Sinking into debt: Plumbing businesses face ruin over pension scheme liabilities

Len Newman, who worked as a plumber for 45 years, is one of those affected Credit: ITV News

The pensions minister is being urged to act to protect hundreds of plumbers who face the prospect of bankruptcy due to the worsening state of an industry wide-pension scheme.

The trustee of the Plumbing Pensions scheme has informed a series of small businesses that they face unexpected, potential liabilities running into millions of pounds.

Many of the businesses are unincorporated and as such their personal wealth and lifetime savings are at risk.

Len Newman worked as a plumber for 45 years. Trading as LJ Newman, he took on an apprentice and, when qualified, enrolled him in the multi-employer defined benefit pension scheme.

In 2015 Len retired and stopped making contributions. Then in April this year he was told that he was liable as a former employer for a potential Section 75 Debt which, he calculates, stands at around £80,000.

"The letter dropped through the letter box saying 'about employers' debt' and that was the first time I'd ever heard of it," he told ITV News.

"I was devastated, absolutely devastated. We're basically living on the state pension for me and my wife, plus a small private pension."

Len says the only way he can raise £80,000 is by selling his house.

The Plumbing Pensions defined benefit scheme was set up 40 year ago and has 35,000 members, of which one third are drawing retirement income.

In the past, more than 4,000 employers have paid into the scheme but in recent years their numbers have dwindled.

A change in the pensions law in 2005 has effectively left a minority of them on the hook for the scheme's deficit which, on a buy-out basis, currently stands at around £1 billion.

The pension trustee has written to 800 plumbers, alerting them to their potential obligation to help fund the scheme.

We've seen letters from plumbers to the government, expressing their anxiety that they will lose everything.

One small business in Scotland writes: "I have been given an Section 75 estimated debt on April 5th 2014 and it's a staggering £850,000!

"I have been told that of course the financial market that relates to pension annuities, gilts, bonds, interest rates etc is materially worse since 2014 ... In 2017 I'm fully expecting this 'debt' estimate to be way in excess of £1,000,000. The net worth of our company is approx £150,000."

Another "family plumbing business" says it had four people in the Plumbing Pensions scheme between 2000 and 2011.

"We were never told about the Section 75 debt ... we are not a limited company and have been told by Plumbing Pensions that our debt could result in the loss of all our personal assets."

Baroness Ros Altmann has told ITV News that when she was a government minister she pushed for a change in the law.

"I kept asking my officials, what are going to do about it but there was no sense of urgency. I don't get the sense that the government understands how dreadful this is for the people who are going through it and they really do need to," she said.

"These plumber paid into the scheme, they paid what the trustees asked them to pay over time and they had no idea that they weren't paying enough for their legal obligations. All of a sudden they are finding out very late in the day, and far too late for them to do anything about it.

She said she had heard from some of those affected.

"One or two have already had a nervous breakdown over it and I did have an indication that someone had taken their life because they just couldn't cope with the thought that they were going to be made bankrupt as a result of doing the right thing," she said.

"I urge the government and the new ministers to take this seriously and to get on with sorting it out".

The trustee of the Plumbing Pensions scheme has informed many small businesses they face potential liabilities Credit: ITV News

The trustee of the pension scheme has a legal duty to protect the interests of the members and to pursue Section 75 employer debt.

But the chief executive, Kate Yates, admits the legislation is unfair and it too is lobbying the government for change.

A statement from the Trustee said: "The Trustee is concerned about the pressure this places on small businesses owners if they are obliged to meet unexpected debts which dwarf their ability to pay. A solution must be found."

The Department for Work and Pensions told ITV News that this is a "unique situation" and it is working on a solution.

As it stands, however, it cannot give Len or anyone else a reassurance that their debt will be forgiven.

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