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Carillion: Pension Protection

Volume 635: debated on Monday 5 February 2018

1. What steps she is taking to ensure support for former Carillion employees whose pensions will not be covered by the Pension Protection Fund. (903731)

Where all sponsoring employers of a defined-benefit pension scheme have declared insolvency, they will enter a Pension Protection Fund assessment period. The Pension Protection Fund will actively work with the scheme administrator to assess whether it is able to buy out the pensions at a higher level than the PPF benefits. Where a scheme cannot do this, PPF will provide compensation. Defined-contribution schemes do not need PPF help, because they do not promise a level of pension—the member keeps the pot they have built up.

The Government have presided over a regulatory scheme where a deficit of about £1 billion has been allowed to build up in the pension fund at the same time as shareholders were receiving dividends. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that all former Carillion employees will receive in full their due pension?

What the Government did successfully back in 2004 was set up the Pension Protection Fund, which is there to compensate people should their businesses become insolvent. This is what the fund will be doing: affording protection at 100% for those who have a pension. Those not yet on a pension will be getting 90%. The Government are ensuring that businesses are responsible to their employees and their pensions. We will be bringing in stronger corporate governance rules to make sure that boards, trustees, shareholders and stakeholders hold company executives to account.

Financial directors must not cause detriment to any private sector pension scheme. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the rules and regulations regarding the investigation of this sort of practice are toughened up, because we cannot allow this to happen in future?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government are seeking to ensure that the regulator will—our new Bill will come out later in the year—have more rights to fine, follow criminal procedures and look into mandatory clearance. Those of us who have studied corporate governance realise that the rules changed in 1991—the Cadbury report and the OECD corporate governance rules—and were strengthened in 2002. I believe that now, under this Conservative Government, we will be strengthening the corporate governance rules again.[Official Report, 8 February 2018, Vol. 635, c. 8MC.]

My constituents who have paid into pension funds deserve to have those moneys protected. Will the Secretary of State be a bit more specific? What specific changes to corporate governance does she want to see to ensure that high risk behaviour towards pension funds does not happen again?

We are getting feedback from various businesses on how they think we can best enable and support them. Any knee-jerk reaction might result in unintended consequences. Shining a spotlight on one area could close down loopholes, only for others to open up. This has to be looked at in the round, but, as I said, stakeholders, shareholders and the executive team should be held to account. We will make sure that that happens.

Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the UK’s pension protection system has responded effectively to the Carillion situation?

I can indeed reassure my hon. Friend that what it is doing, and the avenues it is pursuing, are correct and thorough. I met the regulator last week. It is making sure that it investigates these key matters and provides the necessary pension support. Where we need to strengthen in future, we will do so. Equally, I would like to make Members aware of what the pension regulator has done in the past. With regards to the British Home Stores fiasco, which is totally different from this situation, it employed an anti-avoidance measure and got Philip Green to pay his pensioners £363 million. Further prosecutions are coming forward for Chappell, who bought that company for a pound. That is the kind of good work the pension regulator is doing.

As the Government have responsibility for the pensions regulatory framework, how would the Secretary of State describe a regulatory framework that allows the administrator of a pensions scheme to help to bring about the downfall of the company and the employees it represents, and to profit from that downfall?

When I hear some of the hon. Lady’s comments, particularly those that are out of context, I think about the letter that she has received in the past two days from the UK Statistics Authority, which states that many things she has said are not accurate. The letter said that her remarks—whether about children waking up in poverty at Christmas or linking universal credit with poverty—were not supported, that they were not true statistics and that the sources could not be relied upon. If you will allow me to ask this, Mr Speaker, will the hon. Lady make a statement straightaway about the letter from the UK Statistics Authority?

I understand the rhetorical significance of the Secretary of State’s point, but I must exhort the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) to stick to her last. That is to say, this is not the occasion upon which she is invited to expatiate on the matter. She may find other opportunities if she is so inclined, but she should stick to the line of questioning that is relevant to the questioning of a Government Minister.

I will indeed do just that, Mr Speaker, especially as there was absolutely no answer to my original question. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people including my constituent, Philip Wild, have lost half their retirement income because of the Government’s failure to tackle pensions governance—from Carillion to Capita, and BHS to the British Steel Pension Scheme. How many more pensions scandals does the Secretary of State need to see before she introduces the robust regulatory oversight needed to protect people’s pensions for the future?

Obviously, in the light of the letter from the chair of the UK Statistics Authority to the hon. Lady, it needs to be put on the record that the vast majority of defined-benefit pension schemes are working very well indeed. When we do see instances of abuse or illegal goings-on, they are investigated and the people responsible are brought to account. We have a strong Pension Protection Fund, supported by other businesses that are looking after pensioners across the country.