As he looks back on his three and a half years as Chief Executive, we interview John Pitt-Brooke on his thoughts about his time with the Society.
WHY ARE YOU LEAVING THE SOCIETY? As I enjoy it so much this is a question I increasingly ask myself! Both of my predecessors were here for seven years and I will be here about half that time. But I suppose the answer is I am well into my 60s and I want to do something else with my life – perhaps dealing with pensions all the time focuses the mind on retirement, or indeed mortality! And I’m leaving at a time when the Society is in a very strong position – it’s good to go when you’re winning and you can hand over the leadership with a clear conscience.
YOU HAVE CLEARLY ENJOYED THE JOB – WHAT HAVE YOU ENJOYED MOST? I hate to say this because it’s so hackneyed, but I have enjoyed working with the people, The very talented team at Vauxhall; our Council who are all so committed and supportive; the partners with whom who we work to provide special services to our members; and of course the members themselves, though as there are now over 52,000 I have only met a small proportion. I have hugely enjoyed working with all of these groups. I have also enjoyed making changes and helping the Society grow. We have recruited more staff; the physical space in which we work has been modernised out of all recognition; our social media and web presence is now much more prominent; we are on the road more often in more places; we help more members with more enquiries more of the time; and we have done all of this while retaining our high standards – giving to our members the very best pensions advice that thier money (and not very much money) can buy! Making all of this happen has been a big challenge.
YOU TALK ABOUT PEOPLE – WHAT ABOUT THE PEOPLE IN THE MoD? I spent my career in the MoD – I am a Civil Servant through and through, I have the greatest respect for the people operating the pensions system in London and in Glasgow. They are dedicated, hardworking, and expert, but in the Society we seem to be able to offer our members something that they cannot get from the department. Long may that continue!
WHAT ARE YOU PROUDEST OF? It would be easy to say that I am proud that membership has gone up by 19% since I arrived. But that’s not really the point – it’s not how many members we have; it’s the quality of the service we provide to them. I am certainly proud of the fact that wherever I go the Society is spoken of with admiration and respect. Someone said to me that in a world where everything can seem to be second rate the Forces Pension Society really knows what it’s about. I’m proud people feel like that.
More specifically I am proud of the work we have done behind-the-scenes to bring about changes in various pensions issues. We pushed the MoD on Short-term Family Pension, and together we won; we also drew their attention to mistakes in the calculations for Annual Allowance letters, and here too we made a huge difference; we identified faults in representative rates of pay which underpin some pensions calculations; we have helped many officers promoted from the ranks whose pensions were underpaid; and so on. This kind of thing goes on all the time – it is tricky, it is technical, not many people understand it, but it is immensely significant. It is part of what we are here to do.
I am proud of the work we have done with the Veterans Gateway, where we have shown that we are strong enough to be able to give basic advice to non-members, many of whom are in trouble. It brings us great joy when we are able to tell veterans that, unbeknown to them, a significant pensions windfall is coming their way.
But underpinning all this is the work we do, all day every day, to help our members with their pensions enquiries – I am immensely proud of that. Sometimes I sit with our pensions experts and see the way they deal with the emails, and it is cheering to see the professionalism and sympathy with which we engage with our members, and also to read the many messages of gratitude we receive in reply.
There is a lot there but it is all true!
DO YOU HAVE ANY REGRETS? I sometimes wish I’d made a bit more noise! My predecessors led some very high profile and public campaigns, some of which were unsuccessful but others – notably the Justice for Widows decision in 2014 – were spectacularly successful. I have done nothing quite that public, partly because there is no obvious dragon to slay, and partly because I have found it more constructive in the circumstances to talk to the MoD behind-the-scenes.
There are always issues we are fighting that do not go our way, though our experience is that if you keep at it an opportunity will arise. Currently it is not difficult to see a strong case for extending the concession given to widows in 2015 to apply to widows who lost their pension on marriage before that date: we have certainly raised awareness here, but at the moment it seems the cards are stacked against us.
And there is the case of Charlotte Hughes, cruelly denied her husband’s death benefit because, years previously, he had nominated someone else. This has been a big preoccupation of ours. The Ministry of Defence has now shut the stable door and these particular circumstances will never be repeated; but Charlotte herself is still denied justice – as I leave this looks like a problem I will be handing on to my successor.
HAVE YOU ENJOYED YOUR ASSOCIATION WITH PENNANT? When I came here I was mystified by the emphasis on Pennant. Why did people go on about it – it is only a house magazine after all! But, reluctantly at first, I came to understand that it is very much part of what the Society provides to its members, it is appreciated, and is valued. So I leave a convert!
And while we’re on the subject of our communications vehicles I should mention the wonderful “newsletter” written by Hugo Fletcher here with great comic flair – combining a whimsical fantastical account of his life (some of which is actually true!) together with hard pensions information and other news. It is a miraculous tour de force, and it is very much Hugo’s baby – if Hugo fell under a bus tomorrow (the bus wouldn’t dare!) we would have to do it very differently
WHAT YOU THINK THE FUTURE DIRECTION OF THE SOCIETY MIGHT BE? Well, that depends on the personality, skills, and enthusiasms of the new Chief Executive! And it is not for me to tell him or her what to do. Were I staying there are a couple of big strategic issues I would want to address, but my successor may well develop a different agenda to discuss with our Council. I am a great believer in the saying that the organisation that stands still is doomed!
WHAT NEXT FOR YOU PERSONALLY? Not sure. I have been around the management of Defence for many years and I would like to keep up my connections with that world, but maybe without commuting from Salisbury to London every day. That apart I will be involved in work involved with Salisbury Cathedral, travelling, and perhaps trying to write something. And it would be good to take up a hobby which I had never done before and which is a long way from my comfort zone – the ukulele? carpentry? Tai Chi? Watch this space.
If you are interested in following John as the Society’s Chief Executive, details are here