The UK’s pensions auto-enrolment programme came close to being abandoned due to fears about the impact on small employers, according to former pensions minister Ros Altmann.

Altmann was pensions minister under the Conservative government from 2015 until 2016. She left in the wake of the Brexit referendum and David Cameron’s resignation as prime minister.

Her tenure as pensions minister saw her focus heavily on the rollout of auto-enrolment.

At the IPE 360 conference in London yesterday she said that while she was minister she had to “stop the whole auto-enrolment programme being pulled”.

“We came very close to losing auto-enrolment because there was a lot of fear about forcing small employers to put money into pensions and comply with all the different complex administration issues,” she said.

“I’d much rather see a simpler system but at least we’ve got a system on the road and we can build on it,” she added.

Auto-enrolment was introduced by the UK government in October 2012. It has been introduced in stages, with the largest employers the first required to enrol employees, followed by medium-sized companies and then small employers. All employers in existence in April 2012 are required to meet their enrolment duties by February 2018.

According to recently released government figures, to date nearly 8m workers have been automatically enrolled. Since 2012 the number of eligible employees participating in a workplace pension has risen by 5.4m to 16.2m in 2016, for a participation rate of 78%.

Altmann, a career campaigner and policy expert who had not previously been a politician, said she had “absolutely no idea” what she was letting herself into when she took on the role.

Altmann said she thought she was being brought in for her expertise and had hoped to be able to build cross-party consensus, but that her understanding proved to be a misunderstanding.

Pensions should not be “a political football”, she said.

The problem was compounded by the Brexit referendum period, she added.

One of the worst days while she was minister was when Michael Gove, then the justice minister campaigning in favour of leaving the EU, told the British public that they had “had enough of experts”, she recalled.

“I thought ‘What am I doing here?’,” Altmann said. “Maybe that explains why you just don’t seem, even as a minister, to be able to get things done.”