7 December 2016
Common sense prevails at British Steel – jobs secured
- But not clear what will happen to British Steel’s 130,000 member pension scheme
- New pension scheme seems generous compared to average UK schemes nowadays
- But Tata says old British Steel scheme will be ‘de-risked’ and ‘de-linked’ – could mean going into the PPF or could mean standalone
- Ongoing negotiations with the Pensions Regulator likely and no details yet available
Saving jobs is so important for South Wales: It is great news that the unions and Tata Steel have reached an agreement that could secure jobs and steel production at Port Talbot’s blast furnaces for years to come. That is really important to the people of South Wales and it seems the unions have worked really hard to preserve the industry that is so important. But this is all subject to consultation so it must still be ratified by the workforce.
Job security vs. pensions: The job security and new investment in the business seems to have come, however, partly as a consequence of changes to the pension arrangements enjoyed by the 130,000 British Steel Pension scheme members. By closing the scheme and looking to change future arrangements, Tata’s burden of ongoing pension contributions could be reduced.
Close DB scheme and start generous new DC scheme: The proposal is that the final salary-type pension scheme will close and all workers will be moved into a new pension arrangement. This will be a Defined Contribution scheme, which means the employer no longer shoulders the risks involved in long-term pension provision. The terms of the new scheme, negotiated hard by the unions, are relatively generous. They will offer up to a maximum 10% employer contribution with 6% from employees. The legal minimum is far lower (currently 1% each from employer and employees, rising to 3% from employer and 5% from employees by 2019).
But not clear what happens to existing British Steel Pension Scheme – still waiting for Consultation Response: It is not clear, from today’s releases, what will be happening to the existing final salary pension scheme. Will benefits be reduced by going into the Pension Protection Fund? The Government consulted earlier this year on changing the law to force through significant cuts to the full benefits promised to current and past workers. For Government to do this, for just one scheme, would have set a very dangerous precedent for all other private sector schemes. We still have no confirmation of what will happen, even though it was rushed through as an emergency measure during the Referendum campaign last summer. We still do not know when there will be an official response to this consultation.
Probably still negotiating with the Pensions Regulator – will scheme enter the PPF?: The fact that there has been no announcement from the Government, and the wording of the statements today from Tata and the unions, suggest that no resolution for the British Steel scheme has yet been agreed. The wording used is that the scheme will be ‘de-risked’ and ‘de-linked’. This could mean that the scheme is heading for the Pension Protection Fund after all, but the trustees may also still be negotiating for a different outcome.
RAA would allow business to separate from pension scheme: The Regulator does have the power to permit Tata Steel, the employer, to keep running the Port Talbot blast furnaces, but without the burden of the DB pension scheme – and the scheme would enter the Pension Protection Fund. This could represent the scheme being ‘de-linked’ and ‘de-risked’. Such flexibility for employers who are in trouble is a long-standing feature of our pension system. It helps firms who genuinely cannot afford to meet their pension liabilities but want to preserve jobs and keep the business going. To allow Tata Steel to continue running the steel business but not have to support the old pension scheme would require a deal with the Pensions Regulator and the PPF Lifeboat Fund, an RAA or ‘Regulated Apportionment Arrangement’.
Or will Regulator allow a standalone scheme: However, there is also a suggestion that the trustees are still looking for the scheme to be allowed to run on as a standalone scheme without actually going into the PPF. This was the original premise of the Consultation but would require huge reductions to past benefits and would also involve ‘de-linking’ the scheme but it is unlikely to be completely ‘de-risked’ since the trustees would still need to earn investment returns over time to help meet the liabilities. It could be a very different outcome for members from PPF entry and was another of the options suggested in the Consultation. This would mean the scheme may not enter the PPF, but would stay outside it, with the trustees continuing the run the scheme on a low-risk basis, trying to ensure it has enough money to pay the pensions as they become due. Whether or not they would be able to pay full benefits, or reduced benefits may also be part of ongoing discussions.
Key question – what will happen to guarantees given by Tata Steel to £15billion pension scheme?: The future of the British Steel Pension Scheme may lie in the hands of the Pensions Regulator and the PPF – unless the Government does actually tear up pensions law for Tata – this seems less likely. Which outcome is achieved, will also partly depend on what happens to the generous guarantees that Tata Steel has offered to the pension scheme in the past. It has been reported that a share of Tata Steel assets were pledged to the scheme trustees instead of pension contributions, in order to improve the deficit position of the scheme in past years and to provide extra funding if the scheme was in trouble. If those assets are included as part of the pension assets, then the trustees may believe they have enough money to run the scheme on a self-sufficiency basis. It may also, however, be part of the negotiations with the PPF and Pensions Regulator in order to agree an RAA deal. Such negotiations are always complex and we await further details with interest.
So it’s great to see jobs secured and we await further details about the future of this major UK pension scheme. The Pensions Regulator must ensure that it does its best to protect the PPF and the integrity of our pension system.