Pension watchdog 'barking in secret': Imro is accused of keeping investors in the dark about investigations into scheme deficits. Andrew Bibby reports

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The Independent Online
IMRO, the regulator charged with overseeing pension fund investment, is failing to reassure employees and pensioners worried about the safety of their assets, according to Britain's largest trade union.

'The regulatory body has a public duty to be open in its investigations. Imro is the watchdog that only barks in secret,' said Brian Revell, pensions officer at the Transport and General Workers' Union. 'I would have thought that an organisation that faced such severe criticism over the Maxwell case would have wanted to show it could do a good job.'

The TGWU's comments follow a request last summer to Imro to investigate Pyrford International, the pension management firm at brewing group Courage. The union says it has now discovered that Imro's findings are unlikely to be made public.

A spokeswoman for the regulator said Imro's dealings with its member firms were confidential. This policy prevented possible ill-founded speculation, she argued, and ultimately this was in the interests of investor protection.

However, confidentiality can also be viewed as a handicap to member firms under investigation that wish to defend their reputation. At present, the outcomes of inquiries are only published if Imro decides that a formal disciplinary offence has been committed, and then only through an entry in a disciplinary register.

Since last March, Imro has made 10 entries in the register covering 32 firms, some for relatively minor offences. (Pyrford is not among these firms.)

TGWU concern over Pyrford follows a pounds 10m loss made by Courage's pension fund on an investment in Harlin, the fund management firm (later known as International Brewing Holdings) which went into receivership last year. When the decision to invest was made in 1988, Harlin (then called Elders Investment Management) was directly owned by Foster's, Courage's parent company. Harlin itself was under the control of Australian entrepreneur John Elliott, who was then both chairman of Foster's and a trustee of the Courage pension fund.

Since then, Foster's published accounts in Australia have revealed an actuarial deficit in Courage's pension fund of about pounds 30m, blamed partly on the fall in equity and property values. Courage has moved to fill this breach and is recommencing contributions to the pension fund after a two-year gap. Mike Reynolds, a Courage executive director, says the fund now has a policy of making no further self-investment.

Mr Revell says the TGWU has no dispute with Courage. 'The significant issue is that of Imro. The millions of pounds in the Courage pension fund represents security for thousands of people in their old age. I believe our people are entitled to know that this money is being properly looked after.'

Since the Harlin investment, the fund management firm has been restructured, and Pyrford is no longer a Foster's subsidiary. The TGWU says Imro should clarify its present ownership.

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