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How workplace pension revolution has transformed savings after nearly a decade

·6-min read

The 10th anniversary of the workplace pension savings revolution will be celebrated in 2022.

The rollout of automatic enrolment started in October 2012, with the biggest employers coming on board first. Millions of people have been brought into pension saving for the first time.

The minimum that can be paid into workplace pensions has also edged up over the years – although some experts have said it should be raised further to help savers build a decent minimum retirement income.

The minimum contribution is 8% of qualifying earnings, with employers paying at least 3% and employees, who benefit from tax relief on payments, making up the remaining 5%.

Despite the hits to household finances from the coronavirus pandemic, membership of pension schemes has generally remained stable.

Sir Steve Webb
Sir Steve Webb said auto-enrolment has been a ‘huge success’ but it is only the ‘end of the beginning’ of the journey (Dave Thompson/PA)

Some 10,602,000 people had been placed into schemes under automatic enrolment by November 2021, according to The Pensions Regulator (TPR).

Sir Steve Webb, who oversaw the shake-up as Pensions Minister from 2010 to 2015, told the PA news agency: “In many ways automatic enrolment has been a huge success.”

Sir Steve, who is now a partner at LCP (Lane Clark & Peacock) continued: “Automatic enrolment has also been remarkably robust, surviving changes of government and even a global pandemic.

“But 10 years on feels very much the ‘end of the beginning’ of the journey, and there’s a real risk that complacency now sets on.

“It is widely accepted current mandatory contribution rates are too low to provide for a decent pension for most people, and there are still major gaps, including for the self-employed.”

He said: “Fresh impetus is now needed to cement the success of the project”.

Baroness Altmann
Baroness Altmann said she would like pension providers to ‘do more to reach out to their customers and encourage them to increase contributions’ (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Baroness Ros Altmann, another former pensions minister, said: “By ensuring everyone at work is automatically paying into a pension scheme, rather than requiring them to make a conscious decision to do so, almost all those enrolled are staying in.”

But she also highlighted groups who are not currently enrolled automatically – including those aged under 22 or over state pension age, or who are earning below £10,000 in a single job.

Baroness Altmann said: “Women are particularly disadvantaged by this, as they are more likely than men to be earning below £10,000, especially if they have more than one part-time role.”

She continued: “Although some employers are paying more than the minimum required contributions, many are sticking to the lowest amount.”

The peer said she would like to see pension providers “do more to reach out to their customers and encourage them to increase contributions”.

Baroness Altmann added: “Whatever happens, I suspect there will continue to be pressure to increase both the coverage and adequacy of pensions during 2022 and this money can increasingly help to drive economic growth, green recovery and sustainable infrastructure projects for the future.”

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson said: “Automatic enrolment has succeeded in transforming pension saving, with more than 10 million workers enrolled into a workplace pension to date and an additional £28.4 billion per year being saved since 2012.

“The Government’s ambition for the future of automatic enrolment will enable people to save more and to start saving earlier by abolishing the lower earnings limit for contributions and reducing the age for being automatically enrolled to 18 in the mid-2020s, benefiting younger people, low-paid and part-time workers as they will receive contributions from their employer from the first pound earned.”

Mel Charles, director of automatic enrolment at The Pensions Regulator, said: “Automatic enrolment has led to an explosion in the number of people saving into a workplace pension.”

He continued: “Despite the financial pressures caused by the pandemic, staff have continued to save for their retirement and pensions contributions have remained steady.

“Since the introduction of automatic enrolment in 2012, participation in pension saving has almost doubled in the private sector, with £105.9 billion saved in 2020 across both private and public sectors.

“However, while we have come a long way, we know there is more to do to ensure this pension revolution continues to provide better retirements for savers.

“Our focus is on staff getting access to pensions but also to ensure that contributions are paid in the right amounts and on time.”

Mr Charles said the regulator will also keep a close eye on the “gig economy” as the UK emerges from the pandemic.

He said: “It is only right that workers who contribute to the economy have the opportunity to save for retirement. Throughout automatic enrolment and most notably, during the pandemic, the vast majority of employers have complied with their duties to ensure that their staff get the pensions that they are entitled to.

“We continue to do what we can to support employers as they deal with these challenging and uncertain times, but we will act where necessary to protect staff.”

Alistair McQueen
Alistair McQueen from Aviva said: ‘Focus in the next decade must shift from participation to adequacy’ (Aviva/PA)

Alistair McQueen, head of savings and retirement at Aviva said: “Focus in the next decade must shift from participation to adequacy.

“Millions are saving at inadequate minimum levels, of 8% of earnings.

“Twelve per cent is a more realistic level to secure the income we will want in retirement. So, let’s recognise the brilliant 10th birthday of auto-enrolment, but let’s resist the temptation to pop the champagne. Our work is only half done.”

Recent research from workplace pension provider NOW: Pensions and the Pensions Policy Institute (PPI) suggested the pension savings gaps for some of the most financially at-risk groups have worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

NOW: Pensions also wants the £10,000 earnings trigger for automatically placing an employee into a workplace pension to be scrapped.

Samantha Gould, head of campaigns at NOW: Pensions said: “People don’t choose to be ‘underpensioned’, it is a consequence of other inequalities experienced throughout their working lives such as job insecurity and less opportunities to progress in their career.

“Someone working three jobs and earning under £10,000 in each role is not eligible to save into a pension compared to someone earning the same amount in one job. That seems unfair.”

Lauren Wilkinson, senior policy researcher at the PPI, said: “It is vital that the state pension continues to provide a way to ensure at least minimum living standards.”

Helen Morrissey, senior pensions and retirement analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: “There is still work to be done in terms of expanding coverage and improving engagement.

“We need to see earnings thresholds scrapped so part-time workers, many of whom have been previously excluded from AE (automatic enrolment) can be included.”

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