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A Pensioner’s Progress: Looking back at the 1986 Personal Pensions Revolution

The dream of pensions policy visionaries to create a better retirement income model that was both affordable and fair appear to have run aground, with many viewing the forthcoming Government white paper as a last-chance saloon.  Professor Hugh Pemberton from the University of Bristol looks back at how we got here.

Ensuring adequate provision for people in their old age is not a new challenge. Nor is the UK Government’s current attempt to address this challenge the first such effort. A white paper is due in the New Year on just this subject, which promises a shake-up of the current pensions system as we know it. So it seems timely to look back at the last true revolution in pensions – which took place a little over 30 years ago.

The election of a Conservative government on 4 May 1979 under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher marked a significant moment in the politics of post-war Britain generally, but particularly for the country’s pensions system. Amongst their many reforms, one of the Thatcher governments’ most radical achievements was the restructuring of Britain’s pension system, most notably through the ‘personal pensions revolution’.

Book on to the Thatcher Pensions Reforms witness seminar 

Central to this retirement upheaval were the deliberations of the ‘Inquiry into Provision for Retirement’, established by Norman Fowler in November of 1983. The Inquiry took public evidence from January 1984 against a background of concern about the future burden of the state earnings-related pension scheme (SERP), and a desire in the government to use personal pensions to build a capital-owning democracy. For the historian, the Inquiry represents a fascinating case study in the mediation of powerful political, financial and civil society interests, as the government sought radically to reshape the UK’s pension system. In its aftermath, in June 1985, the government published a green paper of remarkable ambition which proposed the abolition of SERPS and the transfer of its members into a totally new system of personal pensions. That set off a storm of opposition and key elements of its agenda were thwarted, but the 1986 ‘personal pension’ revolution still served to reshape the landscape of British pensions for decades to come.

That is why, in collaboration with the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, the University of Bristol’s Thatcher’s Pensions Reforms project is bringing together some of the key players from the time to take part in a witness seminar. This will feature the recollections and analysis of  Marshall Field (a former President of the Institute of Actuaries), the former Government Actuary Chris Daykin, the Inquiry’s secretary Sir Nicholas Montagu, and a former adviser to the two Chancellors of the Exchequer Sir Adam Ridley. It will be chaired by academic and former Shadow Pensions Minister Gregg McClymont.

A witness seminar is an opportunity for people associated with a momentous event to discuss their memories and experience. Their recollections will form part of the historical narrative, and each seminar represents an unparalleled opportunity to experience living history. It is also a chance for the audience to ask probing questions of those taking part, about their motivations, reasoning or aspirations at the time.

During the course of the evening we will examine issues around the aims and conception of the reforms, the conduct and effects of the Fowler Inquiry, and the process which led to the Social Security Act and the Financial Services Act in 1986. The debate will be lively and thought-provoking, and our panellists will provide a unique window into the events that shaped, and continue to shape, the landscape of UK pensions to this day.

The event will be taking place in Staple Inn Hall on Wednesday 6th December 2017, at 5:00pm. All are welcome to attend and contribute. You can find out more, and register to attend on our website.