Anthony Hilton: Great computer system, shame we’re not putting enough in our pensions 


When customers of Lloyds Banking Group found on Sunday that they could not use their cards to withdraw cash or make payments, one’s first thought was, “Please, not again!”

True, it is more often than not RBS that leaves its customers with a full tank of petrol and no way of paying for it, but still system failures are now so frequent that they are simply depressing.

In fact, the big computer story of the week turned out not only to be something completely different but also good news – which is perhaps why it barely got a mention elsewhere. On Tuesday, Nest, the private-sector body set up to provide the infrastructure so everybody in work can be automatically enrolled into the new state second pension, announced it had signed up 900,000 people in a little over a year – and more than 90 per cent of them had stayed in. Warming to the theme, Tim Jones, Nest’s chief executive, predicted at a seminar in the City that when the scheme is fully rolled out in five years to cover the employees of even the smallest businesses not covered by an existing workplace pension, the numbers could rise to between 9 and 11 million.

That is a lot of people and far more than anyone expected. But the real achievement is that Nest has designed and built a computer system that can handle those millions, integrate with the payrolls of hundreds of thousands of businesses and keep track of individual contributions – all without a glitch. Look around at all the big computer projects that have gone sour and salute a team who have got it right. Let no one ever think it was easy.

Of course they received very little publicity for that – though in fairness the main purpose of the event was to flag up where there is still work to be done and where there could still be problems. These are partly in education and communications, in that pensions remain a turn-off for most of the population, and part operational, because employers usually underestimate the work involved. That could spell trouble as the numbers swell.

The real problem, though, is one outside Nest’s control – even when workers sign up: people are not saving nearly enough. Richard Butcher runs PTL, which provides independent pension advice. He has done a rough calculation of the pension shortfall that will result from current levels of saving – and, as a nation, we are putting away barely a quarter of what we need. Much as we may wring our hands at that, the only likely solution is that a huge number of people are going to have to stay working for much longer than they ever thought they would.