Opinion  

Into the Valley of Death rode the 300...

So 300 people will be recruited to offer guidance to those taking their pensions after April.

The number immediately conjures up images of heavily outnumbered Spartans standing firm in the face of overwhelming odds. And spartan is probably not a bad word to sum up the help they may receive.

As we know pension guidance guarantee agents are being recruited on salaries of between £18,000 and £24,000 a year.

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So they will be somewhere on a par with customer advisers in your local phone shop, though I suspect rather less knowledgeable about their product than staff in an Apple store.

Agents will require good numerical skills, good customer service experience, be strong team players and be able to communicate complex facts to a broad range of people.

Desirable attributes – which include some knowledge of pensions issues – are a willingness to travel, possibly with overnight stays, and working evenings and weekends.

That seems to be asking rather a lot for £18,000 to £24,000 a year when the national average wage is £26,500.

Pension guidance guarantee caseworkers have been offered £22,000 to £30,000.

While there will no doubt be some committed workers and a few gems, these people are clearly going to have far less pension knowledge than you and me.

So if this system is to work there must be a clear system of referring questions and issues up the line – and beyond the confines of Pension Wise to qualified advisers. Though my understanding is that offers of pro bono help from some advisers have been snubbed.

The key question initially is how many people will use the 300 agents? Well, the government has suggested 300,000 a year. This would be around 1,150 a day which would be about five meetings or calls a worker a day allowing for holidays.

But life does not work like that.

Pension Wise is likely to be deluged in the first few months and at certain times of the year.

There has been much speculation of how many people have put off retirement waiting for the pension reforms; some have suggested there could be a million or more waiting.

What we do know is how commercial organisations such as Nationwide and Tesco Bank have failed to cope when deluged with interest from customers after they launched best-buy products. And they were able to throw more than 300 experienced workers at the problem.

Government organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs have at times proved farcical in their inability to answer phones and handle problems.

My fear is that the initial period could be chaotic, with people unable to get through on phone lines or to book face-to-face meetings.

And that creates a danger that Pension Wise brand could be tarnished from the start.

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DWP fails to do its homework