Time for pensions equality

I was at an event earlier this week at which James Charrington, chairman of BlackRock in Europe, was castigating those companies that plump up the pay packages of senior executives by making large contributions to their pensions.

His point was that it was inequitable to treat these senior executives differently to the rest of the workforce. BlackRock’s voting guidelines may it clear that they will look very critically at remuneration policies ‘where pension benefits for executives are inconsistent with pension benefits for the wider employee base’.

By coincidence, my next meeting was at the TUC, which has campaigned on this issue for a long time. The most recent edition of its annual PensionsWatch survey, published in September 2015, showed that the average employer contribution to senior executives’ pensions in the FTSE 100 was 34% of salary.

By contrast, the typical employer contribution for a worker in a defined contribution pension scheme is just 6%. In comparison to that figure, it is difficult to see the additional pension contributions to executives as anything other than an attempt to supplement their already generous salaries through sleight of hand.

Although there will always be arguments about whether senior executives’ salaries are fair or deserved, nobody disputes the basic notion that those salaries should be higher than those of their colleagues at lower levels of the company because they shoulder greater responsibilities. But, if those responsibilities have already been factored into their base pay, there is no justification for preferential treatment in respect of other elements of their reward package.

This is not just a matter of pensions. As the ICSA said in its submission to the BEIS Select Committee Inquiry on corporate governance, it is at the very least questionable ‘whether it is appropriate that senior employees have greater opportunity for percentage based benefits – for example in terms of bonus, pension entitlement or share option schemes - or whether these should be open to all employees on the same basis’.

The world’s largest asset manager and the trade unions may not seem like natural allies. But if they can agree on this issue – let alone the radical firebrands at ICSA – then surely everyone else can. Hopefully the Select Committee will use its report to give companies a gentle shove in the right direction.

Before joining ICSA's policy team as a consultant, Chris Hodge was the FRC Director of Corporate Governance.

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