Sam Dunn: So the Government thinks it can dodge all the blame for company pension disasters ... no one else does
Sunday 19 March 2006
In a move that would have impressed Harry Houdini, the Government has picked its way out of what looked an inescapable bind.
Despite the devastating report last week from Ann Abraham, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, into the Government's role in the failure of final-salary occupational pensions, ministers wriggled out of two weighty chains: compensation claims and responsibility for the mess - (see page 19).
Their escapology was far from elegant - a blunt rejection of Ms Abraham's most damning conclusions that government advice to the public was flawed and that it failed to listen to actuarial warnings about inadequate funding for company schemes.
Stephen Timms, the minister for pensions reform, said the responsibility "must fall on those companies ... and trustees" instead. Government leaflets on the subject were "intended to be simple and introductory" and didn't claim to "offer comprehensive advice", he added.
Shock and anger greeted this attempt to walk away from blame. Agitated MPs, many of whose constituencies contain companies whose schemes failed, now hope to force the Government to review its decision and shoulder some blame.
There is also much speculation that, in a bid to appear as a charitable white knight, Chancellor Gordon Brown will pull some extra money from the hat during Wednesday's Budget to help out the most hard-up.
But this shouldn't deflect attention from the evidence of maladministration that Ms Abraham says she found. Regardless of Mr Timms's opinion, judge these choice morsels from her report yourself.
In March 2002, the then pensions minister, Malcolm Wicks, said: "... legislation that is in place is to ensure that the pension rights that individuals have already built up in schemes are protected ..."
In the same year, a leaflet called "Occupational pensions: your guide for ordinary workers" was published by the Department for Work and Pensions. "You would be better off joining [a company scheme]," it said, adding that they were "usually a very good deal".
And critically, in a section entitled "How do I know my money is safe?" the leaflet made it clear that "you are protected by a number of laws designed to make sure schemes are run properly".
Yet any workers who followed this guidance, and then found themselves with a fraction of their pension entitlements because their firms went to the wall, cannot blame the Government.
Mr Timms argues that the report does not take proper account of the intention of the leaflets to "be simple and introductory".
There is also no evidence, he adds, that all of the complainants (who wrote to the Ombudsman about their pension rights, sparking the investigation) read any of the literature.
Which begs the question. Why did the Government print it in the first place; if its information was pointless, why bother?
If it was worth something, then last week's government protestations that the information was nothing more than basic pensions guidance rings rather hollow.
Amid the recriminations, it's worth remembering that companies which go to the wall usually do so under their own steam - and that a privately funded pension without enough assets to meet its obligations is a concern chiefly for the employers.
But when, as revealed by Ms Abraham's report, the Government has had a clear hand in these problems - through general advice given to staff and maladministration of pension funding levels - there is a degree of blame to be taken.
That it has washed its hands instead is just one of the "dreadful indictments" of this Government, says Ros Altmann, a pensions consultant and former No 10 pensions adviser.
How can any worker ever trust a government's words on pensions? she asks. And all this ahead of the planned National Pension Savings Scheme organised by, you guessed it, the Government. This car crash just doesn't end.
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