Friday, November 30, 2007

Burma: We don’t want our Pay and Council Tax used to support the Military Junta.

I found out last night at the Tower Hamlets Council Pension Investment Panel, that one of our fund managers have £2.3 million invested in Total (the 2nd highest holding in that particular fund) and £1.3 million in Chevron (7th biggest holding).

I suspect that our other Global equity fund will have similar investments in companies who have trading interests in Burma. We also own shares in companies such as GlaxoSmithKline (the huge British based drug company) who according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC – click on this link for a full list) has business links with the Burma.

Many members of the pension scheme are furious that their pension contributions and council tax are being invested in companies that support the Burmese military junta and allow the murder of unarmed monks and civilians who are peacefully calling for democracy.

This is part of a complaint that local Tower Hamlets resident, UNISON member and Head Caretaker, Tony Boyce, has sent off to his Labour councillors (seen left with his granddaughter).

“I have been a member of the Tower Hamlets pension scheme and a Council tax payer for over 20 years. I have lived in Tower Hamlets for all my life. I am looking forward to eventually retiring and then being able to spend more time seeing my grandchildren grow up.

I would like to think that I would be able to help them out with them going to college or leaving home and getting their own place. What I would hate to think, is that my pension (which is my deferred pay) is being paid out in part, out of money earned from investing in Burma.


Burma is a horrible military dictatorship, which kills and enslaves its own people. I think that due to sanctions and criminal legal investigations that the pension fund could also lose money if they continue to invest in Burma. I ask the trustees of my pension scheme to stop investing my money in Burma”.

The Labour Councillors present, Bill Turner (Chair of the Pension and Accounts Committee) and Joshua Peck (Cabinet and Lead member for Performance and Resources) asked for a full report on what companies the fund held that had business interests in Burma. I volunteered to send over the ITUC list.

At the same meeting we discussed the scheme signing up for the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI)

Finally, to illustrate how difficult these issues are – I asked the Global Equities fund manager after he gave his presentation to the Council investment panel (who are quasi-pension trustees) about the financial risk of sanctions, boycotts, criminal prosecutions and the reputational risk of investing pension money in Burma. Surely, the pension fund was facing a financial risk of continuing to invest in Burma?

He argued that the proportion of Total or Chevron assets invested in Burma may appear to be a large figure (up to $1.2 billion) however; they are only a tiny part of the total assets of that country. So if they lost money over Burma it would arguably not make that much of a difference to the company share price (I disagree).

Also, this fund manager is what they call a “quantitative” investor. That is they try to emotionally detach themselves from the companies that they invest in and only concentrate on the financial “fundamentals” (balance sheet, long term profits, market share, share price compared to profits, orders etc).

They actively invest in companies where they think the fundamentals are sound but where due to “market sentiment” the price of a company is lower than they should be.

(I accept that I have probably not adequately explained this properly, remember the usual health warning, this is my report back to members, my interpretation, not that of the Tower Hamlets Pension fund)

So we may have this crazy, crazy situation where some investors think that now is the time invest in Burma because many investors are pulling out on political sentiment rather than economic fundamentals

Personally, I think since it is now accepted that owners of capital in modern day democracies won't make money out of trading in opium then equally they should not think it is acceptable to make money out of Burma.

Der Rote Wedding (Red Front)

This post is inspired by the scene outside the Oxford Union the other night when BNP leader Nick Griffin, and holocaust denier David Irving, turned up as invited guests of the Oxford University Union.

It is an Anti-Nazi combat song from 1928 by the German Communist party from the anti-fascist stronghold of Wedding, Berlin, Germany.

Good stirring stuff, however, I hope next May in London and elsewhere we are more successful in stopping the Nazi’s winning elections than in pre-war Germany!

Hat tip Col Roi

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Local Government Pension Scheme: is it a Bath or a Sausage Machine?

It is strange the things you come across at seminars. Like most of the 3.5 million members of the £100 Billion plus Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS), I thought it was just a means to save for my retirement. Not according to very senior civil servants at the CLG who apparently think it’s a “bath” while the top UNISON governance expert thinks it’s a sausage making machine.

The civil servants have used this term in negotiations with the unions. Apparently they think it’s a bath since there is suppose to be a tank of “money” with two taps pouring money as needed into it (one tap filled by the employer and one by the employees). When the bath reaches the level of the overflow then money flows down the pipe to pensioners. A warm "goldilocks" bath – not too warm, not too cold is of course the civil service “idyll”.

Hmmmm.... I suppose I could point out that actually this bath need 3 taps since 40% of income for the LGPS actually comes from investments. As a estate officer I should point out that the overflow pipe should only be used in an emergency!

The contrary view is that the scheme should really be viewed as a “sausage making machine” and instead of concentrating on the sausages, we should spend more time on the machine itself. Employer and employee’s contributions as well as investment income is poured into the machine, the machine mixes them all up and hopefully the end result is pensions (also known as sausages/benefits).

Instead of spending too much time worrying about the end result (the sausages/pensions/benefits!), you should instead concentrate more on the ingredients and processes. Because if you get them right the sausages (also known as pensions/benefits) will always be ok?

I think all of the delegates at today’s GMB/Unite pension seminar in Eastbourne still think that the LGPS is a saving scheme for their retirement however; the sausage machine argument did make more sense.

One of the major reasons for recent problems in the scheme is that it simply has not been governed properly. For example a few rotten apples have used the scheme as a “cash cow” to keep council tax artificially low and win elections (and worse).

The unions have all traditionally been concerned about benefits to members. However, if we concentrate too much just on the benefits and not the source of these benefits (the scheme itself) then we are just storing up trouble for ourselves since we will always have to be reactive to events instead of being able to have a constructive input into the scheme - before it goes bent.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Pensions at Eastbourne

Eastbourne is quite an appropriate place I suppose to hold a seminar on Pensions. I am part of the first ever UNISON delegation to attend the annual GMB/Unite T&G Pensions seminar.

Which is held every year in the Eastbourne Conference Centre (which is owned and managed by the T&G - an excellent "hotel", my room overlooks the beach and it is only 5 minutes from the pier). Interesting stuff (to me anyway) on the future of pensions, ill -health retirement and risk sharing this afternoon.

A number of presentations and work groups planned for tomorrow including UNISON on Capital Stewardship. I will write up something more detailed when I get home. It finishes tomorrow lunch time. Everyone is very friendly, positive about working together and extremely constructive. Most unlike any other joint trade union meeting I have ever been at! Is it something to do with pensions? I can't post any photos to this blog so will update with something suitable when I get home.






Monday, November 26, 2007

Newham Council, its Logo and my blog

This morning I received this email from Ian Tompkins, Head of Newham Council Communications Unit about the use of the Council logo in this post about the sacking of Newham UNISON Chair Michael Gavan. This is what he sent.

Dear Mr Gray

We've noticed on your blog site there is a reproduction of our council logo (the Newham "ribbon" logo). I cannot trace any request from you for permission to use this so would ask that you remove it immediately.

Thank you.
Ian Tompkins, Head of Communications, London Borough of Newham, Town Hall, Barking Road, London E6 2RP

Being the courteous and polite fellow that I am this is how I responded.

Dear Mr Tompkins

Thank you for your email. I must admit to be somewhat surprised that senior managers spend their time scouring the blogsphere on the look out for errant Newham council logos. I am not sure that this is a good use of my Council tax? Mind you, I suppose this is a better use of senior manager’s time than victimising and sacking trade unionists. I have replaced the offending logo with a photo taken from a public place. I assume that this is OK? If not please let me know.

Formally, please can I ask for permission to use the logo since what with the future industrial action over Michael Gavan’s dismissal, the internal appeal and employment tribunal applications (all sort of hearings) there will be lots and lots to blog about in the future.

Cheers
John

I thought I might as well post some pictures of past Newham trade union and Labour Party leaders who will no doubt be spinning in their graves at what is going on over Michael’s dismissal.

Newham is arguably the birthplace of the Labour Party and modern day trade unions. Left is Keir Hardie, the first ever Labour MP who was elected for West Ham in 1892 ; Herbert Blaine who is credited in 1905 with forming NALGO which eventually became part of UNISON, while working for West Ham Council (ironically like Michael he was not a Labour Party supporter and was in fact a lifelong Tory!) and finally Will Thorne, West Ham Labour MP 100 years ago and founder of the GMB (Beckton gas works).

UPDATE: 25 minutes after I sent this email at 18:07 today I got this two word reply from Mr Tompkins - "Thank you". A bit brief for a Head of Communications I suppose. What exactly does this mean? can I use the Newham logo? I suppose it does. As suggested on this post's "comments" should I put in a FOI request?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

“It’s the unions wot won it”

Labour Sweeps to Power in Australia Elections. Congratulations to Australian Labour Leader and Prime Minister elect Kevin Rudd.

He has put to an end to 11 years of right wing rule. Former Prime Minister John Howard is thought to have even lost his own Parliamentary seat.

I am sure that the whole Australian Labour movement deserves praise for what appears to have been a well thought out and united sensible political campaign.

However, is also good news for the trade unions in Australia who have been at the receiving end of some pretty vicious anti-union government policies in recent years.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) have just published some interesting research on the result which suggest that Industrial Relations (IR) was amongst the most important issue for nearly 80% of Labour voters (45% said it was their single most important issue). The Unions also appear to have played a major role in mobilising their members to come out and vote.

Hope Brown has a read.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Newham “Total out of Burma” pickets

On route this morning to Lyn’s T Party I stopped off at the East Ham “Total out of Burma” picket outside the "Total" Petrol garage in High Street North. Today there has been a national day of action outside the French oil company “Total” Headquarters and their petrol garages across the UK.

"Total" is simply an utterly vile and unethical organisation which despite being the 5th biggest oil company in the world, is one of the very few that insists on investing in Burma and gives the military junta hundreds of millions of dollars each year in taxes and kick backs.

This money is used to buy guns and bullets to shoot and kill monks and other unarmed peaceful protesters who just want democracy and freedom for their country.

After the “T Party” I went to the picket outside the "Total" garage in Romford Road, Manor Park with another Labour Party colleague, former Councillor and UCL branch Chair, John Whitworth (seen wearing the placard “Total-ly out of order”).

There were 9 of us on this picket, 5 of which were Burmese. This is very good for an overseas solidarity picket. (There were 12 picket lines across London alone). We were carrying placards and leafleting motorists who were caught up in the usual very heavy traffic along that stretch of Romford Road.

I was on the entrance to the petrol station speaking to motorists who had pulled over for fuel. I must admit that this was one of the most successful pickets that I have ever been on. Nearly all vehicles pulled over allowed us to speak to them. They remembered the awful scenes of soldiers shooting unarmed monks in Burma. Most agreed to drive away to Tesco’s at Barking (I also told then that it was cheaper!).

Nearly everyone was pretty horrified at the connection of "Total" with the murderous regime in Burma. They did not know that their money was being used to profit a company that condoned mass murder.

Many were dismayed that they would in anyway at all be supporting the Burmese junta and insisted that I look at their petrol gauges, which were near empty and that they had to get fuel in case they ran out. We agreed that maybe they could get a gallon of petrol to get them out of trouble.

Lyn Brown MP had asked if she could attend however after the T Party she had to go to a service for a new church in Stratford. The protest had to finish before she could get to us, but she will send the Burma campaign a message of support.

I’m not going to romanticise this protest too much. However, I have been on a fair number of pickets over the years. It was firstly good to be out numbered by Burmese members of the picket (even though I suppose we should have been able to get more non-Burmese protesters out).

It was also encouraging to speak to ordinary people about something “political” and get what I thought to be a thoughtful and positive reaction. I don’t think that I have ever been on a picket line were we have ever turned back so many people. People also understood the argument and agreed that boycotting was an appropriate and legitimate response to what has gone on in Burma.

It was something that all East End Brits regardless of race, religion, nationality or class wanted to support. Chauffeur driven Rolls Royce’s and Citroen 2CVs were all turned back when we spoke to them about why we were picketing.

We had loads of cars “hooting” in support and people shouting supportive remarks as they went by. OK, as you can imagine not all remarks were 100% supportive, especially as traffic was held up at times when motorists stopped to talk to us. But overall the protest was very successful. As you can see from the pictures, we persuaded lots of people to boycott Total, this is normally their most busy day. I suspect that this will contribute towards the long term "reputational risk" that "Total" faces for its policy towards Burma.

I couldn’t make it to the final picket tonight at the "Total" HQ in Baker Street. Hope it went OK. Will speak to Labour Party comrades about organising further pickets at these garages in the future. Maybe monthly? Next week I am due to go to a Local Government Pension Union trustee conference. I will try and bring this issue up here as well. Watch this space.

Lyn Brown MP – West Ham “T” Party

This morning I helped out at the latest “Community Development” meeting held by local Labour MP, Lyn Brown, at the Vicarage Lane Centre in Stratford.

These meetings (better known as “Tea Parties”) are organised by Lyn’s Parliamentary office and take place all over her constituency. She invites local residents to meet herself, local Councillors (today Ron Manley seen back of photo and Freda Bourne) and the ward Police Safer Neighbourhood Team (SNT).

The purpose of these meetings is to informally discuss local problems, issues and possible solutions over tea and biscuits. These meetings I think have been hugely successful.

In London every single Council ward has a dedicated team of regular police and Community Support Officers. I think that these teams (which is a local and national Labour party initiative opposed by the Tories) are making a big difference to tackling crime and anti-social behaviour especially in urban areas.

I think about 70 people turned up this morning and I sat and chatted with people while they were waiting to see Lyn or the Councillors. One common problem that came up was about irresponsible landlords who were converting terrace houses into Houses in Multiple Occupations (HMO). These landlords carry out botched conversions, leave behind building rubble and fail to maintain the properties properly. Many of these rogue landlords also do nothing about the small minority of their residents who cause a nuisance and even misery to their neighbours.

Nowadays the Council can prosecute Landlords of HMOs who fail to manage their properties and even in extreme cases they can take over their management.

I’ll be interested to see some research on how effective this licensing has been.

One thing that I found striking was that on one table none of the residents knew each other even though they had all lived in the ward for many years. None of them had never met their local MP, Councillors or the SNT before today. So simply turning up and discussing problems with each other and their elected representatives was a good start I think.

Finally, on a negative note, many Newham Labour party members who also popped by to show their support, were stunned at the sacking of Newham UNISON Chair Michael Gavan by the Council. I’m speaking to the branch to find out what happens next and what can be done to help.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Reminder: “Total Out of Burma” Protests tomorrow Sat 24 Nov

Tomorrow (Saturday 24 November) is a national day of action organised by “Total out of Burma”.

They are organising protests across the country (see list below of those in London) outside the French Company “Total” Petrol stations.

"Total” run a massive off shore gas field in Burma and gives the military regime hundreds of millions of dollars each year in taxes. The junta use this money to oppress their own people.

I hope to be present at one of the Newham protests.

LONDON - Baker Street4.00pm - 6.00pmDorset House Total station, 170-172 Marylebone Rd, Westminster NW1 5ARnearest tube: Baker Streetcontact: totaloutofburma[at]gmail.com(note: this is the final London protest of the day - all welcome)

LONDON - Camden11.30am - 1.00pmCamden Town Total station, 109-113 York Way, Islington N7 9QEnearest tube: Caledonian Rd or Kentish Towncontact: Jonathan on jjjstevenson[at]fastmail.fm or 07818 651 124

LONDON - Chiswick2.00pm - 4.00pmWest Four Total station,137 Chiswick High Road, Chiswick W4 2EDnearest tube: Turnham Greencontact: totaloutofburma[at]gmail.com

LONDON - Hammersmith11.00am - 2.00pmRaven Total station, 372 Goldhawk Road, Hammersmith W6 0XFnearest tube: Stamford Brookcontact: totaloutofburma[at]gmail.com

LONDON - Kensal Green1.00pm - 3.00pmKensal Total station, 904 Harrow Rd, Kensal Green NW10 5JUcontact: Steph at fifth_state[at]yahoo.co.uk

LONDON - Kilburn12.30pm - 1.45pmKilburn Total station, 409 Kilburn High Rd, Kilburn NW6 7QGnearest tube: Kilburncontact: Dan at dviesnik[at]yahoo.co.uk

LONDON - Manor Park1.00pm - 3.00pmManor Park Total station, 893 Romford Rd, East Ham E12 5JTnearest tube: East Ham or (rail) Manor Parkcontact: Paul on paul[at]riseup.net or 07939 975 085

LONDON - Newham10.30am - 12.30pmHigh St North Total station, 409-419 High St North, Newham E12 6TLnearest tube: East Hamcontact: Paul on paul[at]riseup.net or 07939 975 085

LONDON - Southwark2.00pm - 4.00pmThomas Beckett Total station, 233-247 Old Kent Road, Southwark SE1 5LUnearest tube: Elephant & Castle or Boroughcontact: Danae on papakura2000[at]hotmail.com or 07731 956 415

LONDON - Whitechapel10.00am - 12noonVallance Total station, 112 Vallance Rd, Tower Hamlets E1 5BWnearest tube: Whitechapelcontact: Danae on papakura2000[at]hotmail.com or 07731 956 415

LONDON - Willesden11.00am - 12.15pmWillesden Lane Total station, 290 Willesden Lane, Willesden NW2 5HSnearest tube: Willesden Greencontact: Dan at dviesnik[at]yahoo.co.uk

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Forgotten Front

It was good to see reports on BBC news about the public parade thorough Norwich city centre by local infantry regiment “The Royal Anglian Regiment (Vikings)”. A new train in Liverpool Street was even named after them.

The 1st Battalion has just returned from a tour of Afghanistan during which 9 of their comrades were killed (and a further 2 Estonians and 1 Dane in their Battle group) amidst what has been described as some of the most ferocious combat that British troops have been involved in since the Korean War.

I suspect that most people know friends, neighbours or relatives who have served in recent years in Afghanistan and/or Iraq. Especially now that the Territorial Army and the other Armed Forces reservists are routinely sent to support their regular counterparts.

I think that like “Remembrance Sunday” even if you don’t agree with the war in Afghanistan or Iraq you should support and honour the young men (and women) who have risked their lives and remember those who have not returned. This link is to a moving video on YouTube.

There has been justifiable criticism that the troops abroad have not felt they have received the support that they deserve for their sacrifice from the media and the wider British public. I think that this is true and that we must organise and support more of these parades and services. However, this is an age old complaint about the “ungrateful” British as this famous poem reminds us:

Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy how's yer soul?"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.

Newham Council sacks UNISON Chair Michael Gavan

Shocking news that Newham Council have sacked UNISON branch Chair Michael Gavan yesterday.

This is unremitting bad news for Newham UNISON, Newham Labour Party, Newham Council and of course Michael.

I expect further strikes and disruption and if the appeal against dismissal fails (before a panel of local Newham councillors) then an absolutely disastrous and hugely damaging employment tribunal will take place.

There is a rally and lobby at the House of Commons at 7.30pm Tuesday 11th December 2007 Committee Room 9.

UPDATE: I have replaced the Newham logo with a photograph of it after Ian Thompkins the Head of Newham Council "Communications" has contacted me and "asked" me to remove it from my blog. Check out this post for further details.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"Nous ne cederons pas, nous ne reculerons pas"

The public sector sister trade union to UNISON in France, the CGT and others are in battle with right wing French President Nicolas Sarkozy over pensions. He declared yesterday "We shall not give way, we shall not retreat". Is he having his Maggie Thatcher moment?

While on paper at least, the unions seem up against it, a newly elected President who had reform of public sector pensions in his manifesto and it appears marginal public support for taking a “tough line”.

However, this is France! Here in a republic founded on barricades and revolution where there is a tradition of successful street protest blocking change. Street protest last year was able to overturn a law passed overwhelmingly by the National Assembly which reduced employment protection for young people.

Of course, soon after this, France elected the conservative Sarkozy, despite a very good Socialist opponent. The same thing happened after the famous protests of 1968.

I can’t really comment on the pensions issue itself since I haven’t seen any real independent analysis of what the real concerns are, apart from an assumption in the media that since this is France and it is about the public sector, the unions must be in the wrong. After the nonsense and misrepresentation about the Brit public sector pensions last year I won’t believe anything the mainstream media puts out about French pensions.

There is one other thing. I have posted before about the crazy (or perhaps not) contradiction that in France, the trade unions can influence the political agenda on certain issues by being able to organise massive street protests despite having appallingly low membership levels. France has a trade union density of only 9% compared to the UK 29%.

Despite relatively very few members, the French trade unions can mobilise large numbers of people on the streets. Often their demo’s in Paris have more people on them than the total number of members in that union across the country.

Finally, I may be wrong, but French right wing politicians have a well deserved reputation of talking tough in public yet being pragmatic in practice. While the petty bourgeoisie Thatcher hatred the trade unions so much that she would have risked everything to defeat them. Viva la difference!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Alistair and Northern Rock


While I think that the chancellor Alistair Darling is still potentially in serious trouble over Northern Rock (ignoring the lost computer discs with their 25 million names for the moment) I think that unless the housing market goes completely belly up (and if so, God help all of us) he should be okay. I have only met him once, about 20 years ago in Edinburgh, when he was my local MP and a completely revolting manager was trying to sack me (story of my life - I was a T&G steward at the time).

Surprise, surprise for a successful Scottish Labour MP, he was in my experience, as tough as old boots, while being committed and focused. A cross between the Morningside advocate that he is and a Leith docker. No wonder he has done so well.

Tom P has posted some really sensible stuff about Northern Rock on this blog in response to a rather silly Tory city boy who has been making daft comments on various stuff in recent weeks (which he is perfectly entitled to do so).

So before we fall into the trap that the media and the Tories want us all to fall into over the Northern Rock debacle lets remember for a minute who is really to “blame” (if this is the right word to use in a capitalist society)

Tom P (edited by me) comment

“Personally and somewhat controversially I think the run on Northern Rock was the fault of.... wait for it.... the directors. They developed a strategy that was always going to fail in the credit markets seized up. I don't see what anyone - the Govt, the BoE - could have done to end this one any differently.

In all the commentary I have read about Northern Rock no-one seems to have come up with a good alternative strategy. There are suggestions about timing - the BoE could have stepped in earlier, Darling could have offered the guarantee earlier - but notably both these would have involved MORE state intervention....

Equally should Darling simply have not stepped in - and let thousands of savers lose their money?......

It's clearly not just Northern Rock. Major Wall Street players like Citi and Merrills have got billions in bad debt on their books now. I read somewhere the other day that for financial institutions as a whole it might hit 1 trillion USD.

And you reckon the Govt is incompetent.

Of course in the case of Citi and Merrill’s it's the usual case of rewards for failure. Despite the spectacular losses, the CEOs of both are going with huge pay-offs. Chuck Prince gets only about $95m, but Stan O’Neal should get about $150m.

It wouldn’t be so bad but it was only a few years ago that the geniuses in the City last showed their competence - p***ing pension funds' money away on TMT garbage, or cheering on Marconi as it destroyed itself”.

Well said Tom. come on Alistair - sort out these city rejects and make sure they pay their fair wack in taxes for their failure.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Pension Fund Actuarial Valuation and Investment Strategy

Okay, this is not the most exciting post I have ever done. But in its own way, the training on “Actuarial Valuation and Investment Strategy” I went on last Wednesday evening at the Tower Hamlets Town Hall was pretty important.

To put it very simply (never an easy thing to do with pensions) the valuation is an educated guessimate on whether the pension fund will have enough money to pay its commitments to staff without undue risk or strain to the Council tax. The scheme advisers “Hymans Robertson” gave the presentation.

This is important stuff not only to staff in the pension scheme (LGPS) but also Council tax payers and service users. If the wrong investment strategy is followed then staff may find their jobs at risk if local services are slashed in order to pay for poor investment returns or unexpected financial “shocks”. Also, we may have a rerun of the industrial strafe of 2006 when patchy governance across the LGPS caused (in part) pressures on the Government to cut future pension benefits.

Firstly the usual “health warning” - this is my own interpretation of the meeting, not an official account, not the council, Hymans Robertson nor the Labour group position and the 2007 figures quoted are estimates at the moment.

I have been the Staffside “Observer” on the Councils (LGPS) investment panel for over 10 years. I also go to the Council “Pension and Accounts Committee” meetings on behalf of the joint trade unions. UNISON believes trade unions should play an active rule in the Governance arrangements of Council pension schemes and that we should have proper representation, not just observer status ,on our pension panels and committees. We prefer the term “Member Nominated Representative” (MNR). A consultation with the Government regulators on LGPS governance arrangements has recently finished.

All councillors had been invited but only about 12 turned up. I sat with Pension and Accounts Chair Cllr Bill Turner and Cllr Anwara Ali. Both good UNISON members of course.

The crucial bit about the triennial valuation is the” assumptions” made and “cash flow”. Some schemes (not my own!) deliberately fiddle the investment assumptions they make in order to keep Council tax low. They pretend that they do not have to put so much money into the scheme since they overestimate how fast their investments will grow or that the life expectancy of members will be lower than should be expected. This is just Gerrymandering by any other name.

Other schemes “plan” to pay off any deficit over unrealistically long periods of time. Tower Hamlets use a 20 year cash flow which is average for LGPS (unlike the private sector where I believe that the regulator expects 10 years or less). While some schemes use 40 years plan which is well "iffy". Another reason why we need trained independent trade union reps on all council pension schemes.

The “good news” for our pension scheme (I kid you not) is that more pensioners died than was expected. So less strain on the scheme.

There was a bit about Asset Liability modelling and generating “random” scenarios which just hurt my head. Don’t think many councillors got it in either.

Our scheme’s financial position had improved from 2004 and now stands at 77% funding (assets compared to liabilities) compared to 73%. At the moment there is some £706 million of assets investment in the UK and the rest of the world. A lot of money to you and me but the LGPS is nationally worth around £100 billion. It needs looking after.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

MADELEINE ALIVE? WE'RE 100% CERTAIN – Sunday Mirror

Talking about the scumbag tabloid press. I am ashamed to admit that possibly (and I hope I am wrong) the most disgusting tabloid at this moment is the "Sunday Mirror". This is the only newspaper group which has had the nerve to have constantly supported the Labour Party.

I went to buy some milk at our local shop and was stunned at the screaming headline (with usual emotive photo) of the “Sunday Mirror”, that they were 100% certain missing toddler Madeleine McCanin was alive and that “tecs” (so called private detectives paid for by God knows who) were certain that Madeleine was alive and they were “very, very close to finding the kidnapper”.

I hope above hope that they are right. However, I doubt it. I will gladly apologise if this is in fact so.

However, if I am not wrong and this is just complete fiction, utter sensational lies and rot, then you think how on earth can those highly paid beasts in the "Sunday Mirror" sleep well at night?

UPDATE: Daily Mirror Friday 23 Nov front page headline "Madeleine McCann is dead: Law chief's cruel outburst". They even shamefully use the same photo. Words fail me.

UK gripped by 'no compensation' culture

This is a straight lift from the excellent trade union health & safety E-Newsletter “Risks”. Published weekly for free by the TUC and editored by the well respected Rory O'Neill of Hazards magazine. If you are at all interested in health & safety at work then click on and sign up.

This “real news story” is something that you will not pick up from the shameful British tabloid press.

The number of workplace personal injury claims is low and falling fast, new research for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has found.

The study by researchers from the University of Warwick's School of Law has undermined the popular view that UK citizens are engaging in a spiralling 'compensation culture' with ever increasing claims against allegedly negligent companies and organisations.

The researchers investigated whether there had been an increase in claims for damages arising from occupational injury or ill-health related to breaches of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
They found the number of legal actions was consistently falling in both the High Court and the County Courts.

These conclusions were also supported by the observations of a wide range of legal practitioners, insurers, employers' associations and trade unions who participated in the Warwick research.

The report confirms TUC's 2005 finding that compensation culture is 'a myth' (Risks 217).webpages.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Respect Karaoke – A Song for George

Today two separate diss-Respect Conferences have taken place. Pretty soon we should discover what has gone on as delegates go home and start blogging and leaking furiously.
Many of course will be drowning their sorrows amidst the wreckage and recriminations of the respect project.

According to their web sites Respect Renewal (Galloway’s stooges) are going for a curry in Brick Lane after their conference. While Continuity Respect (SWP stooges) are off to the “Coach and Hounds”. I am not sure if there will be a Karaoke machine handy at either event? If there is a comrade has fraternally sent me a song they could all sing along to. Enjoy.


Oh! Respect Renewal is a-rollin' on over the land,
With the office locked up, Nick Wrack with the keys in hand.
A fat cigar! And humongous pay!
George Gall-oway! George Gall-oway! George Gall-oway!

Oh! Respect Renewal is a-comin' up round the bend,
Like a runaway train, its got to have a bad end.
But another defector, they’ve picked up today.
So, George Gall-oway! George Gall-oway! George Gallo-way!

He’s headin' straight on down, loaded down, with his Respect veto,
To Tow’r Hamlets, and elsewhere – yeah!

Respect Renewal is a -going without John Rees,
He’s split from the caravan with his comrade-ees
And it’s jobs for the boys, and on George’s say
So, George Gall-oway! George Gall-oway! George Gallo-way!

Oh! Respect Renewal is a-headin' on over the town,
Where the SWP are thick as eiderduck down.
Mariam appeal! More money wa-hey!
So, George Gall-oway! George Gall-oway! George Gallo-way!

You can listen to the original version for free here. Don’t forget to check out what has gone on in the respect saga so far and of course, the “Why we all hate Galloway video

Total "Out of Burma" – Day of Action Sat 24 November



The campaigning group “Total Out of Burma” is holding a national “Day of Action” next Saturday 24 November 2007. They are planning protests at petrol stations owned by French Oil Company Total.

Total have massive investments in Burma which generate hundreds of million of tax dollars for the military junta in Burma. Remember the regime need foreign exchange in order to oppress and control its own people.

Aung San Suu Kyi the Burmese democracy leader is quoted as saying “"TOTAL is the biggest supporter of the military regime in Burma". While still under house arrest (12th year of detention) she has also pleaded for a total withdrawal of investments in Burma

Click on “Total Out Of Burma” to find the location of the nearest protest to you.

At my recent Labour Party ward meeting the (Newham) Councillors present promised to investigate whether or not their pension scheme had any investments in Burma such as Total (they probably do). Also following representations from trade union members I have contacted the Chair of my own Council Pension scheme in Tower Hamlets asking similar questions.

I think that apart from the overwhelming moral case not to invest in Burma and therefore support this murderous junta, this is also a fiduciary issue. Pension and life assurance funds ought to assess the potential financial risks to their funds from such “investments”. For example, Total is the lead partner in a $1.2 billion investment in an off shore gas field in Burma. If European or US sanctions are tightened and they have to sell off these assets quickly then Total could face huge losses. Nevermind the widespread boycotts of Total and its reputational risk.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Rachel Voller: Vice Chair of UNISON Labour Link

Congratulations to London nurse Rachel Voller, who has been elected as the National UNISON Labour Link committee Vice Chair.

Rachel is the Greater London regional delegate to the committee.

Labour Link (it use to be known as the "Affiliated Political Fund" or the APF) supports members views and argues for UNISON policies within the Labour Party.

Picture (right) is of Rachel as a member of the UNISON delegation to the Labour Party conference at Bournemouth 2007 asking a question to a panel of ministers.

Well done Rachel!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Council By-election in Southwark – December 13

There is a by-election in the Riverside Ward of Southwark Council on December 13 (not a good date for political campaigning?). The Labour Party candidate is Unite trade union member and blogger Cormac Hollingsworth.

All three seats are currently held by the Liberals however Labour came second in 2006. The previous incumbant resigned for not attending meetings due to "ill health".

The Lib Dem/Tory administration in Southwark only has a majority of 2 so a victory would obviously be good and it would bash Lib Dem morale for the GLA elections next year.

I’ll try to find out how London Labour Party activists can help out with campaigning (If anyone knows please post a comment )

(Thanks to Ian Wingfield CWU TULO)

UPDATE:
"...weekend & weekday campaigning sessions. Below are the times & locations until Polling Day (Thu 13 Dec). Please keep this information & feel free to circulate it widely to others who are prepared to work to get rid of the Tories & Lib Dem too! We urgently need your help at the following times every week between now & 13th Dec:

WEEKENDS – Every Fri at 1pm; Sat & Sun at 11am and 2pm (main sessions)
Venue: 124 Arnold Estate, Druid Street, SE1 2DT (near Bermondsey Tube & Tower Bridge - see map; next to the Beormund Centre in Abbey St) WEEKNIGHT EVENINGS: Every Mon, Tue, Wed & Thu (except Mon 10 Dec): 6:30pm outside Bermondsey Tube (Jubilee Line)"

Cllr Susan Elan Jones, Deputy Leader of Southwark Labour Group of Councillors

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Health and Safety “Ban” Christmas Decorations

Bah Humbug! Actually the Health & Safety Executive website “Myth of the Month” feature quite rightly lampoons the Daily Hate et al for pretending that companies are “banned” from putting up Crimbo decorations in office because of “Health & Safety”.

Some firms are too lazy or "Scrooge" like to pay for decorations and will just any old excuse to get out of it.

They point out that decorations are actually put up in HSE buildings without any fuss or bother. All they expect employers to do is sensible practical things such as provide a “suitable step ladder to put up decorations rather than expecting staff to balance on wheelie chairs”.

Makes sense to me.

Monday, November 12, 2007

East London Olympic Site Fire

Just before I was going to knock off for lunch today, someone came into the office and told us about a huge fire outside.

We looked out of the office windows at the massive cloud of black smoke that was billowing out. I popped out to check that it was not on our estate. Soon found out it was several hundred meters away across the motorway.

People’s reactions to the smoke were striking. Many appeared to be visually frightened. Especially parents with young children for obvious reason. It was like something out of the biblical old testament. With all the airplanes flying around many may have suspected a terrorist attack or feared the side effects of pollution.

I didn’t think that it was a terrorist attack since such massive fires have happened now twice in recent years in London. This is the closest. My first thought after all what has gone on recently was just “I hope the fire-fighters are okay”.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Remembrance Sunday in West Ham

In a contrast to yesterday’s events this morning I attended the Remembrance Sunday service at the historic 12th century West Ham Parish Church of All Saints.

I think, like most people, it is important that we remember today the sacrifices past and present that British servicemen and women have made on our behalf.

Even if you don’t agree with today’s war in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are still ordinary British servicemen and women (and many UNISON members who are military reservists) risking their lives and this is a time to think of them and their families.

There were 4 remembrance services in Newham today. West Ham is a place shaped and still scarred by war. It was of course heavily bombed during the Second World War, killing thousands of civilians. On the church walls there was a standard of a local First World War “Old Contemptibles” association who were decimated in trench warfare. There was also a simple plaque to the Royal Marine bandsmen murdered by the IRA in Deal 1989 with the words “Thank you for the Music”. I assume a local connection? The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association had a newer looking plaque. With the words “All we seek is Justice”.

The West Ham service had local dignities such as Newham Civic Ambassador Councillor Omana Gangadharan present with the Council Mace (and bearer), the Deputy Lord Lieutenant, local Labour MP Lyn Brown, local Labour Councillors (including Councillor Winston Vaughan who I think saw active service in Aden? and Councillors who are Muslims) as well as the council's interim director of “children and young people services” Liz Graham.

There were serving soldiers (in combat uniforms – odd in a church but it’s an honest statement on such a day I suppose) from the local TA unit The Rifles (based just around the corner in West Ham Park). Their web site reports that 140 of their TA comrades based at Reading were flown out to the Helmand region of Afghanistan last month.

The Royal Legion were there, as were the local Sea cadets (some looking incredibly young), and scouts.

The congregation (as well as the TA soldiers and cadets) also reflected the community with many West Indian and African parishioners. The vicar himself, the Revd Stennett Kirby MA was black and he reminded the service of the (often forgotten) valuable contribution made by Black and Asian, Christan, Muslim and Hindu, commonwealth servicemen in British Wars. He pointed out that his own relatives had “proudly” served.

I felt that everyone present identified themselves as British regardless of race or colour. Perhaps we are getting like the Americans where it is argued that “the military” nowadays helps to “unify” that racially divided and complex nation? Not that this is any argument for “war”, of course.

His sermon was a careful balancing act between praising the obvious bravery and suffering of the troops currently at war with his equally obvious Christian abhorrence of war for practically any reason. He encouraged people that as well as praying for peace they should get involved and join political parties since this is where the power lies in this country to change things.

Ironically despite being a convinced atheist I enjoy such occasional religious services especially in historic churches. Maybe its just nostalgia? Being brought up nominally as an Anglican must have had some sort of impact I suppose?

The organ player and the choir were very good. The “Last Post” was played by the organ. I sang (very badly) the hymn “Jerusalem” in very different surroundings from the last time. Its lyrics “nor should my sword sleep in my hand” seemed to be at odds with the previous biblical reading ISAIAH 2 verses 1-5 which famously calls for swords to be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.

The service ended with the singing the first two verses of the national anthem. The first verse went OK but hardly anyone knew the 2nd verse, so there was a pause and shuffle while we all had to look at the words in order of the service booklet.

All in all, a typically British finish to a very British ceremony.

Celebrating the Life of John Kelly-Chandler

After the Fremantle rally yesterday I went to a “Celebration” of the life of trade unionist John Kelly-Chandler (known widely as JKC) at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square. John (who was also known by employers as “that bearded grumpy bastard from the region” died last month from lung cancer age 59.

He was a UNISON regional organiser in Greater London region since 1991 covering health and local government branches. Recently he had been responsible for South East Region Health branches.

John had planned the celebration before he died. “No black ties or sombre clothes, no hymns or religion, no mourning but a celebration". He requested “Intermezzo” – Cavaleria Rusticana, “Across the Universe” (Beatles); “Imagine” (John Lennon) and “All you need is love” (Beatle) be played.

Readings were by colleagues and friends including the beautiful “Death is nothing at all”. UNISON health branch secretary Raz Dowdall read “Remember...” and acting UNISON Regional convenor Gloria Hanson read “If”.

Prior to working for UNISON, John was a leading lay activist in NALGO’s electricity section, a Shop Steward at West Ham Power Station. He rose to become the secretary of the CEGB Headquarters branch and took a leading role in the FUSE campaign against the privatisation of the electricity industry. He was elected to NALGO’s National Electricity Committee, eventually becoming its Chair and was also a member of NALGO’s NEC.

There were employees of UNISON (including our General Secretary Dave Prentis), their families and elected lay activists present.

Long time friend of John, Chris Remington, finished the tribute by reminding everyone that (I paraphrase) “John's politics was very simple, unsophisticated and non-sectarian... Members first.. build the union...always recognise that the future belongs to the next generation - so don't get in the way ....build gateways not obstacles...no false labels of left and right... at the close of each day be clear that an advance has occurred in the ideas of progress, of collective strength, of humanity, of unity".

Finally, if you would like to make a donation in memory of John, monies are being collected for the Cuba Appeal and will be used to refurbish the Havana Emergency Control Room. Please make cheques payable to UNISON care of Chris at UNISON Greater London Region.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Fremantle Nightmare continues - March & Rally

There was a noisy and colourful march this afternoon by care home Fremantle UNISON strikers and supporters from Burnt Oak to Edgware. I think there were about 150 people in total. The march received a lot of support from passerbies and “toots” from Car horns.

I had a brief chat with the trade union web site Labourstart editor Eric Lee who was due to speak. Fremantle had threatened to take libel action against Labourstart over their coverage of this dispute.

Local Labour Party MP Andrew Dismore took part in the March with Local Councillors and Party supporters. He spoke at rally (see standing in photo next to Barnet UNISON branch secretary, John Burgess). UNISON Regional Secretary Linda Perks was next then I spoke briefly as well, but I had to leave before the end in order to go to a memorial service.

I pointed out that tens of thousands of public sector workers in London had been transferred into the private sector (myself included!). They had all been promised like Fremantle staff that there terms and conditions would be protected under TUPE. However, TUPE had failed to protect Fremantle staff (ironically due to gross management incompetence and opportunism), so in this dispute we need to defend the principle of TUPE protection. It is also a disgrace that in London, the richest capital in Europe that the workers who carry out hard, difficult manual work looking after the most vulnerable of clients in care homes are paid just over £6.60 per hour, and have had their sickness, overtime and holiday pay slashed.

NEC member Jon Rodgers, Former London Regional secretary Geoff Martin, sacked UNISON NHS activist Karen Reissman were also due to speak. Under threat Newham UNISON LG Chair Michael Gavan was also there.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Good Governance for the LGPS

The Local Government Pension Scheme is probably the largest scheme in the Country with about 3 million members and some £100 billion in assets invested all over the world.

I am just about to send off comments on a government consultation paper on its governance.

The sheer size and scale of the LGPS makes it imperative that there are good governance practices in place across the country. At the moment there is not. There is some good practice and some very rotten practice. This has got to change. Pensioners and council tax payers deserve better.

I’ve modelled the comments on the UNISON briefing paper. I’ve left it last minute as usual but other LG union reps have until 5pm today to email comments to Robertdothollowayatcommunitiesdotgsidotgovdotuk


My UNISON branch wishes to respond to the DCLG consultation process on this very important issue.

Most UNISON members value the LGPS. It is usually the only effective means of saving for their retirement and to protect their dependents while at work and when retired. We are willing to take action and even strike to protect our scheme and its benefits to retired members and their vulnerable dependants.

We understand that since as a pension scheme we have a statutory legal status, member’s legal rights are guaranteed by European Union regulations to protect our pension and make sure it is properly run.

It is nonsensical to suggest that our members do not bear any financial risk since the LGPS is a statutory scheme. Also, as owners of pension capital we have a duty and responsibility to ensure that our deferred pay is properly invested and the scheme adequately funded and governed.

Not least because if a scheme is underfunded then future benefits may well be slashed. Arguably the recent dispute over the LGPS was caused in part (not totally) by the failure of certain schemes to pay enough into their pension funds and to ensure that these funds were suitably invested.

This is unlike in the private sector where it is often possible due to scheme rules, legislation and real independent pension trustees to challenge employers who wish to cut benefits.

Our branch fully supports the position and objectives put forward by our national union.

We want our scheme to be consistent with all the 89 schemes and raise governance standards.

There should be minimum statutory guidance that sets the following bench mark.

1. That the scheme is run in the sole interests of the beneficiaries
2. That the assets are to be invested in the best interests of members and beneficiaries, and in the event of a conflict of interest the administration authority must ensure that investments are made in the sole interest of members and beneficiaries.
3. Delegation by the administrating authority of all pension fund activities to a main committee
4. A pensions and investment sub committees – for all administration of the fund and investment activity including investment allocation and management
5. Joint working parties on dispute resolution, discretions policy or any other issue
6. All of the above bodies should seek to have additional members, in equal numbers to councillors, made up from member nominated representatives (MNR) and beneficiary nominated representatives (BNM)
7. That MNR’s have the same status and voting rights as councillors in the administration and governance of the funds
8. That all or some may be nominated by their respective trade unions, in proportion to their national membership
9. Any admitted body employers representation should also contain this arrangement
10. Equality proofing should be applied to all current and proposed changes to committee and governance arrangements. A mechanism for carrying out equality impact assessments should be agreed with the TU Side as soon as possible.
11. There should be a model constitution and an AGM for each fund
12. There should be a national body of LGPS stakeholders, which meets to continually review governance arrangements
13. That MNR’s should be afforded facility time, training and other resources necessary for their effective performance
14. MNR’s give greater management stability for the funds as councillors are subject to regular democratic challenge, internal political command removal from office or removal from responsibility across or within the electoral cycle.
15. That all governance statements are published by each authority on their web sites and all of the 89 are published centrally on a CLG web site.
16. Sanctions imposed upon authorities that do not meet the bench mark established by the statutory guidance
17. Finally UNISON believes that trade union nominated MNR’s offer greater potential for compliance with the Myners code on consultation with LGPS contributors and beneficiaries.