How would describe your personal beliefs in terms of religion or other worldview?
I would consider myself a pretty observant Jew, but others will have their own views of my level of observance. Is this interview for a Jewish audience or a secular one?
Ultimately for a general audience, secular.
Okay, I would otherwise have talked about being shomer Shabbat and Frum, but I don’t think that would be appropriate then. So, I guess I would probably be classed as an Observant Orthodox Jew.
Is this something you grew up with?
I grew up in a household where my father was not Observant at all, he identified but he didn’t keep. Whereas my mother went to Synagogue every week. So we were brought up in a household where religion was very much a personal choice, it was not something expected of you, it was up to you to choose. And it was something I chose. When I was in my teens I used to go to Synagogue with my mother in the morning and off driving with friends to country club, cinema or somewhere or other in the afternoon. Suddenly, something in me thought it didn’t make sense, either I don’t go to Synagogue and don’t keep anything like my Dad, or I really do believe and I shouldn’t be going out in the afternoon, driving in a car and things, I ought to be doing Sabbath things in the afternoon. After a short while, I decided that actually I do believe in God and the religion and spent a long time after that learning more about the Jewish religion. I felt that it was inconsistent not to keep as much of it as I felt able to. I am not obsessive about it and I am not Ultra-Orthodox. I absolutely believe in the existence of God although I don’t know what that concept really is. But I have been through considering the other religions and decided Judaism makes the most sense to me. Is there really a God. Obviously I can’t prove it, and don’t expect anyone else to believe it just because I do. But I do believe in God and am willing to accept that he dictated a certain code of practice for Jewish people to live by, which I believe in too. It is a way of life that works for me and I belive it is a blessing to be able to live by these rules. Quite frankly without the Sabbath I don’t believe that I could ever have achieved what I have, I would have collapsed long ago. Having one day off from all electronic, electrical and everyday work things. Of course it doesn’t mean it has to be the Jewish Sabbath, it could be the Christian Sabbath. But I’ve been through all the other religions, what they stand for, where they came from and Judaism is what seems right for me. I’m not saying that is the right thing, because I don’t think there is a right and wrong thing – I don’t think one can really speak of a right and wrong interpretation of religion. It’s a personal choice. And everybody chooses a level as well. I don’t think that I am entitled to say that I am right and this is how you should observe the religion. Because everyone has a barrier, a boundary, a level that you don’t go beyond. And you could always do more. I don’t believe that there is really a right or wrong in this. I have found a level I am comfortable with and that is my interpretation of how to keep my religious beliefs.
Would you describe Great Britain as an equal and tolerant society, especially where religion is concerned?
Very, we are so lucky to live in a country which is tolerant or all faiths and none, and is not prescriptive about what individuals should believe. Our society tolerates and welcomes all different beliefs and none.
Do you feel that there are any challenges in terms of living in accordance with your personal beliefs here? If so, are they social, political or legal?
When you look around the world, at the Middle East and places, we are so fortunate here. Tolerance, respect, interest even, I do find that people seem to show interest in other religions, not just tolerance. Wanting to know what it’s all about, let’s understand it a bit.
Are there any legal debates going at the moment which concern you? Things like ritual slaughter?
Yes, that does concern me, but I understand it, and I understand that for those who don’t believe in it and don’t see that it is something which came from the Bible, that it could be difficult. I do get that.
Do you think that our current understanding of human rights have been a positive thing for our society?
I think that in some ways, especially when it comes to terrorism, we may have gone a bit too far, other people may disagree.
Do you think that Judaism has contributed to the world’s understanding of human rights?
I hope so, I hope that human rights is based on fundamental religious beliefs. If you look at the Old Testament and much of the teachings for man and his relationship with fellow man. Loving your neighbour as yourself, treating other people as you would wish to be treated, not cheating, always helping your neighbour, if people are begging or poor you mustn’t withhold money or food if they need it. I think that there is a compassion there.
Do you think that Judaism teaches that citizens have a responsibility to participate and vote?
I’m not sure it is as prescriptive as to require you to vote even if you didn’t like what any of the candidates said. I may not be learned enough in that regard, but I haven’t come across that instruction.
But you would say that there is a duty to consider the options and make a responsible decision?
Oh yes, being a responsible member of society and voting the way you believe works best for society is part all of that. Judaism is actually probably naturally quite a left-wing, socialist type of religion. Looking after your fellow man, the idea of the Jubilee, that you can only really own something for 50 years then it goes back to the original owner. If somebody needs to borrow money you mustn’t withhold it and turn your back if they are less fortunate than you. There is an obligation on you to support the rest of society if you can. You must let someone who is working for you free after seven years, and give them as much as you can to set them on their way and thank them for their loyal service.
Is it appropriate or even positive that we have Church of England bishops sitting in the House of Lords at present?
Personally I do think it is appropriate, I like the idea that we have a religion based in our Parliament, the fact that it is Christian religion is fine as far as I am concerned. It is a religious input and we are a Christian country. I like to see religion represented, but it is not as if the bishops are ramming religion down everyone’s throat. They are almost guardians on behalf of the queen.
There is a tendency for the Chief Rabbi to be appointed to the House of Lords, would you like to see this happen as a matter of right?
The system we have got now seems to work. I think you know if we were to have a Chief Rabbi that somehow other people did not respect or feel was a good person, to force them to have them in the Lords would be difficult. Likewise though, I would think it dreadful if there was any kind of religious bar to being in the legislature, which thankfully we don’t have. We are very fortunate. If you look at Israel they welcome all religions in Parliament, it’s a democratic process. And the same with MPs here, the religious angle doesn’t come into it in that respect at all, it’s the person. And in the Lords if you are considered to be of the calibre that whoever is selecting, believes that you are worthy and will make a useful contribution. I wouldn’t want to see religion as a bar, but I don’t think that religion should give you an automatic right either.
What responsibility do people who exercise power owe to the rest of society?
That is where you get to the heart of the matter….obviously no favouritism, judging fairly without vested interest, moral leadership, leading by example as well as telling people what you believe and actually practising, helping people see that there is a legislature where those responsible for making your laws and leading you are decent people. In modern-day politics that can be very challenging. All too often there is some charge or corruption, even if it isn’t real corruption and that itself can be very difficult for political leadership and the reputation of the leadership. I would hope that all of those involved in the legislature in that way would take it upon themselves to be whiter that white. That is why all of these expenses scandals are so difficult. The public is disappointed to see moral standards being lowered. We have to be careful that those in charge of making the rules which apply to the legislature don’t allow practices to become acceptable when they normally wouldn’t be if you thought about it. Clarity, transparency, honesty, integrity, those are just so important. Sadly, they are not always present in abundance and I found that I came under pressure to stay silent in the face of wrongdoing, or to hide unpleasant facts, which I find wholly alien.
Are there any issues which you have felt so strongly about it that you personally wanted to campaign to change it.
Government kept saying no. In the end I had to organise an appeal to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, which was meant to be the appropriate process, to try and get redress if government had done something wrong of that nature. The Parliamentary Ombudsman found in our favour, and for the first time ever the government said sorry we disagree, we’re not going to do it. So we had to go to the Public Administration Select Committee, which also found in our favour. Once again, government, unprecedently said get knotted, tough luck. Even worse, it tried to put in place a fiction of a compensation scheme that wasn’t actually going to help almost all of them. It was the worst kind of spin, they called it an assistance scheme but it wasn’t actually going to assist them. The Government tried to pretend it was all fine, so, having watched some of the people die, having visited them in hospital or gone to their funerals, I just kept trying and in the end I had to try and find lawyers to take the government to court. But the victims had no money. I’d funded fringe meetings at party political conferences myself but I couldn’t afford to fund a court case, all the work I did was pro-bono.
But I just felt that I couldn’t turn my back on them. And at the time I was working with the government, in Number 10, so I thought that surely as soon as the government understands what happens it will all get sorted. But it didn’t, so I had to keep helping them in their battle. So we went to the High Court, we won, but then the Government appealed and kept trying to bully these people into withdrawing. It threatened to go after their houses if they lost their court case against the Government and Ministers wouldn’t guarantee not to pursue these victims for costs. So we had to raise some money for a fighting fund just in case. It all took so much of my time, but I just couldn’t turn my back on them. In those days if you had a company pension you weren’t allowed to have any other sort of pension, so they had all their money in that. And some of their State pension was in there as well. Finally we won in the Court of Appeal and the government gave in and agreed to pay most of their pensions back – not all but in line with the Pension Protection Fund set up to protect people in future. It was the worst way for government to operate, totally insensitive, ignoring the rights of ordinary people. Most of these people’s pensions were around £8000 to £100000 a year, some were less than that. Many of them were union members who trusted the union and their shop stewards who had told them it was safe. They trusted the government.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally to everyone in society?
There is an element of power that does play a role and favoured groups who get treated better and less favoured groups who get treated worse. I think though that is an extreme case. And just the ordinary, democratic representation doesn’t always work. If you’ve got the right MP, with the right power and you are a favoured person in some way, you have got a better chance. But that is in extremes, having said all of that I deal with MPs’ letters from their constituents all the time, who do make an effort to really try and help sort out ordinary people’s problems. There are processes to try and protect the public, but when it comes to big public money spending, then that’s a difficult one perhaps.
Is it important for you always to act within secular law? Are there circumstances which justify or even necessitate breaking human law?
Not that I am aware of, I can’t think of an example where my religious beliefs would prevent me from upholding the law. We have a lot more fortunate bits than unfortunate in our society, we live in a country which offers so much. In a way some of the issues which people might not like stem from being overzealous in that regard, protecting the rights of terrorists, criminals…..there is a perception that that isn’t acceptable and it is a really difficult judgment to make.
Ros Altmann graduated from University College London with First Class Honours in Economics and had a very successful career in finance, working for organisations such as Chase Manhattan, Rothchilds International Asset Management and Natwest. She also has carried out academic work with both Harvard and the London School of Economics, receiving a Phd from the latter for a thesis on pension income and later life poverty. She has carried out extensive campaign work to ameliorate the plight for older people facing hardship through pension mismanagement, for example in relation to pension theft scandal involving Allied Steel and Wire and also the Equitable Life controversy. She is a member of the House of Lords and served as pensions minister for David Cameron, but considers herself politically independent.