James Daley: Blair now the key to pension reform

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The Independent Online

Importantly, the end of the Commission's three-year inquiry, will finally put the onus back on the Government to set about introducing a necessary programme of radical reform - robbing it of its long-standing excuse that it cannot do anything until it's seen what Turner has to say.

The fear amongst those of us who have followed this process over the past few years is that with the Treasury already right up against its public spending limits, Turner's recommendations will be kicked into the long grass.

Pensions reform will inevitably be costly, complex, and potentially unpopular amongst certain sections of the electorate - perhaps removing generous tax relief from higher earners, or forcing people to save more of their salary each month.

No surprise then that Gordon Brown is reluctant to embark on such a major project on the eve of succeeding to the prime minister's post.

But the one thing, however, that may well yet have the power to ensure pensions reform remains at the top of the agenda over the coming months, is the Chancellor's ongoing power struggle with Tony Blair.

With Blair now seemingly determined not only to hang on to the top job for as long as possible, but also to push on with a string of radical policy initiatives before he goes, pensions may well find itself jacked up the agenda.

Blair does not often get involved directly in the pensions debate, but at the Labour Party conference on Tuesday, his keynote speech included the promise that reform of the creaking state pension system would begin in the new year. Furthermore, he also hinted at a redesign of the private pension market - creating a system which would provide "a simple, easy way for people to save and to reap the rewards of their savings".

Meanwhile, David Blunkett, the work and pensions secretary - who has until now threatened to be a hindrance to reform due to his determination to make a quick and short-term mark on the debate - appears to have finally calmed down.

In his own speech at the conference, Blunkett's only mention of pensions reform was to talk about the scandal of the prejudice towards women in the current system, and his hope that Turner would address this.

This was certainly a change in tune to a speech he gave only weeks earlier, where he seemed to boast that he was planning to clear up the womens' pensions mess single-handedly, and would be publishing his own report ahead of Turner.

As Turner well knows, there are no easy answers to solving the current problems in the pensions system and the only solutions likely to last are ones which involve a complete overhaul of where we are today.

>The following are needed: a higher flat rate basic state pension, which keeps pensioners out of poverty and is fair to both men and women; a sensible secondary scheme that is simple to understand and provides decent incentives for people to save; an educational programme that helps people understand the link between what they save and invest now, and what they will get back in retirement.

These must be part of the new system andcannot be achieved by tinkering with the current framework. For the first time in a long while, I'm cautiously optimistic that such reform is just around the corner.

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