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Arcadia Pension Fund

Volume 808: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the Arcadia pension fund receives all of the contributions and assets agreed between its owners, any trustees and The Pension Regulator.

As Arcadia has now gone into administration, the Pension Protection Fund, working with the Pensions Regulator, will now act in place of the trustees and will negotiate on behalf of the scheme to ensure that it is treated fairly compared to other creditors and gets what it is due. If the regulator thinks there has been wrongdoing, it may also be able to use its anti-avoidance powers to get redress.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but it gives little assurance on the £210 million of security agreed with Arcadia getting to the actual schemes. Covid has a major impact, yet large pension deficits have not just built up over the past nine months but over years, and there will be other companies who took out dividends and assets to a value much greater than deficit recovery payments made, leaving their pension schemes more vulnerable than they should be. Will the Government consider urgent amendments to the Companies Act so that directors’ duties to shareholders are subject to a responsibility to repair deficits to pension schemes? We will otherwise have endless cases such as Arcadia recurring.

I will need to take the issue relating to the Companies Act back to colleagues at BEIS, but we have the Pension Schemes Bill going through the House at the moment. There will be powers to ensure that we hold pension trustees to account, and I am sure that that will make a huge difference.

My Lords, further to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, about the deficits facing more and more pension funds, should we ask why they are being forced by regulation to invest more and more into government gilt-edged securities, which now have negative returns and are therefore guaranteed to lose pensioners money? Should we not instead be encouraging pension funds to invest in infrastructure, social housing and green projects to generate jobs, prosperity and growth?

My noble friend is not alone, as witnessed by the endorsement of his points on how pension schemes should invest their money. However, the accounting standards ensure that a standard, objective measure applies to pension liabilities on company balance sheets. This is very different to the role of trustees when deciding on an investment strategy. It is up to trustees to have an investment strategy that suits the specific nature of their schemes. While gilts and bonds have lower returns, they are much less volatile than equity and can be useful as part of a diverse investment portfolio.

My noble friend will be aware that the high street has been under pressure for a long time. We also know that Philip Green has form when it comes to pensions. There will be great disquiet at the fact that this deficit has been allowed to build up. Can my noble friend give me a sense of the Government’s liabilities in this regard? What steps we are going to take to ensure that these funds are not again left in a vulnerable position, when we know well in advance that sectors are in severe difficulty?

There is no government liability, as the Pension Protection Fund is funded by the assets taken into it from schemes, topped up by a levy on eligible schemes. The PPF plans for the long term and, as at 31 March 2020, it had a healthy reserve of more than £6 billion.

The Minister correctly highlights the role of the Pension Protection Fund, and the employees of Arcadia can take some comfort from that. The problem is that the protection afforded by the fund is incomplete. To lose your job is bad enough; to lose part of your pension as well piles injury on injury. Can the Minister tell us what consideration is being given to improving the level of protection provided by the PPF?

First, the noble Lord makes a good point about people losing their jobs, and I want to give absolute comfort to the whole House that the Department for Work and Pensions, through the rapid response team, stands ready to do all it can to help people in this very difficult time. On the second part of his question, we are doing as much as we can at the moment to help companies—through the Pensions Regulator and the Pension Protection Fund—to protect their assets and ensure that trustees act honourably in their duties.

In answer to a similar question from me last week, the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist, said:

“Where there is evidence of bad practice, it is taken up through the relevant authorities.”—Official Report, 3/12/20; col. 835.]

Does the Minister agree that the Green family paying itself more than £1 billion while the pension fund is depleted of the money it needs is bad behaviour? If so, are the Government really satisfied that the Pensions Regulator has enough power to deal with those sorts of owners of those sorts of companies?

I understand the noble Lord’s point and the spirit in which he makes it, but it would be inappropriate for Ministers to comment at this stage on this individual case. It is too early to know the position of the pension scheme—whether there is a deficit or how big it is—and, indeed, whether anybody has behaved inappropriately. We need to let the Pension Protection Fund and the Pensions Regulator do their job. If there is any cause for concern, they have a range of powers which they will use.

My Lords, many Arcadia pension scheme members are facing possible job loss and uncertainty, which are the perfect conditions for scammers to exploit anxious people who are looking to access their pension savings. The experience of too many British Steel workers stands as a warning. Once savings are transferred out of the pension scheme, there is no way back and access to the PPF is gone. What active steps will the Government take to apply the lessons of the Rookes review to ensure that Arcadia scheme members are not exposed to financial advisers who may provide poor advice, nor persuaded to put their savings in the hands of fraudsters?

As always, the noble Baroness raises an important point for people who are in difficult positions. Since January 2018, following its work on the British Steel pension scheme, the Financial Conduct Authority has been working closely with the Pensions Regulator and the Money and Pensions Service to ensure that they monitor pension transfer activity in defined benefit pension schemes that may be subject to increased transfer activity. The three organisations have increased the frequency of their meetings during Covid-19 to consider schemes at risk of higher transfer activity.

My Lords, let us be blunt. Debenhams collapsed after three ruthless vulture funds loaded it with debt and then cleaned it out to the tune of £1.2 billion in dividends. Arcadia was legally robbed by the Greens to the tune of another £1.2 billion in dividends. In the United States, the regulator would have gotten back every cent and they would all be serving life without parole. When are we in this country going to get some proper regulation and legislation to tackle people whose behaviour is de facto criminal, but at the moment technically legally okay?

I and the whole House absolutely agree that we need to ensure our legislation can deal with those who would plunder pension schemes. That is why we currently have a Pension Schemes Bill going through Parliament. Let me be clear. Where there is mishandling of a pension scheme, the Bill extends the Pensions Regulator’s sanction regime, introducing the power to issue civil penalties of up to £1 million and three new criminal offences, including a new sentence of up to seven years in prison for bosses who run pension schemes into the ground or plunder them to line their own pockets.

My Lords, we have just heard about the Pension Schemes Bill and its provisions. When will the new routes to contribution notices, new criminal offences and new information-gathering powers that the Bill makes available to the regulator be available? When the Bill comes into effect, will they be retrospective?

To give the noble Lord a correct answer, I will need to go back to the department, especially on retrospective issues, and write to him. I will make the answer available to all noble Lords.

I noticed that the Minister said that the Government had no liability, and she mentioned the word “honourable” in almost the same sentence. Does she agree that that is cold comfort for the 12,000 people who will have a terrible Christmas? She should perhaps contact the Prime Minister and try to get Philip Green’s knighthood revoked because he is clearly less than an honourable man.

It would not be right for me to comment on individual cases, as I have already said. However, I should point out that a clear, independent process is in place for the forfeiture of an honour, and the final decision on whether to revoke one is made by an independent committee.

Sitting suspended.