Comment: Brown an distraction in pensions debate

IT WAS perhaps unwise for the unionists to launch the Keep our British Pensions campaign with the man that many people hold responsible for sabotaging the UK pensions system.

Jeff Salway. Picture: Jane Barlow
Jeff Salway. Picture: Jane Barlow

Gordon Brown kicked off the campaign at Lochgelly in Fife last week by arguing that a Yes vote would mean Scotland loses the “pooling and sharing” of resources that’s at the heart of the pensions promise.

It should have been the starting-point for fresh debate on the future of pensions in a Scottish state. Brown’s appearance undermined that somewhat.

Nicola Sturgeon was quick to respond that no one would be lectured on pensions by “the man who destroyed final-salary pension schemes with his £100bn raid”. She was referring to his 1997 decision as Chancellor to scrap the tax relief on dividends paid into pension funds.

The effect on pension funds was devastating and it hastened the demise of final salary schemes. To hold Brown solely responsible for the decline in UK pensions is absurd – not least because the decline started several years before he became Chancellor – yet he will always carry the can in many people’s eyes.

So it would have been more sensible for Gregg McClymont, the increasingly assured shadow pensions minister, to spearhead the launch of the Keep our British Pensions campaign.

Brown’s presence merely distracted from an attempt to put pensions at the centre of the independence debate. Polls put pensions second in the list of voters’ concerns, behind currency, yet the issue has remained unhelpfully peripheral.

That’s not because people aren’t interested. Nor is it because of a lack of comprehension. The audience of pensioners at the Lochgelly event had plenty of questions to ask, and not only on the obvious topic of state pensions.

The Pensions Protection Fund (PPF) came up, as did the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, the Financial Ombudsman Service and cross-border scheme funding.

That’s because the shape of financial services regulation in an independent Scotland hasn’t been sketched out in any detail yet, especially when the currency union assumptions are removed.

We all know that much must remain uncertain until the negotiations in the event of a Yes vote are under way. But as the pensioners of Fife demonstrated last week, there is a genuine hunger for greater discussion and clarity.

They care about what happens to their state pension, clearly. But they also understand the wider issues, from the implications for contracting out and the funding of a cross-border scheme to deposit guarantees and consumer protection.

There is an assumption that Scotland’s voters are either uninterested in these matters or that they don’t understand them. That isn’t the case, but too many politicians on both sides – and the financial services industry in Scotland – don’t get that.

They are skirting around the issues that people care about and in doing so are abdicating their responsibilities to their constituents and their customers.