'Mini-Maxwells' rife in pensions

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A worrying number of Britain's 11 million company pension scheme members faced broken promises last year, according to the Occupational Pensions Advisory Service.

A typical example, said Margaret Grainger, the president of Opas, was where employees of collapsed companies found that the pension scheme had not been funded sufficiently to meet all its obligations.

'There are lots of mini-Maxwells around the country,' Miss Grainger said. 'For the individuals involved this is just as disastrous as for the Maxwell people.'

Don Hall, chief executive of Opas, said: 'There are a number of instances we have identified where the companies were propping themselves up by robbing the pension scheme.'

He said that during the early part of the recession there were a number of schemes that had clearly invested heavily in the parent company. 'The investments were permissible but by no means could they be termed safe investments. What one is seeing here is a breach of trust.'

It is now illegal for company pensions to invest more than 5 per cent of their assets in the parent company or its subsidiaries.

Mr Hall said that there were six to ten schemes where members were left with no benefits. 'There are other schemes where members were left with reduced benefits.'

He added that there were cases where employers had not remitted the employees' contributions to the scheme. This was especially prevalent among smaller schemes.

Opas's report for the year to the end of March outlines a case where a woman left her job in October 1989 and by the end of 1991 had still not received a cheque for the transfer value from her pension. The trustees refused to respond to Opas's adviser, who later discovered that the insurance company involved in managing the funds had paid a cheque for the transfer value to the trustees in February 1990.

'In January 1992, a cheque for the transfer payment was issued by the employer, not the scheme. This cheque was not honoured. It was also discovered that the employer, a sole trader, was about to be made bankrupt.

'We concluded that the employer, as the only trustee available in 1990, had misappropriated the transfer monies for his own use,' Opas said.

Opas referred this case to the Pensions Ombudsman for further investigation because it felt the complainant was entitled to money still held by the insurance company involved.

The Pensions Ombudsman normally asks complainants to seek help from Opas before he considers their case. Last year Opas referred 47 of the 2,900 cases it investigated to the ombudsman.

Opas cannot force pension schemes to pay compensation to scheme members but it intercedes to try to ensure that they receive benefits due to them.

Opas recovered sums of up to pounds 100,000 last year through conciliation. This highest sum was restored to a pension built up by a man in his mid-fifties, who was leaving his company after it had been taken over. The new employer had short-changed him by ignoring a number of years' service when calculating the value of his fund.

A quarter of inquiries to Opas's offices last year involved problems arising from the transfer of pension benefits from one scheme to another.

Opas only challenges transfer values calculated by an actuary if there is an obvious problem. In one case, a man had a transfer value increased by more than pounds 80,000 to pounds 174,000 after Opas argued that his scheme administrators had ignored some rules about benefits on early retirement. The original transfer value had also been based on rules in the trust deed that contradicted rules in the members' handbook.

Opas is now able to deal with inquiries about personal pensions as well as employer-run schemes. Write to Opas, 11 Belgrave Road, London SW1V 1RB, or telephone 071 233 8080.

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