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

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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