Joanne Segars: Learning the facts of longer life

The Business Interview: The head of the National Association of Pension Funds tells James Moore about the problems facing the industry

"Thirty years ago there were 2,500 people aged over 100. Now it's 23,000. In 30 years time it will be 150,000," says Joanne Segars. The chief executive of the National Association of Pension Funds is trying to illustrate why she says that – on top of everything else – we all have to start saving more. How to cajole people into doing that is an issue that will be at the forefront of the minds of many of the 1,000-plus delegates at the organisation's annual conference this week.

But convincing people is not going to be easy. How do you tell a population that it must save more at a time when it is facing up to the biggest drop in household income in decades, with taxes rising, inflation rising and wages falling in real terms for the vast majority of people. Then there's debt, the fact that most people have far too much and the need to get it paid down fast before interest rates start to rise again. And they will.

Wouldn't people be better off addressing their debt before worrying about pensions, given that it is an addiction to that particular commodity across our society which has brought us into the current economic malaise?

"Clearly, we do have too much debt. But the fact of the matter is we are all living longer," Ms Segars says, a line that the pensions industry has long trotted out. She argues that when the issues are set out in black and white – such as the growing number of centenarians mentioned above – she finds people are willing to listen, despite the challenging economic backdrop.

"We have Pensionsforce where we we go into workplaces and talk to groups of staff about pensions. When you ask people how long they expect to live after 65, they'll say five years. When you tell them that it's more likely to be 15 or 20 years, they do start to wake up. It has proved very successful in getting people to engage with pensions," she says.

One group currently very engaged with pensions is the public sector, where the Government wants workers to pay more for less. Ministers have some support from people in the private sector who look at "gold-plated" public sector final salary pension schemes with a degree of envy, not least because the private sector equivalents have been all but wiped out by employers in recent years. I'm interested to hear her views on this matter because Ms Segars used to be head of pensions policy at the TUC, a body which has made pensions a key battleground with the Government and whose member unions are in some cases balloting for strike action.

"Ultimately, they will have to sit around a table together. They will have to solve this by negotiation," Ms Segars says. But, she continues: "We have been clear. There should not be a race to the bottom. Part of the problem with the debate is that it gets reduced to 'I have lost mine,so people in the public sector should lose theirs'. That is just a route to equality of misery. We used that phrase before [former Labour Pensions minister] John Hutton did [in his Coalition-sponsored inquiry into public sector pensions].

"The other thing we want to do is to dispel some of the myths around the public sector, where the average pension is just £7,500. When you have very well-paid public servants like [Cabinet Secretary] Sir Gus O'Donnell retiring with a £2.3m pension pot, that should not distort the debate for everyone else."

One reason Ms Segars can understand the views of those in the public sector is that both her parents worked in it. Her mother was a teacher, her father a fireman. But she still says there has to be reform, and it goes back to the longevity issue she first cited.

She describes the proposals set out in the Hutton report – such as moving public sector pensions to being based on an employee's career average earnings rather than on their final salary – as "very sensible".

Sensible is a good description for many of Ms Segars views. She accepts that if you want to persuade people to save more – or even bring in measures to force them to, such as auto-enrollment into workplace pension schemes – then the pensions industry needs to shape up. Charges need to be lower and more transparent. Pensions have to be easy to understand and flexible. She is also willing to agree that one of the things that has held back reform is the vast strata of people who have been making a very good living on keeping things anything but simple.

Ms Segars is clearly passionate about her job, but doesn't see the need to get aggressive or take offence when I play devil's advocate. That's quite handy for someone leading an organisation which does a lot of lobbying. Her time with the TUC probably helped a lot: "Working there, you did get the chance to do things at a very young age that you wouldn't get anywhere else, like holding meetings with ministers or appearing in front of select committees."

Ms Segars says that her original entry into the world of pensions was "like many people, a bit of an accident".

"I funded an MA at Warwick University with a bank loan, which terrified me. So when I got offered a job at Income Data Services, as a pensions journalist, I thought, 'Well, this might sound a bit dull but I can always move on'. Pensions is what I've been doing ever since."

She's been chief executive at the NAPF since 2006 and says it's been anything but boring: "There is always lots to do. The challenge for us is adapting to the new pensions world, with defined-contribution schemes becoming a majority and the focus on the individual that brings."

She lives in Hackney; Dalston to be precise, and admits that she and her partner have a mortgage "the size of the Greek national debt". She adds: "It's an up-and-coming area. The mortgage just means I'll have to work hard. But I will have a good pension when I retire."

Of course, one group that has no need to worry about pensions are chief executives, and the other occupants of Britain's boardrooms. How does she sees the NAPF's other role – that of an investor lobby group – as it relates to the vexed issue of executive pay? Pay which has been rising at a rate of knots.

"We have always been very clear that pay should be based on performance. And we have been getting tougher over the last few years. We have written to the chairmen of the FTSE 350 saying that we will be taking a much closer interest. We have also been making the point that you can't expect to build up your own when you are cutting everybody else's." Quite.

CV: Joanne Segars

2006-present Chief executive, National Association of Pension Funds.

2005-2006 Director of Policy, National Association of Pension Funds.

2001-2005 Head of Pensions & Savings, Association of British Insurers.

1988-2001 Head of Pensions, TUC.

1987-1988 Researcher/journalist, Income Data Services.

Education

1986-1987 MA Industrial Relations, University of Warwick.

1983-1986 BA Economics Liverpool Polytechnic (now Liverpool John Moores Unviversity).

Other work

Founding governor and council member, Pensions Policy Institute.

Director of TUC Stakeholder Trustees Ltd.

2007 Elected director of the European Federation for Retirement Provision.

2003 Awarded OBE for services to the pensions industry in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

1996-2003 Board Member, Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority.

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