MPs challenge Opperman to rewrite guidance for people who lost thousands of pounds in additional pensions

MPs on the Commons Work and Pensions Committee has written to Guy Opperman, the pensions minister, asking him to rewrite the fact sheet on the Gov.uk website so people can properly claim compensation for losing additional pensions worth up to thousands of pounds after the new state pension was introduced in 2016.

Guy Opperman, pensions minister. Pic Credit: Twitter

The action from the committee comes after members of the public complained to MPs that it was virtually impossible to find the advice given in the fact sheet or claim. Not a single person has succeeded in a claim against the Department for Work and Pensions yet possibly 11 million people are entitled to it.

The people affected are a large but distinct group. They were  people who were contracted out of SERPS by their employer but were told they would receive an index linked guaranteed minimum pension. This arrangement was scrapped when the new state pension was introduced in 2016 for anyone in the private sector – but remains for public sector workers.

The money they have lost is anything from a few pounds a week to tens of thousands of pounds over the lifetime of their pension. This decision was never debated in Parliament or included in the Pensions White Paper. Just as with the 50swomen and divorcees, women are the most affected.

Robert Behrens, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, decided that there was maladministration by the DWP and two complainants got £1250 between them. He recommended that the government publish guidance on how to claim. But ministers ignored his advice and he never bothered to hold the ministry to account for its failure.

Peter Schofield, permanent secretary at the DWP

In March Peter Schofield, DWP permanent secretary on £190,000 a year, wrote to MPs on the committee, saying he had no intention of changing it. You can read the blog on this here.

Now Stephen Timms, the Labour chair of the committee, has written a strongly worded letter to Guy Opperman, asking for it to be rewritten. The full text is here.

Stephen Timms MP chair of the committee

The letter reveals anger among members of the public.

The letter said:” One person pointed out that the factsheet has been placed on Gov.UK in the section on ‘public service pensions’, when it is not in fact relevant to members of such schemes as they have full inflation protection.

“Another told us that they only became aware of it after looking through the correspondence between the Committee and DWP on the Committee’s website. They said “how anyone affected was expected to know it was there I will never know. There was no press release or other publicity to encourage the large numbers of people affected to look at the gov.uk site factsheet.
” Yet another person pointed out that some pension schemes were unaware of the factsheet.

One referred on its website to GMP indexation being partly delivered through ‘increases each year added to your State Pension’, without distinguishing between people who reach State Pension age before and after 6 April 2016.”

Only 19 people used the on-page search function

The analytic review of the factsheet sent to the Committee on 2 March 2022 said, the factsheet had had 6,922 ‘unique page views’, which seems low number given that the Department estimated that 50,000 people would be worse off in 2017-18 alone.13 Only 19 people had used the on-page search function, which is ‘very low’.

The MPs say: “The Committee would be grateful for an explanation of the circumstances in which an individual in the target group for the factsheet may be eligible for compensation and what steps should they take to get it. This should be included in a revised version of the factsheet.”

The letter concludes; ” The Committee is concerned that, now six years on from the NAO report, it is still the case that some people with GMPs negatively affected by the new State Pension reforms “have not been able to find the information they need.” In light of this, will the Department revisit its decision not to review the factsheet and commit to improving its content so that it better meets the needs of those affected and promoting it better? This Committee would be grateful for sight of a suitably revised version of this factsheet before it is published.
“I would be grateful for a response by 8 June.”

The DWP’s official position is “We encourage anyone who is concerned to read the online factsheet and contact us if they think they have been affected.

“The publication of the factsheet is the final step in the Department meeting the Ombudsman’s recommendations on this issue.”

But MPs are not satisfied and nor should anyone else. So Mr Opperman’s response will be closely watched. To repeat again if this is the way the ministry treats this group of people how are the 3.8 million 50s women who are hanging on for a compensation package from Robert Behrens are going to be vastly disappointed. Note it is SIX years since he recommended compensation for this group and not a single person has got a penny. At this rate the 50s women could be well into their 70s before they get any money or in their graves by then.

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Exclusive: The horrendous painful death of a Met Police communications officer in St Helier hospital

Robert Sheppard, a civilian Met Police communications officer, who died in agony at St Helier Hospital.

Near death and shouting, in pain all night and day, being totally  confused and hallucinating a nurse said “he will just have to deal with it.”

This is a tragic story of the treatment of the last days of Robert Sheppard. It is a tale of medical error, bad treatment, appalling hospital facilities, mistakes, bad nursing care and a potential cover up of a hospital acquired infection. It could have been completely different if the hospital hadn’t blocked him from being transferred to a local hospice so he could have spent his last days in peace. His widow found out later that the hospice would have taken him.

His widow, Wendy, came forward when she read the story on this blog of the ” avoidable death” of Mr P, a heart patient , a couple of months before at the same hospital. This came out during an employment tribunal hearing brought by Dr Usha Prasad, a cardiologist, when the former head of cardiology, Sr Richard Bogle admitted the hospital should have reported his death to the coroner and the Care Quality Commission three years ago. The judge handling the case Tony Hyams-Parish, airbrushed all the details of the death from his judgement.

The story also reveals the timidity of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Robert Behrens, who when he examined Mr Sheppard’s treatment, avoided investigating wider safety issues at the hospital.

Daniel Elkeles former chief executive of the trust

The facts in this story are stood up by two confidential letters from the former chief executive of the Epsom and St Helier University Hospital Trust, Daniel Elkeles to his widow.

Mr Elkeles was full of apologies about his treatment but played down the issue of a hospital acquired infection there – which would have had to be reported by law..

Mr Sheppard, who was well treated as a cancer patient at the Royal Marsden Hospital,- was admitted to St Helier’s emergency department with an obstructed bowel on October 10, 2018. A mistake was made when a nasogastric tube was inserted to drain fluid from his stomach but had to be repeated after it became clear it had not reached his stomach. The Ombudsman absolved the hospital from the initial mistake as there are no national guidelines about inserting nasogastric tubes.

Mr Sheppard was put on the Mary Moore Ward in an old building. He was given by mistake a blood stained pillow, he had no bedside lamp and another patient’s damp possessions had been left on his bed.

He picked up a bacterial infection called klebsiella which attacks people with a weak immune system but was discharged on October 22.The hospital insisted that nobody else admitted at the time had the infection.

He was readmitted the next day to ward B1 with a chest infection and tests were carried out and he had got the bacterial infection. From there until his death on November 13 he remained with a fever and back pain and also became hypoglycaemic.

The ward facilities were not much better than Mary Moore ward. Brown water came out of the taps because of a rusting 82 year old water main but the hospital insisted the water was safe. Again he did not have a bedside lamp that worked and bandages were found in his bedding. He requested a wheelchair but the hospital said it didn’t have one for his ward. Also hand sanitiser was not replaced.

As his life ebbed away the chief executive apologised for the ” insensitive ” way the medical staff treated him over his wishes to be resuscitated .

Doctor was ” Grim Reaper”

Wendy said “One morning a Doctor came into Robert’s room  and stood at the end of his bed rather akin to The Grim Reaper and read out a list of the areas Robert had his Cancer in his body. Robert already knew about everything. It was just the way it was done he felt they had written him off.  It was a point of justification by the Hospital without mentioning the Hospital acquired infection Robert had caught courtesy of St.Helier Hospital telling him the Cancer was going to kill him instead. “

The weekend before he died was the worst. He was visited by his 92 year old mother and brother who found him unconscious. His wife stayed with him but found nurses were not bothered to see him and finally workman came in to repair taps just he was about to die.

The chief executive has apologised for this. ” I am extremely sorry that we did not respond with compassion and understanding to your request for nursing support at the end of Mr Shepherd’s life. I am very disappointed that you endured this situation alone and can only apologise that we failed you”.

Even after his death mistakes were made. His initial death certificate airbrushed out the bacterial infection and his cremation notice described Mr Sheppard as retired when he was still working for the Met Police.

” I will never forgive St Helier hospital “

Wendy said:” Dying with dignity was something not given to Robert. I will never forgive St.Helier Hospital. It’s failures towards Robert were ‘swept under the carpet’ by the Hospital management.  My complaints were misconstrued to make St.Helier look in a better light and incidents that happened weren’t recorded in Robert’s medical notes so I am told. “

The Ombudsman’s report concluded: “We have found failings with the support doctors and nurses gave to Mr D[Robert Sheppard] and Ms N[Wendy Sheppard] in the final stages of his life, and that Mr D’s privacy was interrupted in the final moments of life. We also found a failing with how nurses responded to Ms N’s requests for hand sanitiser. What happened led to a loss of dignity for Mr D and made his death even more upsetting than it already was for Ms N.1

The Ombudsman rejected Wendy’s concern about the hospital bacterial infection – weakly citing that for data protection reasons it could not investigate other people. It also said it had no power to investigate mistakes in death certificates. Another example of the weakness of the Ombudsman system.

St Helier Hospital

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Backtracking and pussy footing: How a top judge reneged on plans to start nationwide recordings at tribunals

Employment Tribunal Open Justice Campaign

Judge Brian Doyle, former president of employment tribunals for England and Wales Pic credit: Salford University

New information has emerged showing how HM Court and Tribunal Service has backtracked and pussy footed over ending the scandalous failure to provide proper recordings and transcripts at employment tribunal hearings.

This failure led to a letter signed by over 320 people -including 80 NHS consultants and leading professors- demanding an explanation from Sir Keith Lindblom, senior president of the tribunals, on why this has not been done. There is widespread dissatisfaction among whistleblowers both in the NHS and industrial hearings about this.

Now minutes from a national tribunal user group have revealed that a plan to introduce the recording of tribunals across the country was dumped – despite resources being available – two years ago.

Judge Brian Doyle, the former president of Employment Tribunals for England and Wales, promised on February 27, 2019 to introduce the recording of tribunals, at a meeting of the group. The group is attended by senior judges, representatives of the TUC, ACAS the Law Society, the Business Energy and Industrial Strategy department and the Citizens Advice Bureaux

Roll out of recording facilities planned to be completed by March 2020

The minutes record: “The President addressed the need for audio-recording of ET hearings. Resources had been found to enable this to be achieved and both the Employment Tribunal and the First-tier Tribunal would benefit from the acquisition of recording equipment in hearing rooms. It was planned to be a gradual rollout from April 2019 to March 2020.”

He went on: “Testing of equipment would be required. A nationally agreed protocol would cover the practice of recording hearings and the provision of transcripts. If a party were to ask for a transcript, as in the courts it would be on the payment of a fee.”

“The President said that audio-recording would be welcome for a number of reasons: reducing the need for the judges to take verbatim notes; providing parties with a transcript of the hearing; improving the conduct of hearings generally; providing some discouragement for litigants or witnesses to misconduct themselves in hearings; and giving leadership judges the means to check complaints about how a judge allegedly behaved in a hearing (and thereby perhaps discouraging unmeritorious complaints).

By November 2019 the minutes recorded: “The President updated the members on the intention to provide audio-recording equipment in all Employment Tribunal hearing rooms. A budget for the equipment had been secured, but making this proposal operational was taking a little longer than intended because it was important to get the right recording equipment and to have in place a protocol for its use. “

Yet by March 2020 when the pandemic struck nothing appears to have been done -apart from a few trials. One of them at social security and child support hearings in Exeter had already been a success before February 2019.

Judge Barry Clarke, current president of employment tribunals for England and Wales

Now two years later under a new president Judge Barry Clarke there appears to be little progress – no protocol has been published let alone sent out for consultation. If there had been transcripts could have been provided in a number of highly controversial whistleblowers cases – notably the case between Alison McDermott and Sellafield and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority; Usha Prasad and Epsom and St Helier University Health Trust and further cases involving the junior doctor Chris Day and the Health Education England.

Instead there appears to be a hostile attitude by some judges to any transparency in the tribunal system.

I would cite Judge Hughes as a good example. She ruled in a Birmingham employment tribunal case ( Mr R Kumar V MES Environmental Ltd.) The case involved racial discrimination and victimisation. He lost the case and applied for a transcript.

She ruled this was ILLEGAL. He was told by a court administrator:.

“Employment Judge Hughes has asked me to inform you that the reason you cannot apply for a transcript is because you are not legally entitled to make such an application. You are referred to the Employment Tribunals (Rules of Procedure Regulations) 2013. “

The judge doubled down the was “no legal mechanism by which an application for a transcript of Employment Tribunal proceedings can be made”. The judge stated that there was no prospect of her decision being varied or revoked “because there is no legal right to a transcript of Employment Tribunal proceedings”.

Judge Auerbach Pic Credit: Law Gazette

Two months ago this ruling went before Judge Simon Auerbach at an appeal tribunal. He revoked this saying that since in this case HMCTS had made a recording of the hearing Mr Kumar was entitled to apply for it and it was not illegal to do so.

Now judges are many things but they are not stupid. It seems extraordinary that Judge Hughes was not aware that discussions were going ahead at the time to introduce recordings and she must known in that case the hearing had been recorded. She obviously did not want him to have it.

Similarly anti recording attitudes seem to be propagated by Judge Tony Hyams-Parish in Dr Usha Prasad’s case ( see previous blogs) and by the Judge Lancaster in Alison McDermott’s case agaInst Sellafield. He refused Alison’s request for a recording even though he had the equipment to do so. Both just say there is no recording so you cannot have it. Hyams-Parish also believes that journalists should not have access to the bundles in cases either.

Alex Chalk MP, the solicitor general

But there is worse to come. Anybody listening to a tribunal hearing is banned from recording it. One person who did is now being prosecuted by the solicitor general., Alex Chalk, the Conservative MP for Cheltenham.

Katarzyna Paczkowska has had her case referred to the High Court after she used a recording to challenge a tribunal judgement. Her case is complicated and runs to 1800 pages so I won’t go into it now – except to say how ferociously this rule is being used without the tribunals agreeing to record the hearings. Manchester employment tribunal and her respondent, R-com. Consulting, raised the issue.

For my mind the present situation is one of drift, back tracking and pussy footing by the top judges.

A Ministry of Justice Spokesperson said:

“Though there is no legal requirement to record employment tribunals, handheld recording devices have been made available through this pilot which started in September 2019.”

My understanding is that HMCTS has an aspiration of a nationwide recording of all tribunals but no timetable yet on how this going to be achieved. But there does not appear to be any drive and determination to get this done, even though resources had been put aside. It is simply not good enough.

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Local elections: The pincer movement that threatens Boris Johnson

Those who follow my tweets that record local by-election results over the last year should not be surprised by this week’s council election results. For the past year they have been revealing shock upsets where either the Green or Liberal Democrat candidate unseats a sitting councillor – more often a Tory rather than a Labour one – with a jump in their vote share by anything from 30 to 50 per cent.

Boris Johnson – facing an all party pincer movement

Labour a year ago was still losing councillors to the Tories in by-elections in Red Wall and Midland seats. It is only in the last few months as the Partygate scandal developed that Labour started holding those seats and occasionally taking a seat back from the Tories.

What the local elections showed this week is that these startling by-election gains by the Greens and the Liberal Democrats are not a flash in the pan but part of a new trend. It also confirmed that Labour is back in business, has largely halted its decline in local government seats, consolidated its firm grip in London,, recovered from an all time low in Scotland, and yes, made gains in the North of England in Cumbria and Lancashire and stopped the rot in the North East. And it has made spectacular gains in Wales and become a force again in the South of England.

Sunderland symbolic of the halting of the Tory surge

The symbolic Labour council for me in the North was Sunderland. This was a council the Tories were keen for Labour to lose – and previous gains by the Tories and Liberal Democrats made this feasible as Labour’s majority had been cut. The Tories put money into winning seats – Johnson came up to the North East – even if he confused Tyneside with Teesside. What happened? The Tories did not gain a single seat and Labour managed to hold on with reduced majorities. Instead the Lib Dems took a seat off the Tories and Labour – winning by that surge in vote share that has become familiar in council by-elections.

The two symbolic Lib Dem council victories for me are St Albans and Gosport. The Lib Dems just controlled the Hertfordshire city before the local elections and had also taken the Parliamentary seat from the Tories in 2019. But this week’s election saw a Liberal Democrat landslide. The city has 56 councillors – 50 of them are now Liberal Democrat after they gained 20 seats overnight wiping out Labour and reducing the Tories to just four councillors.

Gosport was another extraordinary result for the Lib Dems. I know the town from sitting on the Gosport War Memorial Hospital inquiry. It is a fiercely working class, Tory naval town, heavily pro Brexit leaning even towards UKIP at one time. Yet the Remain supporting Liberal Democrats have taken control and ousted the Tories. This with Somerset , Woking and Hull going Liberal Democrat show a big change.

For Labour in the South the fact they now have a big majority on Worthing Council in West Sussex is also an extraordinary result. Some five years ago Labour won its first seat for 50 years and now they control the authority. The other extraordinary victory is Westminster. Dame Shirley Porter, now 91,- the Tory leader fined for gerrymandering the council to prevent Labour ever winning in the 1980s – must be cursing the result in Israel now Labour have a working majority.

Rise of the Greens

The other factor in the mix is the rise of the Greens. Though they control no council fewer and fewer authorities do not have a Green councillor – after this election . Here their appeal is potentially dangerous to both the main parties. The emphasis on green issues is subconsciously boosting their brand among people fed up with the old two party system. They can simultaneously appeal to the radical elements who left Labour after Jeremy Corbyn was banished from the Parliamentary party – and to rural Tories concerned about the demise of the countryside. No wonder one right wing Labour supporter suggested undemocratically that people expelled by Labour should be banned from joining another party. Thus the Greens can win seats in Sheffield, North Tyneside, Newham and West Oxfordshire, Sussex and Rutland all in the same year.

There is one person who is going lose out altogether by these converging trends – Boris Johnson. He is facing a pincer movement. His chances of further gains in the Red Wall area have been stymied, he has gone backwards in Scotland and Wales and his heartland Blue Wall seats are now seriously threatened by the Liberal Democrats in places like Esher and Walton and in places like Worthing and Southampton by Labour.

In my view, these local election results have created the perfect storm to undermine Boris Johnson.

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Senior MPs challenge DWP on “shambles” after leaked internal documents and screenshots on Westminster Confidential reveal pension claims are being dumped

Dame Meg Hillier and Stephen Timms, chairs of the influential Public Accounts Committee and Work and Pensions Committee, have written to Peter Schofield, permanent secretary at the DWP, seeking an explanation why thousands of pensioners are being discouraged from claiming money they may be owed by the ministry.

The letter -published on the Work and Pensions Committee website – follows a high critical report by the Public Accounts Committee on the handling of pension back payments- and an articles on this website revealing internal advice given to ministry staff by senior management at the DWP.

It refers to my blog on February 10 which you can read here. This included an internal memo to people handling telephone callers seeking claims and a management training exercise aimed at speeding up the number of cases settled by staff by ignoring complicated claims, nearly all from women.

The most controversial was the ” drop and go” approach which urged staff ” if a case is complex or take a long time to resolve, move on to the next one in order to maximise the number of customers we can help today.”

Peter Schofield

The letter asks Peter Schofield to explain. It says:

“A report in Westminster Confidential on 10 February included screen shots, apparently of DWP internal documents, indicating that guidance to staff on handling calls about underpayments is to ‘close the call’ and only take details if the customer insists, unless the case is from or about someone who falls into one of the following four groups:
• A married woman whose husband claimed his State Pension before 17/03/2008
• An individual aged 80 or over who does not get any State Pension or only Graduated Retirement Benefit
• Someone who has died and may have been underpaid
• Someone who is divorced and wants to know how it impacts their State Pension.
It also refers to a message on the helpline which starts by telling callers that, if they are calling as a result of media coverage, “please be aware you do not need to contact us.” It goes on to tell people to stay on the line if they fall into one of the above groups.
Written in bold the MPs ask:

• What is the status of the documents quoted in the Westminster Confidential report? Do they represent current policy? If not, what changed and when?
• How will you evaluate the effectiveness of the revised information on Gov.UK in helping those who may be affected to understand their position and to take appropriate action?
Do you have plans to review your communication strategy and take further action if, for example, only a small number of those affected contact you to report a change of circumstances or make a claim?

The MPs say : “People in the four specified groups appear to be those who need to take action to receive an increase in their entitlement and, when they do claim, will generally only get twelve months’ backdating. Unlike those covered by the LEAP exercise,[This where the government has been mandated to pay back money such as the 135,000 pensioners who have been underpaid] there is no legal obligation on the Department to seek them out or pay them arrears.

The Department told the PAC that it could not publish guidance for those who may have been underpaid – such as an online assessment tool – because it believed it could not accurately cover all possible underpayment scenarios.

We remain extremely concerned – MPs

The letter goes on : “The Government’s response to the PAC report refers to revised information on Gov.UK which emphasises further that some individuals must make a claim and how they can do this. It is also working to provide a more direct route for those enquiring about underpaid State Pension in respect of a deceased customer. While this is welcome, we remain extremely concerned that the limited information on Gov.UK, together with the guidance and telephone message may discourage some from taking action that could increase their entitlement.”

The letter also discloses that a third of the way through the exercise to pay back the 135,000 pensioners owed money only 10 per cent of the cash has been paid out. This suggests that it may take much longer to pay the money to older pensioners who may not have long to live.

The MPs ask the permanent secretary to explain “The average and the longest amounts of time that pensioners who have contacted you about a potential underpayment can expect to wait for a full response.”

It is excellent that MPs are pursuing this story. The full letter is here. The DWP have until May 12 to respond. The ministry better have a good explanation.

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Living with Shadows: How refugees fleeing the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism pass down their angst to future generations

Powerful book is a timely reminder of the trauma of the present day Ukrainian invasion could affect generations to come

Merilyn Moos, the author, and her dog Rama. Pic credit: Carey

By a curious freak of timing as millions flee the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine a remarkable memoir of earlier horrors of the last century – the rise of the Nazis and Stalinists and their effect on the refugees who fled Germany and Russia – has just been published.

The author Merilyn Moos is the daughter of two refugees who fled the Nazis in Germany to live in the UK and this short book describes in a thematic way her childhood here and how extraordinarily she only found out the full story about her parents’ past after they died.

Her father, Siegi ,was a lapsed Jewish Communist theoretician and director of an agit-prop theatre group performing plays by Brecht and a workers opera in Berlin. He went underground on the night of the Reichstag fire and fled Berlin minutes before the Gestapo raided his flat and walked over 1000 kilometres from Berlin to the Saarland to escape, only catching a train to cross the French border at Saarbrucken.

Lotte , her mother, met Siegi in Berlin and also escaped to the UK. But in 1936 she decided to go alone to Russia to visit a lover and friend , Brian Gould-Verschoyle, just at the time Stalin ordered show trials of Trotskyists. Both were put under house arrest and Brian was sent to Spain to work as an engineer to help the Spanish Communist Party. They were supposed never to communicate again but Lotte ignored this sending him a postcard praising a political group to the left of the Communist Party. This was intercepted by Stalin’s agents, he was kidnapped and put on trial as a Trotskyist and sent to a gulag where he died. She blamed herself for his death, fled the USSR coming back thoroughly disillusioned to the UK only to arrested as a suspected spy.

A rich history denied to their daughter

You would think with such a rich history her parents would tell Merilyn about their past. But as the main point of this memoir reveals, the opposite was true. So traumatic was their past they pretended to her that it never happened. Her parents were overprotective of her and paranoid. She never knew that she was from Jewish heritage until she was a young adult. Her father denied he was a Communist and pretended his family was Swiss. His mother never discussed her relationship with Brian.

As Merilyn says in the book: ” No family photos adorned our walls or mantelpieces. It was as if the three of us had been dropped onto earth by a stork, unencumbered by the ties and rituals of family life.”

She had an unhappy childhood, going to bed early until she was a teen and hardly ever allowed out alone from the house except to go to school. Her parents also did not want to her to become involved with boys and effectively pressurised her to break up up her first serious relationship with a boy after she got to Oxford University. No wonder she hardly spoke or visited them for 20 years.

The fascinating part of this book is that despite all of this Merilyn rebelled and followed in her parents footsteps becoming an active trade unionist campaigner and supporter of left wing causes. She is obviously now proud of their hidden past. She also is an accomplished sculptor and I have included one of them in this blog. Her son Josh, is a campaigner on climate change.

Sculpture of a pregnant women by Merilyn Moos

She and her son have been moved by the discovery of her parents real past. One of the most poignant moments in her memoir is how she and Josh traced their history back to Berlin and smuggled their ashes into Germany finding the apartment blocks where they had lived together and scattering the ashes around flower beds and bushes in the courtyard. As she said ” I had brought my parents home.”

This book has real insight into the trials and tribulations of refugees driven out of their country by hostile regimes and the dilemmas they face. Published at the same time as Europe faces its biggest war since the time the Nazis invaded the rest of mainland Europe, one wonders how many Ukrainians feel about their lives as they are driven from their homeland. It is also an intensely personal and honest account of a child of a refugee’s life in the UK and all the better for it.

Living with Shadows by Merilyn Moos. Available from Amazon £8.25

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Judge backs DWP to deprive tens of thousands of elderly women of extra pensions

Judge Nick Wikeley giving his ” top tips for tribunal representatives on benefit appeals” at a study day.

Pic credit: Twitter

But his judgement admits national insurance is ” institutionally sexist”

Last month Judge Nick Wikeley, an administrative court judge, backed the Department for Work and Pensions to stop the pay out of millions of pounds to the most elderly pensioners in the country just as the ” cost of living crisis” started to hit home.

He took the decision on technical grounds despite his ruling conceding that the national insurance system was ” institutionally sexist” and that the women involved were likely to be the poorest pensioners in the country.

The case has considerable echoes with the one brought by BackTo60 for full restitution for the loss of their pensions after not being given enough notice of the raising of the pension age from 60 to 65.

Hugh Mercer QC Pic credit: Essex Court chambers
jane Russell Pic credit: Essex Court Chambers

It was brought by an 83 year old pensioner just known as Mrs GM with the pro bono backing of two barristers, Hugh Mercer QC and Jane Russell, both from Essex Court chambers. The DWP employed Julian Mitford QC and Ms Naomi Ling, who represented the DWP in the BackTo60 case.

Like all pensions cases it is complicated but also shocking. Her appeal contains a rule change for pension claimants brought in 2008 under Gordon Brown’s Labour administration.

Until 2008 women who claimed their own pension under the old pension system were also entitled to a second pension based on their husband’s NI contributions the moment he retired. But they had to claim it in their own right and the onus fell on the husband to tell them.

Labour changed this archaic system but did not backdate it

From March 2008 Labour changed this archaic system and women automatically received a second pension when their husband retired. But it was not backdated.

Mrs GM is one of those women in the first group. She got her pension in 1998 and her husband retired in 2000. She did not realise she should claim the second pension until 2017 – 17 years later. The DWP awarded her the second pension but only backdated it by one year. She has lost 16 years of her second pension. The pension is worth £82.45 a week.

Her case was she should be entitled to all her lost money =- either to 2008 when the law changed – or on human rights grounds and direct and indirect sex discrimination way back to 2000 when her husband retired.

The hearing turned into a battle between the DWP – which didn’t want to pay it- and human rights lawyers who thought she should be paid.

Sir Steve Webb

Sir Steve Webb, the former Liberal Democrat and coalition pensions minister, weighed in on her side while the DWP produced a star expert witness – Mr Lyndon Walters, a policy advisor to the DWP’s Decision Making and Appeals Team who was familiar with all the detail of the changes.

Sir Steve’s case centred around DWP policy and its failure to inform women properly about pension changes. The judge commented:

“The Webb W/S [Witness Statement] particularises the ways in which women, and especially married women have been, and to some extent still are, disadvantaged by the old system of retirement pensions, and seeks to quantify those affected. There are, with respect, undoubtedly a number of very well-made points in the witness statement, but they are primarily relevant to high level policy considerations. Understandably enough, and despite his distinguished ministerial career, there is much less about the nitty-gritty (or granular) operational issues underpinning the Department’s pragmatic approach.”

Indeed this moved to the heart of the judgement. The judge was more interested in the internal problems the DWP had in paying out pensions than the justice women were entitled to get the pension in the first place.

This showed up in the extraordinary support by the judge for the arguments put forward by Lyndon Walters.

The judge argued: “The Walters W/S makes out a compelling case for why the 2008 amendment took the exact form that it did. Mr Walters explains the general approach taken to encouraging claims for benefits , the practical considerations and rationale behind the introduction of regulation and the difficulties that would have lain in the way of extending the benefit of the 2008 amendment to those married women whose husbands had already become entitled to their Category A pension before that date In particular, he shows how it was that the advent of new IT systems enabled the Department to assess whether the wife of a Category A pension claimant was herself entitled to a Category B pension at the time of his Category A claim without the need for a separate claim being made. This is an informed and authoritative account that outweighs the Webb W/S, which lacks the same level of granular detail.”

Too difficult and expensive for the DWP to compensate the women

Very simply Walters had argued that it was too difficult and expensive for the DWP to inform the women of their rights. “Mr Walters explains, there was no functionality on the system to alert us to those women who were already entitled to have claimed for their category BL pensions but had not done
so” He concludes:

To identify these individuals, we could have run a search, or ‘scan’ in 2008. However, the task of performing such a search and reviewing the records of those identified, then contacting all of these
individuals and dealing with their entitlements would have been a significant additional burden on the Department, when the purpose of the PTP programme was to try to improve the efficiency and productivity of the system.”

The arguments over human rights were dismissed as peripheral – rather like in the 50swomen case the lawyers had argued: this was “unlawful discrimination on grounds of sex to inform a husband of a wife’s rights and then to reproach a wife of not availing herself of her rights”.

But then the judge admits: “Even so, although Mr Mercer did not employ such terminology, the label of institutional sexism may not be out of place in describing the national insurance scheme. This is undoubtedly, the context for the gradual amelioration of the position of women, and especially
married women, in relation to contributory benefits, including provision for their access to Category B pensions.”

And he further admits that it is like that the majority of women who have lost out in that age group could be among the poorest pensioners with the lowest pensions.

Frankly the judge’s decision in this case is remarkably complacent and far too favourable to the DWP. He seems to be more interested in the problems the DWP would have tracing the women than the loss the women have suffered under what was an archaic system. He is also far too complacent about the pace of redress for women who have suffered discrimination. That is another reason why we need to implement the UN Convention against all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW) in full to stop this leisurely progress to righting centuries of discrimination. There will be hearing in July see the website for more information. This is particularly poignant in this case as the people involved are coming to the end of their lives.

A thank you to one of my readers Jeff Roberts, for drawing attention to this judgement. You can read it in full below.

Click to access UA_2021_001262_RP_CP_317_2021c.pdf

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Employment Tribunal open justice campaign : Sir Keith Lindblom’s office replies to lack of fairness and transparency in hearings

Sir Keith Lindblom, Senior President of Tribunals Pic credit : gov.uk

Last month over 320 people signed a letter to Sir Keith Lindblom, Senior President of Tribunals and the heads of the the employment tribunals in England, Wales and Scotland protesting that tribunals do not keep records or transcripts of their hearings.

The letter signed by senior NHS consultants, doctors, nurses, journalists, whistleblowers and wide range of members of the public sought reforms to the system because of the one sided nature of the hearings particularly in whistleblowing cases – where a litigant in person does not have the resources as a well funded employer.

Transcripts are not available unless the judge gives permission to the parties to take full notes and the only official document is the judge’s decision which can miss out facts given in the case.

Cases involve patient safety, bullying and discrimination

Many of the cases involve issues like hospital and patient safety, bullying, harassment, racial and sex discrimination where a claimant is sacked for suggesting anything has gone wrong rather than the issue being sorted.

Now the official reply from his office acknowledges a number of key facts that people have suspected but have not had confirmation.

First it admits no guidance exists on the use of transcripts and judges don’t have to use them. “There is no provision in the Rules or the Employment Tribunal Regulations that requires hearings to be recorded or transcripts to be produced.”

Second it admits that it is now possible to record hearings as many hearings are held on-line following both a courts modernisation programme and the Covid 19 pandemic.

Judge Barry Clarke, president of the employment tribunal service for England and Wales

And the most positive point in the reply suggests the most senior people are considering changes to the the system.

“The Presidents of the Employment Tribunals are giving consideration to recordings and transcripts in the context of video hearings, where there is a facility to make a recording and which are now used to a greater extent as a result of the HMCTS reform programme and the experience of the pandemic. This is in contrast to most in-person hearings. In most venues where Employment Tribunal hearings take place, recording equipment is not installed, and so no recording can be made. In a few locations in England and Wales, the Employment Tribunal is co-located with a court jurisdiction where such equipment is installed, and where that is so, its use is encouraged.”

The rest of the letter is unsurprisingly a defence of the present system.

“The overriding objective of the Employment Tribunal Rules of Procedure is to deal with cases fairly and justly. That includes, so far as practicable: ensuring that the parties are on an equal footing; dealing with cases in ways which are proportionate to the complexity and importance of the issues; avoiding unnecessary formality and seeking flexibility in the proceedings; avoiding delay, so far as compatible with proper consideration of the issues; and saving expense. Most Employment Tribunal hearings are held in public. Any consideration of an order to prevent or restrict the public disclosure of any aspect of the proceedings must give full weight to the principle of open justice, and, like any judicial decision on a matter of case management, would be amenable to appeal.”

Litigant in person may bring a friend or relative to take notes

“It is also possible to take a note of the proceedings, and a litigant in person may bring a friend or relative with them to the, tribunal to act as a notetaker. Judges invariably allow this, and indeed encourage it.
Litigants in person are also regularly signposted to services such as Support Through Court which can assist with notetaking. “

It goes on: “”The Employment Tribunals provide detailed written reasons explaining the factual and
legal basis of their decisions. Any appeal is based on the judgment and supporting reasons, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal will not accept a transcript in place of written reasons. If at appeal the parties cannot agree what was said in evidence, the Employment Appeal Tribunal may ask the judge who heard the case to answer questions in writing about the evidence on a particular issue or issues. When that happens, both parties will be provided with the document the judge sends in response. In accordance with its Practice Direction, the Employment Appeal Tribunal may also, if it wishes, obtain the judge’s notes of evidence on any disputed matter, which will then feature in the appeal bundle.”

Whistleblowers are at a disadvantage

The problem with this defence is that it doesn’t seem to be reflected on the ground. Many whistleblowers say they feel at a disadvantage particularly if they wish to appeal a decision and they haven’t got a transcript to raise points that are not mentioned in the judgement. And most whistleblowing hearings are far from informal occasions – employers use forensic barristers whose questioning of whistleblowers would not be out of place at an Old Bailey trial.

It also raises some interesting questions. If recording facilities are available at on-line and hybrid hearings why are they not used? Or while obviously judges only use notes, do other court officials use them unofficially to check facts for judges? There has to be change in the employment tribunal system to bring it up to the 21st century and the HM Tribunal and Court Service need to explain how they intend to bring this about.

After publication of this blog a circuit judge publicly backed the recording of all hearings.

Kaly Kaul QC said: “As a Judge in a Crown Court where proceedings have been recorded ever since it replaced shorthand writers, it is unfortunate that every Court is not recorded. Teams and Cloud Video platform have recording facilities. In addition we have recording onto micro SD cards so that any material played in court is automatically recorded so that the Jury can retire with it. It is imperative that proceedings are recorded. It cannot be that difficult to put in place.”

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Revealed: A new generation of women face pension inequality

Pic credit: Siemens pension scheme

Just before the Parliamentary recess the House of Commons library produced a new report on pension inequality showing how a new generation of women will lose out again to men unless action is taken now.

The report- The Pension Gender Gap – makes stark reading for millions of women now in work. The focus in this report is on the hurdles facing women to get an equal pension with men.

The main hurdle is the private pension or second pension women receive to top up their state pension. It quotes a Women’s Budget Group pre-Budget Briefing which says that: ‘Private pension schemes, promoted and subsidised by UK governments, are the main reason for the gender gap in pensions, placing women at a disadvantage due to their domestic roles and lower pay’.

The pay gap – still at 7.9 per cent – between men and women is basically discriminating against women getting the same pension as men. When the Conservative government set up the auto-enrollment scheme for a workplace pension in 2012- funded by employers and employee contributions – they excluded anyone not earning enough to pay national insurance.

While it increased the chances of women getting a private pension ( from 40 per cent in 2012 to 86 per cent in 2020) their savings fall away after they reach 35 because they are bringing up children and often take part time work.

As the report says: “The design of automatic enrolment widens the gap between lower and higher earners in retirement and disadvantages those in second jobs.”

Women who take part time work or multiple part time jobs are simply excluded from getting a second private pension partly paid by their employer.

Some low paid women may never get a work pension

And those who never earn enough at work – there are an estimated 500,000 of them nearly all women – never get a second pension at all.

As the Association of British Insurers told MPs on the Commons Work and Pension Committee: “Women disproportionately work in lower paid jobs; 75% of those earning under the £10,000 AE earning trigger are women. They also make up the majority of multiple job holders, as much as 64%. This is significant as their total income could be over the AE earnings trigger, but as it is divided across multiple jobs they will not be automatically enrolled into a pension.’

Fortunately it looks like the Department for Work and Pensions is planning to do something about this though we may have to wait a couple of years before this happens.

A DWP spokesperson said :

“Automatic enrolment has helped millions more women save into a pension, with participation among eligible women in the private sector rising from 40% in 2012 to 86% in 2020 – equal to that of men. Our plans to remove the Lower Earnings Limit for contributions and to reduce the eligible age of being automatically enrolled to 18 in the mid-2020s will enable even more women to save more and start saving earlier.”

But this isn’t the only barrier. The report highlights three other issues, affordable child care, pension rights for divorcees and monitoring pension equality.

On child care the report highlights demands by the trade union, Prospect and the People’s Pension, one of the larger pension trusts, both call for help with child care including tax relief for the care of the under two year olds and a local authority grant for 3 and 4 year olds.

Make pension savings a compulsory part of a divorce settlement

The Pension and Lifetime Savings Association call for the law to be changed so pension rights have to be considered in divorce proceedings.

“The government should consider changing the law to ensure that pensions rights are considered on a mandatory basis as part of divorce. Currently pensions may only be considered if there is a financial settlement considered by the courts. The process of pension sharing on divorce could also be better streamlined to remove friction and delay for all parties.”

And finally the Government Equalities Office should impose a mandatory requirement on the DWP to publish gender pension gap statistics and then draw up proposals to speed up ending the gap. The GEO did not want to comment on this.

There is one ray of hope arising from the new state pension introduced in 2016. It has narrowed the gap between men’s and women’s state pensions. Women got 82pc of men’s pension in 2016. By 2020 it had narrowed to 92pc. But the DWP could not tell me when it would be 100 per cent.

Unless action is taking speedily a whole new generation of women are going to lose out to men. No one wants to suffer the fate of 50swomen who have been so badly treated again. They are already worse off because of the abolition of the second pension in 2016.

Chris Thompson, a retired pension expect, pointed out both men and women lost out over auto-enrollment. “Between 2012 and prior to 6 April 2016 when the new state pension started people were also paying into the state second pension if they were not contracted out.

” From the 6 April 2016 people ceased accruing state second pension so are now much worse off than under the old state pension system. A low earner about £46 pw worse off and a high earner about £67 pw. Another thing to remember is that losses do not take into account loss of inherited and derived rights, loss of GMP indexation if contracted out or increase in NI due to loss of NI rebate.”

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Rip off: DWP to take no further action to compensate millions who lost thousands of pounds of extra pensions

Peter Schofield,permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions

Those following the highly complicated story of the estimated 11 million who have lost extra pension payments because they are no longer entitled to a guaranteed minimum pension uprating every year after the new state pension was introduced in 2016 have received a further blow.

Despite further pressure for an explanation from the House of Commons Works and Pensions Committee Peter Schofield, permanent secretary at the DWP, has ruled that no further action to inform people is necessary.

The people affected were a large but distinct group. They were  people who were contracted out of SERPS by their employer but were told they would receive an index linked guaranteed minimum pension. This arrangement was scrapped when the new state pension was introduced in 2016 for anyone in the private sector – but remains for public sector workers.

The money they have lost is anything from a few pounds a week to tens of thousands of pounds over the lifetime of their pension. This decision was never debated in Parliament or included in the Pensions White Paper. Just as with the 50swomen and divorcees, women are the most affected.

Two people complained to the Parliamentary Ombudsman and won £1250 compensation between them for maladministration. Given the numbers involved you would have thought many more would have got compensation. In fact no one else has.

This is not surprising given the DWP ignored the remedy the Ombudsman suggested and put out a factsheet on their site without even an accompanying press release to say it had done it. The factsheet can be found here.

The Commons Work and Pensions Committee took it up with Peter Schofield, the DWP’s permanent secretary, and pressed for an explanation. The MPs have now got it.

The reply from Peter Schofield is here. He explains the factsheet was deliberately tested on people who did not know anything about pensions to prevent bias and 6,922 had viewed it. He claims that 57 per cent of people who saw it said it was ” useful”. Presumably 43 per cent thought it wasn’t.

Just five people put in a claim and none got it

When it comes to inquiries triggered by the website you can count them on one hand. Just five people, none of them eligible.

The DWP explanation why they believe this does not matter is to say the least interesting. He claims that the transitional arrangements for the new pension mean that someone could gain an extra £38.42 a week -presumably referring to the triple lock.

But the triple lock refers to everybody’s pension – it is not just for those who were contracted out. Also it is not a triple lock at the moment – as 12 million pensioners have lost out by not including the higher rise in earnings. And I notice Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, did NOT reaffirm it was coming back for next year’s pension rise at the recent spring statement. In fact he didn’t mention pensioners at all.

A DWP spokesperson said in response to my story:

“We encourage anyone who is concerned to read the online factsheet and contact us if they think they have been affected.

“The publication of the factsheet is the final step in the Department meeting the Ombudsman’s recommendations on this issue.”

All this to me has wider implications -particularly for the 50swomen still hoping for compensation via the Ombudsman route. The exercise on GMP pensioners resulted in victory for the two complainants who proved there had been maladministration. But not one other person got any money – a complete failure for the Ombudsman.

Bad news for the 50swomen wanting pension compensation

It would be like the six 50swomen complainants over maladministration getting compensation but the DWP devising a way of ensuring the rest of the 3.8 million get nothing.

There has been much talk from some MPs and campaigning groups claiming the women are entitled to £10,000 or payments of up to £20,000. At the moment that is just wishful thinking because it depends on the willingness of the DWP to pay out. The case illustrated by those entitled to compensation for losing their GMP indexation shows the DWP has no intention of doing so if it can get away with it.

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