A Carillion warning bell on pensions

The early news today was dominated by the well-placed press release from the Department for Work and Pensions Select Committee that Carillion had been ‘trying to wriggle out of pension obligations for last ten years‘, in the words of Frank Field, the Committee chair.

There is a lot to be written yet about the demise of Carillion, and the parliamentary authorities have tackled the pensions aspects of the issue with an appropriately forensic gusto befitting a private company falling into the arms of the public-backed Pensions Protection Fund to the tune of just under £1bn (or, perhaps, more). Today’s news was sparked by the release by the DWP of a response to some of the Committee’s questions by Robin Ellison, Chair of the Carillion pensions trustee company responsible for six of the company’s schemes, and who appears in person tomorrow to give evidence to the Committee. The letter’s well worth a look, even to non-experts, and there are several things to pick up from it although I wanted to focus here on just two headlines:

1. The trustees were seeking to secure higher contributions (it looks like in terms of deficit repair contributions) at each of the 2008, 2011 and 2013 scheme valuations based on advice they had received about the company’s covenant (basically, the extent to which it is good for its money and reflecting in reality a delicate balance of interests). However, they had been unable to secure agreement with the company and the Pensions Regulator decided not to exercise its powers to intervene.

2. The trustees were asked – and they agreed – formally to defer contributions to the scheme (again, it seems likely that these are deficit contributions although they might also be normal ones) in September 2017 to allow the company to secure more deficit funding, with these contributions due to be paid, with interest, by the end of January 2018. Of course, the company’s compulsory liquidation means that this won’t now happen.

The current Prime Minister has been voicing a few, superficially welcome slogans about what she will do in response to re-balance boardroom excesses (including on pensions) with the interests of hard-working employees. Aside of the speculation about a leadership challenge, however, I suspect that Theresa May is not particularly good for her covenant either, as evidenced not least by the backsliding from the earlier commitment to worker directors.

The Ellison letter is shocking for what it reveals about the lackadaisical way that workers’ pension schemes – conveying, let’s not forget, deferred pay – are treated at corporate level.

Firstly, it should not be possible for the Pensons Regulator to decide, repeatedly, not to intervene in a lack of agreement between scheme trustees and a scheme sponsor (such as Carillion) over how much the company is required to pay in contributions into the scheme, especially on the basis of technical advice about the strength (or weakness) of the covenant. Whatever the strengths of the regulatory regime in terms of the ability of the Pensions Protection Fund to absorb Carillion, TPR is going to cop it on this one, and not least from Frank Field’s Committee.

Secondly, in particular when set against this sort of regulatory backdrop, it should be possible neither for a company to hold the trustees of its pension scheme to ransom over a proposal to defer contributions to secure loan financing; nor for the banks involved to require (or appear to require) such a deferral before they will consider getting involved. Here, the trustees had little choice but to agree to the proposal given that the failure to secure the loan would have brought them several more immediate problems: the deferral is not their fault. It is, however, the fault of the financial industry which sees workers’ pension schemes, and the commitments that companies enter into in relation to them, as inconvenient irrelevancies. The upshot has been that Carillion has treated its pension schemes – whose aim is to provide income in retirement for Carillion’s workers – as a corporate and financial plaything in a very similar way to how Robert Maxwell used Mirror Group Newspapers pension schemes as collateral for loans to his business empire. It seems we have learned very little despite over 25 years of regulation.

At a time when the pensions industry needs to rebuild the confidence of pensions savers, including the young, the collapse of Carillion is a disaster for the workers who are directly involved and who will have to take a haircut on their pensions. More than that, however, it’s a disaster in terms of what it says about the continued inability of the regime within which schemes operate to prevent the manipulation and the abuse of pension schemes before problems arise. Any government worth its salt should be paying urgent and specific attention to the consequences of that.

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Every Day Is (Not) Like Sunday

I was interested to see that the trial Sunday opening of An Lanntair, the arts centre in Stornoway, has made at least the local pages of the BBC website. The question of Sunday opening is a major trial for our northern cousins up on Lewis and Harris and the issue has been extensively chewed over recently on the blog of Hebrides Writer (a post on which I also commented directly last week). (Interestingly, Katie’s post on the An Lanntair trial got a lot more reaction than her excellent post a year ago on the LGBT History month exhibition at the same venue.)

Katie’s views on the issue were set out at length and she makes a number of points, among them that the consultation has been poorly handled, not least with regard to the concerns of staff working at the centre; and on the potential damage to the link between art and faith.

As a committed trade unionist, you’ll find no argument from me on the need for consultation on issues affecting staff to be handled properly – and I too remember Usdaw’s involvement in the ‘Keep Sunday Special‘ campaign in England and Wales (Scotland has no such laws on Sunday trading) in the 1980s. Usdaw’s involvement was founded on the specific concern that Sunday opening was a threat to workers’ rights not least in terms of undermining Sunday working premia – an issue on which, I suspect, it will have been proved substantially right, at least outside Usdaw-recognised workplaces.

On the issue of the link between arts and faith, I’m not so sure. Artists surely want to get their work out and, in the example to which Katie points, potentially refusing to collaborate with an arts organisation looks a spectacular example of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, aside of the issue that a publicly-funded organisation ought to be there for all the community, including those of different faiths and, of course, none at all. But, more than that, we see things a little differently down here at the southern end of the Hebrides. A predominantly Catholic island, South Uist has no problems with the Co-op being open on a Sunday (right up until 10pm), and we have a swimming pool and a gym (on Benbecula – an island where religious affiliations are mixed) that are open, too (and, judging by the noise coming from the pool today, people were having a whale of a time). But no-one is going to tell me either that my hard-working crofting neighbours who take the time away from their sheep and cattle to pack out the local church on a Sunday are not properly Christian; or that South Uist doesn’t produce music worth listening to, as evidenced by Ceòlas Uibhist’s plans to build on these traditions with a new venue celebrating Gàidhlig music, dance and cultural heritage. I doubt – although I don’t precisely know – that the issue of Sunday opening of Cnoc Soilleir has been much debated within Ceòlas as it finalises its plans (and I fully expect it to be open). And neither is it about Gàidhlig itself, South Uist having a slightly higher percentage of Gàidhlig speakers than everywhere on Lewis other than Barvas – itself an important point in terms of the challengers to customs and traditions.

So the link between art and faith is not as simple as all that, and, while we should always be sensitive around issues of cultural heritage, the issue up at An Lanntair is really about a rather narrow version of interpretations of the Christian faith. I don’t think I’m missing the point here – the culture is (very) different on these two islands but Gàidhlig psalm singers sing from the heart and from an expression of their personal faith in their God: and I don’t believe that, were the arts centre, or the swimming pool, or the shops, to be open on a Sunday up on Lewis and Harris, that this will make that singing or that faith burn any less brighter.

The picture of today’s An Lanntair pickets on the BBC website story is illustrated with a biblical quote (from the Book of Exodus) about keeping the Sabbath Day holy, written in the pre-Christian era and for people for whom the Sabbath would have been (and still is, of course) Saturday, not Sunday. There’s an irony there which is not lost in the shift to Sunday as the holy day for Christians. Despite being a non-churchgoer myself, Sunday still seems to me to have a different character, and to be a day of rest, regardless of whether the shops and the swimming pool are open or not, and that’s been true regardless of when I lived right in the centre of Perth or here in a remote South Uist community. Sunday opening doesn’t define faith – your God does. And there is surely time and room for both, even on a Sunday. Or, indeed, a Saturday.

A tale of two birds

My favourite armchair is located adjacent to our east-facing lounge window, from where I can look out over the bay at Kilaulay just about thirty metres to my right and observe the coming and going of the tides, the constantly changing colours of the water and the sky, the view across the Eabhal on North Uist, up to the mountains of Harris (on a good day) and across to McLeod’s Tables and the Cuillins on Skye. As well as the ups and downs of the lives of the bird population – a variety of shore birds, largely, as well as a variety of farmland birds and our ever-present, and thriving, gang of starlings.

Treating myself to a morning on Twitter, as a result of an attack of the lurgy (a touch of Australian Flu, undoubtedly) getting on top of my other plans, I became aware at the edge of my vision of a large bird making steady, slightly laboured, progress southerly down the bay, level with my eyeline sitting down. Glancing up, and taking in the gull which was tracking it at a somewhat respectful distance, my first thought was ‘Oh, grey heron’, before I became aware of its reddish-brown colour… and then, as the chills ran down my spine and my eyes opened wider (probably my mouth also fell open, too, although I couldn’t comment), I became aware of the mightily powerful hooked beak at the front end, and then the white tail feathers at the back as it disappeared from my view, me looking backwards over my shoulder. Not a heron, then. We do get regular sightings both of buzzards and also hen harriers but this was clearly much, much bigger. White-tailed eagle, surely. Almost dropping the laptop as I leapt out of my seat, I dashed through the house to the bedroom, flinging open the window (and paying suitably scant attention to Aussie Flu) to get a better view… but nothing. It had gone. The rest of the local bird life continued without a great deal of bother – itself something of a marker since white-tails are largely, though not exclusively, birds of carrion rather than hunters of live prey. My look at it had probably totalled little more than a second, of which the first 0.25 was spent thinking it was a heron (and thus no time for photos, though my camera is usually on the ledge beside my binoculars, and my RSPB Handbook, specifically to help with bird ID).

Amateur birder that I am, I tried to recall exactly what I’d seen as well as the scene itself – recognising that sometimes my assessments and judgments are formed by what I have seen, and sometimes the reverse. But I’m fairly sure of what I saw: and, luckily for me, the Outer Hebrides birds website records an adult white-tail this morning at Baleshare, a little to the north of here as the eagle flies. So I’m taking that as confirmation.

It’s the first white-tail I’ve seen here in Ardivachar – though I know that there are white-tails and golden eagles further south on South Uist, with the hills and terrain being territorially more suited to both, although white-tails are also happy around farmland and, of course, the coast since fish is a major part of their diet. I’ve seen a white-tail before – both at a bird of prey demonstration (though static that day) and also from the little boat heading out of Portree harbour on Skye (though it was the ‘Lady B’ back in 2008), where the birds nest on the cliffs just to the south of the town. But that time – when a gull was also paying close attention – there was a very high chance of seeing one (and there was a bonus sighting not only of Sammy the Seal but harbour dolphins that day, too); this time, my sighting of this most majestic of birds – the UK’s largest bird of prey, with a massive 2m wing span – was in the absolute wild. Just for a second, or so.

A couple of hours later, I’m watching from the same spot (still hoping my white-tail would return) some oystercatchers and a few black-headed gulls, as well as starlings and redwings, poking about for worms on the grassy strip between the end of our garden and the shoreline, the tide being in retreat. It’s unusual to see shore birds do this except at this time of year and I don’t know whether it’s because food supplies are scarce at this time or whether they are looking for extra nutrients ahead of the breeding season. Probably the former. Noticing that one of our little population of redwings – a thrush-like migratory bird and winter visitor from northern Europe which is unusual in that it tends to move around rather than migrate to and from a particular spot – was scattering around the top of the picnic table, I popped out with a little extra help (some berry-flavoured suet) when I noticed one of its brothers lying on the thin strip of concrete path that runs around the house; quite dead, and recently so. Given its location, it must have fallen dead from a perch on the roof or chimney, perhaps succumbing to the winter cold (although it looked in good condition); or, alternatively, it might have been driven, sparked by fear and panic, into the window, a fate of many birds which break their necks on contact with the glass (although there was no tell-tale mark on the glass itself).

What to do? It had no BTO ring, so there was nothing formal to report, leaving the two choices of scooping it up and putting it in the dustbin; or returning it to the ground, perhaps a little softer than the unforgiving concrete on which I had found it. Of course, I chose the latter, placing it on the croft land outside the house where the energies that had given it such vitality in life could, in death, give nourishment to something else in the complex food chain. Nature is self-sustaining (when not interfered with by humans, that is) and a noble death for any animal is perhaps that it may then subsequently play it role and take its place in nourishing what comes after it. Including humans too, I might venture.

Two photos to bookend the day

Firstly, this morning’s sunrise (yes, dear reader: I do occasionally manage to catch one) was spectacular: this was taken at 08:34 when the orange colours were at their most intense, contrasting with the silhouetted infrastructure and the foothills of Thacla, looking south-east from our lounge window:

IMG_7481 (Custom)

Sunrise was at 09:07 for us, although the sun didn’t poke its head above Thacla for another 25 minutes or so after that (just before it did, there was the most gorgeous light blues and silvers and mid greys of the sky and clouds, with the oranges having faded to the most gentle of lemons – given my title here, that one will have to wait a bit longer to see the light of day…). And the silence being broken by the whistled song of a single blackbird (to confirm the impression I had of a few posts ago, I have seen a couple of blackbirds skittering around our land, one – a young male, brown at the front end and black at the back – taking a lengthy rest on the bottom bar of our fence just yesterday).

After all this natural drama, an exciting day of pensions followed, competing towards the end with my view from the west-facing office window, looking out over the croft buildings and houses of our neighbours, this one (actually a composite of two snaps) looking south-west and west taken at 16:22 and with the buildings deliberately under-exposed to highlight the colours in the sky:

January sunset 1

As early in January as this, it’s good to see light in the western sky stretching out well after five o’clock, too. The year is on the move and seeing (and hearing) simple evidence of that is both heartening and refreshing to the soul.