Vicars' retirement savings in jeopardy, says pension expert

A vicars' pension scheme could be facing a precarious future unless church chiefs face up to a potential massive deficit.

John Ralfe, an independent pension expert, claimed yesterday that the pension scheme for some 16,4000 Church of England clergy is "the riskiest in the country in terms of asset-type".

He has written to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to warn him of the problem that the scheme's liabilities are far worse than the Church admits.

The scheme says its deficit stands at £293m. Mr Ralfe reckons the figure is almost a third higher at £391m.

"They're not telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," he claimed.

He said that the way in which the CofE presents its scheme to the outside world is not like other pension schemes in the country.

"That's because it's not a company so it chooses how it presents its report and accounts, and it does so on a much weaker basis than standard schemes."

Mr Ralfe has challenged the archbishop to reveal the current value of the scheme's assets under the standard accounting basis – known as FRS 17. He believes the Church has put too much faith in the stock market since the scheme launched in 1998, leaving it victim to shares' fluctuating fortunes.

"They have been very wedded to equities and other return-seeking assets," he said. "Four years ago the level was 100 per cent, although it's now down to 93 per cent. But equities have done very badly for pension liabilities."

Mr Ralfe famously switched the Boots pension scheme from equities to bonds in the early part of the last decade, helping the scheme avoid massive losses.

In a statement, the Church of England said: "Mr Ralfe's claim that there is a big hole in the clergy pension scheme is simply inaccurate. At the last valuation of the scheme, on 31 December 2012, the funding deficit was 25 per cent, and we are on target to be fully funded over the next decade."

The Church also said that Mr Ralfe had failed to take into account that, unlike most other defined benefit schemes, this scheme is still quite immature and is still open to new members giving it a healthy contribution inflow.

But Mr Ralfe said current contributions are irrelevant. "You can't use money coming in today to pay pensions that were promised a year or more ago," he said.

He called on Mr Welby to set up an investigation into the true state of the scheme's finances and put it to the dioceses, who are responsible for funding the scheme.

"The Church should publish a report on an open and transparent basis, particularly since Justin Welby has set out his stall on the lines of transparency and openness in financial reporting," he said.

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