Internal Whitehall documents released yesterday reveal that
the Department of Work and Pensions secretly knew on six separate occasions that there
was “ widespread ignorance “ among 3.8 million women born in the 1950s that
they were about to lose their pensions for up to six years.
The disclosure by Michael Mansfield, QC came on the first day of a landmark judicial review brought by the campaigning group Back to 60 into the raising of the pension age from 60 to 66 which has left this group of women living in poverty after they had relied on the money for their retirement.
It is a supreme irony. Margaret Thatcher’s government ended the Treasury contribution to the National Insurance Fund that has now deprived 3.9 million women born in the 1950s of their pensions for up to six years. Now she could also be their saviour.
This is because Britain’s first woman prime minister took the decision to ratify in 1986 the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination 1979 (CEDAW).
It is this decision that commits the United Kingdom to outlawing not only any discrimination against women who are unfairly treated but demands reparations for the people who lost those rights.
The CEDAW convention also crucially provides a mechanism to deliver the money to 50s women without facing a legal challenge from any other group – whether it be the pensions industry or anyone else.
The role of this convention is likely to be a major debating point in next week’s high court judicial review since Professor Jackie Jones – elected last week as a Labour MEP for Wales and former professor of Feminist Studies at the University of the West of England – will be BackTo60s expert witness. In the hearing that led to the granting of the judicial review she produced a brief here which explains the convention.
What is particularly exciting for 50s women – regardless of the result of the judicial review – is that this mechanism known as a Temporary Special Measure could be implemented by government ministers without any need for a judicial review at all. All it would need is the will of the politicians to do something about it under our obligations to ratify CEDAW.
The effect would be to legal proof any challenge without changing the law that has equalised the state pension age.
There is also an extraordinary precedent which was adopted by the Blair government and extended by the Brown government.
In 2002 Parliament passed the Sexual Discrimination (Election Candidates )Act which set up the controversial all women’s short lists for MPs, MSPs, MEPs, AMs and local councillors. The aim, as a detailed House of Commons library briefing reveals, was to dramatically increase the number of successful women candidates in public life and redress the balance between men and women holding public office.
This particular change was seen as a Temporary Special Measure originally aimed to end in 2015.
The 2010 Equality Act used an order to extend this to 2030. The measure was enthusiastically adopted by Labour who had pioneered the idea for the 1997 general election. Other parties did not adopt all women short lists but came under increasing pressure to select more women candidates.
The result has been a big increase in the number of women in Parliament. Now there are 208 women MPs in Parliament compared to 60 in 1992 before Labour introduced the all women shortlist.
Two issues have not been sorted out. The UK has repeatedly refused to embed all the provisions of CEDAW into domestic law. It steadfastly refuses to incorporate CEDAW into the Equalities Act 2010 or pass a separate Act that would provide women with the rights and fundamental freedoms Mrs Thatcher pledged to adhere to over 30 years ago.
And no special legislation has been passed to allow such payments to be made to the 3.9 million women born in the 1950s.
However this is changing. A Parliamentary motion calling for a temporary special measure to compensate the women has attracted 139 MPs from all parties and widely differing views. These include a number of ex ministers from the two main parties including Tories Sir Michael Penning and Robert Halfon, Labour’s Kevan Jones and Angela Eagle.
Other MPs supporting Anna McMorrin’s motion include the DUP chief whip, Sammy Wilson and Brexit spokesman Nigel Dodds; Green Party MP Caroline Lucas; Labour MPs Stephen Kinnock, David Lammy , Chris Bryant, Emma Lewell-Buck and Gareth Thomas; Tory MPs, Sir Peter Bottomley, Dame Caroline Spelman,Sir David Amess, Sir Henry Bellingham and Laurence Robertson;Liberal Democrat MPs Jo Swinson, Layla Moran, Tim Farron and Stephen Lloyd; Plaid Cymru MPs, Ben Lake and Jonathan Edwards Scottish Nationalists, Angus Brendan MacNeil and Deidre Brock and Independents John Woodcock and Chris Williamson.
What is clear is a gathering support for action among MPs – something the present government and pensions minister Guy Opperman ignore at their peril. The 50s born women have a just cause on their side.
The 2019 local elections were one of the most surreal in recent times. For a start two of the newest party groups, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and the breakaway group, ChangeUK, were too late to field any candidates. So they didn’t reflect the range of political alternatives on offer.
They took place against a background of massive disillusion with politicians and country bitterly divided between Remain and Brexit.
The comparison with 2015 – the last time the seats were fought- was not equally valid as the 2015 elections were on the same day as a general election when more people turn out to vote.
So it was not surprising that the two major parties suffered and there was a rise in the number of Independents elected reversing a trend for decades.
However contrary to some of the reporting disillusionment did not fall equally on the Tories and Labour. The Tories lost out massively , Labour did not.
The Conservative party lost 1,330 seats and lost control of 45 councils. They now have control of 93 councils. Labour gained some councils but finished with an overall loss of six councils ending up controlling 60.
The Lib Dems managed net gains of 11 councils – leaving them in control of 18. The Greens did not win any council but are now a presence in both rural and urban areas.
When you get down to the detail you find Labour’s performance reflects a trend that was going on last year. The party is finding it is losing ground in some traditional working class areas where they have dominated for decades but still gaining ground in the most unlikely of places, particularly in the South.
The must dramatic losses were in Sunderland ( 10 seats), Bolsover (14) and North East Derbyshire ( 17), Redcar and Cleveland ( 13) all traditional working class areas. They also were driven back in Derby where the Tories are now the largest party and lost five seats in South Tyneside. Labour lost to a landslide of Independents in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire and now only have two councillors left. Labour disappeared completely in Dacorum ( Hemel Hemsptead) where they have been declining for years. In Stoke on Trent where Labour launched its local election campaign it lost five seats and the Tories gained eight. They also lost control of Bolton, Darlington , Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool.
Now the council leader of Sunderland Graeme Miller blamed the loss of Labour seats on a ” massive protest ” over the party’s attitude to Brexit by agreeing there could be a second referendum. This may have been partly true – as other big losses were in Leave areas – but in Sunderland voters seem to be saying ” Anybody but Labour” by voting in UKIP, Liberal Democrat , Conservative and Green councillors.
Now if this was repeated all over the country it would have been a very bad night for Labour. But it wasn’t. Labour gained seats to take control of Trafford, High Peak and Gravesham in Kent. They also remarkably took over Witney town council winning 15 of 17 seats on David Cameron’s doorstep.
And again like last year they won seats in areas where Labour hasn’t existed for years. This included one seat on South Norfolk council, one seat on Lyme Regis town council, 16 gains in Thanet – last time a UKIP stronghold, six in Folkestone and Hythe, where they hadn’t been represented, and they doubled their councillors in Worthing from five to ten. They also won 3 seats on Lewes council in East Sussex where they have not been represented for a decade.More surprisingly they took two seats in Surrey on Waverley council – both in Godalming, bringing back into politics the former Labour MP for Broxtowe, Nick Palmer. The rout in Waverley which covers true blue Farnham and Haslemere saw a 49 seat Tory majority collapse with 30 Tory councillors losing their seats ( Lib Dems gained 13, Greens two, and Farnham Residents, an independent group ended up with 14 councillors.
The Liberal Democrats did well with landslide results in Chelmsford, North Norfolk, Bath and North East Somerset, Vale of the White Horse, Hinckley & Bosworth, Winchester, Cotswolds, North Devon, Mole Valley, North Devon, Somerset West & Taunton and Teignbridge. Without doubt at a local level they have shrugged off their appalling performances after the coalition government but it is not entirely clear that in every area it will mean a rejection of Brexit. The Greens also now have a presence on many councils by winning seats in both rural and urban areas and strengthening their position in Lewes, Brighton and Norwich.
The Conservative losses are so numerous that it is impossible to list all the 45 councils they no longer control. But there was a devastating trail across Kent and Surrey and serious losses in the West country. Among the biggest losses were Waverley (30), Guildford ( 22) Bath and North East Somerset ( 25) ,Chelmsford (31) , Swale (16) North Norfolk (19) and Kings Lynn (16).
What does all mean? It is too facile to see this as a Brexit v Remain result particularly as they have been a substantial rise in Independents. These are by no means all Tories in disguise. On one level it is the reverse of the 2017 general election which saw the two main parties dominate. Now they are in the back foot in some of their strongholds – whether it be the North East or parts of the Midlands for Labour or the South East, West country and parts of East Anglia for the Tories.
Labour is still advancing the South East and has strengthened its position in Manchester. The Lib Dems are back with a vengeance in former strongholds.What will happen next with the European elections and the Peterborough by-election may also not be a true guide.
We live in surreal times and these were surreal local elections.
Since taking this world trip I have gone out with my wife Margaret in a wheelchair in some 20 countries and encountered many challenges – from uneven and inaccessible pavements to stairs with no accompanying ramps, high kerbs, blocked paths and sudden inaccessible dead ends.
The visit to Singapore was a treat. It outstripped many European cities in the comprehensive services available to disabled people and the ease of getting around the country.
It sends a strong message to Transport for London on how to organise disabled friendly services across the capital. From travelling on the system it was clear a great deal of thought had been put in to make it as easy as possible for disabled people. Signage, positioning of lifts and the design of trains were all co-ordinated. So was access to the street to and from stations. It makes London just amateurish and years behind and pretty hostile to disabled people..
It was a lightening visit – just one day – it involved a visit to major attraction using the underground train system.
While This the cruise terminal was not directly connected to the metro the 250 yard walk from the terminal to the new station was well signposted. It’s served Marina South Pier where more local ferry services run. Getting access was easy . A wide ramp allowed wheelchair access to the station and lifts took you down to the booking hall and platform. The lift came out exactly opposite a carriage on the train which included wheelchair spaces.There was completely level access to the train with a minimal gap. We had to change lines at the next station Marina Bay. Again the system was easy to navigate.
Going out at Bayfront station was easy with lifts to the station entrance and a lift also well used by families with pushchairs to street level.
And then there was a bonus. We were going to the Gardens by the Bay one of Singapore’s newer iconic attractions. And round the corner was a shuttle bus to take you to the centre. But it was no ordinary shuttle bus. It included a ramp so wheelchairs could be hoisted on to the back to enable disabled people to travel in style. They were also testing a driverless vehicle.
Once there the two amazing attractions the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest were easily accessible.The Cloud Forest was particularly impressive with wheelchair accessible lift and always taking you hundreds of feet above the tree, hanging plants and huge waterfalls.The pictures tell the story.
Singapore’s system is copied by the metro in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. It also has lifts to platforms and ramps into stations. Unfortunately at the two stations we used half the lifts did not work. And the access to the stations is not straightforward. More like London than Singapore.
Imagine being dropped in the centre of a huge, unfamiliar vibrant place like Ho Chi Minh City without any local currency or understanding the language. The first thing you might do is look for an ATM to get some local cash. But there is not one in sight.
Then a friendly young guy on a motor scooter who speaks English suggests he can direct you to one which turns out to be round the corner.
You successfully get the money. Then he asks for payment. In the end You give equivalent of £3 and he goes away. As a tourist to the city this happened to me. I was politely fleeced.
The incident is symbolic of the current state of affairs in Vietnam. The loss of £3 was not a huge matter for me but it was a small fortune for him. It illustrates both the gulf between first world tourists and third world countries and the internal divide between the rich and poor in an emerging nation like Vietnam.
The young motor scooter rider is one of the enduring features of Ho Chi Minh City.There are thousands of them desperate and anxious for work and they dominate the roads and the pavements. Trying to negotiate a wheelchair along the pavements I found they were my main competitors for the few ramps that made the streets accessible. The traffic in the city is anarchic and you take your life in your hands to cross the road. Many of scooter riders use the ramps for the disabled to mount the pavement to avoid being held up by traffic lights.
They are at the bottom of a very large pile with shoe shine cleaners and people selling fans to tourists. At the top are wealthy entrepreneurs and property developers in the new Asain tiger.
And a visit to Ho Chi Minh city and a popular seaside resort Nha Trang confirms this. Both are booming with new tower block offices and apartments in the former Saigon and new multi storey hotels in the seaside town.
Ho Chi Minh City still has a number of its original French colonial buildings including the old post office, a Roman Catholic cathedral and an opera house that would not look out of place in Paris.But any idea that the writ of Macron runs here is out of the question. France has left an architectural legacy but not much else.
Instead it is the Japanese,Chinese, Americans and British ( in the shape of banks like HSBC and accountants like KPMG) that dominate the city alongside growing new Vietnamese entrepreneurs.
In Nha Trang a seaside resort that was a favourite relaxation destination for US troops during the Vietnam war it is US and Japanese hotels that are dominating the seafront with at least six new tower block hotels under construction when I visited.
After the American troops left it became a holiday destination for the Russians and Chinese. Now it is seeking a wider tourist market from Asia and even Europe. The resort is not just a cruise ship destination but a major tourist centre in its own right.
The present beautiful uncrowded beach could in future become as crowded as one on the Costa del Sol.
Small shacks with corrugated roofs are cheek by jowl with new luxury hotels in Nha Trang. And in Ho Chi Minh City huge swathes of modern apartments are going up in the city centre which are well beyond the reach of the average Vietnamese worker.
Communism comes in is over property ownership. The concept of private freehold property does not exist. Instead people buy a state licence to occupy the house or flat which can be revoked if the state requires the land for development. People are compensated for having to move and foreigners are restricted to a 50 year occupancy. Some, the guide suggested, get round this by getting a Vietnamese person to “own” it for them.
Most companies expect their staff to work a six day week . Japanese employers are rated the best as they offer staff a five day week.
Vietnam is a country in transition and is aping China. It is an inexpensive holiday destination if you ignore the poverty gap.
By the way the country plans to ban motor scooters from the Ho Chi Minh City by 2030 to combat smog. I wonder where they will go or whether they will succeed.
Anybody on a world Cunard cruise cannot but be charmed by the civilised behaviour of the crew and fellow guests. A day does not go by without any guest being encouraged to enjoy themselves by the large crew and fellow guests.Everybody is very considerate and helpful to each other.
But there is one room in Queen Victoria where all this breaks down. It is called the laundrette. Here the genteel atmosphere throughout the ship evaporates in a mix of soap suds and wet clothes.
The laundrette is one of the few free services on board but there are only two or three machines for 100 or more cabins. And with 700 people going on a 108 day world cruise plus a turnover of some 1300 people at major ports demand is high.
To get a machine normally polite men and women are transformed into duplicitous schemers resorting to any ruse to get their hands on the machines.
When wiley women and aggressive men get going to grab a machine anything goes.
One person even came armed with two fake ” Out of Order ” notices to attach to a washing machine and a dryer so she could get exclusive use during the voyage. The ruse was discovered when other suspicious guests tried using the machines and found they worked perfectly.
More direct action has involved taking other people’s clothes out of driers and washing machines when the guests using the machines are out of the laundrette.
One poor guest who had just loaded a washing machine and went out to get more dirty clothes came back five minutes later to find another guest had emptied her machine and replaced it with her clothes. By then she had started the machine and the first guest could do nothing about it.
As for men aggression can spill over. One man furious that another guy had taken out his washing turned to the other and said ” How dare you run your fingers through my wife’s knickers “. A fist fight broke out and it is said that Cunard threw both of them off the boat at the next port.
No wonder when you visit the Cunard laundrette you find a line of grim faced men and women guarding their machines with their lives and warning you there is a two hour wait before you need to come back.
So far the ethos of take no prisoners has not yet led to any deaths. But there is still another month on this voyage so anything could happen.
In the meantime nobody has copied the iconic Levi jeans advertisement where a young guy goes to the laundrette to strip off and put all his dirty clothes in the machines. But perhaps Cunard’s strict dress code of smart attire after 6.0 pm and a dinner jacket and cocktail dress on gala night puts off people from going to the laundrette in the nude. But again there is still time…
It could be science fiction.It has already been featured on games videos. But in the Australian Bush there’s an extraordinary real problem which is entirely self inflicted.
In the 1930s some bright person thought they had found an ecological way of dealing with a pest – a beetle – that was destroying Australia’s sugar cane crop. They decided to import the world’s large toad that had been introduced to Hawaii from Central America. The toads grow up to six inches long.
What the people who imported the toad did not know is that this large toad could not jump. And the beetles lived at the top of the sugar cane some 15 feet above the ground. So the toads were less than useless in combating the pest.
But their legacy has been a disaster. The toads secrete a poisonous fluid when attacked as their main defence mechanism. Toads are the natural food for many native reptiles and birds. They have no natural predators in Australia.
Worse the reptiles and birds that ate them were poisoned threatening the diversity of wildlife and forcing snakes and iguanas to the point of extinction in some areas. They also multiplied from a few hundred to an amazing 200 million and expanding their area from a small part of Queensland into the vast Northern Territories.
One area we visited was Litchfield National Park south of Darwin. This bush park is famous for its waterfalls and its giant termite mounds. Here the arrival of the cane toad has seen the disappearance of iguanas and some species of snake who ate the toads.
The guide who took us on the trip was devastated by the impact of the toads on other wildlife. And he was concerned about the spread of the toads which extend their range by about 25 miles every year.
Obviously it has not destroyed all wildlife in the park. Some specialised species like the olive python which feeds on bats are largely unaffected. And there is some hope that Australian wildlife hit by the toads may be able to adapt.
One snake has evolved to have a smaller jaw so it cannot swallow a giant toad. A bird under threat has found that if you turn the toad belly up it is possible to eat parts of it without being poisoned.
And the park’s meat eating ants have found they are immune from the poison. Normally they invade the huge termite mounds and kill the termites. Now they have found toads as another part of their diet.
The Australian cane toad has also adapted. It has grown longer legs so it can cover greater distances in this huge continent. Meanwhile scientists have unraveled the toad’s DNA in the hope of finding a way to try and eliminate them. This is an extraordinary story of a self inflicted problem that could be solved by evolution.