The Work and Pensions Committee has questioned the Pension Regulator's interim chairwoman on potential conflicts of interest which may arise from her husband’s role at the British Airways pension scheme.
Sarah Smart, the government’s preferred pick for the role, was appointed interim non-executive chairwoman at TPR in April and is senior independent director of the regulator’s audit committee.
She holds a number of other roles in the private sector, including co-founder of consultancy company SmartCats, managing partner of Greys Estates Partnership, and an advisory board member of Codigital.
Her husband, Fraser Smart, is chief executive of the British Airways Pension Scheme, a fact which drew the attention of committee chairman Stephen Timms MP.
Smart said that her husband had opened discussions with his employer about ending his involvement with the scheme as soon as he learned she was the government’s preferred candidate for the TPR role, though because of the “seniority of his position” it would be irresponsible for him to walk away immediately.
She said: "Discussions are ongoing, but the current position is that Fraser would stay on to see through the valuation that is currently in progress, which it’s anticipated will finish in September of this year, and then we’ll seek to [start] the handover.”
She added that if it became possible for him to depart sooner “that opportunity will be taken”.
Timms asked: “How credible is it that you would have no involvement at all with anything to do with that scheme?”
Smart said that, as has happened in the past, another non-executive board member could be drafted in to work on cases arising to do with the BA scheme, but ordinarily it would not be for non-executive board members to be involved at all, as TPR has “expert teams” to do case work “on a day-to-day basis”.
Asked whether she thought she would be able to have nothing to do with the scheme indefinitely, Smart replied that for the duration of her term, that would be “perfectly doable”, adding “I don't think it detracts from our ability to manage the regulation of that scheme in any way, so I see no reason why we would need to introduce that potential conflict.”
Asked by Timms whether the issue had been raised either during the panel interview or in a subsequent discussion with the pensions minister, Smart said it had been mentioned in the former but that she had not had a discussion with the minister, not only on this point but “at all”.
The committee raised the point that, at present, TPR does not see fit to publish potential conflicts arising from “connected parties” in the public register, a point Smart said she had asked to be reviewed — a process that is expected to conclude in time for a board meeting in May.
Nigel Mills MP pressed the point, asking whether it really would be possible for Smart to perform every aspect of the job while shielding herself from any information that had to do with “one of the biggest pension schemes [in the country]”.