News: Whole new bawl game as cash for kids is spurned

Low take-up for child trust funds; renewed appetite for stock markets; National Savings prizes unclaimed; union urges compulsory contributions
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The Independent Online

Fewer than half of all parents who have received child trust fund vouchers have bothered to invest them, according to new government figures.

Since January, some 1.93 million vouchers worth £250 or £500 have been sent out to parents of children born on or after 1 September 2002.

However, only 889,000 have been put to use in either a cash deposit account or a stock market fund; in both, the money will grow tax-free.

Every day that the voucher lies idle at the back of a drawer is another day when interest isn't accruing on the savings account, or returns aren't building up in the stock market investment.

The inaction by more than a million families is down to a mix of lack of confidence about where to invest the money, apathy, forgetfulness and lost vouchers, surveys reveal.

"Most parents probably still have opening a child trust fund on their 'to do' list, but we're urging them to act now and ensure their children benefit," said Ray Milne, managing director of Halifax Financial Services.

Despite the poor take-up, Ivan Lewis, economic secretary to the Treasury, said he was "encouraged" by the progress in the past three months. In May, only 499,000 out of 1.74 million vouchers had been activated - some 29 per cent - he said.

If parents do nothing for 12 months, the voucher is invested in a shares-based fund picked at random by the Inland Revenue.

Investors go for shares

The confidence of individual investors in stock markets has rocketed during the past 12 months, with £852m ploughed into funds in July - 10 times more than for the same period in 2004.

The rise in the sales of unit trust funds - bought either direct from a company or through an independent financial adviser or discount broker - reflects growing consumer faith in shares, said Sheila Nicoll, deputy chief executive of the Investment Management Association (IMA), which released the figures.

In July 2004, barely £85m of new money was put into the stock market as a lack of confidence in shares encouraged more people to rest their cash in deposit accounts.

"Perhaps this is a sign that the messages about the need to save for the long term are getting through," added Ms Nicoll.

A rise in the FTSE-100 of some 100 points over the past 12 months - from around 4,300 at the end of July 2004 to roughly 5,240 in the same week this year - has helped to bolster this confidence.

The £852m figure includes money held by savers inside an individual savings account (ISA).

However, the overall sum invested in this way actually fell in July to £69m, compared to £77m last year.

An IMA spokeswoman said it wasn't clear why numbers were down, but she added that investor confusion about exactly how much can be put into an ISA each year (£7,000 in share funds) was the most likely factor.

The total sum invested by individual investors in unit trust funds now stands at a record £308bn.

Premium bond puzzle

A record £25m in unclaimed premium bond prizes has yet to be claimed, it emerged last week.

Some 433,000 savers are unaware that they have won prizes, according to National Savings & Investments (NS&I), which runs the government-sponsored lottery. The largest outstanding prize is £25,000, the smallest £25; three £10,000 awards have yet to be claimed

Largely to blame, said a spokesman for NS&I, was forgetfulness on the part of some bond holders, as well as the failure of some winners to tell the organisation they have moved.

A surge in the popularity of premium bonds with investors has also been a factor. Thanks to the improved marketing of the investment, and the recent volatility in stock markets, some £26bn is invested in the bonds today, against just £4bn in 1995.

But more people playing means more people slipping through the net. There is no time limit on claiming a prize, and the oldest outstanding award, for £25, dates back to the sixth draw in 1957.

Premium bond holders can check whether they have won a prize by visiting www.nsandi.com and typing in their number.

Those who have lost the number can print off a "tracing form" found online; fill it in with any former names or old addresses and send it off to NS&I, which will do a search for you.

Pension tough-talking

Staff should be forced to pay 2 to 4 per cent of their salary into a pension fund, according to one of Britain's biggest unions.

The suggestion was made by the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF), representing one million workers, in a report to Adair Turner. The chairman of the Pensions Commission has the task of recommending how the UK should solve its £57bn gap between what we are saving now and what we will actually need in retirement. He reports at the end of November.

This is the first time a major employees' group has come out in favour of such a scheme, and it is at odds with the CBI, which recently warned that 20 per cent of companies would have to cut jobs if compulsion were introduced.

The EEF report also proposed an overhaul of the basic state pension scheme, scrapping today's mix of a basic weekly payment and pension credit.

In its place, it suggests a government-backed scheme that ensures pensioners are given at least a fifth of average earnings by the time they are 65.

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