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Community / Pension protestors build up momentum at Tesco roundabout

Protest is about a wide range of social inequality

State pension protestors in Lerwick. Photo: Peter Johnson/Shetland News

“WE ARE all Robin Hood!” that is the battle cry from Janet Ainsworth who was among a group of 30 pensioners and their supporters once more waving placards at the Tesco roundabout on Saturday.

In a week which saw school children and pensioners alike take to the streets to protest against mainstream apathy over the most crucial issues of our day, Ainsworth, who organised the protest, said that a meeting with politicians was in the offing and that they would be putting heads together to come up with fresh tactics.

The protest drew a good number of toots of support from passing motorists and attendance was as good as the first gathering of what has now been christened the Shetland Pension Justice Group, which has now set up a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/The-Shetland-Pension-Justice-Group-508622029663679/

The protest has wider aims than blocking the increase of the women’s pension age to be in line with men’s. The damaging roll-out of universal credit, massive fuel poverty and food banks, which have been used by pensioners as well as working age people who struggle to find cash for food, are among the main additional targets.

While demographics has played a part in the pension crisis, according to the protestors, the flow of money from the poor to the rich has also been a critical part of the dynamic.

At 29 per cent of the average working wage, the UK state pension is the lowest in the EU, a “scandal” for a supposedly wealthy country.

Additionally, from 6 April, anyone paying into a work pension will see contributions rise from five to eight per cent, with the employee share rising from three to five per cent and the employer share from two to three per cent.

According to Ainsworth there is a “perfect storm” of circumstances being flung at retirees, with a knock on effect on the health service which is already struggling with staff and funding shortages.

She said on Saturday: “Today one of the messages is that we have been talking about is fuel poverty here in Shetland. Here 53 per cent are in fuel poverty, 19 per cent are in extreme fuel poverty and76 per cent of pensioner households are in fuel poverty – that’s a disgraceful amount of people being cold.

“That has an impact on the NHS because they are being taken to hospital because of suffering illness. It affects young children and older folk alike.

“It’s not just one aspect of the pension problem it’s a whole great big mass of problems. It’s a perfect storm come together and its not down the road, it’s here. It’s in our community. Folk that cannot afford to heat their houses are ending up going to hospital. They closed a ward in the hospital here. There’s all sorts of crisis and nobody is talking about it.”

According to Ainsworth there were 50,000 avoidable cold deaths in England and Wales last year. “We cannot carry on like this. People are dying because of cold, and that’s not acceptable in anybody’s language.”

Shetland Pension Justice Group in Lerwick on Saturday. Photo: Peter Johnson/Shetland News.

She added: “I was talking to a young woman in her 30s last week who was in fuel poverty, so it’s not just pensioners. I keep talking about Shetland’s wall and building a better future together for us all, not just pensioners.”

Local SNP branch secretary Angela Sutherland said that she was there to support the women in their struggle.

She said: “It’s also about the universal credit changes that are going to affect the pension credits in May. If your partner is younger than you, you are not going to get any pension credit, you will get universal credit instead and that is a £7,000 difference per annum until your younger partner is eligible for pension credit.

“The pension is not a benefit its a pension. We paid in for it and we should get when we are due it.”

With the difference in couples’ ages biting into pensions, people may have to be on universal credit for many years before qualifying for the state pension.

Ainsworth also cited then chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne who in 2016 said that pushing back the age for pension eligibility had dwarfed any other measure the government had taken to save money. At the same time, the chancellor hailed the fact that £1 billion had been withdrawn from private pensions in two months as a vindication of liberalised pension rules.

Ainsworth added: “George Osborne said it was the least controversial, most efficient way of getting the money in to offset the financial crisis with the bankers. This is about robbing the poor to pay the rich.

“You know what – we have had enough. Robin Hood stole from the rich, who had already stolen from the poor, and gave it back to the poor. That’s what’s happened to us, we have been robbed by the rich ones and there they are in their warm offices.

“Guy Opperman (Conservative MP) is talking about fuel poverty from his warm office and he’s put them there.”

Sutherland said that the bankers and the rich had not been affected by austerity at all and had instead been treated to a tax cut.

She added: “Theresa May said that austerity was over last year when, in fact, it never touched the rich people that she represents. It only touched the normal people who pay taxes. It’s not over, it’s gone too far and it’s not over yet.”

Ainsworth was nonetheless delighted with the turnout: “It is absolutely fantastic. With a small population here in Shetland and for all these people to give up their time on Saturday morning to speak up about things that they are really really worried about, is absolutely admirable. I’m so happy and so pleased.

“But it just shows you an indication of how bad things are for us to be stood here like this hoping for our justice and support from our community.”

“I would like to thank the elected members who have come today. I really think we need to applaud them for turning out and supporting us today.”

Lerwick North councillor John Fraser said: “I would like to see an end of the conservative ministers describing pensions as a benefit: it is not a benefit, it is deferred payments and these women have paid in month on month, week on week, year on year. They are entitled to their payments and they should receive it as was promised.”

His Shetland Central colleague Ian Scott said that the Labour party had first instituted the idea of the pension age change and the ball had been kept rolling by subsequent Tory and Liberal governments.

He added: “The pensions are poor enough as they are without people having to wait longer. I personally have lost a year out of my pension; my partner has lost three years. Nobody knew about it, nobody was told about it. It is just a whole load of ordinary working class folk who are losing out because there is no big voice against it.”

The protestors plan to be back outside Tesco next week but are going to “put heads together” and come up with new tactics.

Protestor Anne Leask said: “Hopefully more and more people will be joining us in the coming weeks. We’ve had a lot of encouragement from other wall to wall women groups and Back to 60’s and WASPI’s, lots of encouragement.”