Tata Steel signs new pensions deal

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Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Steel company Tata has formally announced it is to separate its UK pension scheme from the business.

It could mean a potential merger between the Indian-owned firm and the German steel producer ThyssenKrupp is more likely to move forward.

The £15bn British Steel Pension Scheme (BSPS) has been a significant barrier to any agreement.

Tata has been in negotiations with pension regulators and trustees of the scheme.

A deal was done between unions and the company that would see reduced benefits for current employees, but the decision would affect all members of the pension scheme including the many thousands already retired.

Other similar pension agreements have seen the companies involved pay money into the fund as well as giving a stake in the ongoing business to the new pension providers.

Image caption

The Tata workforce, in August 2017

About 8,000 people are employed by Tata Steel across England and Wales, including 3,500 in Port Talbot. But there are 130,000 steel pension scheme members across the UK.

Tata Steel UK has offered to pay £550m into its now-closed pension scheme and give the fund a 33% stake in its UK business.

It means Tata would no longer have any responsibility for the pension scheme.

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Future pension increases for current and retired steelworkers will be less under the new scheme – but there will be no reduction in the lump sums they have already built up.

But if they had gone into the pension protection fund (PPF) – the pension lifeboat – they would have lost more money.

All members of the British Steel pension scheme will now be invited to transfer to the new scheme.

Thousands of workers voted to back the deal in February.

Koushik Chatterjee, Tata Steel’s group executive director, said it had been a long and detailed process but this was an “important milestone in Tata Steel UK’s journey towards a sustainable and enduring future”.

He added: “Considering the continued challenges in the global steel industry as well as the uncertain global politico-economic environment, the regulated apportionment arrangement (RAA) presents the best possible structural outcome for the members of the British Steel pension scheme and for the Tata Steel UK business.”

Trade unions Community, GMB and Unite said: “For over a year our members have feared for their security in retirement, and this announcement helps to bring that uncertainty to an end.”

But they added that members had been “extremely disappointed at the unacceptable lack of communication” in recent months.

“This has to change immediately,” said the unions in a statement. “The company and the trustees must remember they are dealing with people’s long term future, their life savings, and their family’s financial security; it is vital members are given all the support that they need.”

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Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Analysis by Brian Meechan, BBC Wales business correspondent

Tata had been warning for years that its business in the UK was under threat.

It blamed falling steel prices as well as high energy costs and business rates in the UK compared to many other EU countries.

Pensions was not one of the main reasons it gave for its concerns but it clearly was an issue.

The company attempted to radically reduce the benefits its scheme provided but that was seen off with the threat of strike action by unions.

Less dramatic changes to pensions were agreed instead.

When Tata announced it was selling its UK operations, it started to see action in areas it had long been complaining about.

The UK government introduced financial help for heavy energy using industries like steel.

EU tariffs were placed on cheap steel imports from China and Russia.

Then as you can see from the chart above, prices started to rise; the Port Talbot plant became more efficient and the drop in the value of the pound made selling overseas easier.

The dispute over pensions took many twists along the way including an aborted attempt to change the law for the Tata scheme that many felt would set a dangerous precedent.

What has now been agreed instead is highly unusual.

Tata will still have some responsibilities over the huge £15bn pension fund but it will now be expected to stand on its own two feet with an injection of £550 million to help plug its black hole and a third stake in the company’s UK operations for the new scheme.

It paves the way for a merger deal between Tata Steel and its German rival, Thyssenkrupp.

Whether that deal is actually good for the future of Port Talbot is still a hotly contested point.

The pension changes along with the tackling of issues like energy costs and cheap imports put Tata’s UK operations – which are now largely based in Wales – on a more solid foundation.

However, the world is still making far more steel every year than it needs.

China still has newer steelworks as well as lower labour and energy costs so will remain fiercely competitive.

Tata’s promised future investment in Port Talbot is tied to its performance.

The immediate danger may have receded but there are still many challenges ahead.

Lesley Titcomb, chief executive of The Pensions Regulator said: “We do not agree to these types of arrangements lightly but after several months of robust negotiations in this case, we believe that it is the best possible outcome for everyone involved in what is a very difficult situation.”

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