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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 May, 2004, 06:58 GMT 07:58 UK
Pension crisis: Is the worst over?
By Julian Knight
BBC News Online personal finance reporter

As delegates gather for the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF) conference, the protests of an estimated 60,000 workers who have lost their pension after their employer has gone bust seem to grow ever louder.

Woman holding here head in her hands
Pensions have been a 'horror show'
From misselling scandals to the mass closure of lucrative employee final salary schemes, the past few years have been one long horror show for UK pensions.

Yet, some are cautiously optimistic.

"We are in a much healthier position now than twelve months ago," David Astley, director of benefits at the NAPF, a body which promotes employer pension provision, told BBC News Online.

"Legislation is on the way and schemes look stronger following a year of share price growth."

Market rally

Last year, a running joke in the City was that the bulk of FTSE100 firms had become pension schemes with a business tacked-on.

Latest news, background and analysis from BBC News Online's pensions in-depth section

But the stock market rally in the past twelve months has eased the financial position of many company pension schemes.

The pension fund deficit facing UK firms narrowed by 60bn during the second half of 2003, according to the Confederation of British Industry.

As a result, UK firms will have to divert less cash to prop up their ailing pension schemes.

Headline grabbers

Forthcoming legal changes should also help future pensioners.

The government's Pension Bill, which aims to lighten the administrative and financial load on schemes while enhancing member protection, is close to becoming law.

Many employers simply took the decision to shut their final salary scheme behind closed doors, without talking to unions or staff
Michele Lewis, TUC

The requirement on schemes to increase pensions by up to 5% a year is scrapped and the tax treatment of pensions is to be simplified with the aim of slashing the administration costs of running a scheme.

But the headline grabbing measure contained in the Bill is the proposed introduction of a Pension Protection Fund (PPF).

The PPF will act like an insurance guaranteeing that retired scheme members will receive 100% of their pension, while members still of working age will get at least 90%.

Under current rules, members of working age often have little to show for years of contributions when a pension scheme is wound-up.

But workers who have already lost their pensions may also be offered help soon.

Faced with the possibility of a major back bench rebellion, Tony Blair and Pensions Minister Andrew Smith hinted in April at compensation for these workers.

Treasury misgivings over the size of any compensation bill seems to be the one major remaining stumbling block.


But the rise in pension funds' earnings from their stock market investment and the anticipated legal changes do little to alleviate the main concern of many, namely the shift by many employers from final salary schemes to money purchase ones.

ASW workers marching to Downing Street in 2003
Pension victims have turned up the volume
One in four workplace final salary schemes have closed to new entrants in the past year and most of them have been replaced by money purchase schemes, according to the NAPF.

The change means that increasingly workers are having to face investment risks which under final salary schemes are shouldered by employers:

Under such schemes, employees are guaranteed a retirement income based on final salary and length of service, regardless of what happens in the financial markets.

While under money purchase schemes, the pension size is based on level of contributions and investment performance.

Brendan Barber, Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary, is expected to issue a stark warning that unions will strike to protect their final salary pension schemes when he addresses the NAPF conference on Friday.

But such vocal protest might be arriving to late.

After all, "many employers simply took the decision to shut their final salary scheme behind closed doors, without talking to unions or staff", noted TUC pensions policy officer Michelle Lewis.

Shop stewards can do little but try to prevent firms from slashing contribution levels.

"We have seen some employers reduce their contributions from close to 20% of salary to the bare minimum of 3%. Union negotiators are increasingly aware that pensions are in effect deferred pay," Ms Lewis said.

The shake-up has made workers aware of what is at stake.

"Workers are now more aware than ever that the size of their pension is a function of what is paid in and [they] are starting to ask the right questions," Mr Astley said.

Sharp edges

All in all, in the past year some of the sharper edges seem to have been smoothed off the UK pension crisis.

The pension protection fund promises to copper bottom workplace pension guarantees, while the debate over the shift from final salary to money purchase continues but at a reduced volume.

But, in truth, many of the fundamental problems facing UK pensions show no sign of easing.

The population is getting older and the financial burden on those of working age continues to increase.

For many the dream of early retirement will remain, just that, a dream.

In fact, Britons are saving less not more, preferring to buy property and borrow on plastic instead.

And of course, there are still the victims of pension wind-ups demanding attention.


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