It shows how risky private pensions can be. Even if you keep clear of outright crooks like the late Robert Maxwell, there is still the danger that a pension scheme could fail because of poor investment management or stock market slides.
This gambling element in the financial markets is no doubt all in a day's idling for wealthy investors -- a bad run of fortune might mean having to part with the luxury yacht orthe penthouse flat in New York. It is not likely to spell real hardship or suffering.
But when the pensions and small-scale savings of working class people are hit by a market fall or some shady or incompetent finance broker it's quite another matter and the struggle of scrimping for years can be tossed aside as if it were nothing at all. The effect is devastating.
Unfortunately, it's not enough just to warn people of these risks. Most workers are dragged into the up and down world of the City of London without seeking to be involved and without having any means of controlling the situation.
This is because many occupational pensions are invested by employers in the City and everything that has been privatised is out there on the floor of the stock exchange.
The privatised industries, utilities and services are all up for grabs by whichever investors choose to buy into them and they are all subject to market forces such as labour force shake-outs, cuts in customer services and price increases. We are all hooked in to this City casino whether we want to be or not.
Yet in the same week as Equitable Life announced its cut in the value of its with-profits pensions, Tony Blair was riding roughshod over everyone and anyone who dared to oppose his latest wave of privatisations.
He lectured public sector workers on his determination to push ahead with letting the private sector crawl through the backdoor of the health, education and other services and claimed such private involvement was essential. His words provoked anger among the public sector trade unions -- but Blair is hoping to tough it out. Hee will soon discover that the unions are not alone and have widespread support in this matter.
Then he tried to sack the chairpersons of some House of Commons Select Committees only to be defeated on the matter in the Commons itself. Few doubt that he acted because the chairpersons in question were not "on message" when it came to the question of privatisation and were holding things up.
Finally, last week he sacked Bob Kiley from his job as chair of the London Transport board just days before he was due to give his reports on technical and safety matters that, it is thought, could have raised difficult questions for the government's plan for a public private partnership (PPP) of London Underground. Some believe Bob Kiley was only given the post in the first place to keep him busy, and quiet, while the election campaign was underway.
This whole business of privatisation is developing into a battle royal with the unions and a large section of the public on one side and the government front bench and big business on the other. The capitalists are absolutely desperate to get investment opportunities in everything and anything and the deeper the crisis becomes the more desperate these profiteers are.
Blair knows very well that this is very unpopular and tries to pull the wool over our eyes by maintaining that schemes like PPP and PFI (Private Finance Initiatives) are not privatisation schemes at all. Of course no one is fooled since we've all been there before when Thatcher introduced schemes like Compulsory Competitive Tendering for local services and buy-your-council house schemes which ended up with huge estates falling into the hands of giant private companies.
We need to stand together with the public sector workers and fight back against these anti-democratic and anti-working class measures. And we need to fight even harder to defend the principle of a decent universal, state retirement pension that is linked to average eamings and to tell the finance houses to stuff their private policies where the light doesn't shine.
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by Daphne Liddle
PRIME Minister Tony Blair last week told the unions and his own backbenchers that he intends to carry on his programme of back-door privatisation of public services -- he calls this reforming them -- regardless of the growing opposition.
In doing so he has found himself embattled on many fronts and has already suffered some defeats and knock backs.
In the House of Commons, his attempt to sack the Labour chairs of two Commons select committees because those committees had been too critical of Government policy rebounded.
On Friday he sacked veteran Gwyneth Dunwoody who chairs the transport committee and Donald Anderson who chairs the foreign affairs committee.
But on the Monday, the House of Commons had voted emphatically against the newly appointed committees. The composition of the committees will now go back to the committee of selection with a clear signal that the House will tolerate nothing less than the reinstatement of Mr Anderson and Ms Dunwoody.
Mr Anderson described this defiance by the backbenchers as a "peasants' revolt".
On the London Underground front, Tony Blair sacked Bob Kiley as chair of London Regional Transport just weeks after giving him the appointment in the run-up to the general election.
This makes plain the cynical nature of the appointment -- to clear the unpopular issue of Tube privatisation from the headlines when it could cost votes, with no intention of really making any concession to the clearly expressed wishes of Londoners and Tube workers that the Tube should remain intact and in public ownership.
Bob Kiley, who remains transport commissioner for London, as appointed by Mayor Ken Livingstone, retaliated by accusing the Government of firing him in order divert attention from the dangers of the public private partnership which would break up the Tube, separating the responsibility for running the trains from track and station maintenance.
Kiley's attempts to negotiate with the prospective PPP companies failed predictably on his insistence of himself, as London Transport Commissioner, retaining day to day centralised control over safety issues. The companies regarded this as much too much interference in their profit making.
"I will go into the night but I will be making a lot of noise along the way," he said and promised to wear his dismissal as "a badge of honour".
His sacking came just before he was about to present two damning reports to the London Transport board, both of which support his argument that PPP is bad in terms of safety implications and financial terms.
"Interesting timing isn't it?" he commented. "The Government has silenced me in front of the board meeting and this is effectively muzzling the board which is supposed to be independent and represent the public."
Meanwhile, Mayor Livingstone is pressing ahead with his court case to halt PPP on safety grounds. He said that Mr Kiley's sacking would make little difference as Mr Kiley remains head of Transport for London which will take over responsibility for the Tube when the PPP future is resolved.
The London Evening Standard newspaper has opened its pages for public debate of the PPP issue and has shown the overwhelming public opposition to it, and the consternation from many commuters that the Government, in a "democracy" can be so determined to flout public opinion.
But the Government in a bourgeois democracy must answer to the needs of finance capital before those of the people. Tony Blair is not digging his heels in out of childish petulance but because it is demanded of him capitalism needs and demands privatisation and it will have it regardless of the will of the voters unless they are prepared to do more than just vote. They need to challenge the whole system.
So Blair continues. Last week he told a meeting of health workers and other public sector employees at the Royal Free Hospital in London: "It is reform or bust".
He said: "I give a commitment and a warning. My commitment is that I will not flinch from the decisions and changes to deliver better public services, no matter how much opposition. If the changes are right they will be done.
"My warning is equally clear. If we who believe in public services don't change them for the better, there is an alternative political party and position that will seize on our weakness and use it to dismantle the very notion of public services as we know them. It is reform or bust."
"Bust" was an unfortunate term for the Labour Party in this context as Blair's intransigence provoked the GMB general union to cut its financial contribution to the party by £1 million over the next four years - down from £650,000 a year to &pounnd;400,000 a year.
The Labour Party, after all, owes its origin and continued existence to the organised working class -- the trade unions.
But there is a real danger that Blair could use cuts in party finance to seek funding from big business. This could end in the separation of the party from the unions which would be a disaster for the working class. The best outcome would be an irreversible separation of Tony Blair and his cronies from the Labour Party.
Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, was also making clear his union's opposition to any increase in private sector running of our education system.
Speaking at a degree awards ceremony at the University College of Northampton last Tuesday, where he was awarded an honorary masters degree, he said there is a need for industry to reconnect with schools, colleges and universities.
But he added: "We don't want Railtrack running our schools...
"In the education debate, some are left confused as to how the mantra of 'education, education, education' can be quickly translated into grants being replaced by loans and a student population with an average debt of £10,000 who face the choice between working and studying and 85 per cent of whom leave higher education in debt.
"Clearly the debt burden is not a Third World phenomenon but a plague on our student population."
Blair's speech at the Royal Free Hospital provoked not only the unions but his own backbenchers, who are now becoming more confident in their strength to defy him.
David Taylor, MP for Leicestershire North West, said: "The Private Finance Initiative truly is prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept, and intolerable in consequence for taxpayers, citizens and workers."
Kelvin Hopkins, MP for Luton North said PFI was "irrational nonsense" that was less popular than the poll tax. And Diane Abbot, MP for Hackney North, attacked the Government's "obsessively ideological approach".
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by Caroline Colebrook
A GROUP of tenants in the London Borough of Creenwich, many of them pensioners, whose homes used to belong to Greenwich Hospital Estates, are facing an increase in rent from £57 a week to £190.
One of the elderly residents of Trafalgar Grove -- 81-year-old army veteran William Denford -- said: "We couldn't believe it when we got this letter saying our rent was going up by so much.
"I get my pension, army pension and council pension which comes to £180 a week. That leaves me £10 short a week."
The tenants live in Travers House which was owned by Greenwich Hospital Estates until last September.
The residents, most of whom are ex-services, were in protected housing and had no fear of massive rent rises.
When Greenwich Hospital Estates decided to sell the estate, the tenants were given the choice of buying their homes.
Mr Denford explained: "We got a letter, saying if we wanted to by our places we all had to agree to buy our houses.
"We were told the total cost would be £1.2 million. And we would have to raise a deposit of £129,000 between 20 houses.
"But as most of us are pensioners, we don't want to buy our homes. We wouldn't even get a mortgage anyway."
Then, earlier this month, a letter arrived from the Essex based property company B Bailey and Company.
The letter admitted that the rent rise was steep but added: "This is due to your current rent being artificially low. It is necessary to reduce this imbalance and increase the rents to market rent levels."
The company also included a new tenancy agreement to be signed that was not mentioned in the letter.
Fortunately Mr Denford phoned his son Harry before signing the new agreement. Harry has worked in housing and advised his father not to sign the agreement because that would effectively be agreeing to pay the new rent.
Harry Denford said: "Luckily my dad rang me and because I have worked in housing before, I thought it was a bit dodgy for my dad and his neighbours to sign the new agreement.
"It was strange that they made no mention of the tenancy agreement in the letter. You would really think they would let elderly people live out their lives here."
William Denford added: "I have never been in debt. I collect my war pension eacn Thursday which is £50 and I go straight to the rent office to pay my rent.
"The only thing I can do now is to go to the Department of Social Security which I really don't want to do. It is my pride. I have gone through my whole life without benefits."
The local council claims it tried to persuade Greenwich Hospital Estates to sell to a "social" landlord and has set up a dedicated surgery at the town hall to advise them on the situation.
But it seems there is not a lot they can do. Most will be eligible for some housing benefit but there is a limit on the level this will cover and of course it is means tested.
Those with savings will be expected to use them up paying the high level rents before they become eligible for housing benefit.
This is a dire warning of what can happen when housing is taken out of the public sector and into the private sector. Greenwich Hospital Estates' was reckoned to be a safe, "social" landlord with guaranteed affordable rents like a housing association.
But when it decided to sell up the tenants were left at the mercy of the private market.
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by Steve Lawton
AFRICA has travelled a hard, illusive road to unity during the near-forty year existence ofthe Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which met for the 37th time last week in Lusaka, Zambia.
On this occasion it was a landmark conference creating its successor, the African Union (AU), with a comprehensive reappraisal of continental priorities.
The initiative was led by Libya's leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who first projected the need for change at a special OAU conference in September 1999. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan paid tribute to him for "spearheading this development."
Since then a number of governments have been engaged in formulating an Africa-wide political, economic and social framework that would tackle both continental survival and real development.
In Lusaka the 53 state leaders and ministers agreed to merge two major strands into the New African Initiative: The Millennium African Recovery plan headed by South African President Thabo Mbeki, and the Omega Plan led by Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade.
The machinery to project it has now to be put in place: An all-Africa parliament, executive council and central bank. They hope to have everything up and running by the time of the AU summit in South Africa next year.
With about three quarters of the worlds worse off nations, Africa has little choice but to take an active collective approach.
It has major pandemics afflicting and killing millions, widespread destitution, persistent wars that affect half of the African states and depleting resources that benefit transnationals at the expense of its peoples.
The global realignment of imperialism between the US and the European Union, and Asian regional economic co-ordination with China at its heart. has led African leaders to seek a more effective place on the international stage.
China's Premier Zhu Rongji sent the conference a solidarity message lauding the OAU's history since 1963 of struggling for African solidarity, unity, national independence and liberation.
He linked China's co-operation with the modern initiative for greater African integration, to the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation held in Beijing last October. That set out a new basis of working together as the OAU began its transformation.
Outgoing OAU secretary general Salim Ahmed Salim said the changes were necessary if there was to be any chance of achieving "a stronger and united continent".
They have "no other option", he explained, "but to remain together because separately none of us can make it, and individual linkages with the outside world are not viable."
It is therefore not surprising that African leaders slammed the British Government for leading an international effort to "isolate and vilify" Zimbabwe as it proceeds with the land reform programme.
"This is not the way Africa works," the Ugandan High Commissioner, George Kirya, said. "We work in a collective manner. We find there are some people who are trying to isolate Zimbabwe."
He said Europe and the US are "siding with Britain and I think this is why the leaders in Africa are saying that this problem ought to be solved, and they can only do it if they collectively find a solution to it."
Zimbabwe's leader Robert Mugabe insists that Britain is liable for the payment of compensation for expropriated land, while the British government barely disguises its hostility, refusing to recognise the way the reform is carried out.
The 12 million of 30 million hectares of land designated for 5,000 black landless inhabitants was never likely to be given up by the white farmers through a gentleman's agreement. The very idea of this land reform is anathema to capitalist property relations and the powerful precedent it sets.
As isolation moves to the threat of sanctions, we see that when real challenges occur, global vested interests always attempt to stick the boot in. Precisely why the AU is defending Zimbabwe and is intent on taking the offensive.
Even though there is some progress in achieving a cessation of conflict in some African countries, these have often been short-lived. So the effectiveness of the AU's members over the coming year is crucial for its legitimacy.
South Africa has been busy taking the message into Europe and to the latest G8 top Western nations' summit. It meets amid draconian defensive measures, as we So to press, against expected anti-capitalist protests.
The collective solution of Africa's problems ultimately rests with re-drawing the economic relationship with the big capitalist powers and the transnationals.
With global recession intruding, precious little done about debt cancellation (which of itself is not a solution), how much co-operation is Africa going to get? Even so, China has just announced a cut in Tanzania's and Zanzibar's debts and arranged no-strings loans.
A former UN development director Bimal Ghosh pointed out in the International Herald Tribune (ll.7.01) that "African countries will find it hard to diversify their economies if rich nations continue to impose higher tariffs when Africans strive to process their own raw materials for export abroad as part of their belated move toward industrialisation and technological upgrading."
The new chairman of the OAU, Zambian President Frederick Chiluba said: "With the ongoing unprecedented acceleration of technological change and the consequences of globalisation with its attendant competitiveness, regional economic co-operation assumes even greater importance and urgency.
The AU initiative, set against efforts to re-fashion the role of drug transnationals in South Africa and beyond, is a clear pointer that suggests more stident action is to follow.
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A NUMBER of instances of workers who have suffered death or serious injury in the workplace as a result of neglect of health and safety regulations have come to light this week.
In Newport, South Wales, one man has been killed and two injured by leaking chemical fumes at a waste disposal plant. Roads around the plant had to be closed as firefighters struggled to bring the release under control.
Leicester Crown Court imposed penalties totalling £500,000 on the Harvestime Bakery after two workers suffered a horrendous death when they were sent into a hot bread oven to carry out repairs before it had properly cooled down.
David Mayes and Ian Erickson died in agony after being ordered to carry out repairs in temperatures of 100 centigrade at the Harvestime factory in Leicester.
The oven should have been left for 12 hours to cool down but that would have cost a lot of production time.
The parent company Fresha was fined £250,000 with £175,000 in costs and Harvestime was fined £100,000 with £75,000 in costs. Three executives were fined £20,000, £2,000 and £1,000.
More than 150 employees of the engineering company Colebrand Limited suffered weight-loss, insomnia, memory loss and impotence after being sub-contracted to Railtrack to remove paint from station buildings at Lime Street in Liverpool.
It turned out the paint was lead-based and the employer should have provided proper safety equipment. But they were given only paper masks and ate and smoked on site.
The lead poisoning has caused serious permanent damage to the workers including loss of fertility and neurological damage. They are now seeking compensation with the support of Liverpool Trades Council.
A spokesperson for the trades council said they were trying to trace other Colebrand workers throughout the country who may also have claims. He added: "If they had been trade union members this wouldn't have happened, because shop stewards would have recognised the danger."
And in Blackfriars Crown Court, London, a judge accused London Underground Limited of "institutional blindness" after allowing a regime of risk and danger to continue for four years.
LUL had paid only "lip service" to safety issues and fallen "lamentably short of the standards expected" as track workers were forced repeatedly to risk death at night from electrocution and passing trains.
The Tube signals operations manager, David Elkingon, known as "Dangerous Dave" was fined a total of £5,000 and branded a "dictatorial bully" by Judge John Samuels QC after the court learnt he had forced engineers to work in the darkness with track current still switched on and often while it was raining.
It was only luck that no one was killed or seriously injured but several suffered electric shocks and one man ended up in hospital wired to a heart monitor machine for over three hours.
The judge deferred sentence on the six health and safety breaches which LUL had admitted until next January because of the uncertainty surrounding the future of LUL regarding the Public Private Partnership.
And he said: "The root cause of this state of affairs was a lack of effective managerial control at LUL throughout this project."
Council workers belonging to the TGWU general union had voted unanimously for action and workers in the public sector union Unison were expected to join them. The local National Union of Teachers will ballot in September.
The rally was addressed by local TGWU branch secretary Bob Tennant, local Unison secretary Dave Knight and Ron Haycock from the NUT.
Bob Tennant told the crowd: "In this borough and across the country, privatisation has failed to improve or even maintain the quality of services to the public."
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