Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Pension campaign gathers momentum

Further to my last posting, I continue to be swamped by letters and e-mails from around Britain of women who are unhappy with their pensions. Growing numbers do indeed appear to be missing out on pension protection for years since 1978 when they were bringing up children at home. What I now hope to persuade the Government to do is to look at this issue systematically and to identify some common threads. Some of the women who have been in touch would have missed out on £10,000 or more during their retirement if we hadn't raised this issue - let's hope we can find a way to identify them and get it put right.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Retired women missing out?

Here's a test of whether older people read blogs!

Last week (May 12th) I was on BBC Radio 4's Money Box programme talking about the position of some women who are now drawing less state pension than they should be. Working with the Times newspaper and Grant Thornton, we have identified a group of women who had children and spent time at home with them in the 1980s, who should have had their pension rights protected under a scheme called 'Home Responsibilities Protection' - but who aren't. We're not sure exactly why these women are missing out, but our hunch is that it is to do with a mismatch between the Child Benefit computer and the National Insurance computer.

I've been to see the pensions minister and he has agreed to look at a sample of cases to see if there is something systematic going on. I'm therefore now looking for some clearcut case studies of women who:

a) are now drawing a state pension, and are probably aged in their 60s or early 70s;
b) who had one or more child born after 1962 (so that they were still under 16 in 1978 when HRP came in);
c) who took time out of paid work in the late 1970s or 1980s with their under 16 child, and therefore didn't pay NI contributions in those years;
d) who are now drawing a reduced state pension because of gaps in their NI record, and whose pension documentation made no mention of Home Responsibilities Protection.

It's all a bit complicated, I know, but if we can find some clear cut case studies, hopefully we can persuade the Government to look again at this issue. Anyone who knows someone who might be affected is welcome to contact me by writing to Steve Webb MP, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

The role of the Lib Dems

Sometimes you read a newspaper article that makes your blood boil! Last week the Guardian published an article by Simon Jenkins which was his periodic 'what's the point of the Lib Dems' article. Yet what is odd is that a number of the things Simon Jenkins appears to be lieve in - such as real decentralisation of power and decision-making are things that the Lib Dems champion. The idea that British politics doesn't need a genuinely liberal voice becomes more extraordinary with every new law that this government passes.

The Guardian nobly gave me a right of reply today - inevitably summing up a political party in less than 500 words is a challenge, but this was my stab at responding to his article. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Kofi Annan at Westminster

It's not often you get to hear a Nobel Peace Prize winner in the flesh, but today I had the privilege to hear Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the UN, address both houses of Parliament. The occasion was a further event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the passing of legislation to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

A few things struck me about what he said. First, he pointed out that whilst we should celebrate the fact that the slave trade was abolished, we should also ask why it was tolerated for so long? One answer was that the mass of the public had little or no idea of the conditions in which slaves worked on the plantations or in which they were transported. The triumph of the Abolitionists was partly due to raising public awareness of the reality of the situation. (Incidentally, I was interested to see in the Wilberforce film "Amazing Grace" that the forerunners of the Fair Trade movement were active 200 years ago boycotting bananas from slave plantations!). I suspect the same is still true today when it comes to the conditions of people around the world who work for a pittance to produce the cheap clothes etc. that we stil buy in the UK.

He also had an interesting take on the 'should we apologise for slavery' debate. If I understood his argument correctly, he seemed to say that the best reparations we could make would be to tackle modern day poverty and disease in Africa, which does seem to be a constructive way of taking things forward.

The gist of his message was that where there is injustice the focus must be not so much on working out who to blame but on taking personal responsibility for playing you part in tackling it. Seems like a good principle.

Friday, 4 May 2007

The local verdict

Last night's local elections in South Gloucestershire created some real cliff-hangers. Two wards that are both in my current Northavon constituency but not part of the new 'Thornbury and Yate' constituency were held by the Lib Dems by 19 votes (Pilning & Severn Beach) and by 5 votes (Bradley Stoke N). It is close results like that which make you feel all the effort that goes on during the campaign is actually worth it.

From the point of view of the 'Thornbury and Yate' constituency, the results were pretty good - 15 Lib Dems elected out of 18, with some thumping great majorities in parts of the constituency. It's also worth a word of praise for the town / parish councillors who do so much. To get 100% of the Lib Dem candidates elected in Thornbury, Yate and Dodington is a real tribute to the local team in each place.

The results also make the new Filton & Bradley Stoke parliamentary seat look really interesting. Labour were almost wiped out, but the Conservative parliamentary candidate also failed to get elected. This seat looks increasingly like a close fight between the Lib Dems (our candidate being Emma Bone) and the Conservatives, with the key determinant of the outcome being which way last times' Labour voters decide to go. Could be a busy few years!

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

My tenth birthday!

Ten years ago today was the day when my life changed beyond recognition. For the preceding six weeks I had been pounding the streets of Northavon, knocking on doors and trying to persuade people that we could overcome a Tory majority of around 11,000. I didn't dare believe it, even though I lost count of the number of people who said: "I've always voted Tory, but now I'm changing". The first time I dared believe was when I sat down at 10pm on May 1st 1997 and the exit polls suggested that there had indeed been a huge swing against the Government. A couple of hours later I had a phone call telling me to get across to the election count. I arrived and walked around the room a bit dazed, to find that all of our 'counting agents' had been watching piles of votes counted that had more in my pile than in the other pile. We had won by 2,137! Within minutes of the result being announced, the Today programme were on the phone wanting to talk to me. And a few hours later they had dropped me because of even more remarkable results like Michael Portillo losing! But on that occasion I didn't mind!

The last ten years in Parliament has been characterised by one party having a huge and dominant majority. But something tells me that the next years may look rather different. Things may be about to get very interesting and it is great to have the chance to be a part of it.