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Threats of Industrial Action as BT Ponders Future of Pension Scheme

Thursday, June 1st, 2017 (7:58 am) - Score 1,606

The Communications Workers’ Union (CWU) has warned BT that it will “use all means up to and including industrial action” if the UK telecoms giant pushes forward with any plan to close the company’s “gold-plated” defined-benefits pension scheme, which could be suffering under a £14bn deficit.

A major strike of vital Openreach engineers and other key staff is currently something that BT would obviously wish to avoid, not least because they’re now in the process of rolling out the next generation of “ultrafast broadband” (FTTP / G.fast) services and need to keep meeting Ofcom’s new regulatory / service quality expectations.

On the other hand many large companies have had similar problems with such schemes and have moved to close or cap them (Royal Mail, M&S etc.). Similarly BT closed their scheme to new entrants in 2001 (i.e. total membership of 300,000, with around 33,000 employees still paying into the scheme), although existing members have continued to build up benefits and this has helped to fuel a surge in the deficit (£7bn at the last review in 2014).

BT’s Q4 (31st March 2017) Results Statement

We have a large funding obligation to our defined benefit (“DB”) pension schemes. The largest of these, the BT Pension Scheme (BTPS or Scheme), represents over 97% of our pension obligations. The BTPS faces similar risks to other UK DB schemes: things like future low investment returns, high inflation, longer life expectancy and regulatory changes may all mean the BTPS becomes more of a financial burden.

Potential impact

The last funding valuation of the BTPS, as at 30 June 2014, provides certainty over scheme funding until the forthcoming valuation, due to start in June 2017, is concluded.

If there’s an increase in the pension deficit at the next valuation date, we may have to increase deficit payments into the Scheme. Higher deficit payments could mean less money available to invest, pay out as dividends or repay debt as it matures, which could in turn affect our share price and credit rating.

We’re considering a number of options for funding the deficit after the next valuation, as at 30th June 2017. These options include considering whether there are alternative approaches to only making cash payments, including arrangements that would give the BTPS a prior claim over certain BT assets.

A spokesperson for BT Group said, “No decisions have yet been made and our union partners and the BTPS Trustee will be involved in discussions about the review … if any changes are proposed, we will consult with our employees before making any final decisions.”

BT has only just begun its latest review of the BTPS and the operator does not expect this process, including negotiations with the CWU, to be completed until the first half of 2018 at the earliest. However we might well hear more from the CWU’s side before that date. Hopefully the two sides will be able to find a solution that doesn’t involve crippling strikes, although it’s difficult to see how BT can resolve the issue without imposing some sort of cap on the scheme.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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35 Responses
  1. wirelesspacman says:

    Given that they closed the DB scheme to new entrants in 2001 (16 years ago), I struggle to see why they cannot/should not continue to support it for existing members. For a profitable company such as BT to do anything else is just grossly unfair in my view.

    1. Bob says:

      Well, because no matter how much money they are putting into it, the black hole just keeps getting bigger. Sooner or later the pension scheme will fail. What’s the best course of action? Take the medicine now, or wait until cardiac arrest?

    2. AndyH says:

      We need to tell people to stop living longer.

    3. Mark Jackson says:

      Logan’s Run :)?

    4. Steve Jones says:

      Whilst the 31,000 existing employees on the scheme will only be a portion of the potential future liability, it will still be significant, and if the pension scheme deficit does grow to £14bn, this will be a huge hit on cash-flow. Ofcom have not allowed historic pension deficits to be taken into account in calculating regulated pricing (regulators in other industries have approached this differently). These deficits are only going to get worse as people live longer and interest and bond rates are artificially suppressed by central bank policies.

      This is in an era when Ofcom are enforcing significant real-term cuts in line rental pricing and demanding better levels of service and fault-fixes as well. They are also, of course, applying very significant price cuts to the GEA-FTTC 40mbps products, not to mention things like dark fibre unbundling, imposition of PIA+ and heavy regulated pricing on the private circuit business. If OR are required to make larger contributions to the pension deficit, then investment could be reduced considerably. Ofcom’s attitude to the GEA-FTTC product is not exactly encouraging to new investment either.

      Of course, BT are far from alone in this. BMW are doing the same thing at the Mini plant, British Airways have pension issues and so on.

      In the extreme I can imagine the BT board might consider floating off the less regulated parts of the business, which are generally much less encumbered with historic pension deficits than is Openreach. In particular, the EE part of the business has not such responsibilities. It might require some form of fixed contribution to buy themselves out of the liability, but I’ll bet somebody is considering it.

    5. NGA for all says:

      @Steve – I think your wrong on the GEA investment. Ofcom’s assessment of the ‘fair bet’ on the first £1bn – 10m premises, shows a healthy ROCE of 15% against the £100 per premise passed invested. Ofcom cannot analyse £2.5bn investment because it does not exist.
      If BT invested more rather than took subsidy while reducing its own commitment you argument might have some merit. BT management are very exposed on this point.

      There might be more sympathy if you argument was restricted to the spectrum holdings, where Government/Ofcom are complicit in pimping spectrum to the highest bidder rather than securing a better deployment.

      BT is already benefitting from cost recovery based on replacement costs for copper where very little is replaced but patched up.

    6. Steve Jones says:


      I am not expecting to see a return on the capital put in by the public sector under BDUK. That’s a red herring that you’ve put up. In the case of the commercial part, I’ve no idea what grounds you have to question how much investment BT has put into the GEA-FTTC product. As for your statement that BT has spent only £1bn on FTTC (including, presumably, whatever capex it has put into the BDUK project), then you don’t support that with sourced figures at all.

      I should also add there’s the truly bizarre approach Ofcom has taken in choosing to regulate only the 40mbps service. If they are meant to be following a cost-based allocation scheme, then surely it should be reflected in all GEA-FTTC products or the 56mbps and 80mbps services will be cross-subsidising the others (the difference in cost of provision to OR of the different speeds is relatively small and reflected in current differentials). What Ofcom appear to have done is favoured the products most often sold by TT & Sky creating what amounts to a £3 a month penalty to BT Retail with not obvious justification related to cost.

      In any event, it’s scant incentive to investment using commercial funds to apply what is a drastic 40% cut in wholesale prices. It’s also none too good for competitors either. VM is not happy for one.

    7. NGA for all says:

      @Steve Jones – It is £1.5bn and the assessment on the first £1bn is Ofcom’s Annex 8 (see wla annexes) assessment where they confirm a 15% ROCE. If they extended their assessment to the full £1.5bn or indeed to the subsidised work the ROCE would be much much higher.

      The returns on regulated assets look way above the non-regulated business.

  2. GNewton says:

    BTs pension scheme deficit in 2016 is thought to be in the region £14bn, up from £10bn in 2015, that’s a big rise!

    Also, BT has gone through difficult times in general: Earlier this month, BT said it will axe 4,000 jobs worldwide. Then there was the accounting scandal in Italy, which led to a £530m writedown, and it has also wiped £8bn off BT’s share price. Profits plummeted 19 per cent to £2.4bn during the 2016/17 financial year.

    How will all of this impact needed investment into broadband technologies (G.fast, fibre, etc)? And when does the crown guarantee come into play?

    1. Steve Jones says:

      It is a big increase in deficit, and it’s largely caused because of reduced rates of return (especially on bond rates – kept down by central banks using tools like QE and keeping interest rated very low). There is also a contribution from increased life expectancy, but much of the latter was dealt with in previous valuations (the actuarial tables used to calculate all these things, which are decided across the whole pension industry, were way out of date as regards life expectancy).

      As far as the Crown guarantee goes, that only goes into play is if BT Group go into bankruptcy. That might seem remote, but it was talked about during the telecoms market crash which followed the 3G auctions. However, long before that happened, there would be a complete clamp-down on capital investment and I would expect the forced sale of many parts of the business unencumbered with significant historical pension deficits. Most obviously, EE but possibly including much of the retail and business services parts of the business.

      In any event, it would be pretty catastrophic as to fixed network investment. There is even talk that the fixed network will be put up as collateral for the pension scheme.

    2. GNewton says:

      @Steve Jones: Thank you for your explanations. So how could needed capital investments into the fixed network infrastructures be protected from this growing pension deficit burden?

    3. TheManStan says:

      They can’t Pensions Act 2004 ensures that companies must fund pension schemes adequately when in deficit, this is in advance of investment.
      As Steve has mentioned the pension dividend tax credit fiasco has undermined the principle of not being taxed on your pension until you retire… and the dividends from shares in your pension was one of the most significant for growing your pension pot…

    4. Steve Jones says:

      I would have thought that one way to protect capital investment is for Ofcom to take into account at least some elements of historic pension liabilities in the regulated prices they set for Openreach. That is an approach taken by some of the other regulators for the privatised utilities. In real terms wholesale line costs have reduced in price markedly since Openreach was created (all the increases have been made on the retail side). Then there is the fairly drastic cut that Ofcom are enforcing on GEA-FTTC.

      Despite a much larger and complex network including the GEA products and greatly expanded private circuits, Openreach’s turnover is lower than when it was created, even before being adjusted for inflation over the last 10 years.

      Of course the pension deficit won’t just hit Openreach, but as they are responsible for the great majority of the capital expenditure and asset base (once EE is stripped out), then any cuts in investment to fund pension deficits will have a disproportionate effect on that part of the business. Whilst they will have their own board to make their own investment decisions, it has not money raising powers of its own and still has to work within an agreed budget including its share of funding the pension deficit (however that is decided – a process which has not been made public and will, I suspect, prove controversial).

    5. TheManStan says:

      To introduce that against historical pricing regimes would result in an overhaul of all pricing of Openreach products and works… of course, there would need to be a consultation… god knows how long that would take…

    6. Steve Jones says:


      Whether or not Ofcom ever decided to allow some element of historically incurred pension deficit payments to be included as part of the operational costs and hence feed into wholesale prices, OpenReach are going to have to make a contribution to that deficit as Ofcom have already admitted when they looked at the restructuring. It will have to be done on some basis, whether that’s on historical employment patterns, head count, total payroll, turnover, operational profit or whatever. I can’t see that the EE part can reasonably be called on for this as it was never part of that business.

      So, whatever happens it’s going to impact on cash-flow and money for OR investment as OR’s operational budget and financial targets are set by BT. I can see howls if investment is reduced to reflect this call on OR’s cash-flow. Previously this was all hidden under group when the profits were consolidated.

    7. GNewton says:

      @Steve Jones: Just a quick question: Is the pension burden with the BT Group as a whole, or just with Openreach? Isn’t the BT Group as a whole serving the pension deficits? The allotment of the pension burdens to different parts of BT according to e.g. historical employment patterns would have only been relevant had Openreach been sold off, to become an independent company. But this is not the case!

  3. Steve Jones says:

    I should add that the point about BT putting up assets as collateral against the pension deficit so that trustees will not demand a large increase in cash injections to reduce the deficit (already £500m a year) is worth exploring. According to The Telegraph there is a real possibility that the pension scheme could have the fixed network put up as collateral. If that was done, then it would, of course, have huge ramifications for any further restructuring that Ofcom may wish to impose as there would be a legal claim on the assets by the pension scheme.

    The Telegraph reports all this, although it’s misleading when it refers to caps places on the benefits of hundreds of thousands of pension scheme members as, short of a retrospective change in the law, the rights of those who are no longer active members are sealed in contract law. The cap on benefits would only apply to active members, and even then their existing accrued benefits are not affected.


    This is all before we get into the game of the Crown guarantee of course, and I’m quite sure the government won’t want to pick up that liability as they’ve enough of state employee pension scheme costs to deal with.

    nb. it also means that those political parties (and one in particular) which wishes to raid company profits and dividends in increased taxes will have to note the impact on pension schemes, including the (relatively rare) funded schemes in the public sector. Gordon Brown did this once, and it was one of the contributory factors to defined benefit pensions started to disappear from the private sector (although demographic issues were more important).

    1. gah789 says:

      The legislation which defines Ofcom’s duties differs from that governing Ofwat and Ofgem. There is no obligation to ensure that BT can finance its network and there is more emphasis on promoting competition. The consequences have been obvious for a decade but BT’s resistance to splitting off the fixed line network has stymied any possibility of a more rational arrangement. First, BT’s global services operations and later the Crown Guarantee were seen as a get out of jail card, so that tackling the pension deficit was given low priority. The result has been a political and business fudge that has progressively deepened the hole that BT is in. From an external investor’s perspective BT is worth no more than the expected value of dividends that may be paid before it goes under or is completely split up.

      One change is that as legislation is now interpreted, putting money into the pension fund has clear priority over any other use of the company’s cash flow – before either investment or shareholders. That creates a huge (implicit) conflict. Any cash return on investment will, in the first instance, go to the pension fund, so shareholders have no incentive to agree to large scale investment beyond that necessary to extend current dividends. Thus, the question now is whether it is in the interest of the BT pension fund to forego greater contributions in return for receiving most/all of the benefits of additional investment. While Ofcom sees its primary duty as to promote competition, the answer to this question is probably no. In fact, BT’s current investment promises seemed intended to boost the profile of the management and keep politicians happy but will be eroded as much as possible.

      The best solution, again obvious for some time, would be to transfer the fixed line network to the BT pension fund and give Ofcom a regulatory duty to ensure that it can finance an efficient level of investment. The residue of BT would be similar to Centrica with a large mobile network playing the role of Centrica’s investment in upstream gas & power generation. Sadly, the likelihood of this happening except in a crisis seems very low.

    2. Steve Jones says:

      The Crown Guarantee is almost a complete irrelevance to the BT as a company as it only comes into play if the company is wound up. That’s hardly a get out of jail free card for the company (although it is of great value to the pensioners of course).

      As far as to what Ofcom where set up to do, then it was certainly to encourage competition. However, Ofgem were also set up to do that, albeit they recognised the local gas and electric distribution networks couldn’t be replicated cost-effectively.

      When it comes to Ofcom regulating prices they do have a legal duty to only do so when there is SMP and, further, that when they do so they have to do it on a cost-orientated basis. They simply are not allowed to set arbitrary pricing regimes.

      As for BT divesting itself of the network, then I can see it going the other way. BT will float off those parts of the business which do not have much historic exposure to the pension deficit (which is largely staff inherited from the pre-privatisation days as prior to 1984 there really wasn’t much but the phone business). That would leave the heavily regulated bits with the pension burden. No doubt if Consumer, Global and so on were floated there would have to be a one-off payment, but the might well do better unencumbered by the liability. That would fit neatly with your idea, but there are manifest problems, not least that I think Ofcom would be fundamentally opposed to seeing a BT which was essentially not much more than Openreach and BT Wholesale with the sole responsibility for the pension liability, even if there were large, one-off payments. Ofcom has been opposed to considering the historic pension deficit costs as part of regulated pricing. Whether they can legally prevent BT Consumer, Global, EE and so on being floated off, I don’t know.

      Then there are the pension trustees who have plenty of legal channels should they see two-thirds of the business being floated off.

  4. Ultraspeedy says:

    “… need to keep meeting Ofcom’s new regulatory / service quality expectations.”

    Let them strike and then let Ofcom (or rather order them to) give Openreach a new record fine for not reaching the new levels of regulatory and service. Unfortunately at the moment the country (no matter who we end up with in charge) seems to be full of wet dish clothes, which do and or/will refuse to intervene in petty strikes. BA in years gone by then the NHS a year or two ago and now train companies as examples.

    Bring back iron rule i say where these companies workers can not get away holding the government and public to ransom. Enough of petty employees causing disruption to millions for the benefit of their own pockets.

    1. Jonny says:

      How would any of that lead to a positive result?

    2. Ultraspeedy says:

      Im not sure what you mean, is it better to let organisations that are in the public services sector continue striking and screwing things?

    3. FibreFred says:

      So if your pension was at risk you’d just happily plod on?

      It’s all too easy to snipe from the sideline when it doesn’t affect you

    4. Ultraspeedy says:

      Most people nowadays have to arrange their own pension scheme or pay into a government one, i do not see why they should be different or think they are special.

      Its nothing to do with snipping from the sidelines either, you do not hear me crying or whining i never got Paternity Leave and Pay back in 2002 when i had a child. Men today get 2 Weeks paid Paternity, should i go on strike cos i missed out on something other employees are now getting?

      The BT pension scheme is a complete shower, the sooner its killed off the better.

    5. Jonny says:

      Was paternity leave in your contract in 2002 and then subsequently denied to you?

    6. alan says:

      Anyone that thinks striking solves things obviously has not paid attention to history. They need to hop in their time machine and head back to the 1970s where they belong. The miners did not win, Firefighters did not win, Train companies strikes never achieve anything and neither will this. If you have such an issue with any job you are in go find another, be thankful you are employed in a job that is typically long term employment.

    7. Ultraspeedy says:

      Paternity leave is a legal right for every employee. It has been since 2003, it does not have to be in a contract. So ill ask again. Should i go on strike because others are getting more than i did for having a child?

      If you still cant grasp the simple concept im attempting to communicate it rather simple even for the simple. Terms, conditions, and benefits of employment change. Going on strike because you feel hard done by is for the stupid.

      Hell perhaps the entire country should all be on strike using your *cough* logic because the government from 2019 want to raise the state pension age for both men and women to reach 66 by 2020.

      The Government is also planning further increases, which will raise the state pension age from 66 to 67 between 2026 and 2028……….

      If you still cant get it. You better get striking RIGHT NOW if your employment contract says retirement age is 65 to make your pointless voice heard. “YOUR RIGHT” to retirement at 65 is a risk and will be “DENIED” to you.

      Got it now “Change happens deal with it”.

    8. Peter says:

      It does work
      Many years ago when we were on strike a director said to me that the way were going the company would go bust.
      Good I said -I’ll get another job easily – you won’t
      The Directors got the message…

    9. Ultraspeedy says:

      “….a director said to me that the way were going the company would go bust.
      Good I said -I’ll get another job easily – you won’t
      The Directors got the message…”

      The only message i get from that is your director is weak, and you think companies will cave to your almost terrorist like demands. Im afraid if you think that is the norm you are very much mistaken. Perhaps you have read one too many fairy-tales.

      My response as a director to you would had been if you think you can find another job so easily here is your change……. promptly followed by your P45 in you hand for gross insubordination. Would had saved you the bother of striking and me the bother of worrying about it.

      I think you will find that is more how it goes in the real world along with unions discussing the terms and not the common employee. If it were you rather than a union discussing terms with directors thats even more funny and shows the weak position that you and not what they were in. Hilarious work of fiction though!

    10. alan says:

      Must of been a tiny company to A) Have you as a employee discussing striking with directors and B) for them to be worried some strike would make them go bust. I suggest it would affect your pocket and ability to pay thing like bills waaaay before they would have financial worries. Or were they so dim they actually paid or were going to pay your wage while on strike?

  5. fastman says:

    ultraspeedy you obviously have little understanding of the number of schemes operated as part of BT Pension scheme — (there are actually — Secion, A, B and C (C closed in 2001 I think0 dependant when you joined you are either in the schemes section I think closed to new entrants in think in 1974 Section B closed to new entrants in 1986 and section C closed to new entrants I think in 2001 (so to a be a Section B Schemer you been in the business for in excess of 30 year — there are significant B schemers in Openreach — probably more than in other parts of the organisation – I would assume that you would be concerned if something you had contributed to in excess of 30 years was about to potentially change again having changed in 2010 (b Schemer less benefit and needing to work another 5 years) and greater contribution is my understanding

    1. Ultraspeedy says:

      Surely if there have been multiple changes throughout the years that highlights what i said
      “Change happens deal with it”.

      Any Openreach employee that thinks for a second a large company is going to keep throwing money into a black hole, and things will stay as they are, even if they strike, is in for a reality shock.

      I personally do not see the entire Openreach workforce even taking part in a strike, as you mention there are a mix of employees from different eras with different terms to their pensions already. Combine that with the large amount of ex-forces personal Openreach have supposedly hired in recent years and striking is not in that type of persons nature to even begin with.

      It will be a few weeks of whining from a few whiners, nothing more. I doubt it will even cause much disruption, half the time Openreach/BT send some kellys or Quinn clown out to problems and installs anyway.

  6. DTMark says:

    I thought that we all knew by now that final salary pension schemes were never mathematically possible.

    The government knew this as early as the 1970s if not before, and successive governments have dodged the issue while back in the day creating leaflets for these schemes with wording like “your benefits are guaranteed” when indeed this was never the case.

    Given that BT has had a natural and actual monopoly in so much of the country for decades, and doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being a forward-thinking, efficient, effective company that invests – indeed quite the reverse – I’m not seeing how more “efficiency savings” are going to be made when about 15 people have to come out in two or more vans over weeks with a cherry picker with one trying to locate workable pairs in the knackered old line plant while the others stand around chatting.

    Ah, the answer lies in not regulating and allowing half the country with no access to VM to be fleeced, yes? Well, no. BT would lose so many customers that a price increase wouldn’t offset this.

    So BT needs to have its infrastructure heavily subsidised by the taxpayer and also to have no competition in order to still have little to no chance of paying all those pensions.

    Is it like this in other countries, or is it purely the unrealistic final salary scheme that saddles BT in this country while other countries weren’t so daft as to implement one?

    1. GNewton says:

      @DTMark: BT is not a normal commercial company because of its history of a past state owned entity. I think Steve Jone’s proposal of selling off its non-core units like BT Global Services, EE, BT Sports etc to settle its pension debts once and for all has some merit. The resulting remnant BT would basically be just made up of Openreach plus a wholesale and possibly a retail layer focusing on its core businesses, having more funds for doing long needed network infrastructure investments.

      At the moment its pension burden is like a ticking time bomb.

    2. Ultraspeedy says:

      “I thought that we all knew by now that final salary pension schemes were never mathematically possible.”

      Lets be honest numbers involving anything BT have never been the organisations strong point.

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