The pensions cold calling ban came into force on 9 January, but it has been quite a journey to get us to this point.
It all started with a BBC Panorama programme I watched in July 2016, about a resort and hotel company called The Resort Group. It showed introducer firms Lifestyle Connections and First Review Pension Services using cold calling to encourage people to invest their pension funds in unregulated investments in property developments in Cape Verde.
The programme resonated with me for a number of reasons. This was partly because the company was quite local, based about 15 miles down the road from me in Derby.
But it was also because I had come across them before. A former colleague had joined the SSAS company that sat behind The Resort Group, but lasted the grand total of half a day, having seen practices there he wasn’t comfortable with.
I had reported what he had told me to the FCA back in 2014, but here this company was again, two and a half years later. The trouble is, you can report things to the FCA’s whistleblowing team but you have no idea what they do with the information.
So after watching this programme I thought: “Something needs to be done.” I tried the local police but they were not interested -they just don’t have the resources for such a complex and large scale investigation.
At the time there was a lot of coverage in the press about scams and rip-offs, and often these things were traced back to cold calls. A ban on cold calling seemed the obvious thing to do.
Launching the petition
I was aware that you can create a petition asking for a change in the law or to government policy, and that action is required if you get to a certain number of signatures. After 10,000 signatures, petitions get a response from the government and 100,000 signatures means petitions are considered for a debate in parliament.
So that seemed a good way to go. I first had to wait for a similar, existing petition to expire. Then I needed five sponsors to back the petition before launching it.
I got the backing of some great guys: Echelon Wealthcare’s Al Rush, The Yardstick Agency founder and director Phil Bray, Rowley Turton director Scott Gallacher, Cervello Financial Planning director Chris Daems, and Informed Choice’s Martin Bamford. Xentum managing director Adam Carolan lent his support early on too.
I honestly thought that once the petition was out there, all I’d have to do is share it a bit on Twitter, contact a couple of journalists that I know, and that would be it. I look back on that now and think: what a fool! I didn’t have a clue what I’d unleashed.
We started to get a few hundred signatures, then up to 1,000, but I realised if we were going to get any more traction I needed to get more involvement. I started contacting more people, including some of the life companies and high profile personal finance commentators. The numbers kept inching upwards.
Then two things happened which really moved the dial. A friend of mine, Victor Sacks, tweeted it to Moneysavingexpert (MSE) founder Martin Lewis. I’d approached him previously, but somehow Victor’s tweet managed to get through the defences.
Martin Lewis not only retweeted it, but it also got included in the MSE weekly email and posted on the Facebook group, with Martin publicly backing the petition and encouraging people to sign.
I stood at my son’s football training watching the number of signatures go up by the minute and before I knew it, we had gone from 4,000 signatures to 8,000.
Around the same time, I got a call from my Royal London rep, who had flagged the petition to their director of policy Steve Webb. He had already seen it, and a few days I heard from Steve saying Royal London would love to support this and to put their weight behind it.
After that, Sense network came on board, then Tenet and Personal Touch. Then Threesixty and SimplyBiz followed, then Retirement Advantage. There’s too many brilliant people to mention who lent their support, and they all deserve the credit for getting this over the line.
That support led to the press coverage picking up again at that point, which led to more companies signing up, and the trade and professional bodies came on board too, the likes of the Personal Finance Society and the Association of British Insurers. There was an avalanche of support, not just from providers but The Pensions Regulator and the Money Advice Service as well.
By now we were only six to eight weeks into the petition being live. I certainly learnt a lot in that time about running a social media campaign! We hit 8,500 signatures, with signatures still coming in.
The turning point (and the uphill battle)
I was then alerted to an embargoed press release from the Treasury, saying the Chancellor would announce a cold calling ban in the upcoming Autumn Statement.
Suddenly Sky News and the BBC wanted to interview me. I had the surreal experience of sitting in the BBC studio in Nottingham and talking to a black computer screen with a red dot in the middle, which provided a feed to BBC Breakfast.
The Treasury held a consultation on the ban, which closed in February 2017. The parliamentary process was then delayed somewhat as Mrs May decided to call a general election, and of course we had the not so small matter of Brexit to contend with.
It was hard to find the right type of parliamentary Bill to accommodate the ban and where to place it in the legislation schedule, and so it ended up in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile.
This is where Steve Webb and Ros Altmann picked up the baton and lent their not inconsiderable political support. The ban got cross-party support in the House of Lords and eventually we got draft legislation last summer. After some more parliamentary wrangling the ban finally came into effect earlier this month.
Broadly speaking, I am happy we’ve got to this point. A lot of the criticism has focused around the fact a ban won’t stop cold callers.
But this was never about stopping cold calling entirely, but hopefully a ban will go some way to reducing it.
This campaign was about awareness, and there has been a dramatic increase in the public’s awareness of scams over the last few years. This is not just due to the ban, but has also come about as national press coverage and efforts by The Pensions Regulator and the FCA have been brought to bear.
There has also been a massive shift in the government’s attitude in preventing scams, and that’s a big win too. This has been thanks to the huge concerted effort across the profession in making this happen.
I lit the blue touch paper, and although my intention was to light it and stand back, I ended up riding a rocket.
What other planners can do
Over the last two and a half years, a number of people have contacted me who were also trying to take action against the scammers. It has made me appreciate just how big a problem this is.
Clearly, there is still work to be done. You only have to think of Operation CHIVE, where advisers volunteered their time to help steelworkers poorly advised to transfer out of their pension, to see this.
I helped out with that as well but I was just a bit part player, it was Al Rush’s crusade. It just goes to show – the level of goodwill and heart and soul of this profession astonishes me.
My view is if you are passionate about this profession and about helping people (and if you’re not, I would question why you are in advice), why would you not call out the scams that you see?
It might be simply picking up the phone to the FCA because you’ve seen something suspicious, or writing a blog for your website.
It might be contacting the local paper or radio station and either asking them to run a story or flagging that while most advisers are the good guys, there are some firms and individuals the public needs to be wary of. In a way, it’s a public service.
If you saw a crime being committed, say someone being stabbed in the street or having their pockets picked, you wouldn’t walk away. That’s exactly what’s going on with pension scams, people are having their pockets picked, it’s just that rather than a purse being stolen it’s being done with pieces of paper instead.
Looking back, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I learnt a huge amount during the process, and while I wasn’t always that comfortable doing the TV and radio slots, I understood that publicity was needed.
If one person heard a slot I did and put the phone down on a scammer as a result, then my time was worth it.