Monday, 17 September 2012

Rathlin Ferry Saga and the Pensions Ombudsman


By Pippa Stephens | 10 September 2012 |
Financial Times - Pensions Week
[free registration]


The Pensions Ombudsman is based in London so that probably provides greater independence in Northern Ireland matters than if he were locally based

Here are some snippets from the report:

"Mr McCurdy died almost four years ago. Mrs McCurdy took the matter up through Gillan Barr in November 2008. Only in the last few weeks has there been any admission of liability. Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd’s treatment of her will undoubtedly have made a difficult time more distressing.

On 11 June 2012 Stewarts Solicitors belatedly told my office that there was no scheme in place at the time of Mr McCurdy’s death. They accepted that Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd were liable for four times Mr McCurdy’s FPS, being a total sum of £101,668. However, they said:
”I regret that my clients are unable to discharge this sum at this time and my instructions are to raise discussions with the deceased’s solicitors in an effort to agree terms of payment."
In June 2008, Calmac confirmed** to Mr McCurdy that:
 his employment would automatically transfer to Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd on or about the 1 July; and
 pension arrangements would be in place and he would be offered to join the Scheme by his new employer."

Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd is in receipt of a subsidy of over £55,000 per month, administered by the Department for Regional Development and paid for by the tax-payer. It was given 21 days to pay the lump sum plus interest and also directed to pay compensation for "the significant distress and inconvenience caused".

What can a Minister do to relieve some of this distress and inconvenience?

Danny Kennedy, the current DRD minister, has weekly 'stocktakes' with Department officials who inter alia oversee the Rathlin ferry operation and his Special Advisor attends the Department's Weekly Business Review. It seems surprising that there's been no mention of the Ombudsman's Report in the online WBRs since August 1. Will there be a mention of the report in the August minutes of the Departmental Board, a board that appears not to include either the Minister or his Special Advisor.*** Will responsible officials be asked why all of these issues were not satisfactorily dealt with back in 2008? Will independent members of the Board now seek to have best practice adopted in Belfast, best practice as described by HM Treasury?

13. It is of no direct relevance to my determination of the matter that Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd say they are unable to pay. It will be for Mrs McCurdy to decide whether to enforce payment (as if a county court order, as provided for in section 147(5) of the Pension Schemes (Northern Ireland) Act 1993) following my direction below, or instead to agree to an alternative arrangement. .. PO

* Has the mainstream media in Northern Ireland covered the serious issues raised in this report?

** If the relevant Deputy Permanent Secretary was and is responsible for the implementation and supervision of the contract hopefully that name will appear in the paper trail and not just the name of a junior official. DRD officials appear to have been intimately involved in every step of the process and in every hiccup. Is there anything the Northern Ireland Audit Office might have missed?

*** “Secretaries of State should chair their departmental board. Boards should comprise other Ministers, senior officials and non-executive board members, largely drawn from the commercial private sector and appointed by the Secretary of State in accordance with Cabinet Office guidelines. The remit of the board should be performance and delivery, and to provide the strategic leadership of the department.” - Excerpt from (Westminster) Ministerial Code

Added September 19

This and related material has been published on the For Argyll website: RMT and CalMac ferries staff should look at result of 2008 Rathlin Island contract change