How high charges eat into pensions: Some of the best known firms take the biggest bites. Nic Cicutti reports

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Investors in personal pension schemes sold by some of Britain's best-known insurance companies risk losing thousands of pounds when their policies mature because of high management charges.

The cost of choosing between the cheapest and most expensive personal pension could be up to 15 per cent from a final payout of pounds 52,000, according to a survey by a leading firm of financial advisers.

The survey of charges, by Surrey-based Weybourne Financial Services, ranks Royal Life in last or last but one place over a series of different timespans.

Only marginally better over a 20-year period are - in ascending order - British Life Office, Sun Life of Canada, Pearl Assurance, Save & Prosper and Irish Life. The worst over the same period is Liberty Life.

Over 15 years, Royal is narrowly pipped by Liberty Life, British Life Office, Teachers' Assurance, Commercial Union and Pearl. Over 10 years, Teachers', NM Financial Management, Cannon Lincoln and Providence Capitol are bottom markers.

Other well known companies, including Prudential, Standard Life, Scottish Amicable and Norwich Union, are mid-way down the list of those selling personal pensions.

High street banks, which have in the past few years set up companies to market their own products directly to a captive client base and claim to pass on the benefits, also have high costs.

Among the lowest charges are those levied by life offices such as Equitable Life and Provident Life, which do not pay commission to advisers.

Weybourne's pensions director, Nick Bamford, said: 'Any person considering a personal pension should take charges into account because they can make such a large difference to the final payout.'

His company's figures rank 70 personal pension providers according to the total charges levied on what is paid by savers. They examine the impact in percentage terms on a person placing pounds 100 a month into unit-linked personal pension funds, which are closely tied to the performance of the stock market. Payments into each scheme are assumed by the survey to last 10, 15 and 20 years before retirement.

Costs are defined as the percentage reduction in yield of a pension after all charges, including commission.

But the survey excludes fees likely to be charged by an adviser who recommends non-commission paying pension providers. Nor does it take into account any commission given back to the client.

Assuming an annual growth rate of 8.5 per cent, someone investing in a unit-linked pension scheme would receive pounds 18,612 net of charges after 10 years. Over a 15-year term, the figure would be pounds 35,419, and over 20 years pounds 60,692.

The difference in payout between that net figure and the worst case ranges between almost pounds 2,000 over 10 years and pounds 8,000 over 20 years. In practice, net payouts are impossible to achieve. Administration costs are bound to lead to some drop in yield.

Scottish Life, which usually ranks among the top 10 low-charging offices, will pay out pounds 16,412 after 10 years, pounds 30,526 after 15 years and pounds 51,416 after 20 years.

A Scottish Life spokesman, Ray Milne, said: 'We deal exclusively through independent advisers, so our total costs indicate that the commissions we pay them, in of themselves, need not contribute substantially to overall expenses for consumers.'

By contrast, someone investing with Prudential would get pounds 15,580 after 10 years, pounds 28,587 after 15 and pounds 47,671 after 20 years. The Pru ranks joint 43rd over 10 years, 56th over 15 years, and 52nd over 20 years in terms of charges.

Standard Life does slightly better, coming joint 41st over 20 years, joint 54th over 15 years and joint 33rd over 10 years. Scottish Amicable comes joint 26th over 10 years, 25th over 15 years and 34th over 20 years. Norwich Union is slightly better in most cases.

Scottish Amicable's product manager, Bill Robertson, said: 'Our target is to be around the middle of the table. We do not aim to be the cheapest or a Rolls-Royce. We aim to have the best product.'

Propping up the league is Royal Life. Payouts would be pounds 15,025 over 10 years, pounds 27,685 over 15 years and pounds 44,551 over 20 years.

Anyone approaching high street banks for the lowest-cost pension will be disappointed. Barclays Life is joint 25th in all three categories. Black Horse Life, sold through Lloyds Bank, comes between 30th and 40th and the newly formed NatWest Life hovers around 34th place.

(Photograph omitted)

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