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Last Updated: Friday, 23 April, 2004, 12:55 GMT 13:55 UK
What next for pension wind-up victims?
By Julian Knight
BBC News Online personal finance reporter

ASW workers marching to Downing Street in 2003
Up to 60,000 have lost their pension

In the past few days the UK Government has hinted that it may be about to help people whose company pension schemes have collapsed.

Up to 60,000 people are thought to be facing poverty despite a lifetime of saving responsibly for retirement.

Labour backbench MPs have threatened revolt if a compensation package for victims is not tacked onto the government's Pension Bill, currently going through parliament.

The bill for compensation could run into billions. There are three main proposals for compensating victims, what will they mean if adopted for pension victims and the government?

The insurance option

Some MPs have suggested that the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) be applied retrospectively to cover the pensions of workers who have lost out.

The PPF is a key part of the Pension Bill and is due to start in 2005.

Employers operating pension schemes will have to pay into the fund, which will compensate workers if their company pension scheme is wound up.

Under the MPs proposals, the PPF could be used to top-up the pensions of the wind-up victims when they reach retirement age.

The government could start paying compensation then gather the money from unclaimed assets
Derek Wyatt MP

But some pension experts see major difficulties with this approach.

"To hang such a millstone around the neck of the fund from day one will mean the PPF has to borrow or ask employers to pay in more cash," Malcolm McLean, chief executive of the Pension Advisory Service (OPAS) told BBC News Online.

The backbenchers' plan

Frank Field Labour MP claims that the government need not raid public finances to meet the compensation bill.

Frank Field MP
Frank Field wants to use 'unclaimed' assets

Instead, the government could utilise 'unclaimed' assets - money held in dormant accounts, often in the names of long dead people - to pay compensation.

There is an estimated 13bn held in dormant accounts in the UK - 10bn in banks and 3bn in National Savings.

However, a government grab for unclaimed assets would require parliamentary legislation.

No problem, according to Derek Wyatt Labour MP, who represents a constituency in which several hundred people have lost their pension following the closure of local storage firm Dexion.

"It could take two or three years before we saw legislation but the government could start paying compensation then gather the money from unclaimed assets at a later date," Mr Wyatt told BBC News Online.

The campaigner's plan

Dr Ros Altmann, a government pension adviser who has been in the forefront of the campaign to compensate workers, has calculated that there is enough cash in the wound up schemes to cover pensions for many years to come.

Dr Ros Altmann
Dr Ros Altmann says wound up schemes should be pooled

Dr Altmann claims that by pooling together the assets of all wound up schemes the pensions of those who are about to reach retirement age could be covered.

The government would take on the burden of paying pensions once the pooled assets had been exhausted, an estimated ten or fifteen years in the future.

This would postpone the financial pain for the government and ensure that pension assets reach scheme members.

The current pension wind-up process has attracted criticism for taking too long and draining schemes of scarce assets through high legal and administration fees.

According to Mr McLean, whatever plan the government chooses to adopt, getting the administration right will be crucial.

"The government needs to think carefully how they go about meeting this big challenge. A whole new administrative structure may have to be set up," Mr McLean told BBC News Online.


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