MSP David Stewart’s battle for a group of plumbers being chased for enormous sums by the industry’s £2 billion pension scheme has received another knock back from the UK government’s pensions minister.
The Labour MSP is now lodging a complaint with the UK Parliamentary ombudsman and raising the matter as a human rights issue in talks with the Scottish Human Rights Commission next week.
It comes after Stewart’s appeal to UK pensions minister MP Guy Opperman to use the Covid-19 emergency powers to put in place a Moratorium on the enforcement of the debts was turned down.
His 73-year-old constituent Murray Menzies from Inverness is among those hardest hit, with a shock estimated debt demand of £1.2 million from the multi-employer Plumbing & Mechanical Services (UK) Industry Pensions Scheme.
“Torn to pieces”
Facing financial ruin for doing the right thing, he and another 28 retired plumbers have been told they owe astronomical sums that could cost them their homes, businesses and whole life savings.
Complicated but strict annuity requirements mean they have to pay for employers who are nothing to do with them.
Stewart said: “I see this as a human rights issue and I will be taking this both to the UK Parliament’s ombudsman as well as to the Human Rights Commission.”
He continued: “Mr Opperman said all stones were turned to help these people, but no easements could be found. That’s just not on. I have written back to him asking for another attempt to be made to find a specific easement – just to cover this small group of 29 people. This is grossly unfair. These people’s lives have been torn to pieces, no doubt about it. I can’t think of a worse nightmare than a million pound bill landing on your doormat the minute you settle into you armchair in retirement. It’s a scandal, These plumbers have been begging the government for help but so far nothing has been done.”
“Forced to clamber under floorboards in his seventies”
Stewart has also been back in touch this week with the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for Plumbers’ Pensions seeking update.
And he has written again to the Chief Executive of the pensions scheme, Kate Yate, following earlier face-to-face talks this year.
He said: “I’ve asked Ms Yates if the Trustees are exploring ways in which they might restructure the pension scheme to set this small group of mainly retired plumbers free from these debts. Employer debt law mean the pension scheme must issue these debt demands and I can understand why the law was brought it in the first place – to stop companies from being able to walk away from their pension liabilities. But the law can never have intended to place somebody’s savings or home at risk because of an occupational pension scheme.
“My constituent Murray Menzies has been forced out of retirement so that he and his wife can have a bit in the bank for the dreaded day the debt demand is formally issued and the Sherriff’s officers come to his door. All their plans to relax and enjoy their retirement are ruined. Instead of celebrating their Golden wedding anniversary, he’s clambering under floorboards and putting in people’s shower trays. All because he paid into a pension scheme for his employees without knowing it would trigger a massive debt the day he retired. It’s just appalling.”
“We’re going to be made homeless”
Mr Menzies said he had all but given up hope of the Pensions Minister giving any easements to release him and the other 28 plumbers from their debts.
He said: “In his rejection letter to David Stewart Mr Opperman said we plumbers should have been on top of legislation. Does he not understand that most plumbers are just hard working plumbers? Nothing less, nothing more. They’re not lawyers, or accountants or politicians, and most of them are not high flyers in the business world either. It’s soul destroying to realise that we all have to lose our homes and assets, everything we spent our whole lives working for, in order to pay the pensions of people we never even employed. We will be made homeless to ensure that happens. How can that be right?”
“Hold trustees to account”
Garry Forster, spokesperson for the Plumbing Employers Action Group which is supporting Mr Stewart’s actions, said: “It cannot be right nor fair that this small group of retired plumbers are facing bankruptcy through no fault of their own. The pension scheme trustees failed to apply the employer debt laws for 14 years and they need to be held to account for that.”