Business View: Pensions in crisis: please, someone, get a move on

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The Independent Online

Insomniacs, pedants and those interested in how Britain gets out of its £100bn pensions crisis should flock to London's Docklands on Tuesday, where the great and the good will be cogitating at a seminar hosted by Adair Turner's Pensions Commission. The former CBI chief told us last year that there was a crisis and we had to do something about it. Only he didn't say what.

Insomniacs, pedants and those interested in how Britain gets out of its £100bn pensions crisis should flock to London's Docklands on Tuesday, where the great and the good will be cogitating at a seminar hosted by Adair Turner's Pensions Commission. The former CBI chief told us last year that there was a crisis and we had to do something about it. Only he didn't say what.

This was because the Government, worried that the solutions might scare the voters, told Mr Turner it did not want his prescriptions until after the election. But which election was that? In the time the Pensions Commission has been sitting, we have had three different secretaries of state for work and pensions: Andrew Smith, Alan Johnson and David Blunkett. We won't see Mr Turner's conclusions until next year - at the earliest. So all eyes will be on the Tuesday seminar for clues.

There won't be any from Mr Turner. Like the McKinsey management consultant he used to be, he will make others do his work for him. An initial address will provide the platform for others to speak. We have the CBI, TUC, Mr Blunkett and Sir Malcolm Rifkind from the Conservatives all making their contributions. But will we get any guidance?

Not from Sir Malcolm, who is no doubt too busy plotting over the Tory leadership to put much thought into his job shadowing Work and Pensions. Today he will announce he is proposing a "Rights of Savers" Bill to be put before Parliament. He is doing this because he came second in the ballot for private members' Bills, so it has an excellent chance of being heard, and he ought to do something. Only he does not seem to know what he wants to do.

His only proposal so far is to get rid of the law that forces retirees to buy annuities with their pension pots. And about time too. The annuity system is as inefficient as it is outmoded (sounds like the Tory party, there) and severely restricts choice. Mind you, you wonder why, if the Tories are agin' it, they didn't get rid of it when they were in power.

For any other ideas, Sir Malcolm is going to have a period of consultation, asking interested parties and experts. This is the sort of behaviour one expects from Labour, but as I said, Sir Malcolm has other things on his mind.

Will we get any clues from Mr Blunkett? By rights, no, as he has said already he has an open mind. But he is well known for wading straight into any row, usually to pour petrol on the flames, and I predict he will add to the furore on Tuesday. The trouble is that he dare not rule anything out at the moment - even the politically dangerous idea of raising the retirement age.

Many of the solutions to the pensions crisis involve the Department for Work and Pensions having a fight with the Treasury. For this, Mr Blunkett is well qualified, as he and Gordon Brown are not the best of friends, and his political career could be terminated when Mr Brown moves to 10 Downing Street. The issue is how much time he has to push through any genuine reform.

Mr Blunkett needs Mr Turner to come to some conclusion quickly. Time is running out.

How strong is its hand?

A fund manager I know told me how he came back to his desk to see a note that merely said: "Internet Poker. £5bn. Michael Jackson." It took him a few moments to realise this referred to the chairman of Sage - not the controversial pop star - taking the chair of PartyGaming ahead of its record-breaking float.

Last week Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, which is backing the poker group's listing, shaved a billion or so off the expected float price. Yet it is still too expensive. Talk is of another drop of some £500m.

Beyond that, this company has terrible corporate governance issues. Mr Jackson is being paid £500,000 and has a dowry of £1.5m of free shares, for signing a three-year contract. If you pay someone over the odds and then have to tie them in to give you legitimacy, what does this say about the underlying company?

j.nisse@independent.co.uk

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