Within the space of a month, three reports have come out slamming the rip-off charges being deducted from pension plans. At worst, these charges can erode more than half the value of someone's retirement savings.
Demands for greater transparency are becoming louder. With a new pension regime starting from October which means that all workers between the age of 22 and state pension age will be automatically put into a pension plan by their employers unless they opt out, it is seen as vital that greater light is shed on the issue of charges.
Pensions expert Ros Altmann commented: "It is time for the Financial Services Authority to be involved. We need complete disclosure of charges, not just on pensions, but on annuities too where the charges are completely opaque."
Existing savers with individual pension policies taken out in the 1980s and early 1990s are worst hit by excessive charges. By contrast, those who have been saving through company pension schemes usually get a better deal because employers are able to negotiate lower fees. In a company scheme, savers also usually benefit from contributions made to their pension by their employers.
The main problem lies with older personal pension policies. Danny Cox, head of advice at IFAs Hargreaves Lansdown, said: "If you have a policy issued before 2001 when stakeholder pensions were introduced, you are probably paying too much."
Stakeholder pensions introduced a cap of 1.5% on annual charges, and they also did away with exit penalties, which mean you can transfer your retirement savings to another pension provider without charge.
Although some pension companies such as Legal & General and Aviva brought the charging structures of their older policies into line with stakeholder plans, many did not.
The worst culprits are old-style unit-linked pension contracts which were sold by companies such as Abbey Life and Allied Dunbar. Some of these old contracts are now being administered by companies such as Phoenix and Resolution which make their profits out of the exorbitant charges that were built into these schemes.
They are not in the business of selling new pensions – so they don't have to worry about being competitive.
The problem is that there are often massive exit penalties for policyholders who want to move their savings elsewhere which can be as high as 25% of the fund.
Pensions minister Steve Webb has called for these exit penalties to be abolished and has warned that the government will cap high fees to stop savers being stranded in schemes with annual charges of up to 4% a year.
In the meantime, savers are being urged to check how much they are paying for their current pension policies and find out if they can get a better deal elsewhere.
Most will not find this easy however, as pension companies often will not deal directly with the public, you will need to go to a properly qualified independent financial adviser and pay a fee for your policies to be assessed.
Another alternative is use the website www.comparemypension.com, which will provide a free, online pension comparison report, that enables you to decide for yourself if you want more advice on which company to transfer to, and at what cost before making any commitment.
Douglas Baillie, the Perth-based independent adviser who created the service, said: "We do find that many people are effectively locked in to high charges, particularly with the likes of Resolution, Allied Dunbar and Phoenix, who are not about to let their policyholders off that easily."
The differential in value between the so-called policy 'fund value', and the 'transfer value' can be high, but Mr Baillie said: "We have found in more than 65% of cases we have examined, that policyholders are still better off by moving across to a lower-cost arrangement. This happens because in many cases the reduced future charges can more than make up for the costs of transfer."
Another benefit of moving to a new arrangement is greater control and flexibility over the retirement date.
However, Richard Wadsworth, adviser at Carbon Financial, warned: "Old contracts sometimes contain guaranteed bonuses and guaranteed annuity rates. These must also be considered."
Some advisers argue that even more recent pension policies may not be as cost effective as they could be.
Derek Stewart, managing partner at SAM Wealth, says if your pension is more than three years old there is a chance you could get better terms.
He said: "Ask for a transfer value which will show if there are any penalties if you were to switch pension provider and then shop around."
The new scheme into which many employees will be automatically enrolled in future is NEST (National Employment Savings Trust).
It will have a low annual management charge equivalent to 0.5% for most savers, falling to just 0.3% at times when members take a break from contributing, plus a £1.80 administration fee on contributions.
However, a recent report from the RSA institute argues that small businesses may still be sold "expensive and inappropriate (pension) products" when auto-enrolment comes along, because they have little idea of what represents good value for money.
It points to Denmark, where a full and clear statement of costs is provided to pension holders and says the UK must follow suit. Coincidentally, a leading Danish pension provider, NOW: Pensions, is putting itself forward as a rival to NEST. It has an annual management fee of 0.3% and a monthly administration charge of only £1.50 – though the issue of investment choice and guidance will also be a factor for companies to consider.
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