UK Coal and the pension problem

The start of a wider change?

When the National Coal Board was privatised in 1994 to become UK Coal Plc, the government must have thought that was the end of its involvement in the business and, as a consequence, its expensive defined benefit pension scheme. One wonders, therefore, what rumblings in the Houses of Parliament have resulted from the recent restructuring of UK Coal, which has meant that the expensive pension scheme has been taken back into the public fold by transfer into the Pension Protection Fund (the PPF).

It is not that long ago that the Pensions Regulator, established by the Pensions Act 2004, was pushing firmly against what is known as "scheme abandonment", that is, a restructuring of a business extracting the pension scheme from the ongoing enterprise. At first glance, the restructuring of UK Coal may look like a reversal of that approach, but the detail of the restructuring suggests otherwise.

The UK Coal scheme is unique in many respects in that it is protected by legislation (the Coal Industry (Protected Persons) Pensions Regulators 1994) and comes with a lot of baggage. The desire to protect beneficiaries of the scheme must have been high on the agenda during the regulator's review of the proposal, together with the objective of saving jobs for the 2000 employees of UK Coal.

The restructuring proposal involved the transfer of the business into two new companies: one to hold the mining element of the business and the other to hold the brownfield development side. UK Coal's initial proposal involved all contributions ceasing once the scheme had gone into the PPF, with the scheme taking an equity stake in the brownfield development side of the business. This would have resulted in the effective dumping of all accrued and future liabilities of the scheme on the public purse with UK Coal continuing to trade, deficit free. It will come as no surprise that this proposal was rejected by the regulator.

UK Coal pleaded that the size of the scheme deficit (£900m on a buy-out basis) meant that if the PPF did not take the scheme in full, it would be forced to enter into an insolvency procedure, putting 2000 jobs at risk.

However, it appears from the regulator's report under s89 Pensions Act 2004 that during discussions, a potential creative solution was developed that improved the insolvency analysis and which meant that UK Coal would avoid an insolvency process and continue to fund the scheme through the PPF, thus improving the position for scheme members.

The end result has not let UK Coal off the hook and should not be seen in any way as a precedent, as the solution reached was very specific to the circumstances at hand and the fact that the regulator and the PPF were involved from the start. No dividends from the mining company to its shareholders until the scheme is fully funded and the scheme having a 75.1% equity stake in the brownfield development company means that the scheme controls the lion's share of the economic interest in the whole business.

This is certainly not a scheme abandonment and will be welcomed by all stakeholders in the UK Coal scheme. Although unusual for the PPF to take on a scheme when the business is continuing to be profitable, it should be encouraging to other businesses which may need to look for flexible ways to deal with a scheme deficit. And, of course, the beneficiaries of those schemes who can perhaps be more confident that the PPF will not simply give in to companies threatening insolvency if the PPF does not take on their pension liabilities.

Jessica Walker is a senior associate in the Restructuring, Bankruptcy & Insolvency group at Mayer Brown.

This piece first appeared on economia

Photograph: Getty Images

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.