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Free advice on pensions needed earlier, say firms

Most large companies believe their workers need the government's free guidance on their pension at least a year before they retire, with 57 per cent saying it should be available five or 10 years in advance, a UK-wide employer survey has found.

The government has guaranteed all retiring employees a guidance session with a non-industry body after next April, when it is scrapping the compulsion to use a personal pension pot to buy an annuity providing an income for life.

But guidance will only be available once the retiree has begun drawing a pension, not beforehand, according to the government's consultation.

Now a survey of the YouGov 250 Club of major UK employers for JLT Employee Benefits has found 30 per cent of firms believe guidance should be available between one and four years before retirement, while 39 per cent say it is needed five to 10 years ahead. Almost 20 per cent of firms say people need help more than 10 years before they retire, while only 6 per cent think the year of retirement is soon enough.

Malcolm Paul, chairman of JLT in Scotland, said: "Over 85 per cent of employers think the government's guidance needs to be well in advance."

John Wilson, head of research at JLT, which employs 200 in Edinburgh, said: "There is no free right to guidance before you take benefits. The way the consultation is written it is at the point of retirement that you have access to the guidance service."

Mr Wilson said people would also be allowed to access the service for follow-up discussions at any time, without limit, which begged questions about how the Money Advice Service, Pensions Advisory Service and Citizens Advice Bureaux would cope with demand.

"We know they are recruiting, but how do they know how many to recruit? People could go back for a review on a daily basis - we are talking about people with time on their hands."

Over 60 per cent of employers said they believed their scheme members would need guidance more than once, both before and after retirement, with 30 per cent saying the process should be completed before retirement. Although the guidance service will be limited to generic advice on possible choices, 81 per cent of employers believe their staff will still need individual advice on their retirement choices.

Perhaps due to the size of companies sampled, 63 per cent would be happy for employers to shoulder that burden, but more than half of those said only if tax relief was available on the cost. Almost 20 per cent of firms said individuals should pay for their own advice, with only 13 per cent believing taxpayers should foot the bill.

Asked whether the government is right to lift the restrictions on pension saving, 79 per cent of employers said yes, only 12 per cent saying no. But asked whether the reforms would increase pension saving in the UK, only 42 per cent of firms were convinced it would, with 34 per cent doubtful and 25 per cent undecided.

Mr Wilson said: "This is one of the major reasons for reform, but interestingly some of the economists are saying the same thing, that economically it is the correct decision but it will not actually increase the savings ratio in the UK."

On whether they believed employees would continue to buy an annuity once compulsion is scrapped, views were divided, with 41 per cent not knowing and almost 30 per cent saying between a tenth and a half of workers might still choose an annuity.

The 250 Club covers mainly private sector employers UK-wide with over 500 staff, half of them employing more than 3,000, and up to 15 per cent of them are in Scotland.

JLT employs 1,600 in the UK and its Edinburgh Park operation includes its UK customer service centre.

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