NFC faces legal action over pension surplus

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Labour Editor

The rail freight business privatised 13 years ago under an "employee- friendly" management buyout has been threatened with legal action for allegedly short-changing 25,000 pensioners and their depend-ents.

Directors of NFC, which was the first big privatisation under the Thatcher government, faced angry former employees last week insisting that a pounds 263m surplus in the pension fund, which makes up 138 per cent of its liabilities, should be used partly to increase benefits to pensioners.

Sir Norman Fowler, who was Secretary of State for Transport and Environment between 1979 and 1981, is among the company's non-executive directors.

While 83 per of shares in the company were owned by employees and their families at the time of its privatisation in 1982, the figure is now nearer 40 per cent.

The pensioners, who say they receive an average of pounds 30 a week, argue that the company is refusing to sanction a rise in benefits in order to continue its "pensions holiday", which has already lasted seven years.

The RMT rail union said one of its members with 32 years' pensionable service at the company was receiving pounds 25 a week and another with 20 years draws pounds 22.

The union calculates that the company has saved around pounds 200m in contributions. A spokesman for RMT said pensioners believed they were being denied their legitimate pension rights. "At least Dick Turpin wore a mask," the RMT official said.

Speaking at the fund's annual general meeting in Birmingham last Thursday, members of the union warned the company that the case would be taken to the Pensions Ombudsman and court action was under active consideration.

Pensioners point out that the fund trustees agreed to recommend a rise in benefits but that the board vetoed the increase.

At the annual general meeting the company agreed to review the situation and compare payouts to its pensioners with those to former employees of other organisations in the industry, but warned that the process could take some time.

A spokeswoman said the company would look favourably on an increase if it could be afforded.