IRELAND - Preliminary figures suggest complaints to the Irish Pensions Ombudsman increased by 43% in 2008, primarily driven by issues over the whereabouts of contributions.

The data, which will be fully analysed in the formal annual report to the government later this year, showed the Ombudsman’s office received 737 new cases, compared with 515 in 2007, and combined with 354 cases carried over from the previous year the total caseload was 1,091 complaints.

That said, while Paul Kenny, the Pensions Ombudsman, said 643 of the complaints had been finalised in 2008, this means 448 have been carried over into 2009 - an increase of 27%.

The Ombudsman revealed while there had been increases in most categories of complaint, “a significant element to emerge from the 2008 data is the increase in the number of complaints relating to remittance of contributions”.

Figures showed the number of complaints about this issue - where pension deductions have been made from employees’ pay but have allegedly not been forwarded to the relevant pension scheme - rose from 35 in 2007 to 101 a year later, an increase of almost 200%, with the majority focused on small construction companies.

Kenny said: “With the increasingly difficult economic climate for business, it is vital that companies are not tempted to regard pension deductions as a source of temporary cashflow. These deductions are not, and must never be regarded by a company as part of their funding arrangements. These funds are the exclusive property of the employees and are not available to a company for any purpose.”

The increase in complaints about this issue is reflected in the Ombudsman’s use of both civil and criminal courts to force employers to hand over information relating to an investigation and to prosecute them for failing to cooperate.

In April 2008 Kenny started the first of a number of successful court cases against construction firms for failing to cooperate with investigations, which have resulted in fines of up to €5,000 and in July he secured a first criminal conviction against a Galway firm. (See earlier IPE articles: Ombudsman’s legal warning over non-compliance; Builder arrested in Ombudsman court case; Court issues €5,000 fine for obstructing pension ombudsman and Ombudsman wins court case against building firm)

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