Lord Turner of Ecchinswell: Late start for pensions guru who wants us all to stay at work longer

A day in the life of ... Chairman of the Pensions Commission
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The Independent Online

For a man about to set out a 50-year vision for Britain's creaking pension system, Lord Turner of Ecchinswell is in no hurry to start the day. The chairman of the Pensions Commission, the three-year Government-appointed inquiry into pensions reform, had spent the previous evening polishing today's presentations. Now he is happy for the Commission's staff to take the early organisational shift, while he enjoys a lie-in.

Lord Turner gets up to listen to the 8 o'clock news, which leads on what he is expected to say over the following hours - plus speculation about how Gordon Brown, who has already been accused of a pre-emptive bid to sabotage the Commission, might respond.

It is not until a "disgustingly respectable" 9 o'clock that Lord Turner finally orders a cab to take him from his Kensington home to Over-Seas House, the St James's headquarters of the Royal Over-Seas League, where he is due to deliver his recommendations.


Lord Turner arrives at the venue, though his cab takes time to negotiate its way past the television vans setting up satellite feeds outside.

The first challenge for the former McKinsey management consultant and CBI director-general is to balance his attention for detail with the new-found demands of celebrity. Lord Turner has half an hour to check his slides, while sitting for a series of photographs with the Commission's 800-page final report.

The photographers keep snapping as Lord Turner makes his entrance to a press conference, flanked by his fellow Commission members Jeannie Drake and John Hills, who appear to be blinded by the flashbulbs. "The level of interest is gratifying - whatever happens, we know we are not simply going to be ignored."


As Lord Turner begins his presentation, it is clear that whoever has leaked the Commission's findings has been well-informed. The Commission is adamant the state pension age must rise, possibly to 69 by the year 2050, and that the Treasury must fund a more generous basic state pension linked to earnings. Lord Turner also tells employers they must contribute 3 per cent of staff pay into a new National Pensions Savings Scheme (NPSS).

Most of the journalists want to pin the Commission chairman down on exactly what the new retirement age should be. Lord Turner refuses to be drawn, and also evades attempts to encourage him to accuse the Chancellor of treachery.

Only one question hints at the row that will dominate news reports later in the day. Lord Turner gives a technical explanation of how the Commission's proposals for state pension reform will affect public spending.

After an hour and five minutes, Lord Turner leaves the conference, pursued by the photographers, and immediately joins Sky's political editor Adam Boulton for a live interview. So far, he has been encouraged by the line of questioning pursued by most journalists, who have focused on employers' costs and the specific details of increases to the state pension age.


Away from the media throng surrounding Lord Turner, however, political journalists are already seeking government reaction. John Hutton, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, thanks the Commission for its work, but there is an ominous silence from the Treasury.

Lord Turner, meanwhile, has reached the Millbank offices in Westminster, where the big broadcasters all maintain studios for political coverage.

The Commission chairman embarks on a whirlwind tour of terrestrial TV and radio, giving interviews on BBC1, ITV, Channel Four and Radio Five Live. As he waits to go on air, he watches the monitors, which are running reactions from analysts and politicians. A considered interview given by Stephen Timms, the DWP minister with responsibility for pensions, is reassuring.

"The concerns I was hearing were completely legitimately concerns I had expected to hear," Lord Turner says. "Employers' groups were doing their job and asking about the cost of the NPSS, while the Association of British Insurers was talking about the impact on private pension saving."

But by early afternoon, the atmosphere is shifting. Between interviews with the regional press and specialist financial TV channels, Lord Turner receives calls from journalists asking about the economic impact of the Commission's proposals. It is clear the Treasury has returned to the theme of the previous week's leaks, disputing the figures in the report.


Lord Turner is frustrated. "Someone somewhere was saying they didn't understand the figures we'd given, even though they patently did. The Treasury had two civil servants who were at every meeting of the Commission until June or July and they have continued to talk to my staff almost every day."

A response is needed and Lord Turner returns to the Commission's headquarters, a cordoned-off area at the Department of Work and Pensions' Adelphi House offices. Lord Turner forgoes the half-hour gym workout he had been planning and hastily drafts a release he hopes will clarify the Commission's costings. "We had to explain that the whole cost issue was crucially dependent on which base level people used for comparisons."


The release does not turn the tide. Pensions reform leads the ITV news as Lord Turner arrives at ITN's offices in Gray's Inn Road. At 7 o'clock, the Channel Four News presenter Jon Snow asks about Mr Brown. "All Jon wanted to ask was whether the Treasury was in total disagreement with our figures and our role in that is to try not to get drawn into the politics of the issue."

Mr Snow asks Lord Turner whether he would advise anyone else to accept the job of running a government commission on reform. Lord Turner says he has found the task "exhilarating and character forming".


Back home for dinner, Lord Turner is still being challenged, this time by his daughter who wants some help with her Chemistry homework. "Although I did an economics A-level, I've always regretted giving up on studying science at an early age," he says. Defeated by a lack of knowledge of complex molecules, he gets ready to go back out.


At BBC Television Centre in White City, Newsnight opens with a film package from political editor Martha Kearney, who makes it clear that Gordon Brown remains deeply sceptical about Lord Turner's number-crunching.

However, Jeremy Paxman fails to cajole Lord Turner into overt criticism of the Chancellor. "The thing about Jeremy is that he is always much more polite to people who aren't politicians," says Lord Turner, who repeats his mantra that he is "optimistic" about the prospects of the Commission's report.

"If, in three years' time, we are in agreement about the future direction of State pensions, we will have succeeded, even if not all the detail has been worked out."


Lord Turner's day has been an insight into life in a goldfish bowl. "I've been surprised by the sheer scale of the publicity - pension reform is a big issue, but it's not on the scale of climate change or the mess we've got ourselves into in Iraq, for example."

But he remains keen to take the argument to the opposition. "One thing has changed already - a year ago you would not have found a single politician who would say on the record that the state pension age has to go up, and now that it is very much on the agenda. Once we accept this fact, we can also see that the state pension could be more generous without any absurd increase in public spending."

It's as close as Lord Turner will come to criticising the Treasury officials who have been briefing against him. "It's not going to destroy my life if we fail and I really hope this does not become personal. I'll be sending Gordon Brown a Christmas card as usual - he's always sent me one."

There's little time for bitter reflections. Lord Turner has to get some sleep - he's due at the GMTV studios at 5am.