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About Who Will Save The Savers?

Elderly couple
Britain's ageing population is set to worsen the pensions black hole

We are all told we should be saving for our old age - but are we just pouring money down the drain?

The credit crunch is pushing Britain's long-running pensions and savings time bomb to a critical new stage and for billions the chances of being able to retire at 60 or 65 with a decent standard of living are slim indeed.

Many of Britain's biggest companies are abandoning their final-salary pension schemes, private pensions are drastically underperforming, and the state pension is still one of the lowest in Europe.

This raises questions about the government's ability to find the tens of billions of pounds needed to plug the gap - a gap which is set to widen further because of Britain's ageing population.

And, while the bankers behind the financial crisis are bailed out, record low interest rates and miserly returns seem to be punishing those who have put money away for their old age.

Private pensions should come with a public health warning attached to them
Janet White

In Who Will Save the Savers? Panorama examines what awaits people who, despite being prudent, face an uncertain retirement, and asks what can be done to help.

To get a snapshot of the problems people are facing - and offer some guidance - Panorama organised a financial roadshow in Harrogate, a town long known for its affluence, but which is now suffering the effects of the recession just like other parts of the UK.

'Broken promises'

On hand was Panorama reporter Adam Shaw, an expert on finance who presents Working Lunch and the business reports on Radio 4's Today programme.

He was joined at the roadshow by 14 independent financial advisers.

Adam Shaw
Adam Shaw analysed people's pensions at the Harrogate roadshow

Among the members of the public taking the opportunity to get some guidance about their pensions and savings are Brian Wilson and his wife Lynn, who travelled over 80 miles (128km) from their home in Nottingham.

For nearly 40 years Brian worked at a printing company in Nottingham and from the age of 30 he contributed to the company pension scheme. He was led to believe that on retirement he would get nearly £10,000 per year.

"They told me that the pension scheme was safe, guaranteed and protected by law and no matter what happened to the company, my pension was guaranteed," he tells Adam Shaw.

But the company Brian worked for went bust in 2003, he was made redundant and the final salary pension scheme went into administration.

In the past four years around 160,000 people have had their company pensions wound up and moved into the special compensation schemes set up by the government.

But even with financial assistance, Brian will only get three quarters of what he expected.

Growing concerns

Ian Hazell is another person who feels let down by the system. He runs a business installing electrical fittings and fire alarms. At 57 he is only eight years from retirement - or so he hopes.

Pensioners protesting
The past decade has seen a huge wave of pension closures

Ian wants to stop working at the age of 65 on two-thirds of his current income, so for years he has been putting money into private pensions. But now he is worried:

"I put in as much each year as I could reasonably afford without compromising the standard of living at the time, particularly in the early days, and as much as I was recommended to put in, and I'm still in a position where three years ago when I looked at it retirement at 65 looks a pretty poor prospect," he tells Panorama.

After speaking to Panorama's financial experts, Ian learns that his situation is even worse than previously thought - in order to retire at 65 on two thirds of his salary as planned he will have to find an extra £36,000 every year.

Tumbling shares

In the late 1980s the City was booming and thousands of people bought into the extravagant promises made by the government and financial experts about private pensions.

Now it is a very different story - over the past year, the stock market, on which many pensions are based, has lost about 30% of its value.

Spanish buildings under construction
Spain's 10-year property boom has turned to bust

Panorama speaks to Janet and Les White who have suffered because of the drop in share prices.

Les works in a company making nuts and bolts. Over 20 years ago, since there was no company pension at the firm, he took out a private pension.

He expected it would give him something like £9,000 a year, but now it will be only a fraction of that.

"I think it's come down to about a third of what we expected it would be, which was a big shock really," he tells Adam.

With everything else failing they thought the one investment they could rely on was bricks and mortar.

So five years ago they took a chance - they remortgaged their home in West Bromwich which gave them a £65,000 loan to buy a property in Spain.

They could either live there or if necessary sell it later and use that money to fund their retirement.

High stakes

But in Spain housing prices have fallen by nearly 40% so for the moment things look bleak.

Les and Janet learn that in order to attract a buyer they are likely to have to chop £17,000 off the price, which would be below the price they bought the house at.

Frank Field
Mr Field says the financial crisis could trigger civil unrest

Little wonder that Janet is disillusioned: "Private pensions should come with a public health warning attached to them," she says.

The government insists it can sort out the pensions crisis.

Three years ago Pensions Secretary John Hutton said they would introduce a compulsory Savings Scheme on top of the state pension - but only from 2012.

He also said they would restore the state pension earnings link which was removed 30 years ago by Sir Geoffrey Howe.

But as Panorama reports, maintaining the value of our pensions in the future is going to be a major headache.

Research conducted for Panorama by the Pensions Policy Institute suggests that by 2037 we will collectively have to spend an extra £34bn a year just to maintain the relative value of our pensions.

And at a time when the government is spending billions on bailing out the banks, there are not many places where that kind of money can be found.

Spending less money on healthcare and education is hardly a vote winner in the run up to an election.

And according to some the stakes could be even higher than that - former Minister for Welfare Reform Frank Field tells Panorama that a wrong decision from the government could lead to civil disorder, even riots:

"We can either try and get in first by leading the way about getting out accounts into order or we'll be forced to do so by unrest," he says.

Panorama: Who Will Save the Savers? Monday 23 March 2009 on BBC One at 8.30pm

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