The directors of collapsed construction giant Carillion were "contemptuous" of funding their defined benefit (DB) pension schemes, and "refused to give an inch", Frank Field has alleged.
The company presented a "rosy picture" of its financial position while "pleading" it could not afford higher deficit contributions to its 13 UK DB schemes, presenting a "take it or leave it" approach to the trustees, he said.
The comments were made as the Work and Pensions Committee (WPC) and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee published four letters between their joint inquiry, the company, the pension scheme trustees, and The Pensions Regulator (TPR), spanning eight years from 2010.
One letter, written in 2010 by the Carillion Staff Pension Scheme chairman Robin Herzberg, revealed the company had asked trustees to "agree less prudent assumptions and methods" to calculate technical provisions for the actuarial valuations. For example, the trustees had hoped to agree a discount rate of 4.5%, but Carillion suggested 5.25%.
It also details "a difference of opinion" over what Carillion group could afford to pay, noting that the company had in 2010 published a "bullish results announcement", including a strong cashflow and 12% increase in dividends, but offered £12m less a year in deficit contributions than the trustees believed the company could afford as a minimum.
The letter was written as the trustees informed the regulator that the scheme - as well as the Carillion B Pension Scheme, the Mowlem Staff Pension and Life Assurance Scheme, the Alfred McAlpine Pension Plan, the Mowlem (1993) Pension Scheme, and the Planned Maintenance Engineering Staff Pension and Assurance Scheme - were all set to miss their statutory 31 March 2010 deadline for agreeing the 31 December 2008 valuation.
The problem recurred in 2013 when "an impasse" was reached between the trustees and employer over the 31 December 2011 valuation, with the trustees requesting £65m per annum (pa) from the sponsor over 14 years from 1 January 2013, while the company presented a "final ‘take it or leave it' offer" of £33.4m pa over 15 years from 1 January 2014.
WPC chairman Field said the company had "refused to give an inch" despite painting a positive picture of its overall finances to the public.
"These letters suggest the Carillion directors were contemptuous of their pensions obligations," he said. "Over two successive 15-month negotiations they refused to give an inch to their pension schemes. Their private pleading that the company could not afford more was in stark contrast to the rosy picture - and bumper dividends - being presented to the outside world. Richard Adam, the longstanding finance director, has particular questions to answer."
On both occasions, the trustees wrote to TPR requesting a "formal intervention" to no avail. The watchdog opened its investigation three days after the company went bust last month.
In a letter to the WPC on 12 February, TPR revealed it had "attended a number of meetings" with the five schemes, but was unable to disclose the content of those meetings, and did not attend a full trustee board meeting until after last July's profit warning.
The regulator had agreed to allow the deferral of pension contributions last October in order to allow the company to agree £140m of bank facilities, with the view that this funding would enable the company to complete a restructure by April this year. But, a regulated apportionment arrangement (RAA) application was not submitted and, even so, an RAA "was not, of and by itself, capable of resolving the issues faced by the employer" and could instead have been part of a wider restructuring package, the watchdog said.
Field criticised TPR for not using its powers early enough, namely its section 231 power to set a schedule of contributions, echoing his earlier sentiments that the regulator was "tentative and apologetic".
"With characteristic alacrity, TPR started its arduous process of chasing money down from Carillion a few days after it was formally announced there was no money left. I can only assume - and hope - they are going after some of those very generous bonuses."
In a statement, TPR said it had not needed to use its powers in 2013, as an intervention at the time had resulted in an improved agreement between the trustees and sponsor.
"When the trustees wrote to us in 2013 to say they could not agree funding plans with the company, we did intervene by threatening to use our powers unless a funding plan was agreed. Our intervention resulted in a significant increase in the amount of money the company was prepared to pay into the scheme. We believed this was reasonable based upon our understanding of the company's trading strength as set out in its audited accounts.
"The investigation we have now launched is looking at whether there are grounds to use our anti-avoidance powers."
This could include imposing a contribution notice or financial support direction on relevant persons or firms connected to the scheme.
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