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DB pensions pose problems for cheery chancellor

DB pensions pose problems for cheery chancellor

Chancellor Philip Hammond had an extra spring in his step during the Spring Statement. 

Announcing his transformation from Eeyore to Tigger following positive figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the man once known as Spreadsheet Phil went so far as to suggest he would loosen the purse strings if public finances continue to improve. 

But a problem is coming his way in the pension world. 

It all goes back to the troublemakers at the Office of National Statistics (ONS), who in January changed the classification of the Pension Protection Fund (PPF), which picks up the bill when a company's scheme collapses. The ONS reclassified the PPF from an insurance corporation, albeit one on the government's books, to a pension fund.

At the same time the ONS said it would review how it includes public sector pension commitments when looking at government finances.

This may sound like a mere technical adjustment, but the OBR goes on to warn otherwise. In a report published alongside the Spring Statement it said the ONS plans posed 'a significant risk' to the forecasts that made Hammond so cheerful today. 

As the ONS has yet to publish any details about the review the OBR decided not to account for the impact in its analysis of government finances. However it did sound a note of caution for Hammond, and those hoping he will spend more. 

Firstly it said any changes to the approach of the ONS possibly posed a 'significant' risk that current government pension liabilities will be have a bigger impact on predictions about national borrowing and national debt. 

'The scope of the review could be broad, covering the potential inclusion or exclusion of specific transactions, assets and liabilities of the pensions funds, as well as treatment of the government’s net pension liabilities as an employer.'

If this is the case then one answer would be to cut pensions for public sector workers. The coalition already did this in 2010. And, given the ongoing academic strike action at universities, this is a course of action he could do without. 

Secondly there is the effect on the PPF itself of a number of defined benefit schemes falling on to the lifeboat fund. The number of distressed schemes seems to be on the rise after high profile issues with BHS, British Steel and now Carillion. 

'When the [ONS] review is completed, the PPF is likely to present a continuing risk to the forecast as schemes enter liquidation and are absorbed by the fund,' the OBR said. 

A section of the OBR's report on the collapse of Carillion spells out the issue.

The collapsed outsourcing giant has 14 schemes with a combined deficit of £990 million, all likely to fall on the PPF.  As a result of the ONS's changes this is likely to show up in some form as government pension liabilities eventually. 

The OBR puts it in fairly black and white terms: 'The PPF is classified as a public sector pension scheme, so this transfer – and any decisions the PPF were to make about the levy it charges pension providers – would affect the public finances.'

Of course this is all theoretical at the moment, since we are waiting to hear what the ONS will do. However it is becoming clear that Hammond will not be able to ignore problems caused by final salary pension schemes. 

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