Ros Altmann’s time in govt was short-termism at its worst

Ros Altmann’s tumultuous 12 months as pensions minister are over and her tenure is a microcosm of government short-termism on pensions policy.

Her appointment was unveiled in a press release one month before the general election in April 2015 to ensure the Conservatives had one day of positive press.

The Tories wanted to keep the focus on their generous tax and spending policies to retirees and savers and this was a cheap way of doing it. They unveiled Altmann in a new role of minister for consumers spreading across the Treasury and DWP.

What is laughable now is that David Cameron pretended this appointment showed his serious, long-term vision for pensions when it was clearly a political gimmick.

The shallowness of that offer was revealed immediately after Cameron’s shock victory last May (it seems so long ago now….) when he downgraded Altmann’s role to mere pensions minister.

It was a rough start for Ros. She was still being the energetic quotable campaigner, giving quotes to journalists and speaking her mind.

When George Osborne unveiled a consultation into pensions tax relief, she immediately dismissed the idea of a pensions Isa and destroyed the credibility of the process.

As Adviser Lounge reported last year, the DWP press office was furious with her free-talking and kept her on a tight leash.

She was also involved in bizarre episodes such as being a member of the Lib Dems and Labour as well as the Tories.

She has since revealed deep tensions with her boss DWP Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith, at whom she lashed out when he resigned from the government in March.

The influential ConservativeHome website called for her to be sacked after her outburst while other MPs were stunned to see a minister vent so openly about a former colleague. Politicians usually choose their words more carefully.

In policy terms, she achieved little. Her predecessor Steve Webb had five years to pass major state pension reforms while revolutionising private pension charges and withdrawals.

Altmann, meanwhile, reversed pot follows member and defined ambition. Two of the more controversial aspects of Webb’s legacy. She passed no major reforms and her influence on government policy was clearly minimal. She seemed to have greater success as a campaigner and media performer outside of parliament.

So Altmann returns to her former campaigning role with a mixed record. She is enhanced by a year in the ministerial hotseat and an even closer view at the workings of government.

Her chafing at the chains of modern politicians also speaks to her independence and frustrations with the political life.

But, ultimately, her lack of policy achievements and her extreme partisanship in the run-up to the 2015 election and EU referendum means she has nailed her colours to the mast.

There is nothing wrong with partisanship or convictions and it speaks well of Altmann that she had the courage to pick sides in such important national debates.

But she is no longer independent. This wasn’t just providing government advice – as she did to Labour’s Tony Blair or the Lib Dem’s Webb – but serving as a loyal party trooper. She is a pro-EU Conservative.

Her replacement is Tory MP Richard Harrington who became parliamentary under-secretary for pensions but retained Altmann’s brief. The role appears to demote pensions policy to a lower ministerial rung and it appears we are back to the days of chopping and changing pensions ministers.

Webb’s five year tenure – and Gregg McClymont’s four years in opposition – may be seen as the glory years of long-termism in pensions policy. Looks like we are back to the old days of inconsistencies, new faces and policy reversals every year.

If ever there was a lesson in governmental short-termism it was Altmann’s tenure. A minister picked for 24 hours good press, who reversed key planks of her predecessor’s five-year tenure and was then dumped after a year. And all in a ministerial brief that covers long-term saving over decades.

So farewell to the stability of Steve Webb and welcome back to the pensions merry-go-round.

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2 thoughts on “Ros Altmann’s time in govt was short-termism at its worst

  • I interviewed Webb, McClymont and Altmann for “Pensions Age” magazine. All three were decent, focused and sincere. Steve was in office for five years and achieved a lot but was never going to be able to get the DB Scheme horse back in the stable, and didn’t try. He was also hamstrung by the Treasury. He didn’t even know about the pensions reforms Osbourne announced in the Budget until a few hours before the speech! Gregg would have made a very good Pensions Minister and it’s sad that he didn’t have the chance to do it. Ros knew more about Pensions than any politician and came in conflict not just with the Treasury but her own odious Secretary of State. Politics were being played around her whilst she tried to do a job. One year in the role was insufficient to judge her and the comparison with Steve Webb who had five is unfair.

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  • Sam is right about the opportunistic short-termism of the Cameron/Osborne administration. Not only was it opportunistic, but it seemed to draft policy on the back of a fag packet.

    It was utterly lost without the rudder – some would say millstone, others moral compass – the LibDems offered the coalition and sadly, all the thinkers lost their seats at the election.

    Ros may have achieved nothing in terms of policymaking, but not through a lack of care or focus. Sam suggests her only achievement was to torpedo defined ambition and pot follows member and that these should be mourned. This is wrong.

    Though Steve Webb was a very good minister and is a decent egg in general, these two policies should not be seen as his opus magnus. If not hare-brained, they were muddle-headed approaches to fix two very difficult problems.

    Pot follows member perhaps ‘only’ introduced complexity and cost into a process that would result in only the consumer being the loser. A simpler, cleaner, solution must surely be available (and a number were proposed).

    However, defined ambition went beyond safe harbouring for those employers who wanted to maintain more generous benefits, trying to maintain the life of a terminally ill patient; final salary pensions.

    It’s not for nothing that most of those angling for defined ambition were practitioners, rather than employers. Focusing on making DC occupational pensions not only better, but sooner, would have been time well spent.

    I fear history will be harsh on Ros, but she had nowhere to go. She did and said what she was told (mostly) and her remit didn’t allow for much in the way of thinking, alas.

    Now she is free of the ministry’s guardians, I hope she will make a nuisance of herself. Just because the government has relegated the role of minister doesn’t mean it doesn’t remain an extremely important – and contentious – subject.

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