Pension protests pile up

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THE PENSIONS Ombudsman, Michael Platt, was inundated by complaints in his first year in office, during which the Maxwell pension funds scandal broke.

He admitted in his annual report that he was unable to deal with problems quickly enough.

'Our performance falls sadly below Citizen's Charter standards. The prime task in 1992-93 is to shorten response times and increase output,' said Mr Platt, a career civil servant who became Britain's first pensions ombudsman in April 1991. He has recently appointed two more assistants.

Mr Platt received 450 complaints in his first month and 2,100 in the year. Many of these were referred to the Occupational Pensions Advisory Service and others were outside Mr Platt's terms of reference. But he made decisions on 47 cases, all but two of which involved company schemes. He decided in favour of the complainant in 18 cases and partly in favour in four other cases.

There was a flurry of inquiries to the office at the end of last year after the problems with Maxwell pension schemes became known. But most of the calls were general inquiries about the safety of pension schemes.

The largest category of complaint concerned delays in paying transfer values when a member was switching from one scheme to another. The second-largest category was problems associated with the winding up of schemes.

Mr Platt said his message to companies on transfers was: 'Get it right and get it on time. If it is going to take a long time, tell people.'

The Ombudsman can compel companies to reimburse losses. But he can only make recommendations for payments of compensation to take account of aggravation. He made five such recommendations last year, the highest for pounds 250. In a sixth case, the company had gone out of business.

Mr Platt made just under a dozen restitution orders. One case involved pounds 50,000, due to someone owed a refund of contributions after breaching Inland Revenue limits. But Mr Platt was unable to award the full amount because responsibility for the over-funding error lay with a number of parties, including some over which he had no jurisdiction.