The UK’s largest trade union has stepped up its lobbying efforts this week to prevent the closure of some of the final remaining defined benefit (DB) schemes offered by UK companies.
Unite, which has more than 1.4m members, has backed an investigation by parliament’s Work and Pensions Select Committee into the decisions by Anglian Water and United Utilities to close their respective DB plans.
The union said it was concerned that the companies’ profits were “heavily skewed towards the shareholders” and warned that the closures could see staff lose as much as £100,000 from their overall pension pots.
Peter McIntosh, acting national officer for energy and utilities at the union, said: “A line in the sand needs to be drawn, otherwise the pensions of thousands of water workers will be seriously eroded by shareholder-obsessed bosses.”
Anglian Water said that the various unions had accepted its pensions package relating to its £2bn (€2.2bn) scheme on 16 March following a recent email ballot of 2,000 workers.
“Our obligation is to provide an equitable, fair and financially sustainable pension for all our employees, and a bill that is affordable for customers,” a spokesperson for the company said. “This is something that simply wouldn’t be possible given the escalating costs of our old DB scheme.”
A spokesperson for United Utilities – which runs a roughly £3.9bn DB scheme – said the unions had helped to form the final version of the company’s replacement scheme.
“Rather than scrap the defined benefit scheme as planned, we agreed to introduce a hybrid scheme, which will cost us considerably more,” the spokesperson said. “So, we have made considerable concessions already and hope that the unions will show a similar desire to compromise.”
On 28 March, Frank Field, chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, wrote to water regulator Ofwat demanding clarity on the pension issues.
In his letter, Field asked for Ofwat’s view of “the proposals by Anglian Water and United Utilities to close their defined benefit pension plans while continuing to make large distributions to shareholders”.
Ofwat said it would respond soon to Field’s enquiry.
Bentley staff threaten strike action over DB closure
In a separate development this week, Unite announced its support on Tuesday for the decision by union members at Bentley Motors’ Crewe headquarters to opt for industrial action in the face of moves to close the luxury carmaker’s DB scheme.
According to the union – which dubbed Bentley “pension snatchers” – 98% of its members voted in favour of going out on strike.
“This massive vote in favour of action demonstrates the anger and strength of feeling among workers over Bentley’s pension proposals, which could result in workers losing thousands of pounds in retirement income,” said Phil Morgan, Unite regional officer.
The closure of the scheme will hit the 1,200 workers who remain part of the Rolls-Royce and Bentley Pension Fund (RRBPF).
In a statement, Bentley said that the RRBPF consultation process had “not been an easy step to take”.
The company added: “We are looking at this now because of the significant growth in the deficit to over £500m in the last two years. We are fully committed to funding this deficit, which poses a significant financial challenge to our business.
“While no decisions have yet been taken, we have to manage risk and ensure the sustainable future of the company and our colleagues.”