Wilko owners to be grilled on £56m gap in pension fund

Wilko owners to be grilled on £56m gap in pension fund

Wilko’s owners look set to be hauled in front of MPs to be grilled over a £56million hole in the collapsed retailer’s pension fund.

Up to 12,500 staff face redundancy after administrators announced earlier this month that they failed to find a buyer for the embattled discount chain.

Wilko will disappear from the High Street when the last of its more than 400 shops close next month. Some stores, however, will reopen as B&M or Poundland and the name will live on at The Range.

The collapse has shone a spotlight on the retailer’s owners – particularly after The Mail on Sunday revealed last month the Wilkinson family paid themselves £77million in dividends over the last ten years. 

That included a £3million payment last year while the chain’s losses deepened.

Jobs: Up to 12,500 Wilko staff face redundancy after administrators announced earlier this month that they failed to find a buyer for the embattled discount chain

Jobs: Up to 12,500 Wilko staff face redundancy after administrators announced earlier this month that they failed to find a buyer for the embattled discount chain

Lisa Wilkinson, the granddaughter of founder James Kempsey Wilkinson, and the failed firm’s majority shareholder, is now under pressure to plug the gap in the pension scheme.

One MP on the Work and Pensions Committee likened the situation to Philip Green and the collapse of BHS in 2016. 

The committee dragged Green in to give evidence in Parliament and the former Topshop owner eventually agreed to hand over £363million to BHS pensioners.

Committee member Nigel Mills, the Tory MP for Amber Valley, told the Mail the Wilko issue ‘is certainly something that we might need to look at’.

‘It does look concerning that there is a sizeable deficit and money taken out of the company,’ he said. ‘We have been here before with Philip Green. There are a whole lot of people who have just lost their jobs and don’t want to lose their pensions too.’

He added that it is important to make sure that ‘what looks like a mismanaged business isn’t also a mismanaged pension scheme’.

The Pensions Regulator confirmed it is in discussions with Wilko and pension scheme trustees to ‘make sure members’ benefits are protected’. 

Majority stake: Lisa Wilkinson, grandchild of Wilko’s founder

Majority stake: Lisa Wilkinson, grandchild of Wilko’s founder

However, if the Wilko pension pot ends up in the Pension Protection Fund, thousands of employees face a cut to their retirement payments.

More than 170 Wilko stores have closed so far, with all branches set to shut by early October, but administrators have sold off parts of the business to rivals.

Poundland bought 71 branches and B&M took on 51 sites, but the properties will be rebranded and former Wilko staff are not guaranteed a job.

Meanwhile, The Range paid £5million for the Wilko brand– meaning it owns the website and could stock some Wilko products – rescuing 36 jobs.

Steve McCabe, the Labour MP for Selly Oak in Birmingham who also sits on the Work and Pensions committee, said it should investigate.

‘If it is a case that there was some sort of reckless or negligent behaviour in terms of not funding the pension scheme, then clearly that is quite serious given the company has gone bust,’ he said.

Lisa Wilkinson, who has previously defended the dividend payouts, is set to be quizzed by PwC over the millions of pounds her family took in dividends, the Times reported.

Administrators will investigate the cause of the insolvency and decide whether any claims should be brought against Wilkinson and other directors. PwC did not respond to a request for comment.

GMB national officer Nadine Houghton said the union, which represents about 4,000 Wilko employees, is also calling on the Wilkinson family to plug the pension deficit. She said Wilkinson should be hauled in front of MPs to give evidence.

Houghton said: ‘She must explain why there is a £56million hole in the pension pot and what she will do to plug it, given that she and her family extracted £77million during the past ten years.’

source: dailymail.co.uk