UCU looks into taking legal action against pension scheme trustees

The UCU is looking into the possibility of taking legal action against the trustees of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

Union members are currently balloting in a dispute over the scheme, and new general secretary Jo Grady has written to members to say a leading pensions QC found there are grounds to proceed on the basis of breach of trust.

But she warned it would be an expensive and time-consuming option, saying the quickest way to solve the problem would be to vote ‘Yes’ in the ballot.

She wrote: “I am writing to let UCU members know that your union is commencing an investigation into the possibility of legal action against the trustee of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

“Last year a group of UCU members and legal academics, under the title Academics for Pensions Justice, raised £50,000 via crowd funding to investigate the actions of the USS trustee over the course of the 2017 and 2018 valuations of USS. An opinion was commissioned from a leading pensions QC, who has found that there are grounds to proceed against the trustee on the basis of breach of trust.

“In 2018, UCU members took strike action over detrimental changes to USS which were proposed by its sponsoring employers. The Joint Expert Panel (JEP) established in the wake of the strike found that the existing benefit package could be maintained at a significantly lower level of contributions than USS itself had claimed. Meanwhile, USS has come under investigation by the Pensions Regulator and the Financial Reporting Council after one of its trustees, Professor Jane Hutton, alleged that she had been blocked from obtaining information about the scheme valuation and from following up on questions raised by the JEP.

“As you know, your union is currently balloting members for industrial action over contribution increases that have been scheduled by USS and imposed on members by the scheme’s sponsoring employers. UCU maintains that the increases, which are out of line with the recommendations of the Joint Expert Panel, are unjustified and unfair.

“This opinion provides further support for UCU members’ longstanding misgivings about USS. It underlines the skill and tenacity with which UCU’s members, in particular Academics for Pensions Justice, have questioned USS’s and employers’ claims about our pension scheme.

“Employers have expressed their confidence in the USS trustee, but if they want to avoid more strikes they need to take their heads out of the sand and take some responsibility for the actions of a Trustee board over which they have enjoyed considerable influence.

“A spokesperson for Academics for Pensions Justice has said: ‘We have obtained a legal opinion from a leading pensions law QC which has assessed the scheme rules, pensions regulation and pensions law. That opinion has considered all historic and recent actions and behaviour of USS Trustee Ltd and the trustees, and has concluded that there are good grounds to take this matter to court which are based on breach of trust.’

“At this time, APJ will pass the opinion and all of the material which they have processed to UCU because we believe that the union is the appropriate body to take this work forward and to devote the time, personnel and resources which are required. In particular, we have confidence in general secretary Jo Grady to pursue this matter for the good of all members of the USS pension scheme.”

UCU’s next steps will be to consult various advisers and consider how this favourable opinion can be used to advance scheme members’ interests.

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