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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 March, 2005, 21:45 GMT
Pensions Panic: Any Way Out?
By Joanna Lee
BBC Money Programme

With Britain in the grip of an increasing panic about pensions, politicians and policymakers are desperate for a way to avert a long-term meltdown.

Rosemarie Brierley
With a 50.22 basic state pension, Ms Brierley, 67, can't afford to retire

In the first of a two-part Money Programme special, reporter Michael Robinson reveals what's gone wrong with Britain's once world-renowned pension system.

Trevor Matthews, chief executive of pensions at Standard Life, is one of those concerned about what the future holds.

"The prospect is that this generation is not going to enjoy the dignity in retirement that they deserve, they are not going to enjoy a good quality of life in retirement, they're going to be worrying about every pound they spend," he said.

At 79.60 a week, Britain's state pension is one of the lowest in the developed world. For many people, it is just too low to live on, especially if you don't even get the full amount.

Rosemarie Brierley, who is 67, gets just 50.22 a week from the state, so despite reaching retirement age, she has to keep on working to make ends meet.

She doesn't qualify for the full basic state pension of 79.60 because she took time out of the workplace to bring up a family.

To qualify for the full amount, women need to pay National Insurance contributions for 39 years, men for 44 years.

Half of British women don't qualify for the full basic state pension and Rosemarie thinks this is wrong.

"I worked as hard as any man in this country but differently, I think it's a scandal, it's worse than a scandal it's disgraceful," she said.

'Disgrace'

In 1999, the New Labour government brought in a system of a means tested top-up to the basic state pension, aimed at helping people like Rosemarie who don't get enough to live on.

Members of the Brighton based band Los Albertos
Los Albertos' band members are living for the moment

This can take the basic state pension up to 105 a week for a single person.

But if you have private savings, or income from a private pension, you may not qualify for this and that is Rosemarie's problem.

She has a small nest egg of 35,000 which she has put away for a rainy day.

This means she doesn't qualify for much of the top up - only a few pounds a week, and she regrets saving.

"I did save, but it hasn't done me a bit of good. If I hadn't saved I'd now have a 105 pounds a week instead of 50.22 a week."

Difficult choice

One possible fix for the problems can be found on the other side of the world, in New Zealand, where everybody gets a flat rate state pension, based on residence, not contributions and with no means testing.

Tim Herman plays the saxophone in the band Los Albertos
Tim Herman is not saving for his retirement

But even if all the problems with the state pension system are resolved, there are still a host of pitfalls in the world of private pensions.

The whole system is incredibly complicated. Martin Andrews and his girlfriend Sarah Draper are about to get married and are thinking about getting a pension together in the future, but Sarah doesn't know where to begin.

"I can't begin to imagine what kind of pension to choose for the future and what money I'll need," she said.

"The government's not all that clear on it, so how the hell should we know?"

And when they do manage to decide, they're faced with a whole range of obstacles to getting a good pension at the end of it.

Tough

Charges levied on pension funds by providers over a 30 year period can have a dramatic effect on the size of an individual's savings.

Pensions expert Dr Ros Altmann has concerns about it.

The charging structure of private pensions is one of the biggest problems that we have to deal with, because you will lose a huge proportion of your capital over the longer term. You can lose up to a third of your capital over 30 years.

Pensions experts Dr Ros Altmann and reporter Michael Robinson
Dr Altmann and Mr Robinson bring shocking news

So to encourage us to save more into pension funds, the government spends billions of pounds a year through tax relief.

But most of this ends up subsidising the richest in the land, while offering only modest encouragement to the majority of us who need to save the most.

But the toughest thing of all for pension savers is knowing just how much to put away to get a decent pension.

"If you want 10,000 every year, you will need to save around 200,000," said Ms Altmann.

"So if you want a 20,000 a year pension, somehow from your savings you've got to get an amount of about 400,000."

Not easy for the vast majority of us. So this leaves a stark choice.

We can either rely on a low state pension in retirement, try to stretch to saving several hundred pounds a month into a personal pension or face working long into retirement to deliver an extra income.

Pensions Panic: Any Way Out? will be broadcast on BBC Two on Friday 11 March at 1900.



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