Julian Knight: McFall and his team must put consumers before soundbites
Sunday 17 January 2010
John McFall MP, the longstanding chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, has been named consumer champion of the year by Which? for "holding banks to account over the financial crisis". But what have all these chinwags with the bankers actually achieved, and what has the Treasury Select Committee done for me, a consumer, lately?
The good work on curtailing the march of charging cash-machines and greater transparency on credit-card statements dates way back to before the last election. In recent times, with the public eye on all things banking, the Committee has become a parody of itself, with members queueing up for their five-second soundbites. Sometimes I'm surprised MPs haven't started winking at the camera in 1970s American-TV style.
And what do we learn from these Select Committee sessions? That bankers live on a warped plain of existence and that politicians are egoists – you do surprise me. So what if the RBS chief's parents thinks he earns too much?
I know we all want to see bankers embarrassed (I'd like to have seen Fred the Shred in the stocks) but outside this there are some important issues that the Committee has seemingly forgotten about – such as the desertion of the poorer areas of the UK by banks, the activities of doorstep lenders, and, just a small moral leap away, the loan sharks. Now Mr McFall does have the right instincts on many issues and, sure, he's been a good chairman, but the Committee itself is not what it was. It has lost focus, blinded by the bright lights of extra publicity brought about by the financial crisis.
A hole in the pension safety net
I've long held fears for the future of the Pension Protection Fund. Last week, another two pension schemes entered the PPF, which was set up in 2004 to provide a safety net for workplace pension schemes in danger of collapse. Some 33,000 people qualify for PPF payments because their schemes have gone under. These are funded by those schemes' remaining assets and a levy on solvent workplace pension schemes.
The bare economics are that people are living longer, meaning fewer pension funds can cope; they fall back on the PPF, adding to the burden on surviving schemes. It's not hard to see where this is headed. Particularly as the Tories – the most-likely next government – seem opposed to the Government guaranteeing the PPF.
Pensions are such long-term investments that there can be a bit of creative accounting to keep the whole edifice propped up for the time being. But, eventually, I can't see how the PPF, as it stands, is sustainable. The likeliest scenario is that the money being paid to the members of schemes will be cut, undermining the finances of thousands of people in old age. The 2004 Pension Act, which set up the PPF, while necessary at the time, was only ever going to be a Band-Aid. The worry is that, because we are talking 10-, 20- or even 40-year timescales, ministers have little incentive to do anything. They can just pass it on. And with a ruinous public-sector deficit, whoever enters the Department for Work and Pensions after the election will no doubt be more concerned with cutting welfare bills than tackling pensions and shoring up or redesigning the PPF.
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