The Court of Appeal ruled that privatised electricity companies had unlawfully plundered their pension funds of the money in order to finance redundancies and reduce liabilities.
The pensioners, David Laws and Reg Mayes, successfully argued that pensions were "deferred pay and not a pot of gold to be raided by fat cats". The judgment could set a precedent for pensioners in a wide range of industries which have adopted similar tactics.
In a ruling which affects all 21 companies in the power supply industry, three judges decided that National Power acted unlawfully when it took pounds 250m from the Electricity Supply Pension Scheme. The ruling also applied to National Grid's withdrawal of pounds 46.3m.
Mr Laws, 60, of Chatham in Kent, registered his anger over news that employers might take the case to the House of Lords. "We are pensioners and we want our money now," he said. "We don't want to wait another two years or more." He said the decision could result in payments of pounds 10,000 to pensioners. "The average widow's pension is pounds 20 a week. Many pensioners are on housing benefit and caught in the poverty trap. Why should more of them die in poverty?"
Mr Mayes, 75, of Ashtead in Surrey, said he was delighted by the result but the case had dragged on for far too long. "I have had a pensioner of 82 crying to me: `Please do something about this'," he said.
Peter Woods, of the plaintiffs' solicitors Stephens Innocent, said further delay would simply mean more pensioners would die without seeing the benefits of the litigation.
The appeal judges decided there was nothing in the rules of the pension scheme which gave employers unilateral power "to forgive themselves their liabilities to pay contributions which are already due".
The fund could not be "whittled away by unilateral decisions on their part", said Lord Justice Brooke, sitting with Lords Justices Nourse and Schiemann.
However one drawback of yesterday's judgment was pointed out by Mr Justice Robert Walker, the High Court judge who found against the pensioners in 1997. He said that "any general exclusion of employers from surpluses would tend to make employers very reluctant to contribute to their pension schemes more than the bare minimum they could get away with".
He said it would be even more unfortunate if companies abandoned schemes based on final salary in favour of money-purchase schemes which could be less advantageous to pensioners. The point was supported yesterday by Ken Jackson, leader of the engineering union, who described the ruling as "disastrous".
Harold Lewis, of the solicitors Eversheds, who represented National Grid, argued that yesterday's ruling made it clear that companies were allowed to withdraw money in their own interests where there was a surplus.
He pointed out that a further two-day hearing envisaged by the Court of Appeal would still have to address the question of how much money should go back into the fund and what should happen to it.
The industry's pension scheme benefits more than 200,000 people and has assets of pounds 18bn. National Grid had taken 70 per cent of the 1992 surplus, with 30 per cent going to pensioners and scheme members, which reflected each side's respective contributions. The same policy has been adopted by other companies.
A spokesman for National Grid said the company was still scrutinising the judgment: "The full sums of money involved will not be known until we have had another hearing in court in two months' time."
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