In the mad, mad world of pensions, blue-chip firms rip off their owners. And who are they? Us, actually

There is a huge rumpus in Whitehall and the City over a new accounting rule called FRS17. But please do not stop reading now, because this matters to everybody. What it is really about is whether the government is facing up to the enormous gap - possibly as much as £25bn - between what all of us are saving for retirement and what we ought to be saving.

The aim of this dreadful-sounding FRS17 is to force companies to disclose every year whether their pension funds have sufficient assets to meet obligations to present and future pensioners. And you would think ministers would be in favour of it, since the thrust of financial services reforms over the past few years has been to make financial companies more open and communicative. Gordon Brown and his gang can bore on about this to Olympic standard.

But funnily enough, Alistair Darling, the Work and Pensions Secretary, wants accounting regulators to think again. In a modish reference to the alleged imperative of levelling the playing field in the globalised wall game, he worries that FRS17 is "different from the international accounting board standard" - and therefore bad.

The truth is that he has been nobbled by the blue-chip mafia, the directors of big public companies. They do not like FRS17 because many of their pension funds are in deficit. So what are these intrepid plutocrats doing? Are they topping up their pension funds? Nope. They are closing down their so-called defined benefit or final-salary schemes, the ones that offer guaranteed payments to loyal employees.

The only people laughing are civil servants and other public sector workers, because most of them have their pensions paid out of buoyant tax revenues (local authority workers are the unfortunate exception, since their savings are tied up in the stock market). For the first time since 1979, public service is not all about financial sacrifice.

But we need to go back to first principles: the vast majority of UK shares are owned by ordinary people, via pension funds, life policies and unit trusts. To put it another way, we, the people, are the owners of British public companies.

We want those companies to generate sufficient profits over the long term to provide us with a comfortable retirement. Whether these companies' profits are higher or lower in any given year should be of no importance, compared with the imperative of providing that long-term return.

However, we delegate the management of our investments to fund managers. And - for reasons that in the end defy rational explanation - these managers are obsessed with the idea that companies' earnings should go up in a seamless progression, semester after semester. Putting money into a pension fund is a cost, a drag on profits. So if company directors can avoid making a pension contribution, they will do so - which really is odd, when you think about it, because when all companies are reluctant to make the appropriate contributions, the people who suffer are the owners of the companies, their past and future pensioners.

There was a particularly obscene consequence of this mismatch between pensioners' interests and fund managers' in the 1990s. At the time, the stock market's bull run meant that the value of most pension schemes was greater than was theoretically necessary to fund long-term liabilities. Most company directors saw this as a windfall for their businesses, not for their pensioners. So they announced pensions "holidays", a cessation of their contributions. And - in some cases - they actually removed the surpluses and used the proceeds to strengthen their own balance sheets.

So the blue-chip mafia hates FRS17 because it shows that they had it away with pensioners' assets. And it is a bit rich that they should now be scaling back or closing down the funds "to serve the interests of their shareholders". Who do they think their shareholders are?

Present and future pensioners own UK plc. Yet UK plc has not been listening to them. So I say hooray for FRS17, because it should force the government to confront what is a glaring example of market failure (whose deleterious effects were, by the by, increased in 1997 when Gordon Brown stripped billions from pension funds by changing the taxation of dividends).

The consistent theme of this government's economic policy - if it has such a theme - is that it should intervene in markets when they fail in this way. But intervening to abolish FRS17 would be fatuous. It would simply suppress a symptom of the malaise. We would still, as a nation, be saving too little for our retirement.

As it happens, I am not a sentimentalist about the final-salary schemes whose death knell is being sounded. They are great if you earn £100,000 a year. But if you are a shop-worker on £15,000, half or two-thirds of that at the age of 65 is not going to buy you much dignity.

For those on low incomes, what really matters is how much goes into pension plans. The more that goes in, the better the likelihood of a respectable old age. So there is only one reform that makes any sense, which is to force companies to contribute to the retirement plans of their employees and to oblige all employees to do the same. A system of compulsory pension contributions, the dreaded "taxation by the back door", is necessary. And it is coming just as soon as this government acquires a spine. Oh dear.

Robert Peston is editorial director of QUEST ; www.csquest.com; e-mail rpeston@csquest.com