Plumbers’ Pension Scheme

Part of Selection Committee – in the House of Commons at 5:01 pm on 11 January 2018.

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Photo of Kirstene Hair Kirstene Hair Conservative, Angus 5:01, 11 January 2018

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and completely agree with him. That is why, when I go through my recommendations for the Government shortly, I will also urge for those actions to be taken with immediate effect, so that we can alleviate that pressure on the plumbers in constituencies across the country.

I understand that this is a very complex system and that we should be wary of making any changes too hastily, lest they then have unintended consequences of their own. We do not want to solve this crisis by creating another one, let alone inadvertently make matters worse. Likewise, I recognise and support the principle behind employer debt. We do not want to open the door to companies being able to walk away from a pension scheme and dump its liabilities on other employers. None the less, the system is obviously not working as intended right now. None of the people who contributed to the legislation as it stands today could possibly have envisaged creating a system that has left ordinary plumbers facing, potentially, six or seven-figure bills when they try to retire. This is, self-evidently, not the way that it was meant to work.

There is surely a case to be made for recognising the unique situation of the plumbers’ pension scheme. More flexibility would certainly be welcome, especially with respect to the buy-out basis, unincorporated businesses and orphan liabilities. One could perhaps make the Pension Protection Fund a guarantor of last resort for the scheme’s orphan liabilities, as is currently the case in single employer schemes, so that those liabilities are not included when calculating the section 75 employer debt. As I mentioned earlier, the plumbers’ pension scheme is well funded and is on course to pay all members’ benefits in full, so there is little chance that the PPF’s role as guarantor would ever come into play. There must be a solution to this crisis, and any solution should also address the fact that the plumbers’ pension scheme includes unincorporated businesses where the owner’s house and life savings are at risk. One option could be, for example, to help plumbers seeking to avoid personal ruin by incorporating their businesses and by removing the funding test requirement from the flexible apportionment arrangement regulations in such cases.

Likewise, a solution should address the gross unfairness of employers in the scheme currently having to pay for liabilities incurred by employers who left the scheme before 2005, who did not need to pay anything when they left. I understand that the Government recently consulted on a deferred debt arrangement that would allow employers in multi-employer pension schemes, such as the plumbers’ pension scheme, to defer payment of an employer debt in certain cases. I am also aware that the Green Paper, “Security and Sustainability in Defined Benefit Pension Schemes”, has looked into the issues of unincorporated liability and orphan liabilities, and that a White Paper responding to these issues is coming soon. I hope, therefore, that the Government are looking into all options as to how we can get justice and peace of mind for plumbers, and that they will not delay in making the necessary changes to the system. The sooner this crisis is resolved, the better.

It is worth reflecting on the issue of raising awareness among small businesses of section 75 employer debt and other pension liabilities. Many plumbers affected by this issue were wholly unaware that they could be made liable for such vast quantities of money, and that is not right. We should aim to ensure that small business owners enter multi-employer pension schemes with their eyes open, and that they are properly informed of any changes in the legislation and their potential consequences.

To conclude, the situation facing many plumbers right now is wholly unjust. Small business owners who have done nothing wrong are being penalised by the totally unintended consequences of the legislation as it currently stands. We need action to ensure that the system works as intended, and delivers relief and justice to upstanding plumbers who, through no fault of their own, are going into 2018 with a vast liability hanging over their heads. I urge this Government to take the actions I have outlined today.