Julian Knight: Don't expect Hain to clean up Brown's pensions mess

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The Independent Online

The Government should publish its Pensions Bill this week, shaking up workplace schemes with the advent of personal accounts.

However, the Bill is unlikely to do anything to address two major pension problems. First, by saving into personal accounts, some people will bar themselves from receiving benefits such as the pension credit. In other words, they would be just as well off, or nearly as well off, if they didn't save at all. The Government is being warned now that it is storing up a huge mis-selling scandal.

Second, the 125,000 people who lost their pensions after the collapse of their company schemes are unlikely to find fresh help. The Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) set up to pay pension benefits to these people is bureaucratic, slow and inadequate.

Pensions minister Mike O'Brien (pictured) is bright, humane and, unlike some of his predecessors, actually knows his subject. However, he and his boss, Peter Hain, have little say because the means-tested benefits trap and the FAS were, ultimately, the constructs of the then Chancellor and now embattled Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

Watchdog cops out

Every week I promise myself that I will leave the Financial Services Authority (FSA) alone. Last week I was doing well in my "think happy thoughts about the FSA" exercise. I got as far as Wednesday.

At that point, the FSA released its annual review of the websites of financial firms. It found that a quarter of them were "misleading" and unclear. The FSA says consumers using these sites to make crucial financial decisions and buy products are at risk.

Now this is the third year running in which the FSA has found the websites at fault. What does it propose to do? Fine or name and shame the wrongdoers? Not a bit of it. The FSA's Dan Waters says another review will be carried out next year and, if failings are found, "action" will be taken.

It really is hard to think happy thoughts when you see such cop-out regulation.

Close to crashing?

Apparently, if you're a homeowner, you have lost around 65 today. Why? Nationwide says that house prices are falling by 0.9 per cent a month, equating to some 2,000 or 65 a day knocked off the value of an average-priced home. New mortgages are at a three-year low and surveyors say buyer enquiries are plummeting.

Interestingly, an estate agent I pass on my way to work every day has just closed its doors for good.

Estate agents need churn to survive, so logically they will get sellers to cut their prices. Meanwhile, the credit crunch means people looking to remortgage will not get a good rate. What's more, energy bills look set to rise by at least 10 per cent (see page 17) and council tax will inevitably go up.

In short, families' finances could be stretched next year. Even the 2p cut in basic-rate income tax planned for April will be clawed back through the abolition of the 10p starting rate and national insurance changes.

All in all, I'm not saying there is going to be a crash in 2008, but we may get as close to one as we have been for the best part of 20 years.

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