INM leaves wriggle room in pensions debacle

Varadkar to consult Attorney General on issue as Willie O’Dea raises it with Taoiseach

INM  chairman Leslie Buckley:  “not appropriate for me to comment because the company and the trustees are in consultation”.  Photograph: Alan Betson

INM chairman Leslie Buckley: “not appropriate for me to comment because the company and the trustees are in consultation”. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

When Independent News & Media (INM) decided it would effectively wind up its defined benefit pension scheme by ceasing payments, did it misjudge the backlash?

Is is understood there was robust discussion at an INM management meeting on Tuesday over the public relations disaster that has ensued over the pensions issue and the fallout of a proposed bid for Newstalk.

The pension proposal, which would see deferred members’ benefits hacked by 70 per cent of their original value, has now become a political issue. Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar is consulting the Attorney General, while Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea raised it in the Dáil on Tuesday with Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Rather curiously, neither man named INM. However, it was clear which company they were talking about when they discussed companies shutting down schemes “on a whim”.

It was clear it was turning into a public relations disaster for INM even before the politicians jumped on the bandwagon. At its extraordinary general meeting on Monday, INM chairman Leslie Buckley was assailed by some shareholders over the proposed move to kill off the scheme.

Outside the building protesters held up placards, while inside Buckley maintained a pained expression as he was accused of treating the scheme’s trustees with “contempt”.

Then a curious thing happened. Buckley told one of his verbal assaulters that “I and your board understand your concerns . . . it is not appropriate for me to comment because the company and the trustees are in consultation . . . ”

Minutes later, INM chief financial officer Ryan Preston said something similar: “I can’t comment because there is no agreement with the trustees.”

Until that point, the whole thing had seemed a done deal. Buckley and Preston, however, seemed to be leaving themselves some wriggle room. If the matter has been finalised, why the need for “consultation” or “agreement”?

There may be no deal and the trustees may end up going to the High Court.

That aside, perhaps the vista of a profitable, cash-rich company being seen to effectively pull the plug on the life savings of workers nearing retirement is too gruesome, even for the cash-hungry major shareholders of INM to consider.