Don’t punish older people, says Saga’s ‘voice of over-50s’

Head of Saga Group Ros Altmann says the effect of government policy is to transfer resources from older generations to younger ones

An increasingly influential advocate for older people is emerging from an unlikely direction: the billion-pound business that is synonymous with leisured middle-class retirement.

Ros Altmann is director-general of the Saga Group. She has been recruited specifically to be “the voice of the over-50s” and the past fortnight has been typically busy for Altmann, commenting on, among other things, changes to the Tesco company pensions scheme, the Which? report on home care, the Royal College of Nursing’s call for higher ratios of nurses to older patients and, of course, the impact of the budget on older people. The chancellor’s “granny tax”, freezing and moving to end the allowance that enables people aged 65 or more to start paying income tax at a higher threshold, played directly to her theme that government policy is clobbering those who have provided prudently for their retirement.

“This is an outrageous assault on decent middle-class pensioners,” said Altmann on the front page of the Daily Telegraph the morning after the budget. No other older people’s group got such prominence in the house journal of backbench Tory MPs, jittery about a possible political miscalculation.

As an economist and leading pensions expert, Altmann commands a respect that complements the considerable clout of Saga, which is said to have 2.7 million customers. Discussing her access to cabinet ministers (though “not George [Osborne] directly”, she points out), Altmann says: “People are not going to refuse to meet Saga.”

The strength of the brand is not just about numbers, however. “We have a voice that’s seen as not leftwing, not a vested interest group,” she adds. Her own formal political involvement has been limited to the short-lived Social Democratic party (SDP), she says. “Hopefully we are seen as a more informed and intelligent commentator who wants to represent to politicians the views of a very important voter group.”

Altmann had been working independently as a consultant for 17 years, while her children grew up, when Saga came calling in 2010. Her top job at Saga Group was to be a new role, created by Acromas Holdings, the company that bought both Saga and the AA in 2007. “They convinced me they really did care more about the customer than the average,” she recalls, citing as evidence the fact that Saga runs two charities, one offering respite breaks for carers and the other working in developing countries with volunteer input from over-50s. “It’s still about making a profit, we have still got to deliver on the bottom line, but we went through the sort of things I was interested in and they assured me I would be able to pursue those and that I would not have to promote Saga products as being the best, if they were not.”


Saga, she thinks, represents a constituency accounting for 70% of people over 50: not the poor, whose interests she sees as represented by charities, or the rich, “who can talk for themselves”, but all those in between – a slice of society she sees as reticent and little heard by policy-makers.

She had become interested in this group when spearheading a five-year campaign from 2002 for the pension rights of 140,000 former steelworkers. While they were justifiably angry, she says, they wanted only what was rightfully theirs and were profoundly shocked that the government was not playing fair. Now, millions of people who have saved for their retirement are being exploited in the same way.

Government monetary policy has “taken against older people in many ways”, she argues. With interest rates at record lows, and suppressed by quantitative easing, the effect is “a transfer of resources from older generations to younger ones – and to banks”.

Although this is a view at odds with those who claim older generations hold much of the nation’s wealth in their homes and savings, and are enjoying retirement on generous pensions that their children can only dream of, she adds: “Millions of ordinary Brits out there who have spent their lives doing what they were told was the right thing are now being punished for it.”

Saga, of course, pays some of these low interest rates on its savings products, in line with the market. It has also developed rapidly in the home care sector in the past couple of years, taking the group’s annual turnover up to the £1bn mark. Altmann is not responsible for any of Saga’s dizzying array of products but in these and in other respects, has she experienced any conflicts of interest?

Choosing her words with care, she says: “Given the economic environment, it has been not as simple as I might have hoped to always avoid the natural inclination of our product divisions to want strong promotion of our products, rather than talking more generally about the overall picture and the finances and the lives of our customers. There’s always going to be a natural tension, isn’t there?

“But in a way I also see myself playing a bit of a role as an internal policeman on the customer’s behalf. And that again is naturally going to raise tensions within the business, which I accept and I just have to live with. I don’t think that’s necessarily unhealthy either.”

With a government decision pending on overdue reform of long-term care, Altmann has thrown Saga’s weight behind the Dilnot commission’s proposals for a cap on individual liability for care costs and a big rise in the threshold at which liability cuts in.

That things have got to this stage, with the existing system broken on the admission of politicians of all parties, she calls a “massive failure of policy”.

Big-bang response

While broadly endorsing Dilnot, she thinks that long-term care reform should have been bundled up with pensions and retirement age change in a single, big-bang response to the demographic challenge.

“The thing with pensions is that we have got a crisis, and not enough people have got enough money saved up, but there are billions of pounds there. For care, there is nothing. There is nothing at the state level and nothing at the private level.

“And when push comes to shove, we can tell people they may have to take less and wait longer for a pension. But you can’t do that with care.”

Tough choices will have to be made, she acknowledges, and older people with their own savings and homes will have to pay a share towards any care they need.

“What I think they are saying is: ‘We don’t mind paying something, but we don’t want to lose everything’,” says Altmann. “If we keep on with the system we have got, we make people believe there is absolutely no point to saving.

“The person who has saved and got a house, and looked after themselves, is so much worse treated than the person who never did a thing and just spent their money along the way or went into debt. You cannot have a sustainable long-term future for this country if that’s the message we are sending. You just can’t.”

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