Grandmother takes pension challenge to Chancellor

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Gordon Brown may view himself as prime minister in waiting, but the Chancellor has a formidable opponent to overcome before he can think about that battle: Patricia Sargent.

Gordon Brown may view himself as prime minister in waiting, but the Chancellor has a formidable opponent to overcome before he can think about that battle: Patricia Sargent.

The 50-year-old grandmother, from Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, is standing against Mr Brown in his Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency. She is representing the Pensions Action Group (PAG), which is campaigning for more than 80,000 workers who have lost their pensions because their companies collapsed.

Mrs Sargent's husband, Keith, worked for Dexion, the shelving and storage maker whose collapse in 2003 left more than a thousand workers without their pensions. It was a similar story at companies including UEF, Albert Fisher, Blyth & Blyth, Motherwell Bridge, Richards, ASW, BUSM, Kalamazoo and Samuel Jones.

These workers were caught in a trap because the collapse of their companies occurred before the Pensions Act came into force this year. This legislation created the new Pensions Protection Fund (PPF), which guarantees 90 per cent of the pensions for members of insolvent schemes.

After a long and concerted campaign, which included the lobbying of Parliament and the Labour Party conference, the then work and pensions secretary, Andrew Smith, announced last year he was setting up a £400m Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) to help workers caught out in this way.

But when details of the scheme emerged, it was less attractive than had been expected. It guaranteed only 80 per cent of the pension, and then only for workers within three years of retirement age. Keith Sargent, who is 56, was not covered. Indeed, the PAG has worked out that just 146 out of 1,005 workers who lost their pension at Dexion would benefit from the FAS, while at ASW, the steel group which collapsed in 2002, only around 5 per cent of workers would be helped.

Alan Johnson, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has said he will review the FAS. And this was backed up when Mr Brown visited Sheerness in Kent 10 days ago. There he was confronted by a former worker at the ASW factory, who told him the FAS was not sufficient to help the workers affected.

"We are aware of your situation and the FAS will be reviewed," said the Chancellor.

However the pensions campaigners are not convinced that the review will come soon enough, or that the Treasury will release enough money to ensure the review has any real effect.

Mrs Sargent, who has lived and breathed this campaign for the past two years, says that standing against the Chancellor is an attempt to push the issue back up the political agenda.

She was moved to make the stand after hearing of the plight of a former Dexion worker who has cancer, and who will die before he qualifies for the FAS, so his widow will end up with nothing.

"I went out on to my back lawn and said to myself: 'Somebody has to get it back for these people,' " said Mrs Sargent.

She had not considered standing against Mr Johnson, even though his Hull constituency is quite near to where she lives. "It is my understanding that it is the Treasury that has not been prepared to put any more money into helping us," she said.

Mrs Sargent travelled up to Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath last weekend to put her case to local residents and win enough support to be nominated. She was pleased with the response.

"Some of the people said: 'What will you do if you get elected?', and I said 'I would be proud to be a representative for you and I would be proud to find out and understand your problems,' " she explained.

Mrs Sargent, who works as a company secretary, says she has never been involved in any form of politics prior to the pensions campaign. She would not reveal whether she had voted for Labour, but admitted: "If Gordon Brown were true to what he says, it would be very like my personal politics."