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Gordon's fast one

Comment

UK consultancy, along with the rest of the country, is just waking up to the true impact of Gordon Brown's appropriation of billions of pounds from the nal salary pension funds of British business.

Civils consultants are sitting on a deficit of £800M according to gures from Barclays and the total for the UK's top 200 companies is a staggering £26bn, The Times tells us.

It is not all the chancellor's fault. On the whole, most of us are living longer - up to 20 years more than the actuaries expected. The rules for working out what the pension liability is over the life of each company pensioner have been changed to take this into account, pushing up the pension debt further.

Even without this re-calculation, Brown's decision to tax pension fund dividends 10 years ago is costing fims with final salary schemes an estimated extra £4,000 per employee to replace the money taken.

Not surprisingly an awful lot of final salary schemes have shut their doors in the past few years. Atkins was the most recent to bite the bullet. But it, and everyone else with either closed or running schemes, has to make sure there are sufficient funds in the pot to pay out pensioners over the next 70 years.

Because of new accounting rules that 'debt' now sits on the balance sheet for all to see.

And the pensions regulator wants rms to pay off the debt over the next nine years.

Atkins says it will be ploughing in £140M over four years; Scott Wilson has poured £23M, a third of the funds it raised from its recent oatation, into its pension hole. Every other firm with deficits will be forced to do the same.

Fortunately consultancy is in a healthy state with unprecedented levels of work and earnings. But profits from the boom are only available to use once.

When they are tucked away in a pension pot that's it.

So it is understandable that consultancy bosses are a bit grumpy about having to use money, which could be employed developing the business and improving international competitiveness, to tidy up their balance sheets.

Of course pension schemes need to be properly funded, but consultants feel they would not be pouring so much in if the chancellor hadn't taken his cut.

There is a fair element of risk in this too. Businesses will be looking to make prot and then some in order to keep at the cutting edge of consulting, produce a fair return on turnover and pay into pension schemes.

It is fortunate then that risk is what engineers have traditionally been good at managing.

A quantity surveyor I sat next to at dinner recently (actually he preferred to be called a project manager) told me the difference between his profession and engineers came down to risk. 'If a client comes asking for a building three miles high engineers say when do you want it; we say why would you chance that?' That ability of engineers to juggle risk and reward will be developed even more over the next few years. I can hear Gordon Brown claiming the credit already.

Jackie Whitelaw is NCE's deputy editor.

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