Sam Dunn: Pension punch-up: back the underdog

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The Independent Online

Some fights just seem to go on for ever. Last week, the protagonists in a battle over compensation for workers deprived of pension income through no fault of their own staggered from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and back towards the UK High Court.

The weary pugilists - the Government and around 1,000 former Allied Steel & Wire workers whose final salary pension savings were slashed when their employer collapsed in 2003 - are trading pun-ches over responsibility for the consequences.

In the latest round, the ECJ ruled that the Government did not have to offer "a full guarantee of the [old age] rights in question" and that an EU insolvency directive gave governments leeway in calculating how much of a safety net to provide. However, the ruling added, "a level of protection... such as that afforded by the UK system is inadequate".

So it's now up to a British judge to decide whether the Government showed "manifest and serious disregard" in its actions towards making sure that UK pension schemes were adequately funded. If found guilty, compensation should be forthcoming and would probably open the floodgates for up to 125,000 workers from other companies in a similar situation.

(These companies went to the wall before the introduction in April 2005 of the Pension Protection Fund, so their workers can only draw on a separate and hopelessly inadequate £400m "lifeboat" fund.)

But the campaigners, represented by the Amicus and Community unions, face a tough challenge - not least because, in 1995, the Conservative government adopted a loose form of pension regulation that was approved by the European Commission and still exists now.

The legal arguments are likely to run for months, and for the many whose pension income crumbled four years ago, it's too much of a financial burden to bear.

It's clear that government behaviour has been nothing less than squalid: bullying workers over a refusal to cap legal costs; rejection of a critical parliamentary ombudsman's report; and dismissal of the Public Administration Committee's call for redress. I can only hope the British judge agrees.

Fix that exit fee

Mortgage "exit" fees - paid when you switch lender or pay off your home loan - must now be fixed and transparent, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) has ruled. This basic fair play has been lacking among most UK lenders, but now they'll have to comply. Anyone charged a higher exit fee than that quoted when they took out the loan can reclaim the difference.

The FSA should have gone further and forced a low fixed fee; that lenders charge an average of £190 for a simple administrative charge is stupefying.

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