Sunday, 14 October 2018

Hey, hey, Theresa May: How many women have you robbed today? The Great Pensions Robbery protest reaches Parliament.

'BackToSixty's Yvette Greenway and Joanne Welch (second and third from left) in the road outside Parliament with other protesting women facing pension loss

NB: I no longer support or associate with 'Back To 60', nor the related 'CEDAWPT' campaign.

The issues of inequality in failing to support women affected by pension loss, however, remain unmitigated, and a serious cause of disadvantage for many older women. The answer, in my view, is to lobby for interim benefit support, not associated with compulsory job seeking,  targeted specifically for women of this generation in financial difficulties.

Over the last few years, in my role as roving reporter for this blog, I have, I suppose, found myself in many interesting situations: including some in which perhaps, in respectable middle age, and beyond, one might not expect to end up. 

Situations in which 'direct action', rather than theoretical activism, has been required; civil disobedience, if you like - but being there to observe and report, as well as take part. All of which raises the risk of my long suffering children, at any moment, expecting to find themselves called to collect their errant mother from a custody cell. (That could never happen, could it, Jacqui?) ... Some examples:

Stalked, barred from a public meeting, & illegally, covertly filmed by jackbooted thugs masquerading as licensed security officers, casually employed by Barnet Council. (Not the current ones, who are very nice ...)

Taking over a council chamber, & chasing the feckless Tory members about to sign up to ten years of bondage to Capita, contracts almost unread, into a tiny side room, quivering with fear.

Sitting in a 'reclaimed' library, in a circle, on children's stools, while members of Occupy taught senior council managers, speechless with indignation,  to speak in turn, respecting the rule of democracy, and using jazz hands, to show approval. Not that they wanted to.

Visiting a house squatted by local tenants being made homeless, & discussing tupperware boxes with Russell Brand, who was gracing the protest with his presence, like Jesus visiting the apostles, post death, to gee them up a bit.

Ok, not up there with the Suffragettes, exactly, in terms of daring and commitment, but interesting all the same.

But thinking about the Suffragettes exactly, was what I was doing doing earlier this week, outside Parliament, in the course of another occupation: a blockade of the road outside the House of Commons, causing chaos, hopefully, as far back as Downing Street where, possibly  PM Theresa May was sitting in her limo, unable to leave, while her less fortunate sixty/fifty something sisters were stopping traffic, and bringing Westminster to a standstill. 

You might have heard about the 'Waspi' campaign: Women Against State Pension Inequality, and recognised the purple branding, borrowed from the Suffragettes, of an issue now rapidly gaining attention from all but those who don't want to hear, at Westminster, and elsewhere.

At a time when austerity, despite Mrs May's claims of abolition, has reduced so many to an unprecedented level of poverty, that women are expected to cope without six years of pension for which they had already paid, throughout their lives, in work, and in times of childcare, is nothing less than a national scandal. 

And the resistance to this injustice, rapidly increasing as more and more women discover that the financial security they had believed was theirs by right has been quietly removed, is now part of a wider campaign, including other lobbying groups, notably BackTo60, led by Yvette Greenway and Joanne Welch (seen above), as well as We Paid In You Pay Out.

Backto60, backed by human rights barrister Michael Mansfield, and lawyers Birnberg Pierce, has now secured a hearing in the High Court in regard to its application for a Judicial Review, based on an argument addressing the unfair and hasty implementation of an imposed rise in age qualification for women, failing to inform those affected, and leaving them with little time or ability to prepare for the loss of as much as six years of pension support. 

On Wednesday this week, there was a rally and day of protest organised under the 'One Voice' movement - a body which unifies all groups campaigning to put right the injustice of so many women robbed of so many years of National Insurance contributions.

This event began at an appropriate place: the Reformers' Tree in Hyde Park, a point of memorial commemorating an oak tree used as a meeting place for members of the Reform League, in 1866, when demanding the right to vote for all adult men. The tree was burnt to a stump in the course of one protest, but its location became a symbol of the right of the people to assemble - a tradition maintained to this day, and marked in 2000 by a mosaic, unveiled by Tony Benn.

In 1866, demanding the vote for all men was seen as a desperately radical and dangerous proposition, but the question of universal suffrage, and the inclusion of women, was unthinkable. 

Here we are, only a hundred years after the right to vote was given to some women, and still we struggle to secure our rights to equality. But although in the cartoon above the only woman is looking on from a safe distance, it is her great granddaughters now taking the axe to the rotten trunk of an establishment still dominated by male power, and an institutionalised indifference to the rights of women.

Some people - mostly men - would argue that the increase to 66 for the pension age is in itself a mark of equality, in that it applies the same level of qualification in age to both sexes. But this is to ignore the gross economic inequality that women of that generation have had to endure in their working lives, and also in their traditional roles as caregivers, not just in terms of childcare, but with family responsibilities to ageing parents, unpaid duties often taking them out of employment, and leaving them unable to make full NI contributions, or pay into any private pension fund.

Women reaching sixty on already low pay - and of course women are still paid less than men - exhausted after years of juggling work, and family responsibilities, perhaps unable to find work in a world in which older women are seen as virtually unemployable, are now in many cases facing the most extreme levels of hardship, with no hope of the pension they had paid for, and assumed would be there. In many cases, they received no notification of the change in age entitlement, and those that did had little option for saving enough money to help mitigate the loss of entitlement.

Some women have been left dependent on their husbands for financial support - but many women of that generation who have become divorced have had unfair settlements that ignored or minimised the loss of future pension income. 

As one woman at the protest on Wednesday explained to me, showing the scars from an operation to reconstruct her broken arm after an assault by her former husband - a frail, prematurely aged woman, who often goes without food, or relies on the generosity of a neighbour for a shared meal - she fears for those women of her age or younger still caught in an abusive relationship, because they do not have the economic independence of a pension, that would at least enable them to escape. 

Another serious consequence for women thrown into financial difficulties at this stage in their lives is in terms of their physical and mental health. Not only has improvement in life expectancy for women dropped by an appalling level of 91% since 2011, there is evidence of an unacknowledged impact on older women facing poverty as a result of pension loss, as Yvette Greenway explained to the assembled crowd in Hyde Park, with deeply troubling findings of a survey on depression and suicide amongst this group.

At the Reformers' tree, several other speakers addressed the gathered assembly of women. 

Sophie Walker gave the campaign the backing of the Women's Equality Party:

Sophie Walker

Investigative journalist and former Guardian Westminster correspondent David Hencke also spoke - he has written extensively about the campaign, for example here - and uncovered the previously unknown audit trail of treasury led appropriation of funds meant to cover the stolen years of pension: he also recorded a contribution to an item on that day's 'World at One' on BBC4 on this topic.

David Hencke

Off to Westminster next, where an even larger crowd of women was waiting, gathered around the statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett - the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square - only placed there this year. In her arms she holds a banner proclaiming: 'Courage calls to courage everywhere'. 

Around Fawcett's statue now were members of a generation of women who perhaps have not been particularly politically active, until now: quite a few of them probably quite conservative by nature, and perhaps formerly Conservative voters. 

Not any more.

The crowd moved over towards a place directly opposite the House of Commons, now shrouded in scaffolding and protective wrapping as the hugely expensive renovation programme continues. No amount of protective wrapping, however, could possibly insulate those inside from the racket the women were making: with trumpets, drums, bongos, whistles, and a fair amount of less than respectful comments chanted in their direction:

Hey, hey, Theresa May: How Many Women Have You Robbed Today?

We Paid In, You Pay Out.

We're Pissed Off! We're Pissed Off! We're Pissed Off!

They were.

Some resorted to making a cacophony in the form of a more domestic method of protest: banging saucepans with kitchen cutlery, cacerolazo style. It seemed appropriate.

At one point, one of the men who had attended the protest, dressed as a Town Crier, read out a list of women who had died before receiving their post 60 pensions. He struggled to maintain his composure, and who could blame him, as he bravely read out the name of his own wife.

Others brought family members and supporters: 

Some bought dogs (his third demo, said this one's owner, proudly) :

Some attended in wheelchairs. Some carried pictures of those who could not afford the journey to London to attend - or who had also died before reaching their pension age.

Some MPs had already agreed to speak to the crowd: it was almost impossible to hear what they were saying, but it was significant that they were now keen to be associated with what is only now being recognised as an issue worth talking about. 

SNP members arrive at the demo.

All parties have been slow to recognise the importance of this issue - Labour has so far failed to grasp the electoral significance of providing the huge number of women affected by pension loss with a pledge to provide the full transitional support that they so desperately need. 

Curiously, however, I found myself standing next to someone who ... surely not? Someone who bore a distinct resemblance to the wife of the Labour leader. 

We can only hope, if it was her, that she went home and gave Jeremy a good talking to, over dinner. Come on, Jezza: you know what we need - and it could make all difference in constituencies like those held by the three marginal Tories here in Barnet, where there are thousands of women hit by this injustice. 

Earlier this year we made a documentary film, shot outside the Town Hall, on this very subject, and included views from a couple of local councillors, including former Tory Sury Khatri - deselected for daring to criticise the Capita contracts - who was also present on Wednesday.

Gratifying to note one right wing Labour MP who came over to take a look at the protest change his expression from one of mildly patronising amusement to one of distinct unease, surrounded by a surging crowd of women in such foul mood, and in no way inclined to move out of his way as they suddenly headed across the pavement, and on to the road outside Parliament.

Within seconds, the traffic ground to a halt. More and more women moved onto the road. After a while, the police response arrived. This consisted of one middle aged officer who politely asked, with genial wink, if we would move back to the pavement. We thought not. 

The women stayed in place, and eventually sat down in the road, obstinately refusing to budge, even when the only four spare policemen left in the Greater London area, after Tory budget cuts, were found and summoned to help. Protests at Parliament are common occurences, of course: sitting down in the road and stopping traffic for more than an house most certainly is not.

One of them, who looked young enough to be the grandson of most of the women there, appeared at something of a loss in terms of what to do, and instead wasted a lot of time talking importantly into his phone, probably asking for a transfer. Two of the older officers tried persuading the women sitting down to shift, telling them we were all creating a Public Nuisance, which was gratifying. 

The women sitting down stared back at the policemen and ignored them, knowing full well five officers could hardly arrest more than a thousand women outside Parliament. Where would they take the ringleaders, now that Holloway is closed?

The whole day was an inspiring moment, in fact, for anyone whose passion for political activism might be in danger of flagging. Empowerment is an overused term, but seeing women seizing the moment, and making their voices count in this way, using direct action, and political protest, to seize control, even temporarily, was something our suffragette mothers would have understood, and approved. If the political establishment refuses to engage in debate, and take action, how else can citizens force them to listen but in this way?

Courage calls to courage: now let's hope our parliamentary representatives are wise enough to listen, and brave enough to act to right this wrong. Whether through the High Court, or by  persistent lobbying, and organised protests like this, sooner or later, change must and will come.

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