House Magazine article 'Hard luck and promises' about successful Parliamentary campaign

by Dr. Ros Altmann

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After a long, desperate campaign to persuade the Government to take responsibility for misleading innocent workers about their pension schemes, a satisfactory resolution was finally achieved.

On December 17th 2007, Peter Hain announced that the Government would at last increase Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) payments into line with the Pension Protection Fund.  This announcement marked the pinnacle of the Pensions Action Group's campaign. 

140,000 or more victims, many of whom put their entire life savings into one company pension scheme, after official assurances that they were properly protected by law and even 'guaranteed', lost most or all of their supposedly safe pension.  Once the legislative and regulatory changes are made, the FAS will replace most of their pension.

When I first became involved in the campaign, Ministers said it was not the Government's responsibility to sort this out, the Treasury would never agree and that what had happened to these people was just 'hard luck'.  I assumed they did not properly understand and that all I had to do was to explain to Ministers how these innocent citizens had been hoodwinked and lulled by the Government into a false sense of security about their pensions.  Many in their late 50s or 60's had nothing at all to live on, despite a lifetime of saving and they were in desperate straits through no fault of their own.  After marshalling the evidence and coming up with practical proposals to minimise the cost of compensation, I naively believed we just needed a short campaign to educate and explain.

How wrong I was!  It turned into a 5 year battle against dreadful political spin.  I have been asked to write about lessons others might learn from this campaign.  Firstly, I would advise anyone considering a political campaign to be very sure they totally believe in the cause and are prepared to spend time telling the same story over and over and over again, to a succession of different Ministers, MPs, journalists and industry experts.  Running a campaign, especially one dealing with a subject as complex as pensions, requires enormous patience and commitment.  Countering spin is incredibly frustrating because you are not dealing with rational argument, but with distortion of the facts.

Try to put your message across without jargon, with succinct soundbites and pithy briefing notes that pick out the most important and easy-to-understand details.  If possible, use real life stories to illustrate your points, rather than talking in generalities.

Get as many people as possible to lobby their own MP.  Amazingly, many people are frightened to ask for help, but many MPs (though unfortunately not all!) do react to letters or lobbies from their constituents.

Again, when lobbying MPs, stick to the facts across, try not to be insulting or aggressive, but appeal to their better nature.  It can also help to point out the policy implications more generally, not just how the matter affects you, but how it can have  much wider implications. 

Let your MP know, in a quiet but determined way, that you are not going to give up and that the issue has just got to be sorted out.  Perhaps politicians think most campaigns will peter out after a while, so if there is a large potential price tag, they may be tempted to either hope the problem will go away, or leave it for someone else to clear up!

It certainly felt as if the Government was doing its best to string things out, rather than sort them out - making grand promises, but actually not doing much for those who needed urgent help straight away.  That was one of the most depressing features of the campaign, because the longer it went on, the more people fell ill, or died and the worse the injustice became.

It is also important to try to come up with a good slogan for your campaign.  We used 'stripped of our pensions'.  The victims took their clothes off five years in a row outside the Labour Party annual conference, to highlight their plight.  Having a good visual image for the slogan – in our case, naked pensioners freezing in the sea or outside Parliament, begging for justice – is certainly important to sustain media interest.  Keeping the journalists informed of what you are doing and also trying to maintain a sense of humour, despite the hardships, is very helpful. 

So we achieved a resolution at last, but I really don't know why it took so long.  Perhaps having a huge majority in Parliament prevents some elements of democracy working as well as they should, but we got there in the end!


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