Regulator ‘must address’ USS whistleblower sacking concerns

MP calls for urgent investigation into dismissal of Jane Hutton as potential strike action nears

October 18, 2019
Houses of Parliament
Source: iStock

The chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee has written to the Pensions Regulator and asked it to address concerns about the governance of UK higher education’s biggest pension fund, highlighted by the sacking of Jane Hutton from its board.

Frank Field MP wrote to Charles Counsell, the regulator’s chief executive, seeking more information on the role the regulator would play “in light of reported concerns about the removal of a trustee of the Universities Superannuation Scheme”.

Professor Hutton was sacked from her position as a University and College Union representative on the USS board on 11 October for apparently breaching “a number of her director’s duties owed under company law and contract”. Professor Hutton, professor of statistics at the University of Warwick, has claimed that she had been obstructed from investigating the USS’ deficit, which has become a significant issue in the ongoing industrial dispute over the fund’s future.

“There are things the regulator could be doing to look out for members, but it has turned a blind eye to the concerns,” Sam Marsh, the UCU-elected member of the USS’ joint negotiating committee, told Times Higher Education.

Earlier this year, the Pensions Regulator said it would examine the concerns raised by Professor Hutton, but it has not revealed the outcome of its investigation.

In a letter to Mr Field, Dr Marsh said he had “serious concerns” about how the USS had handled Professor Hutton’s case.

Dr Marsh said he believed that a letter sent to himself and others on the JNC from Professor Hutton, in which she outlined problems with USS board papers, had likely formed some of the case against the Warwick statistician. He said that Professor Hutton had seen it as her fiduciary responsibility to raise what appeared to be well-founded concerns, but that perhaps the USS board had seen her action as a breach of her duty.

In response, Mr Field wrote to Mr Counsell and asked him to outline what role the regulator could take in the issue and to comment on Dr Marsh’s concerns.

Following Dr Marsh’s and Mr Field’s letters, Professor Hutton told THE that she would “appreciate a full and honest reply from the Pensions Regulator, without hiding behind any confidentiality issues”.

Dr Marsh said the treatment of Professor Hutton had been “a disgrace”. She has been “motivated by trying to get straight answers to straight questions, but has hit a brick wall; if she has breached her duty as a result, it’s out of exasperation”, he said.

Dr Marsh, a teaching fellow in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Sheffield, said the parliamentary committee and the regulator should conduct their investigation swiftly, given the potential for strike action over increases in employee contributions to the USS. The ballot on industrial action closes on 30 October.

A spokesman for Universities UK, which represents employers, said “the decision to remove Jane Hutton was agreed unanimously by the other USS trustee board members, including those nominated by UCU”.

The Pensions Regulator and the USS both declined to comment.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

The Supreme Court have recently considered issues which could be relevant to this. https://www.theguardian.com/law/2019/oct/16/uk-judge-granted-whistleblower-protection-rights

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