Auto-enrolment is the UK’s diamond in the rough

Jane Matthews

Jane Matthews

Since moving to the UK from Ireland there have been numerous cultural differences to adjust to.

Some have been easy to get on board with. For example, I admire the respect for an orderly queue. I like the frequency at which zebra crossings are placed. Cockney rhyming slang. Pret. 

Others I have been less enthused about. 

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Like the fact most shops still use plastic bags. Or the fact you have two fewer public holidays each year than we do. Crumpets. 

But one difference that was not immediately obvious is the culture around pensions.

I’ll be honest, up until relatively recently a pension has not been on my list of priorities.

Talking about a pension was not something that happened in my house. It is not something that was spoken about in most of my previous workplaces either, and it certainly was not something my friends and I would sit around discussing.

For the first few years of my working life, investing in a pension did not really seem like an option. Largely because it was not made easy.

Ireland does not have the same system of auto-enrolment that the UK has and employers are under no obligation to even signpost their employees to a pension scheme, never mind contribute to a private one. 

Luckily, that is set to change with a system of AE due to come into force in 2024.

Ireland’s minister for social protection Heather Humpreys said the scheme aims to “build a culture” of saving for retirement, something the UK government can pat itself on the back for starting some 12 years ahead of their Irish counterparts.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no illusion that the UK system is without its faults.

More needs to be done to help boost retirement savings for the self-employed who do not enjoy the benefits of AE, and typically save very little for later life.

There’s also the glaring issue of the pensions gender gap – in 2021 annual pension savings for men in the private sector sat at £40.2bn compared to £22bn for women.

And let's not forget about the pension underpayment scandal either, or the issues with the pensions of NHS staff.

But leaving all of this aside for a moment, the success of AE is undeniable 10 years on. 

Quilter’s head of retirement policy Jon Greer recently described the introduction of AE as “arguably one of the most important and transformational changes to pension policy in the past decade”. 

Indeed, 10mn people have been added to workplace pensions since AE was introduced, with participation rates up from around 55 per cent in 2012 to 88 per cent in 2021.