City: Time to talk

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The Independent Online
HEADS desperately need to be knocked together over the Maxwell pensions debacle. A solution is in sight but nobody in government or anywhere else seems to have the wherewithal or power to make it happen. Pensioners recently wrote to MPs claiming that just pounds 55m - far less than orginally thought - is required to ensure that all entitlements are paid. If that is true then it's ludicrous that the present situation, with liquidators, administrators and the City pitched against each other in increasingly costly and acrimonious litigation, should be allowed to continue.

Most of the banks and other financial institutions that hold stolen Maxwell pension fund assets as security against loans agree that provided liquidators drop all legal claims against them, it should easily be possible to make up the pounds 55m shortfall voluntarily. Some of these assets have appreciated substantially in value since the Maxwell collapse.

For a great number of people, this would seem a highly unsatisfactory solution. It would mean, in effect, that the City has got away with it and that banks would remain largely free to keep assets that rightfully belong to pensioners. Furthermore, it is the duty of liquidators to recover every penny they can. But as things stand, there is a real danger they will fritter everything away in the process. Pensioners may have the moral high ground over entitlement to the assets, but bankers seem to have the better legal position. You can argue the toss until the cows come home, and the only people who gain from it are the lawyers.

Not that the voluntary solution is going to be easy. With both sides so entrenched and so many different and conflicting interests to resolve among those that hold the assets, it is going to be a nightmare of legal and logistical complexity. Sir John Cuckney, appointed last year as the Government's trouble-shooter in the affair, is not the man to do it. He does not have the powers. What is needed is a senior judge or QC backed by all the authority the Government can give him. Above all, some sort of summit needs to be convened - a summit, moreover, not merely for the purpose of debating the issues but to last as long as it takes to reach a settlement.