'Critical' details still missing from pension changes

"It is impossible to stand here six weeks before 6 April and say the government is ready" - ABI

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Crucial details of exactly how the government's retirement savings revolution is set to work are still missing with less than six weeks to go before people are handed new freedoms over their pension pots, insurers are warning.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) has cast fresh doubts over how prepared the government, regulators, pension providers and advisers are for the changes, which will mean that people aged 55 and over can take their pension pot how they like, rather than being herded towards buying a retirement annuity.

From April 6, the 320,000 people who retire each year with a defined contribution (DC) will be able to take it as they choose, subject to their marginal rate of income tax in that year.

But the ABI's director general Huw Evans will warn today that it is "impossible to stand here six weeks before 6 April and say the government is ready".

He will predict that "critical pieces of the jigsaw" will not be in place in time when the reforms go live.

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Free advice

Free, impartial guidance is being offered to people looking to decide what to do with their pension pots, under the branding Pension wise. The guidance is being delivered by Citizens Advice and the Pensions Advisory Service.

The government has said that the Pension wise service will be available online, over the phone or face-to-face. Some people may also decide to pay for independent financial advice.

But the ABI said that with pension providers already sending information to people who are retiring in April, there is still no Pension wise phone number for providers to direct people to if they do not have internet access.

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Lack of clarity

It is still unclear exactly how the Pension wise guidance sessions will work, how they will be structured and how they will be recorded so that providers and advisers can know what customers have discussed and what was covered, it warned.

The ABI said there is still an absence of official predictions for how many people are likely to use Pension wise and a lack of information on what the estimated waiting times will be. If providers had this information they could have shared it with customers.

The insurance body said that it is also waiting for rules to guide providers on how they need to interact with customers, especially those who refuse to take up the Pension wise service, although it understands that these are in the pipeline.

In a speech to be delivered to the ABI's retirement conference in London, Mr Evans will say that while the industry supports the reforms and wants them to succeed: "It is impossible to stand here six weeks before 6 April and say the government is ready - that is a statement of fact not an attribution of blame."

Not delivered enough

He will say that the government has not been able to deliver enough at this stage to ensure that the reforms get off to a flying start when they go live.

Mr Evans will continue: "Critical pieces of the jigsaw are still missing and will not be in place in time. I see no point in a blame game and would hope this will not develop as the reforms go live, despite the pressures of the pre-election period.

"I would like all of us who are engaged in trying to deliver successful reform to commit to a 'best endeavours beginning' for early April where we recognise the inevitable challenges of a new system going live in a spirit of openness, constructive comment and determination to gain momentum as we all get used to how the new world is going to work. This is in everyone's interests."

Mr Evans will also remind people that there is no need to rush into making quick decisions about their lifetime savings on April 6, as this is simply the date when the reforms will start and not a deadline.

He will say: "People should not be rushed into making quick decisions about pension savings they may have accumulated over 30 years."

Last summer, the ABI, together with the the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF) raised fears over an '"unnerving lack of detail" about how the pensions guidance will be delivered.

In autumn 2014, the NAPF highlighted its concerns by drawing up a list of 101 "uncertainties" over exactly how the reforms are intended to work.

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"Very ambitious" timetable

Financial services firm Hargreaves Lansdown said it agreed with many of the ABI's concerns and has consistently warned that the government had set a "very ambitious" timetable.

Tom McPhail, head of pensions research at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: "These reforms are overwhelmingly popular and in the long term will do much to reinvigorate pension provision in the UK."

But he continued: "Our worry is that because the reforms are being introduced so quickly, many pension providers won't be ready in time."

A Treasury spokeswoman said: "Our radical pension reforms are about giving people more choice when they retire and have been almost universally welcomed by consumer groups and pensions experts.

"We welcome the ABI's commitment to these new freedoms and will continue to work with industry to ensure we are all ready. We have already seen firms announce new products for April 2015, launched the first arm of the guidance service - the Pension wise website - and are on course to meet demand for face to face and telephone guidance in April.

In addition, we are working closely with DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) to plan extra support to help manage any initial spike in demand for the service.

"We agree that people should take their time and not rush decisions. Pension wise will help them understand their options and make an informed choice."

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