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On Westminster Bridge

07 April 2017

Image for On Westminster Bridge

Ian Neale reflects on last week's events and discusses the need for us to focus on what is important.

The focus of national attention last week was also the place where, a few months after Britain had declared war against Napoleon, William Wordsworth wrote "Earth has not anything to show more fair".

Although in another famous poem he "wandered lonely as a cloud", Wordsworth had his feet on the ground, complaining elsewhere that "getting and spending we lay waste our powers".

Two hundred years ago, when few could read, much less afford to buy a newspaper or travel far, most peoples' attention was firmly focused on getting by, day-to-day. Of what was happening far away, or might happen in future, they were ignorant. Not so ourselves, living in the information age, and subject to constant distraction.

Today a new tax year brings a slew of new legislation to which pensions professionals must pay close attention (or suffer tax penalties). Some of the new threats are not even law yet. We live in an era of retrospective change: we must anticipate ways in which the future will change the past.

Thus in late July (when the Finance Bill is expected to gain Royal Assent) the money purchase annual allowance will be reduced from £10,000 to £4,000 – with effect from today. Pension scheme administrators also have to learn a lot to comply with new overseas transfer rules; some having been imposed instantly after the Budget last month.

Overseas schemes are scrambling to meet a deadline for survival next Thursday.
As the 16th century poet (and martyr) John Frith wrote, "This Text holdeth their noses so hard to the grindstone, that it clean disfigureth their Faces." We are all under increasing pressure to attend to the quotidian tasks, such that to see further than the end of our nose sometimes requires an effort of will.

And yet we must, for pension provision especially depends on a vision of the long term. So how should we achieve the right balance; indeed how can we find time to step back from the machine and look ahead?

In 1985 the Church of England published a report, "Faith in the City", a title with a fashionable double meaning.

It focused attention on emerging gaps in society that arguably have only widened since, not least with the demise of traditional employment and the insidious growth of the 'gig economy'. To Christians inclined to take literally the Biblical injunction to "not store up for yourselves treasures on earth", the report counterposed the question of our responsibility for each other.

For we are interconnected; for all the talk about individual choice, no man is an island, entire of itself (the quotation from John Donne's Devotions continues with a reference to Europe, but we'll leave that). We pay taxes for what we cannot do for ourselves, and for others who lack the same opportunities.

Events such as the massacre perpetrated last week on Westminster Bridge constantly remind us of the fragility of our existence: that what has taken an age to create can be destroyed in an instant. Building consensus can be a painful process, taking years (as we have seen with automatic enrolment). On a political whim, executed a stone's throw from Westminster Bridge, it can be evaporated.

We need the will and the way to build a societal consensus about pension provision that is immunised against interference for short-term political gain. Many of us, myself included, have been arguing for something like a

Pensions Commission. That might be one way.

However, we must not hand the responsibility for decisions to a few who happen not to be politicians. Nor do we need yet another Report from a few of the Great and the Good. Such actions risk failure because they do not have the will of the people behind them.

We live in an age of disinformation, distraction and disintegration. Every lie has currency. The tawdry and the tedious occupy the airwaves to fill any gaps in our diurnal rhythm. We need the will to disconnect from the immaterial and the unimportant. Maybe it is time to resurrect the slogan "Demand the Impossible!"

Ian Neale,Director, Aries Insight.