How to develop and implement reform that lasts: UK Pension Reforms from 1997 to 2015

In this guest blog, Dr Thomais Massala and Professor Nick Pearce from the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath reflect on the durability of the UK pension reforms, and explain how and why the reforms were pursued through three dimensions of policy-making: policy, politics and polity.

The pension reforms that were initiated with the Pensions Commission (‘Turner’ Commission) in the early 2000s have proved to be of enduring success.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the introduction of auto enrolment almost doubled the proportion of UK workers belonging to a private pension scheme, from 47 per cent in 2012 to 76 per cent in 2018. The creation of the national pensions savings scheme known as the National Employment Savings Trust (Nest), provided access to groups who were traditionally unable to enrol on a private pension, such as young and lower skilled workers, and those in small firms. On the state pension side, pensioners saw a rise in their income through the introduction of the so-called ‘triple lock’. Although there remain numerous challenges to pensions policy, not least the adequacy of pensions savings, there is little doubt that substantive policy improvements have been achieved.

However, when it comes to policy change, there is the primary challenge of securing the adoption and implementation of reform. Policy experts might come up with solutions to ‘what needs to be done’ to address pension problems, but these will only work if they can obtain, at least some, institutional, political and operational buy-in. That is why policymakers, including former pensions ministers, civil servants and expert analysts, have stressed how implementing reform is a complex and daunting task, thus warranting special attention.

It is particularly noteworthy that a consensus was built behind the Turner Commission reforms that was subsequently embedded in institutions and practices, which meant that it could not be easily overturned by successor governments. Our research, conducted for Nest Insight, sheds light on the durability of the pension reform process.

In a report we bring together a range of issues, principally the reform package and its costs, the institutions of pensions provision, and existing delivery infrastructure. It also considers the groups of actors closely involved and directly affected, such as former prime ministers, ministers, pension commissioners, civil servants and stakeholders, and critical decision moments, for example, the publication of the White Paper following the Pensions Commission’s recommendations, the Pre-Budget Report prior to the actual implementation of auto enrolment, and the external review of the Nest proposal.

A combination of circumstances and strategies were deployed throughout the whole 15-year reform time-frame, which contributed to its successful implementation. The report identifies five lessons to illustrate how a distinct combination of factors, not often previously adopted, brought about this enduring success. It explains how and why these pension reforms were pursued through three dimensions of policy-making or reform process – policy, politics and polity. Despite each attempt at any reform entailing distinct circumstances and challenges, the insights from this case study bring forth a range of factors that may well be germane to other areas of public policy that are similarly contentious and political.

In terms of the ‘policy’ dimension of the reform process, the lessons highlight the qualities of the reform package, and the role of the Turner Commission itself. They suggest that the effectiveness of the Commission can be attributed to its independence, composition, and the rich evidence it developed to justify the reform and the incisive analysis it offered on the best way to proceed. In addition, operational support played a significant role, particularly during the implementation phase.

Regarding the ‘politics’ dimension of reform process, the research stresses the importance of reaching a consensus among the key stakeholders, the achievement of which paid off in terms of growing support for the Commission and its recommendations. Moreover, this contributed to the adoption and implementation of these recommendations, even after the demise of the Commission. The lessons also reveal continuous ministerial commitments to the reform, which can be attributed to the secretaries of state and key pensions ministers, who chose to become ‘owners’ of the agenda and its implementation.

Finally, on the ‘polity’ aspect, the fact that the Commission’s recommendations and their subsequent amendments took into account the UK’s historical and socioeconomic context was crucial. For the most part, they aligned with the British liberal market economy and Beveridgean welfare state, which clearly shaped the reforms and explains both their successes and limitations. Even though the UK remains relatively parsimonious in pension provision and highly reliant on the performance of private markets to secure incomes in retirement, the reforms were comprehensive and represented a substantial advance for pensions policy.

Dr Thomais Massala, Research Associate in the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath, and Professor Nick Pearce, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the IPR at the University of Bath.


About the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath

The IPR aim to further the public good through research into issues of significant relevance to policy debate and decision-making, build links with the worlds of policy and practice, and increase public understanding of policy research through its public events and publications.

They deliver activities for policymakers, researchers and practitioners to enable dual learning and original contributions to both research and practice. To find out more, visit: bath.ac.uk/ipr

Further information

To find out more about the research, read the full report, Pension Reforms in the UK 1997 to 2015 (PDF) and watch the summary video of our series of interviews with individuals that played a key role in the reforms.