Dr Ros Altmann, a former government adviser, has called on Gordon Brown to provide a "clear, simple solution" on compensation for pension campaigners.
Speaking at a demonstration by the Pensions Action Group (PAG) at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester yesterday, Altmann, an independent consultant, says the issue of compensation is a test of whether Brown is “up to the job” of Prime Minister once Tony Blair leaves.
She claims the government is still in denial of the “obvious truth” after both the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) “categorically and unequivocally determined the government is guilty of letting these people down”.
And she argues the government did not tell members the truth, and “misled them dreadfully and now refuses to face up to the consequences of that betrayal of trust”, adding the government still failed to tell the truth in its responses to the reports by the Ombudsman and PASC.
The PAG was demonstrating for the 4th year in a row, using their trademark ‘Stripped of their Pensions’ theme, to try and persuade the government to provide compensation for more than 100,000 workers who lost their pensions when their employers wound up.
And Altmann says this year’s event was “excellent”, as “hundreds of people” turned up to the demonstration, along with support from a number of Labour MPs as well as Saga, the insurer aimed at the over-50s which declared its support for the campaign in August.
But she points out: “This matter is not just about a few leaflets and is not just about schemes winding up under-funded. It is about members who have been dreadfully wronged by a pension system they trusted, but which has taken their money away under false pretences and left them with little or nothing.”
And she says while the Chancellor talks about his ‘values’, in an effort to gain support ahead of a possible leadership contest, Altmann points out this issue doesn’t reflect well on his claims on standing for social justice, honesty, integrity and plans to restore trust in politics and politicians.
She says: “This is probably the biggest social injustice of our time and remains so even after years of begging for justice. And as for fairness, these people have gone through all the proper constitutional procedures in their search for justice, but the government has just over-ridden due process. This is clearly unfair.”
And in her speech, Altmann points out the government “tried to pretend the costs of compensation would be £15bn, then finally had to admit the real cost would be about £3bn over 60 years”, while John Hutton, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, insisted government leaflets were not aimed at scheme members, despite the leaflets actually stating in the back that they are designed for scheme members.
Altmann says: “We have rules in place to stop governments causing injustice, but this government has just ignored all these rules and thinks it can do as it pleases. Everyone can see the government is responsible for these people’s plight and its continued denial of the clear evidence only serves to further undermine confidence in politics.”
But she says she doesn’t want to get into the personal blame game, and instead she wants to look forward and try to find a solution, and she says the person “who has the power to put this right is the Chancellor”.
She says Brown is the person who controls this aspect of government policy, and as a result the campaigners want “a clear, simple solution from him, not a complicated play on words” and most importantly "no more spin".
Commenting on the existence of the Financial Assistance Scheme, which the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has suggested is the best method for providing compensation, Altmann says the scheme is just “a sop to pretend to backbenchers that something is being done, but it has merely compounded the injustices”.
And she warns: “This is a test of Brown and whether he has it in him to lead this country – is he up to the job? We will all be watching to see whether he steps in to uphold the British values of justice, fair play, decency and parliamentary democracy - or whether he doesn’t really care.”
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