Monday, March 31, 2014

Royal Mail honour SOE Hero Noor Lanayat Khan 1914-1944

The Royal Mail have issued a new set of first class stamps on 10 "Remarkable Lives" who were born in 1914.

"The British-Indian secret agent, who served during World War Two, was dubbed the "Spy Princess". She was imprisoned, tortured and eventually shot after being sent into occupied France to help the resistance".

Noor was a descendent of Tipu Sultan, King of Mysore, one of the most dangerous opponents of British rule in India and like him a supporter of Indian Independence.

Despite being brought up as a pacifist, while training as a nurse in the second world war she felt that she was not doing enough "to fight the evil of Nazi" and joined the British forces.

She volunteered for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was sent to occupied France to help the Resistance fight the Nazi.  She is captured by the Germans and sent to the concentration camp at Dachau where she was murdered with 3 other female SOE agents. Her last words before being shot was "Liberte" - "Freedom!"

Hat tip Shiraz Socialist. 

Update: fascinating comments on Facebook on this post from one of our top UNISON stewards whose Mum served with "Norah" before she left for the SOE.  They possibly trained as radio operators together. Her Mum later went on to win a "Mention in Dispatches" for her work during D Day.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Brightlingsea, St Osyth & Walton-on-the-Naze walks

Off message but spent the weekend in Brightlingsea, which is on the Essex coast. Weather was warm and lovely.

Great walks around this historic and beautiful coastline.

Brightlingsea is a "limb of Sandwich, one of the ancient Cinque Ports". The St Osyth witch persecutions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a total of ten local women being hanged in this tiny and desolate village.  While Walton with its Naze, beaches and pier is important to so many East Enders for childhood seaside holidays and still has the best freshly cooked (in home made batter) Cod, Chips and peas in the land.

Why is being close to water so attractive even to landlubbers like myself?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

DWP advertises for Atos replacement

Surely this is an offer not to be missed! I have come across a few organisations who already treat their staff and clients in this manner.

Hat tip thingy Peter at

Friday, March 28, 2014

Britain Needs A Pay Rise! Fair Pay Fortnight

Great video from TUC. "It's getting harder to make our pay packets stretch until the end of the month and more and more people are falling into debt. In our new animation we follow the lives of Gareth and Aisha and the every day challenges faced by millions of people who've been hit by the cost of living crisis.

The animation was created for our Britain Needs A Pay Rise campaign - a campaign to restore fairness to the nation's incomes - and launched during Fair Pay Fortnight (24 March to 6 April 2014). Fair Pay Fortnight is a campaign to raise awareness about Britain's cost of living crisis with two weeks of events across the country, run by the TUC and its affiliated unions".

Thursday, March 27, 2014

UNISON Housing Association Branch Secretary Report 2014 "A tale of two Cities"

This is a tale of two Cities. On the right there is a picture of London investment bankers jeering and taunting "Save our NHS" protesters with bank notes who were in the street below. 

While left is a picture from the crime scene in Lambeth last year when 3 Housing Association workers and a Court official were shot at and 2 seriously wounded while carrying out their duties. 

This was my contribution to our branch annual report as Branch Secretary. 

"UNISON branch Housing management and Social Care members live and work in one city called London. 

Their London is now feeling the full blast of austerity.  They have to deal with the real life consequences of the bedroom tax, benefit caps, massive rents increases and coalition cuts.  At the same time suffering yet another year of either pay reductions or below average pay awards (or in some cases – both).

In their London overcrowding and homelessness grows. We see more and more dependent on food banks for basic survival.

Our London Housing workers have seen attacks on their employment conditions and safety. They  have to pay huge tribunal fees if they are bullied or treated unfairly at work.  TUPE protection is under further attack. 

Yet there is another City also called London. This is a London of the rich and the powerful. Of millionaires who now pay less tax than those who clean their offices. Of financiers who by their recklessness and fraud brought about this recession.   We have executives in our own sector whose mates decide how much they earn and who can earn more in a year than our London low paid members earn in a life time. Who have lucrative bonuses, 12 month severance packages and luxury status cars.

The first step to challenge this tale of two cities is via your union. UNISON is already by far the largest union in our sectors but we must grow. We must organise new stewards and recruit more members. We must get more recognition agreements and facility time. We must train stewards and activists, hold regular shop meetings, communicate and listen to our members and work with residents. We need to re-balance power in the workplace in order to get a better deal.

The next step is political. There will be elections in London and Europe next year. The year after that there will be a General election. For the first time in a generation housing, in nearly all its forms seems to be near the top of the political agenda. People are worried about the cost of living but also  what will happen to their elderly relatives as well as their sons and daughters who cannot afford to leave home. While scandals in schemes run by poorly paid and trained staff such as Winterbourne are I think also beginning to change attitudes.

2014 will see more yet misery for our residents, clients and our members but it can also be the beginning of the end of Two Cities called London".

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

John Biggs Tower Hamlets Mayoral Candidate & Guest speaker at West Ham CLP

At last months West Ham "open to all members" General Committee our neighbour John Biggs was the guest speaker after the debate on the Collins Review.

John is the directly elected local East End Labour London Assembly member. He is also the Labour candidate for Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets.

Which is possibly one of the most difficult jobs in British Politics.

John started by calling for the Labour Party to renew itself while keeping its values.

He pointed out that the Tory London Mayor Boris Johnson has reduced the number of  police officers from 32,000 to 30,500. Ken Livingstone when he was the Labour Mayor increased Council Tax to pay for more Police. Londoners are not stupid. They know you can't provide services without protecting the people who provide those services.

We can't have things without paying for it. Boris Johnson uses "Alice in Wonderland" language to defend his actions. He is prepared as Tory Mayor to raise regressive public transport fares to "provide" services but is not prepared to increase Council Tax to save fire engines.

Tory Boris claims to provide more "affordable" housing but the rate is set usually at 80% of London market rents so those on low or middle incomes simply cannot "afford" it.

John called for an "alternative budget". A budget based on Keynesian principles. We need investment. We need a new East London river crossing, investment in transport and other infrastructure. Investment in the Olympics was great but what about investment since and how to deal with the huge problem of low life expectancy. If some people think that Education is expensive then look at the cost of ignorance.

East London has social problems but it is the most entrepreneurial part of London. Contrary to the  claims of the Tories - people come to East London to work - not to sponge.

I have known John for nearly 20 years and worked in Tower Hamlets for much longer. As a trade unionist I have on occasions been on the opposite side of the negotiation table with John but I am proud that my union UNISON and its political fund Labour Link is playing a leading role in the fight to get John elected as Tower Hamlets Mayor.

A hard working, decent man prepared to do a difficult job with Labour values.

(usual health warning of the accuracy of my hurried note taking - picture of John with West Ham Chair Charlene McLean and Secretary Mr Griffiths)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rethinking the Economics of Pensions (and "A Day in the Life of a Financial Advisor")

On Thursday last week I went to the first day of the "Rethinking Pensions"conference in London. The ever so quiet and retiring, Con Keating (Brighton Rock) was the Chair. He started off the conference in his own unique style, by reminiscing about an event he had recently attended with the Lord Mayoress of London, during which she had asked him "what should the City of London do to make sure its financial services industry is sustainable?". Con replied by saying "Stop Stealing Money?" He said he did not expect to be invited back.

Robin Ellison from Pinsent Masons was the first speaker and he spoke on how the regulation of the financial services is bad. It is too bureaucratic, complex and very expensive to investors and companies.  We have a perfectly good legal system and if someone thinks they have been ripped off they should make a complaint to the courts, like they do in many other countries.

He doesn't think they add value and the £500 million annual cost of UK regulation  probably costs companies who are being regulated 10 times this amount. It has been estimated that the yield in Defined Benefit schemes is reduced by 2.3% by such regulation. He also believes that MPs should be forced to only pass laws on stuff they understand.

In a question to him I said that in the past bad practices were widespread from top to bottom and he had not recognised the scale of the problem and also the high bar on proving dishonesty that we have in this country?  That is why we need regulation. Robin said he was not convinced and the law could be enforced more effectively by the courts than by regulators.

Despite describing himself as an "arch Tory Capitalist" Robin said he did think that some things have to be done collectively. He believes that the proposals regarding annuities in the yesterdays budget are flawed. The Australian model shows that people will just take out their money and run. 

(see the excellent American YouTube above on "A Day in the Life of a Financial Adviser" which Robin showed during his presentation. It is tongue in cheek but shows the basic lack of understanding about financial affairs and also the widespread mistrust many people have of the financial services industry. I will post on other speakers from Day 1 as and when. I missed the 2nd day which is  a shame and I hope someone else will blog on it).

Monday, March 24, 2014

London Labour Europe team "on the knocker" in Canning town.

On Saturday afternoon the Labour Candidates for the May Euro elections came to help out in West Ham CLP. In the morning they had been in East Ham.

Picture is of London MEP Mary Honeyball with West Ham Cllr Charlene Mclean and Neil Wilson.

We were in Canning Town ward and went door knocking around Ordnance Road. This area has changed in recent years but is still pretty solid Labour.There use to be a BNP presence in the past but this has largely long gone.

The area seemed to be well maintained. Mainly Council built flats and houses with some modern developments. There was not to be absolutely honest a huge interest in the Euro elections but residents I met seemed really pleased to meet one of their London Member's European Parliament. 

I had been canvassing in the morning in West Ham ward on local issues but it was interesting to be out with Mary and seeing things from a more European campaign prospect. I was hoping to have a debate with residents on Europe but apart from one very grumpy resident who just said he hated the lot of us, the issues were the same bread and butter problems such as street cleaning, rubbish, dog mess and housing waiting lists.

As a trade unionist I think it is vital that Labour does well in the Euro-elections.  The EU is in a mess and there are huge governance problems but Social Europe helps protect ordinary workers in this country and if the ultra Tory UKIP had their way, British workers would have no rights, what so ever in this country.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

UNISON Housing Association Branch AGM 2014

On Tuesday we held our branch Annual General Meeting at the Resource Centre in Islington.  In order to encourage participation there were two separate meetings. One in the afternoon and the other in the evening.

Some interesting statistics in our annual report - we have over 3000 members in 146 different organisations and 879 workplaces.  66% of members are female while 46% are BME.

We did all the usual boring but important AGM stuff such as approving the annual report, the accounts and branch affiliations. We had no contested elections for branch officers, so I was elected unopposed again as Branch Secretary and Labour Link officer.

We passed 4 motions to send to UNISON National Delegate Conference on - Wages Councils; Save our Co-op; Racism in Greece and democracy in Egypt. There was some good comradely debates on whether it was too late or not to save the Co-op (we thought it was not too late) and the best way to support trade unionists in Egypt.

UNISON National officer Mathew Danaher spoke on organising tenants, clients and worker solidarity. We all have so much in common and we need to work together. Matthew finished by talking about what UNISON is doing about Credit Unions. We need to invite him back to give training to reps on this.

Our keynote speaker was Labour London Assembly member and deputy Chair of the GLA Housing Committee, Tom Copley. He spoke about the need to massively boost housing supply and control rents in London. Tom is very obviously "up to speed" on housing issues in London and I think we will look forward to working with him in the future.

We promised to give him further information on the massive cuts in wages and terms to low paid social care and support staff badly affected by the race to the bottom in "supporting people" budgets.

At the end of the meeting we had an update by members on a pay and recognition dispute with a well known London employer, which we hope can be resolved but may end up in a fight. There was also a bucket collection for SOAS cleaners in their dispute for fair terms and conditions.

I think this was a pretty successful AGM, no huge rows, we were quorate and we now have the probably the largest Executive Committee elected that we have ever had in recent years

Afterwards many of us went next door to the Weatherspoons for a welcome rest and recuperation.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Budget & Pensions - throwing out the baby with the bath water?

"Answered prayers cause more tears than those that remain unanswered".

Don't get me wrong I have blogged recently here and here about how poor value pension annuities are for many people.

Yet instead of reforming annuities and making them better the government will now allow people to just cash in all their pension pots when they retire and spend it as they like.

Now this may be clever politics but it will be potentially disastrous for many working people and for all taxpayers.

For generations there has been a trade off where a pension saver gets in return for life long generous tax relief (and for higher rate taxpayers - very generous relief)  an obligation to spend 75% of this money to buy a guaranteed life long income called an annuity.  The "deal" is that tax relief is justified because the money will stop people being dependent on the taxpayer when they retire. As Nigel Stanley from the TUC argues here this break in the trade off will also mean that the principle of pension tax relief itself will be under threat.

The very wealthy will use this huge concession to rip off the tax payer which will also bring tax relief for pensions into even further disrepute. 

I actually agree that most people will not "squander" their pensions savings when they retire but to be clear this will happen. In a small minority of cases people will indeed fritter the money away but in other cases they will be robbed and deceived by the ever present financial services sharks and charlatans, who will no doubt be now rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect.

The government claims that it doesn't matter if people squander their private pension since they will have the new State Pension of £150 per week to fall back on? As I have pointed out in the past it costs £150 per week just to rent a one bedroom flat above a Chicken shop in Newham. If you privately rent (which is a growing sector ) then you will have indeed an incentive to blow your pension money on "holidays of a lifetime" and then expect the taxpayer to pay your rent. You would in fact be a fool not to do this.

But the very worse thing about this budget proposal is that instead of reforming the broken annuity market it will mean that annuities remain discredited.  People will also be so fearful of running out of money when they grow old that they will keep the money in the building society on deposit and live miserable lives dependent on tiny amounts of interest while inflation cuts the value of their lump sum, year in and year out.

By coincidence I was at the "Rethinking Pensions" conference the day after last weeks budget. This was of course a live issue and I will post further on the 1st day of the conference.

Hat tip picture Nigel Stanley clever response to the stupid and condescending Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lilian Greenwood MP & UNISON Housing Association Branch Labour Link AGM

I think this is a great picture from last month's Branch Labour Link AGM held at the House of Commons.  Our guest speaker was to have been Shadow Housing Minister, Emma Reynolds MP but she had to pull out at the last minute due to a family emergency. Emma has offered to rearrange for the near future.

Top UNISON member and MP for Nottingham South, Lilian Greenwood (see picture 4th on left) stepped in at the very last minute to be our guest speaker. She gave a marvelous off the cuff speech on her background, her values and what she wants to achieve as a MP- then she took part in a wide ranging Q&A.

Afterwards UNISON Voluntary Organisations Branch Labour Link Officer Jonathon Slater (2nd from left) spoke about the importance of winning the Local and Euro elections  in May. Jonathon is standing as a  Labour Candidate for Whitefoot ward in Lewisham.

Our Regional Branch organiser Colin Inniss spoke about how vital it is to recruit more members, stewards and to campaign to defend jobs, terms and conditions.

As the Branch Labour Link officer I also asked for active support for Labour candidates in the forth coming battle in May (I am also standing again as the Labour Candidate for West Ham ward in Newham).

I made the very simple and obvious point to everyone present that while politics should not be about personalities - listening tonight to Lilian about her background and values as well as her obvious decency you should decide who you want to be a part of future government that rules over you - Lilian or David Cameron?

I think it is fair to say that none of us wanted David Cameron.

Afterwards we went to our traditional social at the Weatherspoons in Whitehall.

I will post more pictures of event on Facebook.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Justice for Cleaners: Further strike action Friday 21 March

Branch email sent out today "Members are encouraged to show solidarity with UNISON members by visiting the picket line from 7.00 am Friday (21 March). The branch has made a donation of £100 and a collection made at the branch AGM will be delivered to the picket line tomorrow.

SOAS, University of London, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG

UNISON cleaners and maintenance staff at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (SOAS) are taking strike action in a long-running dispute over terms and conditions.

The 50-plus workers, who are employed by ISS Facility Services, receive only statutory sick pay and the statutory minimum annual leave, yet colleagues who are employed directly by SOAS receive contractual sick pay, 30 days annual leave and a defined benefits pension scheme.

UNISON balloted its members for industrial action following a series of negotiations and meetings, which ended with ISS refusing to make an offer to improve terms and conditions.

Members returned a 100% vote in favour of strike action. The ISS staff have received strong support from their colleagues working for SOAS and from the students, who understand how important their work is.

UNISON regional organiser Ruth Levin said: "We know that our campaign against the two-tier workforce created by ISS is growing in strength and support.

SOAS as an institution claims to deal with pressing issues such as democracy, human rights and poverty. Yet here we have a situation where it is failing to deal with a pressing issue that is sitting on its doorstep. UNISON is calling on ISS to get back around the table, with no strings attached, to resolve this dispute".

Saying Goodbye to Gerry

Long standing West Ham Labour Party member Gerry died a month ago on 20 February.

This is my tribute.

"Last month on the 27 February family and friends remembered and celebrated the long life of Gerald Joseph Carlile at City of London crematorium in Manor Park.

Gerry was born in West Ham in 1931 and apart from National Service in Gibraltar, he lived here all his life.

He was the second youngest of a close knit family of 8 children. Gerry worked for most of his life in Blackwell Power station. When he was there he had to physically shovel coal into the furnaces that powered the electric generators. A hard, hot and dirty job.

Gerry was also a life long member of the Transport and General Workers Union (now Unite) and the Labour Party. He served on a number of union national committees and was an admirer and supporter of its former general secretary, Spanish Civil War International Brigade hero, Jack Jones.

Gerry was a tenant activist who refused on principle to buy his Council flat. He served as West Ham Labour Party disability officer and held numerous other ward and CLP positions.

Gerry was a Socialist who was proud to be British. His coffin was drapped in the Union Jack. He was proud of his Country although he wanted it to change and be fairer. To better look after the vulnerable and especially the elderly and disabled.

He honoured the memory of his older brother John who was killed in action in the Second World War when his ship was sunk by a Nazi submarine.

Like many East Enders he was a staunch supporter of the Royal family. The only time he and I ever had a real falling out was when I happened to mention that I was a republican, for which he made very clear his views and what he thought of those who didn't share them! But afterwards he never  mentioned this again. 

At the service the eulogy was read by Gerry's friend and near neighbour for over 40 years, Cllr Ron Manley.

The final piece of music in the service was of course "God Save the Queen".

Afterwards we went to a excellent buffet and refreshments at the Railway Tavern pub in Stratford.

Many thanks to his family for organising such a wonderful service and T. Cribbs & Sons the funeral Directors and Rev Derek Talbot. Donations to Cancer Research.

Hat tip to Julianne for the photos and her tribute on West Ham Labour blog. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Mallowstreet Presentation to London UNISON Pension Reps

Yesterday lunchtime there was the quarterly meeting of the Greater London UNISON Pension network.

There was about 20 activists who attended. All of whom are observers or member nominated representatives on London LGPS (Local Government Pension Scheme) pension schemes. We also had an update from our Regional Secretary, Linda Perks.

The Pensions social media website "Mallowstreet" were our guest speakers.  Stuart Breyer and Victoria Sinclair from Mallowstreet (see picture) gave us an presentation about the site and what they do and what they can offer pension trustees.

It was a really useful meeting and we also had a far reaching debate about the on going governance and stewardship debate regarding the future of the £150 billion LGPS. It is currently completely unclear what will  happen but our national negotiators are busy arguing on our behalf so we will have to wait and see.

Monday, March 17, 2014

100th Anniversary of Essex Agricultural Workers Strike 1914

The weekend before last I went by chance for a  country walk in the Essex /Cambridgeshire boarders. It was only afterwards that I realised the significance of its starting and finishing point, the beautiful but historic village of Ashdon.

100 years ago Ashdon, was the centre of a desperate struggle between poorly paid farm labourers and farm owners.

Check out this post at Country Standard for a full account of the dispute.  The Essex Standard had  described how farm workers felt at the time.

"The condition of the agricultural labourer is as bad as can be, he toils like a slave, lives like a pig and often dies like a dog, with no pleasure but an occasional debauch at the ale house, no prospect but that of the Workhouse for an old age of rheumatism and misery'

Support for the strike

Speakers included George Lansbury MP , John Scurr (later MP for Mile End) and Rev Edward Maxted the "Socialist" vicar of Tiltly. But the largest meeting was to hear Sylvia Pankhurst speak and it was her who led a procession through the village of Helions Bumpstead at which over 2,0000 were present on Sunday 26th July 1914

Arguable the "Militant" strike centre of the dispute was at Ashdon, Essex, Where over 70 police officers had to be stationed to keep order, being billeted in Rose & Crown

Many strikers were fined and even imprisoned.
The police were now patrolling the villages night and day, this not stop the attacks on imported "blacklegs", their lodging houses, unsympathetic shop owners premises and of course the local Conservative club or indeed the firing of hay stacks, which lite up the rural night sky, in what must have seemed a throw back to the "Swing" Riots of the 1830's

The strike was far from being settled, when the impending outbreak of World War One, forced the protagonists to resolve the situation.

Agreement was finally reached on 3rd August 1914, just one day before war was declared and the men returned to work 5th August at a rate of 15 shillings a week and £8 for harvest, most men re-employed and the Union had secured a limited but significant victory.

As for the men of Ashdon imprisoned, they were given a choice between imprisonment or volunteering for the army", of the eight only one opted for the army, Walter Marsh who survived nineteen years in the army, eventually dying in 1971 aged 89

Roy Brazier - The Empty Fields 1989

Picture of strikers in 1914 in front of the "Rose and Crown" pub in 1914 and of now.   Where I had a drink in the beer garden unaware of its role 100 years before.

The 7 mile 3/4 walk itself is highly recommended (check out Essex Walks for route). Lovely rolling hills and countryside. Also visit the astonishing Roman/Ancient Britain remains at Bartlow Hill (bottom left of photo) 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Bankers' pay has become bit of a Ponzi scheme" Ed Balls (& Football Shame)

Sense from Ed Balls and Vince Cable except I do not think that any footballer is worth £300k per week, especially since Manchester United like all other clubs treat their low paid staff with contempt and don't pay everyone a living wage. Wayne Rooney should be ashamed of himself for getting so much while so many get so little from the Club.

Hat tip Observer :-

"Shadow chancellor echoes business secretary, saying most top executives and bankers would do the work for half the money

Pay for bankers and top executives has become "a bit of a Ponzi scheme" and most of them would do the work for half the money, Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, has said.

But the Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney was worth his reported £300,000 a week because of his exceptional talent, Balls said in an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics on Sunday.

Balls was responding to a comment from Vince Cable, the business secretary, who said he could not understand why bankers needed to earn £1m a year.

Rooney's pay was understandable, Balls said. "There's only one Wayne Rooney and he plays for Manchester United, he could go anywhere in the world."

Very-high salaries for exceptional entrepreneurs like the late Steve Jobs, whose iPhones are sold around the world, were also acceptable, he suggested. But Balls said he agreed with Cable about some bankers' salaries being impossible to defend.

"In some parts of our economy – when it's not a great idea or when it's not the talent of Wayne Rooney – then you do think to yourself these massive multimillion-pound salaries, it feels like a bit of a Ponzi scheme," Balls said.

It was time to "get back to a bit of rationality", he continued. "If somebody actually was to say stop a minute, let's stand back and say is this really sensible and rational, most of those people would do those jobs for half the money."

Cable told the Observer: "I don't understand why people need a million quid a year. I've asked one or two of the more sympathetic bankers to explain it to me. The response has been: 'It's not that I need the money, it is because others get it so I should too.' That is a ludicrous mindset. What on earth do these people think they are doing?"

Fees - and what trustees should know? AMNT Open Day Feb 2014

Final late post from last month's Association of Member Nominated Trustees (AMNT) open meeting on the "Understanding fund structures and their implications - what Trustees should know" presentation.

This was by George Emmerson from Standard Life and Maddi Forrester AXA.

While I enjoyed all the presentations that day and learnt a lot - this was probably the most practical and I have since used the information on fees at trustee meetings.

For pensions trustees the most common the charge you see most is called the Annual Management Charge (or AMC). However the most important figure on fees that Trustees should always ask for is the Total Expenses Ratio (or TER) which should include everything.

I asked the question is it ever appropriate for fund managers to give performance figures GROSS (before) of fees instead of NET of fees? I was told that fund managers when they bid for new business at beauty parades etc have to give their past performance "Gross of fees" but there is no reason why they should not take out their fees from their performance if they are employed as your fund advisers. (make sure that your fund managers mandate states that you want net of fees reporting as well).

So trustees up and down the land make sure you get the TER and performance net of fees. If a fund manager (private equity or hedge fund) say they can't give you specific TER information, then in my view, don't buy from them.

Afterwards George and Maddi held a fun "Acronym Bingo" where they tested the trustees present on our knowledge about what all the weird and wonderful acronyms used by the financial services industry actually mean. My score in this bingo quiz was pretty abysmal while our AMNT Co-Chair Barry Parr took first prize!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Eric the Trekkie at the LGA Parliamentary Reception 2014

New(ish) Labour MP and former Lambeth Council leader, Steve Reed spoke first at last months Local Government Association event in the House of Commons Terrace Pavilion. 

Steve contrasted his experience as a Councillor with that as an MP. He felt the experience was very different especially since local people could attend Council meetings to let Councillors know their views but the House of Commons seems isolated in comparison.

Next was the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles. He described himself as a Star Track fan and told us that "all resistance to freezing Council tax rises was futile".

Apart from this joke Eric's speech was actually non partisan and even very "un-Eric". He praised local authorities for their response to the recent floods and said he thought Councillors were excellent local advocates and champions. He claimed that if he ever seems grumpy as Secretary of State we should remember that he loves us all a lot.

The head of the LGA, Conservative Cllr Sir Merrick Cockell spoke next and actually said how sad he was that due to property price increases his children are not able to live in the borough (Kensington and Chelsea) he has led as Council leader for the past 13 years. Which I found to be a pretty amazing thing to hear. If his kids cannot live there then who can? 

He also called for more homes to be built, to support small builders and for a 5 year long local government grants settlement by National Government rather than yearly. Which makes perfect sense to me.

Final speaker was Baroness Bakewell who had served beforehand for 20 years in Somerset Country Council and she reflected on the 8 times so far the Lords had defeated the Government and the many other times that they had made them rethink their policies.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Remembering Tony Benn

Maybe its because I'm getting older or more probably it is just chance but the last few weeks have been dominated by the deaths of what were to me - important Labour movement figures who helped shape my beliefs and politics.

Today Tony Benn died aged 88, which was not unexpected and who had reached a good age. On Tuesday Union leader Bob Crow who was only 52. The week before Stuart Barber also died unexpectedly. Stuart was a mate and a top UNISON regional officer in London. While last month, West Ham Labour Party lost one of its longest serving and most loyal members Gerry Carlile.

My social media today is dominated by tributes to Tony Benn. I first heard about it by text from a fellow Newham Councillor at 7.22 as I was about to go out and deliver Labour Party leaflets in my ward. "Morning Comrade. A sad day for all socialists with the passing of Tony Benn".

I love this iconic photograph above of Tony Benn. Like many Labour Party supporters I was never a supporter of most of his solutions but I agreed with his analysis of the problems and admired his courage in standing his ground, despite everything thrown at him.

As always in "This Great Movement Of Ours " (aka tigmoo) Labour movement family members will usually agree where we want to go but can't agree on the best way to get there. 

I had the privilege to listen and even speak to Tony Benn on a number of occasions.

He spoke at the AGM of my  branch at the time, Tower Hamlets Local Government UNISON and happily chatted to us all beforehand while drinking a massive mug of tea.

At a SERTUC international meeting in 2007 he reminisced as being on a British troop ship sailing back to “Blighty” after the second world war. He was at the time a RAF pilot and Labour Party parliamentary candidate in the 1945 elections. He remembered the debates on board the troop ship about why was it possible to have full employment when the country was at war killing German’s but not in peacetime when they could be building hospitals and schools?

On a similar theme an UNISON national officer speaking at a branch meeting once recommended  Tony Benn’s simply definition of socialism. “If we have unemployed building workers and homeless people why don’t we get the unemployed to build homes for the homeless”.

I thought his arguments in favour of republicanism were unanswerable. He made it perfectly clear that he had nothing but respect for the present Royal family and especially their service in the second world war and thought it was a complete distraction to attack them personally. He just wanted and demanded as a democrat to have an elected Head of State.

I can remember him talking powerfully about taking a trip on a train in Thatcherite Britain. At the beginning of the journey everyone just sat in their seats, did not have any contact with their neighbours and read their books and newspapers. The train broke down and while the passengers were waiting for it to be fixed they started to talk to each other and share food and drinks. At the beginning the train was a Tory train, selfish and individualistic. When the train broke down it became a socialist train, collective and sharing in adversity.

I suspect that the second world war shaped Tony Benn as much as the first world war had affected Clement Attlee.

One of my favourite recent memories of him is sitting on a panel at a public debate in a hall at Tower Hamlets waiting to speak, happily puffing away on his pipe while sitting directly under a large sign saying "No smoking". No-one dared to ask him to stop.

A good UNISON comrade of mine went to see him speak last year at at a memorial celebration in Bow of the 1888 London Women Matchmakers Strike. Tony convinced him to join the Labour Party in his speech (which I had never been able to do).

My final favourite quote from him is this :-

“We are not just here to manage capitalism but to change society and to define its finer values.”

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Amazon Anonymous: Change the business practice of the most exploitative big company in the UK



Check out the trade union website "Amazon Anonymous" which "calls on the retailer to fix their bad business model, and stop exploiting workers, avoiding fair taxes and unfairly undermining independent competitors."

Hat tip Mr Woods

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Remembering Bob Crow

This is an article I wrote for Inside Housing 

"I think like everyone I was shocked yesterday morning to learn of the sudden death of RMT Railway union leader  Bob Crow. I was actually on a train at the time when I heard the news, the same line on which I occasionally use to see Bob while he was on his way home to his East London social house that the media used to hate so much.

Like many trade unionists I was a huge admirer of what he was able to achieve for his members even though I didn’t always agree with everything he said.

Inside Housing has asked me what union housing representatives can learn from his example.

I think a huge amount.  I won’t pretend that unions in the housing sector have the industrial muscle and bargaining power that the rail unions have, since they have the ability to bring their industry very quickly to an absolute halt. There are at least three lasting interrelated legacies I think that Bob leaves to us.

First and foremost Bob believed that you must have a strong collective voice to stand up for your rights at work. The interests of the employer and the employees are not always the same and if you are passive and do nothing, then don’t be surprised if you get walked all over.  There is a massive power imbalance in the workplace and strong, independent and accountable trade unions are needed to tackle this imbalance and restore equilibrium.

The second legacy from Bob is union density. Bob knew what our grandmothers and grandfathers knew and has now been often sadly forgotten. It is very simple but true. The more of us in the union - the better the deal we will get. Bob drove up union density in the RMT and increased his bargaining power so all members benefited. It is indeed the case that workers are ‘Better Together’.

The third legacy to housing unions is what I would call adopting the Bob Crow mind set. That housing workers must be prepared to fight and take industrial action if necessary. Industrial action can take many forms but you must consider the ultimate weapon of strike action. It is no use just complaining about cuts in your salary or pension, reductions in sick pay or unfair redundancies. All of us must be prepared to stand up and do something about it.

Never forget you cannot depend on employment law or your employer to protect you at work. You can only depend on your fellow workers and your union.

Last night I was at a Unison regional meeting representing housing workers and it was proposed that we send the RMT and his family our condolences and we should hold a minutes silence for Bob.  I suggested that a minutes silence would not be apt for Bob and that instead we should all stand up together and make passionate speeches for a minute instead. We decided to send condolences.
John Gray is a housing officer and Unison committee member"

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What should the next Labour Government do about Education? Newham Compass & Fabians

The next Great debate by Newham Compass and Fabians will be on Education and will take place on Tuesday 1 April (no comment) at the West Ham Supporters' Club Castle St, London, East Ham E6 1PP.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Annunities: are they so Bad? AMNT Open day 2014

The answer is of course YES. A little late but this post is from the AMNT (Association of Member Nominated Trustees) open meeting held in London last month. 

Rob Yuille (picture) from the Association of British Insurers (also known as the ABI or more simply by those in the know as "the enemy") defended pension annuities. 

The well known left wing revolutionary rag "The Daily Telegraph" in a recent editorial called for everyone to be given a cheque when they retire for the full value of their pension fund instead of being forced to buy annuities from insurance companies.

Rob made a valiant attempt to justify annuities and to be fair they do have their strengths such as being secure, personalised, with options and apparently good value compared to international alternatives.

The weaknesses of course are legion but even Rob accepted that they can be expensive, inflexible, confusing and dependent on uncertain market gilt yields. The current returns are of course pitiful.

I pointed out that recently I had tried to help a work colleague who was being made redundant understand what was her pension provision. She was a warden in a sheltered scheme for the elderly but did not understand at all her three different defined contribution pension pensions pots. 

She was just over 55 and for some reason had recently (in her terms) "cashed in" one of her pension pots. She had no concept of protecting her pension against inflation, nor protecting her partner if she died early or the commission she had paid (it was 5% of a £20k pot). 

I think that the current pension system totally fails people like her. I don't think that annuities are at all suitable products for relatively low paid and financially unsophisticated workers.

There is a role for annuities with the wealthy and I think if truth be known, the pension industry does not want to deal with these millions of tiny DC annuity holders. 

The pension annuity market is clearly broken and we desperately need an alternative.  Since the State is (rightly) busy forcing workers to be auto-enrolled into pensions then it has a duty to ensure that they are not being ripped off and sold a dud when they retire.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Save our Co-op! London Regional Council AGM 2014

I am catching up on things but photo is of the top Chair of UNISON Housing Association Branch, Tony Power, moving our motion "Save our Co-op" at this years Regional Council AGM.

We all have to fight to retain the Co-op Bank and mutualism. The motion was passed unanimously.

"This Greater London UNISON Regional Council expresses its deep concern at changes being
brought in at the Cooperative Bank at the behest of its new economic partners.

The Cooperative Bank was founded on principles of mutualism and ethical investment, principles enshrined in its constitution and articles of governance, and which neither can nor should be jettisoned on demand by banking institutions and hedge funds brought in to restore financial stability.
Moreover, the earlier merger of the Cooperative Bank with the Britannia Building Society means that the future of yet another building society based on the principles of mutualism is placed under threat.

This Regional Council believes that mutualism in banking and home loaning provides an honest and viable alternative to the “for profit” banking system, acting much more in the interests of UNISON members and their families rather than their big business competitors, and calls upon the National Executive Council to open discussions with the Cooperative Society to explore how we may work together to build a campaign to restore the principles of mutualism into the heart of the Cooperative Bank’s banking and building society operations".

(if this motion is passed and sent to any other forum then the wording should be changed accordingly)

Saturday, March 08, 2014

The return of a Buckley Mug

Last month I went "home" to North Wales to help my sisters move my Mum to a new sheltered flat in Ruthin from Denbigh.

I had a couple of hours to kill so drove over the lovely Clywdian hills to Buckley.

I was brought up in Buckley, Flintshire until I was about 15 years old and the family moved further up the North Wales coast to Holywell.  I still stayed in School until 18.

I have not been back to Buckley for many years and the town has changed a lot.

Buckley use to be "an industrial heartland for pottery and coal mining". The term "Buckley mugs" was used by outsiders to describe its inhabitants since there used to be 14 different potteries in the town. Although in Wales it is only 6 miles from the English boarder. The distinctive old "Potteries" Buckley accent has now died out but as a boy I can remember old men in flat caps coming into the newsagents I used to work at ("Freds" at the Cross) very early in the morning and "thee" and "thou" while buying their tobacco and the Daily Mirror.

My father came from Scotland to work at the local aircraft factory in nearby Broughton (still open today) and met my Mum who was a local auxiliary nurse from Denbigh. 

I drove past the houses we used to live in (Church Road and Maxwell Close) and my old Primary School (Mountain Lane) and Secondary School (Elfed High).

I was somewhat dismayed to see that the old quarries that I used to play in when I was young had been filled in and built over with new housing - but such is life.

The infamous Buckley nightclub "The Tivola" (Tiv) is still there while Buckley Common is still open and undeveloped, a great place for kids.

The picture is of Buckley Town Hall and the adjacent swimming baths and public library. This hasn't changed though the baths are long closed. "The historically-important baths were built by the local Miners’ Welfare Committee with funds generated through a one-penny-per-ton levy from local mine owners, part of a national scheme designed to alleviate poor living standards in mining communities".

It was calculated that 1.2 million tons of coal had to be dug out to pay for those baths.This was during the days when coal had to be mined by pick axe and shovel (1920's).

My father, another John Gray, was an assistant branch secretary of the Electricians Union, a Tenants Association rep and Labour Councillor for Buckley Town Council. I can remember people in the street stopping and chatting to him about local political issues (and calling him "Jock" - which when I was little used to mystify me why they called him this?)

To my shame the only people I am still in contact with (and that largely by Facebook) from Buckley now also live elsewhere.

Each year on the 2nd Tuesday in July there is a "Buckley Jubilee" and tradition procession through the town.

One day this Buckley mug will return and take part.

Friday, March 07, 2014


Repeal the attacks on TUPE! Repeal CRATUPEAR "The Collective Redundancies and Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment Amendment Regulations 2014)"

"An Early Day Motion in Parliament has been laid seeking to repeal the watering-down of TUPE regulations which protect transferred workers by the Coalition government.  As many workers in our sector TUPE transfer increasingly frequently, this is a vital issue for us.  Please contact your local MP (for example by going to  to urge them to sign up to this motion.

“Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband has tabled an EDM calling for the Collective Redundancies and Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) (Amendment) Regulations 2014 to be annulled.

Early Day Motion 1130: Terms and Conditions of Employment

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Collective Redundancies and Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) (Amendment) Regulations 2014 (S.I., 2014, No. 16), dated 8 January 2014, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10 January, be annulled.

Hat tip Simon and photo here

Thursday, March 06, 2014

"Oh What A Lovely War"

I am just back from watching a performance of "Oh What A Lovely War" at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East. The show was first performed at this theatre in 1963.

The theatre tonight had been fully booked by Newham Labour Group as a fund raiser/social.

I really enjoyed the performance and thought it was much better than the 1969 film.

Most of the songs in the show originated from the musical hall era and it just seemed to suit the snug and traditional Theatre Royal which was first built in 1884.  I suspect many of them were actually song on that stage at patriotic performances during the war.

Other songs from the show I remember singing (badly) during various route marches in my youth when I was a cadet and a member of the Territorials.

Tory Education minister Michael Gove has attacked this show and others for "peddling left wing myths" about the first world war which he describes as a "noble...and just cause". Which is just nonsense. While the show was not a BBC History production about the rights or wrongs of the war, it accurately reflects the humour and heroism of the British Tommies amongst the senseless and often futile mass slaughter.

According to family folklore, my maternal Grandfather (or Taid in Welsh) who served on the front line during the first world war from 1915-1918 use to go on his leave to London and blow all his pay on "entertainment" including theatres and music halls. I wonder if he ever came down to a East End sing-a-long in Stratford? 

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

UNISON Housing Associations Branch AGM Tuesday 18 March 2014

There are two meetings, please attend whichever is more convenient:

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Afternoon   2.00 – 4.30 refreshments from 1.30

Evening      6.00 – 8.30 refreshments from 5.30

Venue: Resource for London, 356 Holloway Road, N7 6PA

(closest tube station Holloway Road)

All branch members are welcome – please try and attend as this is when officers are elected and the branch agrees its policy for the next year.

Speakers include: Tom Copley, London Assembly Labour Spokesperson on Housing (evening meeting) and Mathew Donaher UNISON Community Organising Co-Coordinator – other speakers to be confirmed.

The Annual Report and papers for the AGM are attached to member emails and on request.

If you are interested in getting more involved in your union, there are vacancies on the branch committee, or you may wish to attend UNISON National Delegate Conference. 

Please email the branch office to confirm. If you need more information about travel or any special needs, please do not hesitate to contact us at or call 020 7697 5030.

Justice for Cleaners - SOAS strike for sickpay, leave and pensions equality

This morning I went to the UNISON cleaners picket line at the University School of Oriental and African Studies in London (SOAS) to pass on a message of support from my branch.

Around 50 UNISON members who are cleaners at SOAS were on strike yesterday and today.

They work as cleaners at SOAS but are not employed by the university but by the private outsourcing company ISS. After a previous fight the cleaner's now get a London Living wage rate but are still treated as third class workers at SOAS since colleagues directly employed receive contractual sick pay, 30 days annual leave and a defined benefits pension scheme.

It really is disgraceful that the lowest paid staff in such organisations will fall back into poverty if they are sick or when they retire. The taxpayer is then expected to subsidise the poverty pay conditions of employers such as ISS and the so called "elite public research university" SOAS.

I was once many moons ago at a meeting with management and HR to discuss a restructure with a consultant present who questioned why the organisation still directly employed cleaners rather than outsourcing them. I replied because we don't believe in serfdom.

I wish the cleaners at SOAS well and think they have a strong bargaining position due to their solidarity and the support of their union colleagues and students.

I still think in the long run we need binding collective wage councils for such vulnerable workers but  in this current dispute everyone who thinks it is wrong to treat such workers as serfs should demand that ISS and SOAS treat their workers with dignity and respect and pay them live able terms and conditions.