The campaign a decade ago to secure equal compensation for all victims of wound-up pension schemes has so far resulted in almost £500 million being paid out to retired workers who would otherwise have lost hard-earned pensions.
The pay-outs to members of 1,050 wound-up pension schemes covered by the Financial Assistance Scheme are in addition to the £1.2 billion paid out to members of 700 schemes in the Pension Protection Fund. Some 165,000 people will be helped by the FAS, which was created, and eventually upgraded to match the PPF, entirely in response to a grass-roots campaign.
One of the leaders of that five-year battle this week paid tribute to Dr Ros Altmann, who was made a CBE in last weekend's honours list for her work in the sector.
Paul Gill, leader of the biggest group of English workers threatened at the time with losing 90 per cent of their pensions, said Dr Altmann's years of unpaid work had been key to the eventual upgrading of the miserly Financial Assistance Scheme, for workers in schemes wound up before April 2004, to the level of the Pension Protection Fund.
The PPF this week revealed that the FAS ( still a separate legal entity) paid out around £15 million every month. "We believe there will be around 165,000 members, of whom just over 40,000 are in payment, receiving FAS benefits," a spokesman said. "Since we took responsibility for FAS in 2009 we have paid out £484 million."
Around 26,500 people in Scotland belong to schemes covered by the PPF or FAS, at an estimated annual cost of over £100m a year.
Motherwell Bridge, Donside Paper, Melville Dundas and Blyth & Blyth were among the bigger Scottish companies whose current and former workers were told in early 2004 that they would be excluded from the UK's proposed final salary pension safety net, and could lose up to 90 per cent of their pensions.
Mr Gill said: "Ros worked so hard without pay, on behalf of the Pensionstheft campaign. With her advice, I led an action group which had over 500 deferred pensioners, many with 40 years service and all facing disastrous loss. She also campaigned on behalf of seriously ill people."
Dr Altmann commented this week: "The campaign to restore final salary pensions to the 150,000 workers from whom they had been taken away by flawed legislation, despite constant official assurances that their rights were safe and protected by the law, lasted far longer than I ever imagined. It was such a hard battle, to get the government of the day to own up to its mistakes and remedy the terrible injustice. It was my privilege to be able to help these good people, who had trusted the pension system with their whole life savings and then seen them snatched away without warning."
The PPF, which pays out around £40m a month, is currently assessing Scottish Coal for transfer. In the past it has rescued pensioners in the likes of Woolworths, HMV and Jessops.
Dr Altmann meanwhile last week published a report on how best to protect retirees when the new non-final-salary pensions regime, which scraps compulsory annuities, arrives next April. She said: "I hope Government has learned the lessons that pensions need to be properly protected and people must not be misled into believing their money is safe if it is not.
"The campaign is relevant still today, since it contributed to the loss of faith in pensions which now needs to be restored, and government must ensure people are not misled but are safeguarded by our system."
Mr Gill also paid tribute to The Herald's strong support for the FAS campaign, which was co-led by workers at United Engineeering Forgings in Ayr. That appeared to have achieved victory in April 2004 when the government hurriedly brought forward the FAS at the same time as launching the PPF legislation. But the "discretionary" FAS was hugely less generous.
When the ombudsman ruled that the government ought to compensate the pre-2004 victims in full, his report was rejected by the then pensions secretary John Hutton, who said he would offer them 45 per cent. Four pensioners, advised by Dr Altmann and others, petitioned for judicial review of the decision, despite a threat of huge legal bills from the Department for Work and Pensions if they lost. The High Court ruled that Mr Hutton had acted "unlawfully and irrationally".
Even then in March 2007 the government said it would appeal to the House of Lords. Reform was said to have been obstructed by the Treasury, still under Gordon Brown. Eventually in April 2008 Mr Brown's government backed down and said FAS benefits would equal those in the PPF, which insures around 90 per cent of a member's pension against their scheme being wound up by a failed company.
The Herald reported at the time: "Victims never received any apology, despite the ombudsman, the High Court and the Court of Appeal all commenting in critical terms on the distress and suffering caused to those impoverished by pension losses, some to the point of serious illness and death."