Carillion: Trustee chair quizzed over pension contribution deferrals
The chairman of Carillion Pension Trustees has rebutted claims by politicians that the trustee board let the failed contractor “wriggle out” of pension contributions.
Carillion went into compulsory liquidation on 15 January with a pensions deficit in excess of £800m (€910m) but just £29m in cash.
Robin Ellison, chair of the trustees, yesterday told a parliamentary committee investigating Carillion’s collapse that the trustee board had pushed the construction and engineering contractor as hard as it could.
“We did our best with the information at our disposal,” he said, adding that it was a balancing act between getting as much money for the pension scheme as possible without driving the sponsor out of business. “I don’t think there is anything more we could have done to pursue higher contributions.”
He added that The Pensions Regulator (TPR) had also stood up to potential creditors of the company who had demanded all loans go into the business rather than the pension fund.
This episode occurred during Carillion’s final days as a going concern. Ellison said that even then the trustees were led to believe by Carillion executives that if immediate cash could be raised, the business would survive long enough to be restructured.
Contribution schedule questioned
But MPs questioned why the trustees had ever allowed the sponsor to pause contributions in August last year, given the scheme was still in deficit. They referred to a 2012 report by one of the trustees’ advisers, Gazelle, recommending that they demand more from the sponsor, including influence over new securities issued by Carillion.
Gazelle said at the time: “Carillion has historically prioritised other demands on capital ahead of deficit reduction in order to grow earnings and support the share price.”
Ellison emphasised that the trustees had pursued means of greater security “with inadequate results”. He added that the board had asked for more contributions after nearly every valuation.
“We did not just roll over and get our tummies tickled when the company paused contributions.”
“You will see [from correspondence] that negotiations went on in a pretty tough fashion: for the first two valuations we didn’t come to formal agreement and we had to take what the company would pay,” Ellison explained. “The powers of pension fund trustees are limited – we can’t enforce a demand for money.”
The trustee chair also emphasised that “there wasn’t much in the company that could be pledged” as security against the deferred contributions.
“We did not just roll over and get our tummies tickled when the company paused contributions,” Ellison said. “There were heavy interest payments for the delay and the promise of a bullet repayment seven months later.”
Asked whether he’d thought about resigning, Ellison replied that resigning would not have solved anything.
TPR – which will appear before the committee at a later date – can compel greater contributions. When pressed by Frank Field MP, co-chair of the committee, Ellison said he had not asked the regulator to make this specific demand, instead asking the regulator to use its judgement as to the best course of action. TPR will have to explain why it sat in on board meetings of the Carillion trustees for years without taking further action against the sponsor.
MPs pointed to the £376m paid to shareholders in dividends by Carillion between 2012 and 2016. When asked why the money didn’t go to the pension fund, Ellison pointed out that The Pensions Regulator generally accepted pension contributions worth 16%-18% of dividends. In Carillion’s case, pension contributions had been in the order of 60% of dividends.
Carillion’s annual report for 2016 detailed that it had paid £393.7m to shareholders since 2012, while making deficit contributions to the DB schemes of £209.4m in total. Since last year, TPR has increased its emphasis on companies striking a balance between dividend payments and pension scheme deficit reduction payments.
Members of the Work and Pensions Select Committee and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee are conducting a joint inquiry into the collapse of Carillion.
A number of the engineering conglomerate’s DB pension funds are now being assessed for entry into the Pension Protection Fund.
Robin Ellison spoke to IPE in March 2017 about the Carillion schemes’ investment strategy.