Eastern Group facing pounds 75m pension pay-back

Eastern Group, the regional electricity company which forms part of Hanson's soon-to-be-demerged energy division, could be forced to repay pounds 75m removed from its pension fund following a controversial ruling by the Pensions Ombudsman.

Demerger documents sent yesterday to Hanson shareholders also reveal that senior executives of the new company, Energy Group, could receive special bonuses worth up to 50 per cent of basic pay, on top of short and long-term bonus schemes.

Eastern is the first regional power supplier to officially quantify the scale of its potential pensions problem after Dr Julian Farrand, the Ombudsman, last year ordered National Grid to repay pounds 44m taken from a surplus in its pension scheme.

All the privatised electricity companies are members of the same parent pension scheme and could face cash demands totalling almost pounds 1bn if Dr Farrand upholds his provisional judgment against the Grid. The ruling argued that National Grid, which is appealing, should not have removed the surplus to fund early retirement and voluntary redundancy benefits.

Eastern said in the demerger documents that if a similar ruling were made for its pension fund "it would resist it, ultimately through the courts". However, if it lost a court case, it "could have a potential liability to repay to its part of that scheme an amount estimated by the directors to be up to pounds 75m", excluding interest.

The documents also said the "special additional bonus scheme" was designed to compensate for the fact that directors would have to wait three years for payouts from the long-term share scheme. Under the special scheme, executives could receive annual bonuses of 25 per cent if Energy Group's earnings rise by a factor of 6 per cent above inflation or more.

One fund manager commented: "This special bonus scheme looks highly unusual. It's suspiciously like having one's cake and eating it." The long-term bonus plan pays out up to 75 per cent of salary each year depending on the company's share performance, while the short-term bonus plan pays out up to 50 per cent.

Derek Bonham, Energy Group chairman, is to be paid a basic salary of pounds 450,000, a considerable reduction on the pounds 930,000 he was paid at Hanson. John Devaney, chief executive of Eastern, receives a pounds 350,000 salary, compared with pounds 203,000 in 1993/94.

Under the demerger terms each Hanson shareholder receives one Energy Group share for every 10 Hanson shares. Energy Group is expected to pay a dividend of 5.5p for the 3 months to the end of March, equivalent to an annual payout of 21p. The company made operating profits of pounds 446m last year, on sales of pounds 3.6bn.

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