Pensions Regulator launches probe into alleged withholding of contributions

The Pensions Regulator has launched an official investigation into claims that architect RMJM is wrongly withholding contributions due to its employee pension scheme.

In an escalation of the crisis gripping the firm, the regulator confirmed it is carrying out an inquiry into RMJM’s money-purchase pension scheme after being alerted by provider Aegon, which said it was following “the correct legislative process”.

Scheme members have alleged that the firm has failed to hand over not only employer but also employee contributions, deducted from paid salaries.

The withholding of employee contributions is more serious and RMJM is alleged to have repeatedly missed the legal deadline for paying these - within 19 days from the end of the calendar month in which they were deducted from pay.

A spokeswoman for Aegon said concerned members of the RMJM scheme could contact it for further information.

A spokesman for RMJM said: “We’ve been in regular contact with Aegon on this matter. While there are some payments outstanding, we’re actively working to resolve this issue and are confident of bringing the matter to a swift and satisfactory conclusion for the staff affected.”

RMJM also remains several months behind in making salary payments but the spokesman added on Tuesday that RMJM’s settling of a major debt meant it would be able to catch up with these shortly.

An unnamed member of the pension scheme told Building they had recently contacted Aegon about their pension.

“They have confirmed that […] no employer or personal contributions were made in January or February,” the member said. “I am still awaiting my salary from February 2012 but received my January salary late with contributions deducted that have not been passed onto Aegon.

“The company also continued to deduct pension contributions from salaries from July 2011 onwards despite not paying these into the scheme until November.”

An email sent that month to staff by an HR adviser in RMJM’s Edinburgh office and seen by Building, confirmed that problems date back to at least last summer, with contributions from both the July and August payrolls outstanding at that time.

The HR email followed a letter from Aegon sent to members on 4 November warning them that RMJM’s contributions were “at least 60 days overdue”.

A posting on whistleblowing site also claimed RMJM was wrongly “deducting employees’ personal pension contributions” with 10 users agreeing with this statement and none disagreeing.

According to the regulator’s code of practice, pension providers are required to alert it and members in a range of circumstances including where they “have concerns that the employer is using the contributions to alleviate cashflow difficulties.”

The regulator can take a number of sanctions against employers including the power to recover unpaid contributions.

Katherine Dandy, litigator partner at specialist pensions practice Sackers, called the allegations a “serious matter”.

“There are strict rules for making sure these payments are handed over within a reasonable time,” she said.

Court judgments against architect mount …

County court claims against RMJM have spiralled it has emerged, with the firm now owing more than £167,000 to multiple creditors.

Building reported in January that RMJM Group was facing a £50,000 claim after Northampton County Court issued a judgment over money owing to an unnamed creditor.

Although this figure should have been paid within 30 days, it was still outstanding this week with separate outstanding judgments against RMJM Ltd now totalling £89,506.

Meanwhile, RMJM Scotland Ltd currently owes £27,770 over an Edinburgh court judgment made back in December 2010.

In a further blow, it emerged that RMJM Group had not yet filed accounts due on 31 January as Building went to press.

Emma Bridges, director at industry credit information provider Top Service, said: “These are all fairly large amounts […] county court judgments have an effect on credit worthiness and I find it unusual that a firm of this size hasn’t filed accounts.”

A spokesperson for Companies House said the firm faced an increasing penalty for filing overdue accounts, currently £375.

RMJM was unavailable for comment.