For probably the first time ever the Conservative Party held a fringe
event at the Labour Party’s conference today, to discuss Brown’s deception over
pensions. About two hundred people squeezed into the Belvedere Hotel
in Bournemouth to hear Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary Chris Grayling and
others highlight the double standards in Brown bailing out Northern
Rock (and therefore all banks in the future) for political reasons but not paying people back for their lost pensions. The difference between the two is that customers of Northern Rock knew the risks whilst it was the government’s fault that so many people lost their pensions, as the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Public Administration Select Committee, European Court of Justice and High Court Judicial Review have all confirmed.
Grayling talked about the Conservative Party’s efforts to get its lifeboat
proposals through Parliament. Designed to make it as easy as possible
for Brown to accept, they could have been implemented immediately with
the Government merely underwriting the process of bringing everyone up to the levels provided by the Pension Protection Fund, and not paying anything
extra in the long run. Instead of taking the opportunity to approve the well thought through
legislation, Brown used the 1911 Parliament Act to stop going back to the Lords and thereby prolonging the misery of many pensioners.
A member of the audience later asked why on
earth he did this, “intransigence” was the simple conclusion of panelist and former
Government pensions adviser Dr Ros Altmann.
Altmann then explained Brown’s cynical spinning of what was “without
doubt, the worst pensions scandal ever seen in the UK”. In May he
promised to pay 80% of the pensions back to the 125,000 people
affected, costing £8bn. What has actually happened since then is that
the government have invented something called a “core pension” that
doesn’t account for inflation, tax-free lump sums, many widow’s
benefits and other dependent benefits, ill health and early retirement
benefits, or pension starting ages. The Government then works out 80% of
what’s left and takes 22% tax off it. Brown’s Financial Assistance
Scheme – which had been entirely “designed to fool the public” – has
only paid out £4m since 2004, partially helping just 2000 people.
The meeting also heard from steelworker Andrew Parr who had a typical experience with his pension fund. Forced to contribute to it since 1982 he had always been assured by government agencies that it was completely safe. When his company went into receivership he lost a lot of his “guaranteed” pension and has had to work an extra three years whilst suffering from a long-term heart condition and not receiving any money from the FSA. Like so many people, some of whom have since committed suicide, he had no idea that there was any risk to his pension. Alistair Darling, however, was told about the risks in 1999 but the government continued to encourage people to join the pensions funds.
After the meeting hundreds of pension activists, joined by Grayling and Tobias Ellwood MP (pictured), protested outside the BIC conference centre with banners, placards and yellow t-shirts with Brown’s face below the words “This man stole our old age!”. Surrounded by almost as many police, they chanted things like “Call the police, we’ve been robbed!”, “Gordon Brown, is a clown” and “Whadda we want? Pensions! When d’we wannem? Now!”.
The assembled throng then headed to the beach for a nude photo shoot, for the fifth Labour conference in a row. A number of elderly people, almost all men, used a banner saying "Northern Rock Saved, Pension Lifeboat Sunk!" and placards saying "No ‘Core’ Pension for me.. Mine’s a Whoppa!" to cover themselves. It wasn’t quite as explicit as previous years but the swimming shorts with fake bums caused much amusement and press attention.
Then Neil Kinnock, fresh from his Old Labour style rallying cry, walked to where the protestors where on the beach – he really should have learned to stay away from beaches. Cameras immediately switched their focus to him as the press wrestled to get good shots of him being mobbed by semi-naked pensioners. He mumbled things about the government doing a lot for pensioners as he desperately tried to inch his way out of the crowd. I must have heard at least a dozen people make the remark “it’s okay for him, his pension’s alright!”.
I imagine Brown’s got a tidy little retirement fund too, but these pensioners – and the Conservative Party – aren’t going to let him forget that he’s done a good job of ruining everyone else’s.