Sunday, 10 February 2008

Personal Accounts - where's the Left?

I've been thinking about Personal Accounts a bit this week and one thing that has struck me is the almost complete absence of the Left from the debate about the form of the scheme or the way it invests. The unions are certainly involved, at present it seems mainly on the design side (charges etc) but that is understandable given the need to keep the costs down. But on the more purely political level I have hardly seen anything from the Left.

This is surprising. Other groups certainly are taking an interest. I'm not just talking about the insurance lobby, which sometimes seems to be attempting a slash and burn campaign as it is forced out of the lower end of the pensions market. In the bit of the bit of the world that I inhabit Personal Accounts (or the NPSS as it used to be known) has already been the subject of numerous events, including at least one by UKSIF. Those in the SRI community is well aware of the potential importance of the scheme and are already lobbying the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority.

This is a once in a generation opportunity to influence the design and practices of a major investment institution - why would the Left not be interested? It will ultimately become the biggest pension scheme in the country and as such a major investor in the UK and other countries. I don't understand therefore why there is so little discussion on the Left of things like the governance of the fund (ie who the trustees are), the type of assets it will invest in or the type of social or environmental criteria it might consider. It would not be at all surprising to see the scheme's trustees want to invest chunks in private equity or infrastructure - two asset classes that might cause concerns in the unions. Personally I wouldn't support bars on such investments, rather I think we should encourage the development of responsible investment policies to cover them (including analysis of managers' past records).

I also think it's very important to ensure that ownership/engagement policies apply across the scheme, not just to a niche SRI fund. Funnily enough I heard a claim last year that of those people who do invest in socially responsible funds those that have a political affiliation are largely Labour supporters, which suggests that we should be thinking about this as an issue of concern to our own membership (though of course the membership of Personal Accounts will be very different to existing investors in SRI funds).

Others might disagree, but we should at least start having the discussion. If we don't put the effort into ensuring we have proper representation in the scheme's governance and decent policies in place we could end up with a major investor that behaves in a way we aren't comfortable with. And it will be much more difficult to bring about change once the scheme is up and running.

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