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The BBC's Tim Franks
"300 pensioners packed into a hotel room waiting to kebab the pensions minister""
 real 28k

banner Monday, 25 September, 2000, 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK
Pensioners on the warpath
"Can you shut up while I'm talking so I can get this over with please!" was the heartfelt cry from pensions minister Jeff Rooker as he struggled to make himself heard above the din of angry pensioners.

Although the minister had a microphone he struggled to raise his voice above the senior citizens' chanting at the National Pensioners' Convention fringe meeting at Labour's Brighton conference.

"Restore the link, restore the link, restore the link" was the message coming loud and clear from the floor of the crowded meeting.

Despite the constant heckling the minister remained surprisingly unruffled.

But speaking as he did before the chancellor took to the main conference floor, the minister had little option but to tell the crowd of Labour activists exactly what they didn't want to hear.

Government policy, he said, remained to target the poorest pensioners first and there was no plan to restore the link between the rise in earnings and the basic state pension, scrapped by the Thatcher government in 1980.

The minister conceded that at 67.50 the basic state pension "wasn't much to live on" - and winded up his speech saying "with that inadequate reply I will leave. I am going to go and hear what Gordon Brown has to say."

Everyone in the room was waiting for the chancellor. And all the speakers on the platform, from the 89-year-old Barbara Castle, through to Tony Benn to Rodney Bickerstaffe, to Clare Rayner to Jack Jones all had the simple message - raise pensions and restore the link with earnings.

The agony aunt and pensioner for four years Clare Rayner - warned the government that the UK's 11 million pensioners were the biggest focus group around.

"If you want your days to be long in this land, you better start looking after us and start listening to us," she told Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Attacking means testing, the general secretary of Unison, Rodney Bickerstaffe, told the chancellor pensioners "should not have to parade their poverty in order to get a few more quid."

"We want an announcement this week that there will be a rise in the basic state pension," and an assurance that once up-rated the pension "would not be allowed to wither on the vine".

Barbara Castle - the "lucky" Labour minister who put the link in place in the 1970s, raised three cheers from the audience by just entering the hall.

It was "magic", she said, to see the change that Labour's pension's policy had made when Harold Wilson's government brought it in.

The thought behind it was simple: "We want all our citizens to share in the rise in our national prosperity."

Turning to the government she was scathing. "They are revealing that instinctively they belong to that group of people who believe only the deserving poor should get their rights.

"But I think all the poor are deserving. It's not just about money it's about human dignity," she concluded.

Another veteran campaigner, Jack Jones, drilled the message home.

Referring to the chancellor's war chest he said: "That money is there and that money should be released by way of a substantial increase in the basic state pension."

With the pensioners' noisy lunchtime rally done, one and all left to go and hear what Mr Brown - hot foot from Prague - had to say about it all on the conference floor. And they looked like they wouldn't take no for an answer.

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