Nearly forty years ago, a pension was the least of my worries; recently married and with two small children, the priority was balancing the books at the end of the month rather than at the end of the career – whatever that might be.
I had just started as a Research Fellow at a new University, charged with forecasting the future of the Accommodation Industry in the Year 2000, which seemed a long way ahead at the time. The University offered to pay into a pension scheme of my choice. With a pin, I selected one of a number of highly respectable sounding institutions – all with the word Provident in their name - with which to entrust my pension. For two years, on the nail, a sum of money was deducted from my salary, supplemented by a contribution from the University of Surrey, and was despatched to Tunbridge Wells to be providently and mutually invested.
After two years my contract ended; my next employer, Her Majesty’s Government, had a different pension scheme and so I ended the providential and mutual relationship, making the policy paid up.
I thought no more about it. Once a year, I was sent a statement. It didn’t explain how well the investment was doing. It was wholly unintelligible. At regular intervals, I was sent unsolicited literature, asking if they might look after some more of my money.
The financial papers of the sophisticated Press all told me that this was one of the under-performing funds, its performance doubtless weighed down by the postage cost of unsolicited literature.
Then, in February, a letter arrived informing me that the policy would mature on April 1st. It invited me to return the policy. It was there – a tribute to my filing system - denominated in pounds shillings and pence. That was not enough. Another letter was sent inviting me to entrust the funds with them for a further term. They don’t give up. The invitation was politely declined; with the passage of time, confidence in my own ability to select investments had risen, while confidence in theirs had declined. Arrangements were made for a transfer of the value of the matured policy to take place on April 1st.
Discrete enquiries from my bank revealed that, on April 4th, no funds had arrived. I rang the institution and, I confess, pomposity took over.
The mandate sending money back from Tunbridge Wells to my bank was lying in the in-tray of a lady, awaiting authorisation and despatch. No, she was only working two hours that day and it would not be processed until, possibly the following day.
I made two points to her. Firstly, I had had to make 24 payments and all of them had been made promptly, notwithstanding the pressure on a young man’s budget. They had to make but one payment and, with the hundreds of millions at their disposal, the task had proved too great.
Secondly, I had but 30 days to prepare myself for each debit. They had had over thirty years to prepare for theirs.
The poor soul was lost for a reply. She was overwhelmed with work – indeed, my conversation with her doubtless meant that some other policy holder had to wait a further day for payment. My views would be passed on.
Four days later, the modest sum arrived. So did a grudging letter of apology, with two £5 vouchers for Marks and Spencers to compensate me for my distress. In the same post came a statement from the Revenue, indicating that I owed them a sum not unadjacent to the mutual and provident one that had just arrived.