Norfolk

Bernard Matthews sale 'failed to protect pensions'

Bernard Matthews' headquarters at Great Witchingham, Norfolk Image copyright Geograph/Mark Boyer
Image caption Bernard Matthews employs workers across Norfolk and Suffolk

A private equity firm has been criticised for rejecting a buyout offer for Bernard Matthews that would have protected the firm's pension scheme.

Rutland Partners refused to sell the firm outright to food tycoon Ranjit Boparan last summer, letters released by the Work and Pensions Committee have revealed.

Instead it opted for a pre-pack administration - which "drastically reduced" the amount recoverable by its pension scheme.

This offloaded the pension costs on the state Pension Protection Fund (PPF).

Pre-pack administration arrangements allow a pre-arranged buyer to take on a company's assets, but without liabilities such as its pension deficit.

Bernard Matthews employs workers at Great Witchingham, near Norwich, in Norfolk, and Holton, near Halesworth, in Suffolk.

'Better deal'

"This arrangement delivered a much-improved financial outcome for Rutland Partners, but drastically reduced the amount recoverable by the pension scheme to potentially less than 1p in the pound," the House of Commons committee said.

Frank Field, Labour MP and chairman of the committee, said: "I have confidence that the PPF working with the scheme trustees, will act in the best interests of the pensioners, but it's clear that the former owners passed up a better deal for pension scheme members in favour of lining their own pockets."

Rutland Partners, which took control of Bernard Matthews in 2013, declined to comment.

Proceeds from the £87.5m sale to Boparan Private Office (BPO) included a full payment of £46.4m to lenders Wells Fargo Capital Finance (UK) and PNC Financial Services UK Ltd, and up to £39m to owner Rutland Partners, as part of the pre-pack model arranged by administrators Deloitte last autumn.

The pension scheme, which has 700 members, has been left with a total deficit of £75m.

The PPF, which steps in to protect employees in some benefit schemes when firms go bust, was left to shoulder the financial burden.

The Work and Pensions Committee said the case "raises concerns" over the use of pre-pack administrations as a means to shed responsibility for pension liabilities and transfer them to "the PPF lifeboat".

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