Stuart Garner, the boss of the embattled Norton Motorcycles, failed to appear in front of the pensions ombudsman on Thursday, in a hearing called to hear allegations from his pension fund members who fear their retirement savings have been wiped out.
The entrepreneur was scheduled to answer claims brought by 30 members of three retirement funds set up and run by Garner, including that he had repeatedly failed to return their funds when they were due.
A Guardian and ITV News investigation revealed last month that 228 “ordinary working people” had had their entire pension pots, worth £14m, invested via Garner’s retirement schemes into Norton shares, after they had been duped by a fraudster.
Norton slumped into administration on 29 January, rendering Norton shares effectively worthless.
Despite the Norton boss’s absence, the ombudsman heard evidence from two victims who described how the businessman had failed for years to return their retirement pots when requested. The Pension Schemes Act requires trustees to transfer pensions within six months of an application.
Sally Holmes, whose father Robert Dewar had applied to start withdrawing his pension in August 2017, told the ombudsman that Garner has still failed to return the fund and that her father had now died.
She said: “He had MS so we knew he would pass away young … We tried to drawdown on his pension so that [the family] could spend more time with Dad. We were told that somebody [else] had to buy into the scheme before [Garner] could give the drawdown … It’s been years and years.”
That delay came despite the ombudsman directing Garner in May 2019 to transfer Dewar’s pension “within 21 days”, in a ruling that described Garner’s behaviour as “inexcusable”. He has still to transfer the pension.
Garner was the trustee of the pension funds, as well as running the company in which the schemes were entirely invested. He received the funds from pension holders during 2012 and 2013, following a scam that saw the promoter convicted for fraud.
The pension holders – many of whom were financially vulnerable at the time – had transferred their retirement pots from standard providers to Garner’s funds after being led to believe they would receive a tax-free lump sum for agreeing to the transfer.
In fact, the lump sums left them with substantial tax bills. Simon Colfer, who was convicted of fraud in 2018 for the way in which he had sold the scheme, was paid significant fees from the retirement pots.
As part of that series of transactions, fees were also paid by the Norton pension plans to a company called T12 Administration, which registered the pension schemes with HMRC and carried out the day-to-day administration.
Two of the directors controlling T12 were Andrew Meeson and Peter Bradley. They were convicted of a separate tax fraud in 2013, when they reclaimed £5m of tax rebates from fictitious pension contributions.
Court documents from that trial state that about £4m of the £5m was then paid out by Meeson and Bradley to friends, family and associates, including a £990,000 loan that Garner used to originally buy the Norton brand in 2008.
The Guardian and ITV News have also seen documents suggesting that Garner knew that Meeson and Bradley were being investigated for the tax fraud more than a year before he engaged with them in the creation of the pension schemes now under investigation by the ombudsman.
Garner did not respond to an invitation to comment. He has said that he did not know he was dealing with fraudsters when creating the pensions schemes and that he considers himself to be a victim. He denies any wrongdoing.