so on, we want to ensure that the spotlight remains on the market, so that we do everything we can to ensure that it works effectively for consumers.
We are committed to ensuring that consumers have access to retirement income options that provide a reliable and decent income throughout retirement. That is an agenda to which ministerial colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions and I are committed. We are working together to ensure that consumers have appropriate options, value for money and support when they come to turn their hard-earned pension savings into a retirement income. As the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), who has responsibility for pensions, has recently suggested,reforms will be considered in the context of that work. That is why the Treasury and the DWP are currently considering the broad range of research and evidence on decumulation and how the market is working—to explore the impacts and interactions between market and consumer behaviour and Government policy.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester for securing and opening this debate. It has allowed us to discuss important annuities issues that are crucial for consumers if they are to secure the best from their savings at retirement.
I will be very brief, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his very measured reply to the debate. When the FCA review is published and when the ABI one-year review of the code of conduct comes out, the Treasury—as the Minister was saying—will look closely at how well the market is working. Just so we can be absolutely clear, if there is evidence that it is not working as well as it should and that there are hidden commissions, unnecessary charges and all the rest of it, will they be taken into consideration and reviewed and changed if need be?
Let me put it this way: the industry, the Government, the regulator and consumers all have roles to play in ensuring that consumers get the best deal. So far, action by the Government, the industry and the regulator has focused on ensuring that the market works more effectively to ensure that consumers shop around; identifying conduct risks that prevent them from doing so; and ensuring that they have the right tools and information to make informed choices and provide competitive pressure on the market. However, as I said earlier, those measures are only as effective as the changes they bring about, and they should not stop here.
The Government look forward to the results of the ABI’s evaluation of the effectiveness of its code, and to the FCA’s findings following its thematic review of the market and how consumers are being treated. They will complement the Government’s review of the evidence on how the market is operating and whether improvements are necessary. However, to answer directly the question put by my hon. Friend, the Government are serious about ensuring that the action already under way has a clear and positive impact. We have not ruled out further action in future.
Does the Minister accept that the thrust of pensions policy has been to accept the reality of inertia and harness it for the public good? Everything that he has read so far from his script has been about individual engagement. Does he think that individual engagement is enough in this market?
The hon. Gentleman is too quick to dismiss the role of individual engagement—it seems to me that he dismisses it almost completely. It is important that we engage individuals in such hugely important decisions, that we increase transparency and that we remove any hidden barriers that may exist. There is consensus—we all want the market to work. If we are to succeed, we must take every measure available to improve individual engagement. We should not dismiss it.
Is not the point that we can design legislation around inertia to benefit from it, and that we can also design out inertia? The default—acquiring an annuity from a pension provider—can be designed out through an effective open market option, which will ensure that consumers can shop around and have good-quality information. The mass engagement solution put forward by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) is another way of tackling inertia. He accepts that we can change inertia and get people to shop around instead.
My hon. Friend puts it very well and I agree with his point.
To conclude, the view of all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate is that annuities are very important. There are concerns as to whether the market has worked as well as it might have done during a number of years, but there is recognition that the Government have made a number of reforms on our watch—I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham, who was so involved with those reforms, is here. However, we must keep our eyes on the matter and keep the spotlight on the annuities market. Crucially, we must ensure that the market is working in the best interests of consumers.