When is a guarantee not a guarantee?
On 20th February, the government issued its eagerly awaited Green Paper on reforming defined benefit occupational pensions, more commonly known as final salary pension schemes. This consultation document invites opinion from the pensions industry for giving the government powers to re-structure the benefits payable from such schemes in instances where the employer (and its pension scheme) are in financial difficulty.
For re-structure, read ‘water down’, as what the government proposes is that the scheme, with tacit government approval, can change the terms by which pensions are paid out to its pensioners.
The catalyst for this green paper is the situation surrounding Tata/British Steel, where the sticking point for any sale hinged on the deficit in the British Steel Pension Scheme. This deficit has been variously reported as between £300m and £700m and under current rules, any buyer would have to take on responsibility for addressing this shortfall. Negotiations between the trustees of The British Steel Pension Scheme, Tata and the government has resulted in the trustees amending the way pensions in payment are increased annually from Retail Price Index (RPI) to the lesser Consumer Prices Index. Experts believe this will save the pension scheme, on average £20,000 per member.
Fast forward to 20th February and the government now believes this would be beneficial for ALL schemes suffering from deficiencies in its funding to be able to water-down its benefits. But is this all bad news?
In the case of Tata/British Steel, the alternative was for The British Steel Pension Scheme, with £14 billion of assets, to enter the pension industry’s ‘safety net’ the Pension Protection Fund. If a scheme enters the PPF, its pensioners are guaranteed 100% of their pension entitlement up to a ceiling of £37,420 (at age 65), but with annual increases limited to 2.5% pa. For those members, yet to reach pension age, they are entitled to 90% of their pension.
The Tata deal gives its pension members better benefits than they would receive in PPF, and so received the approval of government and the unions.
The deal that Sir Philip Green struck with the Pensions Regulator for the BHS Scheme is structured along the same lines – the £363m that he ‘deposited’ alongside the BHS Scheme, which has entered PPF, will allow for the BHS pensioners to receive better benefits than would otherwise have been paid from the PPF. I say ‘deposited’, because it is a one-off, no-strings attached, contribution by this Knight of the Realm, to keep the Pensions Regulator happy, whilst preserving the number of yachts in his possession.
And the BHS deal adds to the uncertainty defined benefit pension scheme members must be feeling right now. Sir Philip’s ‘deposit’ has been labeled, within the industry, as a Zombie Pension Fund. In essence, it allows employers to deposit a chunk of money in a pot, separate to its pension fund, that will be called on to sweeten the pill if the scheme then enters PPF.
But why would an employer do this? Because a move such as Sir Philip Green’s puts a cap on the employer’s liabilities. If an employer can strike a deal where it can walk away from its continuing responsibilities to its pension scheme members, then it’s going to be attractive. We’re all going to hear a lot more about ‘sustainability’ of pension funds, with its open-ended responsibility and liabilities falling on the employer. This green paper is, I fear, going to open the flood-gates to more deals being struck by employers with their pension scheme trustees.
I may be wrong but I suspect Mergers and Acquisitions activity could reach unprecedented levels if the government gives the nod to these pension changes.
If you have preserved pension benefits held in a defined benefits pension scheme and would like to find out more about your pension entitlement and its funding position, then please contact me direct on the number below. You can also contact me by email at email@example.com or call our office in Limoux to make an appointment. Alternatively, I conduct a drop-in clinic most Fridays (holidays excepting), when you can pop in to speak to me.
Our office telephone number is 04 68 31 14 10.