Blog: Frank’s Field day at TPR’s expense

The Pensions Regulator (TPR) recently named its new chief executive as Charles Counsell, taking over from the departing Lesley Titcomb in February 2019.

Some individuals were positive about the appointment, including Pensions Minister Guy Opperman, who said: “Counsell has outstanding pedigree and a wealth of experience.”
However, this sentiment was not echoed by Work and Pensions Committee chair Frank Field, who was criticising Counsell before he’d even taken up the position.

Citing Counsell’s time as a member of TPR’s board, when both BHS and Carillion collapsed, Field said that Counsell “is unlikely to leave unscrupulous company directors quaking in their boots”, and “will have a long way to go to demonstrate that he really is the new broom that’s so desperately needed”.

Although being a TPR board member during the public collapses of those two huge companies does not reflect kindly on Counsell, it also does not justify the individual criticism that he has faced before he’s got his feet under the table.

Are there other reasons Field was so quick out of the blocks to voice his opposition? Some believe that Field is not happy about both the government and TPR rejecting the Work and Pensions Committee’s request of having a ‘pre-interview’ with the favourite candidate to land the chief executive role.

In September 2018, Field wrote to then Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey, requesting a hearing with the proposed candidate for the position. However, McVey replied in October, stating that it was a “cross-government decision” and the decision would not be taken by one single department.

TPR chairman, Mark Boyle, also rejected his request, saying in a letter: “It has been established government policy that executive appointments such as this aren’t appropriate for pre-appointment scrutiny.” He also previously wrote to the former Work and Pensions Secretary, Damian Green, in October 2016 requesting influence on the decision, which was also rejected.

TPR did deserve some criticism over its handling of Carillion. After all, the regulator did fail to safeguard Carillion employees’ pensions. However, it is hard to argue that Field has not been overcritical and rash in his comments.

Commenting on Field’s criticism following the Carillion collapse, Hargreaves Lansdown head of policy, Tom McPhail said: “It is easy to criticise the actions of the trustees and the regulator with the benefit of hindsight. It was far from certain to outside observers the company was about to go bust.”

This is not the first time Field has criticised TPR and its leadership. When called to a meeting with the Work and Pensions Committee in March 2018, Field said that he did not believe that Titcomb could achieve the “necessary cultural change” that TPR needed.

One thing that is clear is that TPR is not meeting Field’s standards. In August 2017, Field accused TPR of prosecuting the ‘sprat’ rather than the ‘whale’ in the BHS scandal. Royal London director of policy Steve Webb described the comment as “a bit harsh”.

“TPR got hundreds of millions off Sir Philip Green; something tells me they won’t be seeking so much from Dominic Chappell,” Webb added. Although TPR is not perfect and it must take some responsibility for the pension failings at both BHS and Carillion, its issues will not be resolved by criticising Counsell before he has even taken the role.

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