Barbara battles on!

Unsigned article by Tony Lynes published in the Newsletter of the Southwark Pensioners Action Group, July 2000.

Our Barbara – otherwise known as the Baroness Castle – celebrates her 90th birthday this October. To see her groping her way round the corridors of the House of Lords, you might think it was time she retired; but if her eyesight is failing, her brain is as sharp as ever – and so is her determination to see justice done to the pensioners of both today and tomorrow. In particular, she takes every opportunity to press for the restoration of the link between the basic state pension and average earnings – the link which she introduced in 1975 and the Thatcher government abolished in 1980.

Barbara’s latest attempt to get the link restored occurred during a debate on a government bill shortly before midnight on 22 June. Normally, most of their Lordships would have gone home by then, but the Labour benches were packed with the government’s loyal supporters, summoned by the Whips to teach the 89-year-old rebel a lesson. As a result, her proposal was defeated by 84 votes to 6.

Among the 84 who voted against the earnings link, there was not a single Conservative or Liberal Democrat. Nearly all – 82 to be precise – were Labour peers, slavishly obeying the Whips’ instructions. The other two were “crossbenchers” – members who do not claim allegiance to any party and are free to vote according to their beliefs. One of them was Lord (formerly Brian) Rix, who gave up his career as an actor to work for Mencap. What led him to join the anti-Castle mob is a mystery. The other was Lady Greengross.

Sally Greengross was made a life peer for her work as director of Age Concern England, a post she held until her retirement at the end of June. She was widely regarded as representing the views of pensioners. Yet she chose to vote against the one demand which unites the pensioner movement, both nationally and locally. The Tories abstained from voting (with the honourable exception of Lady Park who voted in favour of the link). The Liberal Democrats abstained. If Lady Greengross could not bring herself to support Barbara Castle, she too could have abstained.

Age Concern is a highly respected organisation. Lady Greengross, as its leader, was frequently invited by the press, radio and television to comment on policy issues on behalf of pensioners. It is sad that, only a week before her retirement, she showed herself unfit to hold that position. We can only hope that Age Concern’s new director, Gordon Lishman, will ensure that the organisation’s policies and actions are in tune with the views of the overwhelming majority of pensioners. That may not earn him a peerage, but it will earn him the respect of millions of older people, which is worth a good deal more.

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