Pensions News (PN) returned from annual leave a few days ago to read that the Pensions Regulator had approved a regulated apportionment arrangement (RAA) (a device through which an employer is able, subject to regulatory approval, to leave its pension liabilities behind with a view, in this case, to them being assumed by the Pension Protection Fund) in relation to the British Steel Pension Scheme.  The RAA applies to Tata Steel UK and forms part of that company’s ceding control of what used to be British Steel in a joint venture with Thyssen Krupp.  The arrangement was approved subject to a number of conditions being met by Tata Steel Group and its approval has, so far, received a guarded welcome from commentators and, particularly, the representatives of the employees who will, for the time being at least, retain their jobs.  The restructuring, PN felt, seemed to be based on a desire to secure the best outcome under what have been difficult circumstances.  Put differently, change was necessary in order to prevent something worse – which would have happened had nobody done anything.

PN spent all of his annual leave in Portugal.  Portugal is a country which PN admires very much for its people (particularly), its natural beauty and its weather (readers will recall that PN resides and works in the North West of England).  PN was dismayed to find that Portugal has or has had a bad case of the fidgets; in essence, the desire to meddle with or restructure something in a way which makes the something worse or at least no better than it was in its pre-meddled-with incarnation. 

In Portugal’s case, it has tinkered with or restructured (as it prefers to say) its system of spelling.  The Portuguese state or that part of the state responsible for spelling (PN has been unable to ascertain whether the Portuguese Government has a department for spelling but he hopes that it does) has decided that, where a word contains one or more letters which are not pronounced, the spelling of that word shall be revised so that the un-pronounced letter(s) no longer feature(s).  There are many examples of how this works but PN will provide one only.  The Portuguese had a word for “actor”.  It was “actor”.  Not all Portuguese persons pronounced the “c” in the Portuguese version of the word “actor” so the word has been revised so that it is spelt “ator”.  PN knows more than one Portuguese national who did and does (he thinks) pronounce the “c” in the word “actor” (when it was a word) and does not feel that she was the only Portuguese citizen who pronounced the word that way.  Why did the Portuguese do this?  Arguably, it was through a desire for simplicity but PN feels that if what people wanted was “simple”, what they got was “simple-minded”.

Readers may recall that, some time ago, the Royal Mail / post office (names that everybody recognised and understood) changed its name, at great expense, to “Consignia” (a name which nobody understood and few people recognised).  This change turned out to be a major case of the fidgets. After a period of what PN can only describe as confusion - as the name change was largely derided by a few people who had nothing better to do and many more who had, a decision was made to replace the name “Consignia” with “Royal Mail TM” (after the Queen had given her permission).  That entity still has problems (see below) but it at least has, once again, a name people understand – albeit having been made a few million pounds worse off by the experience.

The Royal Mail was in the news recently because of pensions.  The news was that the Royal Mail pension scheme’s deficit had increased by £8.5bn over the past twelve months with its accounts showing the scheme’s total liabilities at £46.8bn.  The liabilities in question are taxpayer liabilities and they are taxpayer liabilities because of the way the Royal Mail was privatised in 2013.  Through that transaction, the responsibility to pay benefits which had accrued (or built up) prior to 2012, became or remained a taxpayer liability with post-privatisation benefits being the responsibility of a separate scheme administered by the privatised Royal Mail.  There are many reasons for the deterioration in the pension scheme’s funding position and those reasons apply to most pension schemes which, like the Royal Mail scheme, provide benefits on a salary-related basis.  The reasons include low interest rates (particularly long term interest rates) and continuing improvements in longevity.  Some have pointed to economic uncertainty brought about by the 2016 referendum result and the loss, by the present Government through the loss of its majority, of its control of the process through which this country’s exit from the European Union (EU) will be managed. If PN had time, he would put together an argument as to how the whole project to remove this country from the EU is another case of the fidgets but better writers than him have made the case already; most notably Mr Martin Wolf in the Financial Times.  Mr Wolf has made the case on a number of occasions but, in particular, in an article in 14 July’s edition of that newspaper.  PN is unable to summarise the situation better than Mr Wolf so here’s part of what he wrote at the time: “remember what has happened.  In an unnecessary referendum, a small majority chose an option they could not understand because it had not been worked out.  Thereupon, a new prime minister, with no knowledge of the complexities, adopted the hardest possible interpretation of the outcome. She triggered the exit process in March 2017, before shaping a detailed negotiating position. Some 70 days later, in an unnecessary election, she lost both her majority and her authority”.

PN is generally in favour of changing things; especially where change is made for the better or with a clear plan which outlines what “better” looks like and how it will be achieved.  PN is very much against changing things for the sake of changing them or changing them when there is no tangible prospect of the proposed change bringing about an improvement for anyone.  The new Portuguese spelling “system” appears to be a case in point. When PN was learning Portuguese (something he did some years ago), that country’s system of spelling was not easy to grasp.  It was, however, significantly less opaque than his own language’s system (nobody, for instance, has ever been able to explain to PN why “heard” (a dreadful word) is spelt like “beard” but pronounced like “bird”).  The revised system appears to have gone so far in the wrong direction that it appears to have come all the way back to its starting point but finds itself facing the wrong way (metaphorically).  Which brings us, finally, to a comparable case of the fidgets which threatened to hit the English language not very long ago.  PN recalls an argument which took place on BBC television between an individual who argued in favour of keeping and developing punctuation and a teacher from the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) who argued it should go.  The university teacher argued that, as one does not say or pronounce punctuation, it should be abolished.  Really, he ought to have known better.  Punctuation is not pronounced or spoken because, amongst other things, there is no need to tell the listener about a full stop, comma, exclamation or question mark.  There is no need because the speaker’s intonation, tone and, in some cases, volume does the job. Such devices are unavailable to the writer of English so; punctuation performs an important function and good punctuation performs it more efficiently. On hearing the university teacher, PN made a mental note to advise anyone who asked him (and all members of his immediate family – even if they didn’t) not to study English at MMU.  PN wanted to ask the university teacher either to punctuate the following words or else make sense of them without the punctuation: “Smith had had had Jones had had had had had had had had the teachers approval”.  If you would like the solution to this particular problem, you may have to wait…

Until next time........................