Ivy Needham was in her late sixties and coming to terms with the loss of both her sight and hearing when she was thrust into the forefront of the campaign to get back the pension funds stolen by Robert Maxwell from his staff and from pensioners who had worked for his companies.
She was awarded an MBE for her efforts. The former Prime Minister Tony Blair told me: “Ivy was quite simply a legend. She had an indomitable spirit and her pursuit of justice for those pensioners was truly inspiring. She was a wonderful asset to the Labour Party, a genuine unique and wonderful human being and warm and funny friend. She will be greatly missed.”
Born and brought up in Stockton-on-Tees and educated at local schools, Ivy Connell worked as a nurse at the local hospital. After her marriage to Ernie Needham she moved to Leeds; there she had two children, and in the 1950s went into the catering industry, eventually becoming Catering Manager at Petty and Sons Printers in Leeds, a move which would eventually bring her into the world of Robert Maxwell.
In November 1991, the print magnate died after falling from his yacht while sailing around the Canary Islands. As details of his business deals unravelled it became clear that he had misappropriated some £450m from his company pension funds to prop up his ailing Mirror Group. Needham, along with 32,000 others, was to find that her pension had been wiped out. A campaign began to get those funds back and give help to those facing hardship.
At the time of Maxwell’s death, Needham was living in a small council house in Leeds, mourning the recent death of her husband; not only was she deaf but she was also suffering from a degenerative eye disorder which would shortly lead to her becoming registered blind. In 1982 she had been made redundant from her position as catering manager at Petty’s, for whom she had worked for 17 years. It had been taken over by British Printing Corporation, and subsequently by Maxwell when he took control of the company. She met him once, just after the takeover, when she and her staff were asked to cook a lunch for him; he sent back what was a superbly prepared meal and demanded fish and chips. Six months later she was dismissed.
The injustice and the unfairness of what had happened to the pensioners spurred her into action, and her life changed as she became quickly established as one of the leading faces of the campaign. It was a journey that would see her addressing councils and trade unions, lobbying party conferences and receiving many ovations en route. She chained herself to railings outside the House of Commons and met members of the European Commission in Brussels. The campaign quickly gathered momentum as Needham, with a great deal of charm and stubbornness, travelled the country highlighting the problems the pensioners faced to get back the money stolen from them.
“She was a volatile lady,” said Ken Trench, who headed the Maxwell Pensioners Group. “One of her great phrases was, ‘It’s nice to have promises but you can’t use them at Sainsbury’s check-out’. She was a true Yorkshire lass, a great campaigner in the suffragette mould.”
Needham reached out to everyone, taking on government ministers and lobbying them for help. Ann Widdecombe was one of those confronted by Ivy. She recalled a feisty lady: “She was a fearless campaigner. She was very sharp and very astute and she knew how to deal with both ministers and the media.”
Needham was the only Maxwell pensioner who met Peter Lilley, then Secretary of State for Social Security. “She was a formidable campaigner who made sure we put the maximum effort in securing pensions of those dependent on the Maxwell funds,” he recalled.
In 1992 the Government set up the Maxwell Pensions Unit to work on recovering the schemes’ assets and distribute what could be recovered. A deal was finally drawn up which saw monies from investment banks and the Government used to replenish the funds, enabling the pensioners to receive most of their entitlements.
The settlement did not stop Needham continuing to campaign against injustice. She had stood beside the firemen during their 1992 pay strike, keeping up a steady supply of fish and chips; in 2003 she fought charges to pensioners for home helps and in 2009 protested against day centre closure. More recently she raised some £4,000 for Help For Heroes, the charity set up to help injured soldiers.
In 1996 she was awarded the MBE for her services to the Yorkshire contingent of Maxwell Pensioners, and was Yorkshire Woman of the Year. By that time she owned the first of three much-loved guide dogs, who became a familiar sight at demonstrations. She was a fervent supporter of Guide Dogs for The Blind; when her dog Carmen won a Dog of the Year award for saving her life when she had collapsed following a gas accident, Needham was delighted.
Ivy Connell, campaigner: born Stockton-on-Tees July 1925; MBE 1996; married 1947 Ernest Needham (died 1990; two children); died Hunslet 19 December 2013.