Pension funds shaken up

But it's too late for some members, writes George Campbell
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One of the biggest shake-ups in pensions history comes into effect in April with the introduction of the Pensions Act l995. But it could be too late for members of pension funds that are already being wound up.

The sweeping changes, introduced in an attempt to prevent a repetition of Robert Maxwell's actions when he plundered the Mirror Group's coffers, will revolutionise the industry but members of pension funds in the process of winding up face a nail-biting future.

The burden of underfunding usually falls on members who have not yet retired (and their dependents) and the bigger the shortfall in assets, the greater the financial hardship.

A typical example is AM International UK, the old Addressograph Multigraph outfit.

It went into administrative receivership in February last year, leaving more than 2,000 pension fund members in the lurch, and observers reckon it will take at least two years to sort out the mess.

There is no suggestion of fraud or malpractice following the demise of AM, and the total fund is understood to stand at pounds 20m. But the newly appointed trustees, Eversheds Pension Trustees, were certainly keeping a low profile when I rang for an update on events.

"We don't want to make the pensioners any more anxious than they already are," said a spokeswoman.

"We have appointed Alexander Clay to deal with the administration of the scheme in place of Sedgwick Noble Lowndes.

"They have been responsible for the pensioner payroll since May and are controlling all the records we have inherited. This is not an easy task as many of those records are inadequate."

Administrators of the scheme, Birmingham-based Alexander Clay, which have looked after the payroll for the past eight months, were just as backward in coming forward.

A spokesman said: "Eversheds have been on to me and I'm afraid I have nothing to say. I'd like to help you but I can't."

A spokesman for Coopers & Lybrand, the administrative receivers of AM, was more helpful. "The trustees are naturally being cautious," he said.

"What the pensioners get at the end of the day depends on a number of things - the mix of the fund for one and how markets have performed since it was wound up.

"Price Waterhouse are busy finalising the accounts which will show the asset situation and the actuaries, Barnett Waddingham, will come up with calculations of how much is required to keep the pension fund running on an ongoing basis. Until these figures are released, pensioners will be in the dark."

Assuming a shortfall in assets, which is highly likely based on past winding-up experience, pensions already in payment have priority after any advanced voluntary contributions benefits, and in a document released to members Eversheds is hopeful they will be met in full.

At last count, there were around 1,000 of these, with a further 1,200 as technically defined pensioners but not yet of pensionable age.

One member who has escaped the full impact of disaster is 59-year-old Rex Purcell, who lives near Woking.

Mr Purcell joined the company in 1975 and worked for subsidiary Admel as an HGV driver for 19 years but left a couple of years before the parent company went under.

He took a lump sum payment before AM collapsed but is concerned that the balance of his pension, about pounds 3,300 a year, could be in jeopardy.

"I realise that funds don't always show an asset situation," Mr Purcell said, "but I think that the government should accept some responsibility if things go the wrong way. There should still be safeguards in place, even if company funds are wound up."

But omens are not particularly rosy. Penny Green of the Occupational Pensions Advisory Service, which gives information to Britain's 22.5 million members, says: "When a pension fund is wound up, it normally comes out worse rather than better.

"The majority of funds seem to end up in deficit rather than surplus when the axe falls. The deficit is due mainly to the cost of buying deferred annuities for pensioners. This, and the costs of pensions equalisation, can make a big impact.

"If the fund's liabilities, just for example, emerge at pounds 25m, then there will be a pounds 5m deficit. Some independent trustees' costs also have a negative impact."

The new Pensions Act, which makes its debut at the beginning of the new tax year, represents one of the greatest upheavals in pensions law for a century.

Most big companies are already making changes to accommodate it, the main thrust being in switching from final salary schemes, which calculate your pension as a percentage of your final pay packet, to money purchase schemes, which invest your cash to buy an annuity when you retire, with no guarantee of what you will eventually get.

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