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Rutland Partners accused of spurning Bernard Matthews deal to 'line own pockets'

Private equity firm Rutland Partners has come under fire for rejecting a buyout offer for Bernard Matthews that would have protected the turkey meat producer's pension scheme.

Letters released by the Work and Pensions Committee show that Rutland refused to sell the company outright to food tycoon Ranjit Boparan last summer, instead opting for a pre-pack administration that "ensured a greater return" and offloaded pension responsibilities on taxpayers.

"This arrangement delivered a much-improved financial outcome for Rutland Partners, but drastically reduced the amount recoverable by the pension scheme to potentially less than 1p in the pound," the committee said.

Proceeds from the £87.5 million sale to Boparan Private Office (BPO) included a full payment of £46.4 million to lenders Wells Fargo Capital Finance (UK) and PNC Financial Services UK Ltd, and up to £39 million to owner Rutland Partners, as part of the pre-pack model arranged by administrators Deloitte last autumn.

The pension scheme, which has 700 members, has been left with a total deficit of £75 million.

The Pension Protection Fund (PPF), which steps in to protect employees with so-called defined benefit schemes when firms go bust, was left to shoulder the financial burden defined benefit scheme and is now pursuing claim up to £75 million that would cover the debt due to the scheme.

The Work and Pensions Committee said the case "raises concerns" over the use of pre-pack administrations as a means to shed responsibility for pension liabilities and transfer them to "the PPF lifeboat", which is funded through levies on private sector employers.

Frank Field, Labour MP and chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, said: "I have confidence that the PPF, working with the scheme trustees, will act in the best interests of the pensioners, but it's clear that the former owners passed up a better deal for pension scheme members in favour of lining their own pockets."

Rutland Partners, which took control of Bernard Matthews in 2013, declined to comment.

Pre-pack administration arrangements allow a pre-arranged buyer to take on a company's assets, but without liabilities such as its pension deficit.

Those who back pre-pack arrangements say it may enable a company to survive and rescue jobs.

But MPs have raised concerns about job security at Bernard Matthews following its takeover by BPO.

The 1,800-strong workforce was told their positions would be "preserved", but by March,150 employees were facing redundancy.

BPO said in a letter that it was "factually accurate" for media to have reported that jobs had been saved.

It said: "However, no business can ever give cast-iron guarantees that all jobs will be maintained in perpetuity. This is neither realistic nor honest.

"Once BPO took ownership, the state of the business was even more parlous than expected and in the shorter, this means taking difficult decisions to make the business viable for the long term including redundancies."

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