Julian Knight: Forget the us-and-them mentality and improve private pensions


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The Independent Online

'Pensions strike: bring it on." So said one correspondent on my Twitter account.

It seems that many people (and quite a few journalists) are rubbing their hands at the idea of a strike over pensions by public sector unions on 30 November. There is an us-and-them mentality, the blame for which can squarely be put at the door of the last government, which tilted the balance massively in favour of some public sector groups. At a time when many in the private sector face cuts in pay and jobs, I can understand the anger that millions have pensions which put a huge burden on the taxpayer.

But beggar-my-neighbour economics is damaging to all, and while I think the coalition's pensions plans – particularly in their improved form, as outlined last week – are fair and generous, we need to focus on the real issue. The crisis is not a result of over-generous public sector schemes, but of completely inadequate private sector pensions coverage.

Another blow for the PO

It's sad that National Savings & Investments is to stop distributing its products (apart from Premium Bonds) through Britain's post office network. It's yet another blow for the local network and consumers' easy access to savings. Where else on the high street can consumers go for easy-to-understand savings products and not be prey to sharp-suited sales types?

I also think it's sad for National Savings, which will be severing a strong tie with customers – many of whom are elderly. NS&I cites cost and efficiencies, but one suspects this has a lot to do with the PO's tie-up with the Bank of Ireland to offer savings products and other financial services over the counter. You can't buy a stamp these days without being asked to buy insurance or some other such product.

A very brave banker

"It is like a snake swallowing a poisoned bull" is the most colourful description I've heard of Lloyds' takeover of Halifax in 2008. The man who uttered this choice phrase was Antonio Horta-Osorio, who was then chief of Santander UK. On Thursday and acting on medical advice, Mr Horta-Osorio, after less than a year as head of Lloyds Banking Group, took the markets by surprise by taking leave of absence from his role, due to stress.

If I was being glib I could say that it was a case of Mr Horta-Osorio biting off more than he could chew, but that would be unfair. Lloyds is a massive job and the stresses are clearly immense. It's not de rigueur to feel sympathy for any banker but, in Mr Horta-Osorio's case, in the macho world of high finance, I think he's a brave man for openly admitting to a severe case of stress. Let's hope he makes a speedy recovery.

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