SOCIAL Security Secretary Peter Lilley's plan, to phase out state earnings-related pensions (SERPS) and replace the scheme with private pensions for everybody, is being billed by the Tories as a "big idea". They actually seem to think it will be a vote winner.
It may well seem a very good "big idea" to the major insurance companies, finance houses and others who peddle private pensions. These numerous companies who trade in investment schemes and pensions plans will be able to literally laugh all the way to the bank.
But it will be anything but good for the majority of people who will be compelled to pay for these pension plans, including the inevitable mark-up to provide a profit for the private sector.
Worst of all, this plan is the thin end of the wedge so far as the state retirement pension is concerned. This has already been attacked by destroying the link between the state pension and earnings.
Now they want everyone to have another pension scheme as well. This can only be to shore-up the falling value of the state pension relative to average earnings and to eventually replace the universal state pension altogether.
It would mean workers paying more out of their wages. It would mean low-waged workers, the unemployed, sick, disabled and many women who take time out of work to raise children, having to rely solely upon means-tested benefits when they reach retirement age. It will in short widen even further the gap between rich and poor.
Everyone should receive a decent pension when they retire without the indignity of means-tests, poverty and anxiety. Working people, who have produced all the wealth in the first place, should be able to look forward to retirement without fear of want.
We all need to stoutly defend the principle of universality for pensions and benefits and fight for a decent pension for everybody that maintains its value by being linked to earnings.
Mr Lilley's "big idea", far from being a vote-winner, is just one more reason to kick the Tories out at the general election.
Hands off Albania
IT WAS inevitable that the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe would lead to societies divided into a few haves and many have-nots. High unemployment and rising levels of poverty quickly became the common features of these "new democracies".
With the imperialist powers holding most of the cards and most of the investment capital, many of the home-grown aspiring capitalists resorted to hustling their way to a place in the sun. Not surprisingly there have been many examples of crude profiteering and the spawning of many confidence tricksters, crooks and racketeers preying upon the people.
In Albania this has led to a popular uprising against President Sali Berisha and his govemment.
The West's leaders are dismayed by this development which they fear could bring down the discredited Berisha regime. Their worst nightmare would be the return of a socialist-led govemment. And they know that any govemment following after Berisha in the present circumstances would be more progressive and less amenable to imperialism.
They are therefore tempted to intervene in order to prop Berisha up. But for the time being they are prepared to wait and see if Berisha can crush the revolt himself.
This will not be easy since Berisha's regime has not only enraged large numbers of the people it has also lost support among the police and other security forces.
Western intervention in Albania would be an outrage. It would lead to even more suffering and bloodshed and would trample on Albanian sovereignty.
The West's leaders will no doubt soon start talking about "humanitarian missions". But their real concern will be to keep Albania in the imperialist fold and available to capitalism.
We stand with the people of Albania and demand there is no armed intervention in that country.
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Three major towns in the south including Vlore and Saranda have been freed in a mass uprising following the regime's refusal to do anything about the pyramid-scams which have left most workers destitute.
President Berisha has declared a state of emergency and a dusk to dawn curfew. Anyone seen bearing arms will be shot on sight. A "Council of Defence" headed by the boss of the secret police, Bashkim Gazidede, is now leading the regime's counter-attack And the head of the army has been dismissed and replaced by one of Berisha's cronies, General Adem Copani.
Berisha now admits that he has lost control of the south to rebels which he says are led by communists and "foreign agents". In the capital, Tirana, sporadic exchanges of fire have been reported. Roadblocks have been set up across all roads out of the city.
In the south of the country, the stronghold of the opposition Socialist Party, the army has put up little or no resistance to the masses, who are forming people's militias in the areas they control.
This new upsurge began in the port of Vlore last weekend. The town was the centre of militant anti-government protests last month when the pyramid-racketeers and their close links with Berisha's Democratic Party were exposed.
Demonstrators overran police and army arsenals, seizing weapons and taking over the town. Berisha's holiday mansion was ransacked in the uprising together with the headquarters of the SHIK secret police. At least four people were killed in the fighting. Similar revolts spread through the south once the news of their victory spread and armed rebel units are spreading out across the mountains.
In Saranda, near the Greek border, government offices, police stations and courts were torched.
Two naval patrol boats have been commandeered. A prison was broken into and 200 inmates released. A new town council, led by the opposition, is calling for an international delegation to come to the port to prevent a massacre if Berisha's army returns.
"We are going to organise the structures of the city ourselves and we will become an example for all of Albania," one of the Saranda leaders told a 3,000 strong rally.
Hooded SHIK men have been going round murdering individuals believed to be opposition supporters. The air-force has dropped a few bombs outside the rebel held town of Delvine. But the army has confined its operations to sporadic clashes with rebel units along the mountain roads.
The rebels have captured tanks and are well-armed. Most are untrained though some are former members of Albania's old People's Army. They are calling for Berisha's resignation and free elections. Some units are preparing to march on the capital.
Berisha has dismissed his own government in a move to appease the opposition. But he got his tame parliament, the product of last year's rigged elections, to give him another five years of office.
The Socialist Party leaders, and other opposition politicians have called on Berisha to form a national government to end the violence. The Socialists are the main heirs to the old Party of Labour which ruled the country from 1945 until the counter-revolution of 1991.
Their leaders are opposed to Berisha's pledge to totally privatise the economy but they are in favour of some of the economic "reforms". Others remain loyal to the policy of self-sufficiency practised by Enver Hoxha, the leader of the Albanian revolution and government from 1945 to his death in 1985. His grandson is active amongst the Albanian opposition based in Greece.
"Armed communist rebels, helped and financed by foreign espionage services, have started military actions to overthrow the government with force and establish their rule across the country" Berisha said on Albanian television. "They will soon feel the iron hand and the full punishment of the laws of this state".
But all his "iron hand" can rely on is his own hand-picked thugs in the secret police, the rabidly anti-communist members of his Democratic Party and some elements within the army. And he clearly is praying that the West will come to his rescue and bail out his tottering regime.
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The magazine's February report shows that over three million water bill payers last year "fell into debt and received court summons warnings". This is an increase of 700,000 since 1990-91.
There were over a quarter of a million County Court Judgements (CCJs) against water bill payers for 1995-6.
Actual disconnections have been lower because prepayment meters have been installed. But that of course compounds the debt trap.
The number of electricity prepayment meters installed has reached 3,420,143; while British Gas has put in 850,362 prepayment meters -- a combined total of 4,270,505.
And Which? has also found that utility companies have "little consistency" in the way they "treat customers in debt". There are'big regional variations" in the bills of prepayment customers.
For instance, in Wales a prepayment meter costs £330.48 a year. But Midlands Electricity charges £278.95, Which? said.
There are also differences over the costs of payment methods. The cost to a typical family with Swalec who use prepayment by meter is £27 ayear more than the same family paying by direct debit. With British Gas the difference is £55.
The companies claim, according to Which?, that this is to cover the extra cost of prepayment fuel. But Which? points out that Scottish Hydro-Electric makes no additional charge.
Prepayment meters force the user to pay in advance, but it works out more expensive for a family, Which? says. Users have, as a result, "disconnected themselves" by "going without".
These meters are also used to recover debt They are "calibrated to collect a given amount each week". But not all companies abide by the Department of Social Security's debt direct payment scheme which has a maximum limit of £2.40 a week.
In May 1995 over 200,000 people on Income Support (IS) had direct payment deductions made from their benefits to British Gas. Over half of them were paying between £10 and £20 a week m 1995 for current gas use and debt repayment.
And there were over 70,000 people on IS making the same payments to electricity cornpanies, while 200,000 were paying water companies this way.
Water companies cut off 5,826 domestic supplies while around 1,000 electricity domestic users were cut off and British Gas cut off over 14,000 in 1995.
British Telecom, up to June 1996, had cut off 796,980 homes -- 100,000 of them in one month.
Which? said BT's payment plans for those in difficulty "have had little impact".
Both British Gas and the electricity companies use "forced entry" to cut off or install prepayment meters, Which? said.
According to latest figures, electricity companies forced entry into 25,000 homes. In London alone, 14,511 homes were forcibly entered by London Electricity in one year -- the highest number for any company.
British Gas forced entry into 12,192 homes nationwide, while 14,511 users were disconnected, of these 84 per cent were cut off by forced entry.
But as the magazine warns, these figures are conservative because three companies -- Eastern Electricity, Southern Electric and East Midlands -- failed to give Which? any figures.
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Rebel leader Laurent Kabila said he had rejected the ceasefire call because he wanted South Africa and the United States to convince those opposed to negotiations first. The Zairean dictator General Mobuto has accused the rebels of being secretly backed by other African countries - meaning Rwanda and Uganda -and he will not negotiate until their alleged assistance is ended.
But Kabila, a veteran Zairean revolutionary, warned that "the clique in Kinshasha will profit from an immediate cease-fire". The Zairean army is reeling back in disarray and Kabila said they, together with their mercenaries, were crushed in the battle for Labuto.
The rebels, who began the current upsurge six months ago, now control over a fifth of the mineral-rich African country.
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Under this latest Tory plan Serps would be phased out and replaced by compulsory private pension schemes for everybody.
The Tories claim this will raise pensioners' incomes, give individuals control over their own pensions and reduce public expenditure.
But retired people's incomes would only rise because they would be paying money into the private pension plans -- something people can do now if they have enough income to afford the premiums.
How would people on low wages or no wages manage to subscribe to a compulsory pension scheme?
Margaret Witham of the Greater London Pensioners' Association told the New Worker: "This is another blow -- not just for existing pensioners but certainly for pensioners coming along.
"It will be very much to the detriment of those on low incomes.
"The low-paid generally, and part-time workers, will be particularly badly hit. "They have to spend all their money now just to get by. There is nothing over to put aside. It's hard enough to live as it is", she said.
And the claim that Lilley's plan would put a brake on public spending clearly suggests that the state retirement pension would be held down. It has already been cut because the link with earnings has been broken.
The danger is clear -- if the state retirement pension is allowed to slip further and further behind inflation while private pension plans are made compulsory it would lead to the withering away of the state pension as a universal benefit. It is another nail in the coffin of the welfare state.
What is needed is to restore the link between the state pension and earnings, to increase the basic state pension to an adequate and decent level, to fight to preserve the principal of universality and to oppose an increase in the number of people having to suffer the means-test.
Margaret Witham was surprised the Tories regarded this plan as a vote-winning "big idea".
She said: "Why the Tories think it will win the election for them I don't know. We need to campaign against these proposals now, before the next parliament, to make sure that whatever its colour, it does not carry out this threat".
Lilley and the rest of the Cabinet have to be proved wrong - we can do that by voting Labour at the general election and booting the Tories out of office. .
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