Cheated Again! MPs blast Department for Work and Pensions for not acting fast enough to reimburse £1.46 billion to pensioners

The DWP is attacked today by MPs on the powerful Commons Public Accounts Committee for not having a credible plan to reimburse hundred of thousands of pensioners who have been shortchanged billions of pounds in pension payments.

The scheme is the only programme where the DWP admits it has made gigantic mistakes by underpaying pensioners and is committed to return the money owed to them. It is obvious at the moment that ministers and civil servants have no intention of reimbursing people who have been denied a guaranteed minimum pension when they were contracted out by their employer.

Nor do they appear to be remotely interested in compensating the 1950s women who lost six years of their pensions despite it being clear that the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Robert Behrens, has found maladministration in not telling the women properly about it, let alone even considering whether women were unfairly discriminated by the decision. The fact that not a single minister has talked to anybody about 50swomen since 2016 speaks volumes.

What is clear from a report by the MPs ( which also tackles benefit fraud) is that they are distinctly unimpressed by the DWP’s handling of this despite assurances from Peter Schofield, the permanent secretary, at the department during a committee hearing earlier this year.

Peter Schofield Pic credit: gov.uk

The Department’s efforts to correct the systemic underpayment of State Pension are too slow to meaningfully put things right. The Department now estimates that 237,000 pensioners have been underpaid a total of £1.46 billion in their State Pension.
“Despite these underpayments going back as far as 1985, the Department’s overall exercise to correct this issue is delayed from the end of 2023 to the end of 2024. The Department cannot be certain that its plan to deliver the exercise on schedule is achievable, as it is dependent on assumptions around recruitment, retraining, and automation.

“We are not convinced that the Department has done enough to ensure its communications to potentially affected pensioners are sufficiently clear. We are concerned that this may leave many pensioners lacking reassurance that they will receive meaningful and timely redress.

We remain unconvinced about the DWP – MPs.

“The Department does not yet know the full extent of the underpayment relating to Home Responsibilities Protection, and it is dependent on HMRC to evaluate the impact of these underpayments on pensioners. The Department cannot be certain that it has identified all the underpayments implied by the results of its annual measurement exercise. Overall, we remain unconvinced that the Department’s control systems are adequate to detect further underpayments before they build up into major issues in future.”
Sounds familiar. Anyone trying to ring the department already knows what lousy communicators the ministry is- that is, if you can get through to them..

And it looks like there is worse to come. The report said:

“The NAO [National Audit Office] reported that the Department cannot rule out that there may be further groups of pensioners, as yet unidentified, that have been affected by a historic underpayment.
It concluded that this was in large part because the Department had not set out plans to revise its control processes for State Pension cases to ensure that underpayments are detected and recorded at the point of payment.”

Yet again through delays and failure to get a grip pensioners are being cheated of their rightful dues and many may die before they receive them. Is there no part of the DWP that can function correctly?

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How Sellafield and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority misuse taxpayer’s money to hound a whistleblower

Alison Mc Dermott, whistleblower

One of the biggest tactics to frighten whistleblowers by big companies and health trusts is to threaten whistleblowers exposing malpractice, corruption and discrimination and say they have to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds in costs unless they settle or drop their claims for detriment at employment tribunals.

The tactic regularly used by firms and health trusts in employment tribunal cases is based on a lie. The maximum an employment tribunal can order costs is £20,000 per respondent. Only if it goes to the High Court can a firm or health trust demand such eye-watering sums.

However Sellafield, the NDA and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ministry have decided that it is worth pursuing whistleblower Alison McDermott, a consultant formerly employed by Sellafield for the maximum £40,000 shared between the NDA and Sellafield. They know she has no income and they have even tried to close down her crowdfunding site to raise money to defend herself against their costs claim.

Her whistleblower site is here and you can donate to bring the sum up to £10,000 within the next 14 days otherwise she loses the lot.

Damning report revealed relentless bullying at Sellafield

Alison was called in by Sellafield’s human resources department to investigate their working practices and produced a damning report revealing employees were subjected to appalling racist, sexist and homophobic abuse and relentless bullying. Only 11 per cent felt they could raise issues with the company without reprisals and four percent thought they got honest answers. Faced with such a damning account Sellafield sacked her rather than change its ways.

This led to an employment tribunal case which not only found in favour of Sellafield and the NDA but saw her publicly denigrated by Sellafield’s barrister, Deshpal Panesar KC, who accused her of ‘acting out of revenge’  of being ‘intent on ruining careers’ of being ‘self-absorbed’ and ‘a woman clearly in pursuit of a windfall.’ 

The NDA tried to buy her off with a £160,000 pay out in return for her silence on what she had found at Sellafield. She refused to accept – arguing among other points that such a culture permeating a nuclear facility was dangerous given serious issues of health and safety. She tried to raise this with BEIS but they refused to meet with her having signed off the £160,000 settlement.

Now a judge has ruled that she is entitled to appeal on six different grounds – and she has secured Andrew Allen, KC, a lawyer who represented Dr Chris Day, in his recent whistleblowing tribunal case against Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust, to represent her.

But she has also to face a costs hearing. So how is this being pursued by the NDA and Sellafield.

Sellafield

I put in two freedom of information requests to Sellafield and the NDA on how much they had spent and the revelations were very interesting. Sellafield has already spent £5640.16 on external advice plus using its own staff to pursue Alison. The NDA spent £7524.58 on external legal advice and an unknown sum on staff time to pursue her. So before we even get to court over £13,000 has been spent using taxpayers money. Furthermore the NDA according to an internal memo spent money on lawyers trying to close down her whistleblowing appeal with no success. The total cost spent by both organisations fighting Alison has exceeded £500,000 of taxpayers money.

The replies also revealed that the boards of both organisations including the Chief executive officer of the NDA , David Peattie ,were ” apprised” of the decision meaning that it reached board level. BEIS was also informed and approved the costs case but declined to comment about it because of current legal proceedings. What on earth are the boards of these organisations spending their time on this when they have much serious work to do on issues like nuclear safety and disposing of old nuclear power stations.

Now when this gets to a tribunal there will be a two day hearing and according to internal NDA documents it was paying over £5500 a day for top notch barristers. It is reasonable to assume so was Sellafield. This means the hearing will cost another £22,000 as they will be represented separately.

So altogether we are taking about £35,000 as a minimum ( excluding staff time) to recover a maximum of £40,000. That is – if they win. And even if they win most judges rarely award the full sum if it is a litigant in person. It is more likely to be £5000. If they lose this is taxpayers’ money being thrown down the drain.

If this was a commercial company I very much doubt it would past muster as a ” business case”. It is only because the boards of these organisations have unlimited access to taxpayers money that they can pursue this.

And to my mind this is only being pursued to hound a whistleblower who has produced some very damning information about life in Sellafield. This has called Sellafield’s reputation into question and they don’t like it, hence this vindictive approach.

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Scandal of the Ministry of Justice’s £200 million plan to imprison more women while providing a tenth of the cash to keep them out of jail

Foston Hall women’s prison. Pic credit: BBC

As the UK faces public spending cuts the Ministry of Justice is embarking on a £200 million plan to expand the women prison population by building 500 new places for women.

The scheme has been condemned by charities from the Prison Reform Trust, the Howard League for Penal Reform to Women in Prison and was subject to a highly critical report from MPs on the Commons Justice Committee.

This weekend a report from Women in Prison provided a cost funded case to turn this spending plan on its head by funding women’s centres instead to keep women out of jail and save the NHS, local authorities and the police a shed load of public money in picking up the pieces after prison life.

If you don’t believe this you should read last year’s Chief Inspector of Prisons report on Foston Hall, near Uttoxeter, Derbyshire, the worst women’s prison in the country. housing around 272 women prisoners.

1750 cases of self harm in one year at Foston Hall prison

An unannounced visit found that in one year there were 1750 cases of self harm by the women inmates and a staggering 1000 calls to the Samaritans each month. Two women had killed themselves there since 2019. Other statistics revealed that 20 per cent of the women were released into the community with nowhere to live – adding to the homelessness problem. The prison couldn’t even get people to work there – it had a supposed full staff complement of 110 but only 62 were deployable at any one time. As a result there was a high level of violence and lot of women were segregated.

The report said: “The prison had no strategy to reduce self-harm or improve the care for those in crisis. Recommendations made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman following their investigation into deaths in custody had still to be addressed and the relatively few women who accounted for most of the
incidents did not have meaningful care plans. The response to women in crisis was too reactive, uncaring and often punitive.”

Contrast this with a plan put forward by the new Women in Prison report. It follows one of the last acts of the Johnson government to allocate £24m – compared to £200m for new prison places – to develop women’s centres as an alternative to prison.

Women in Prison point out that just one centre “receiving £1m in a given year can support over 650 women and generate £2.75m in public sector savings, while providing a lifeline for vital services and significantly improving wellbeing for women and their children. The savings would go to local authorities (47%), the Ministry of Justice (17%), the NHS (15%), the Police (10%), the Department for Work and Pensions (9%) and HM Revenue and Customs (2%).”

Instead nearly half of Women’s Centres surveyed said they are concerned about their survival because the £24m is being parcelled out in short term funding spread across the country. Once the money runs out centres face closure.

Anawin Women’s Centre pic credit: Anawin

Joy Doal, Chief Executive of Anawim Women’s Centre in Birmingham said: “We are struggling. The needs of the women we work with are becoming more complex. We are witnessing the fallout from  Covid-19 – which is driving mental health problems – and an alarming number of women driven into poverty due to rising bills. On top of that our own costs are skyrocketing due to inflation and the rise in living costs. Now more than ever, we need sustainable, long-term funding to ensure we can continue meeting the ever growing needs of the women we work with.”

To me this seems just one more example of the lack of joined up thinking in Whitehall. The Women in Prison charity have done a great job not only in highlighting what is going wrong but in providing a fully costed solution that ought to be sent to the Treasury post haste. One example of a woman ending up in prison because they have mental health problems was covered on my blog earlier this year. See it here.

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Coffey sneaks through tough plan to push 114,000 Universal Credit claimants into jobs while Parliament is in recess

Therese Coffey :Pic credit: gov.uk

The Department of Work and Pensions is to tighten the rules significantly to force 114,000 existing Universal Credit claimants into work as job vacancies soar across Britain.

She is changing the rules so far more people will have to go on what is known as an intensive work search regime where they will be monitored continually by work coaches on how many jobs they have applied for and why they didn’t get them.

Therese Coffey has been planning to do this since January this year and consulted the Social Security Advisory Committee, chaired by the architect of Universal Credit, Stephen Brien, on January 26.

Ian Caplan, DWP’s Director of Employment, Youth and Skills

A letter to the committee from Ian Caplan, director of employment, youth and skills said:

“The Secretary of State wishes to bring in the change as soon as practically possible…for providing immediate support to low-earning households to increase incomes at a time of immense cost of living pressures…. By bringing these regulations into force as quickly as possible, including by laying the regulations in recess, the Department can start making the operational preparations”

SSAC kept decision secret for 8 months

The committee approved the idea on February 4th but agreed to keep the decision secret until last week when it published the minutes of a meeting between DWP officials and the committee.

To make the change the government is using a regulation to uprate what is known as the Administrative Earnings Threshold – a device which sets the level of benefit and earnings dividing those who only receive ” a light touch” regime – ie occasional checks whether they are seeking work – from their local job centre and those put on intensive work search programmes. Those who refuse or don’t co-operate properly with face benefit cuts as a sanction.

It will move the level from £355 to £494 a month for a single claimant and from £567 to £782 a month for a couple. At present some 250,000 people covered by the intensive work search programme are in work – this will increase the number by 50 percent. The government justify it by saying the new level brings it into line with recent rises in the national minimum wage for those in work.

What is more interesting – and perhaps why the minutes were withheld – is the question and answer session between the committee members and civil servants.

While the overall aim of the scheme is to get a higher income for the unemployed – by getting them work or more work for those in part time jobs – the DWP admit they have another agenda. Questioned about the current job vacancies level encouraging this move officials said: “the vacancies position the labour market is considered by some to be hot which could be driving inflation.”

In other words by getting more of the unemployed into work, employers would have a bigger pool of labour and would not have to offer higher wages or even compensate people for the rising cost of living.

Will the unemployed be recruited as strikebreakers?

There may now be an even more compelling reason as Therese Coffey wants this to be law from September 26, since the government plans to use agency workers to break the coming strike wave. What would suit ministers would be if the unemployed could be drafted in as agency workers leading to confrontation with striking workers on trains, buses, schools, the NHS, and the post office with shouts of ” scab” and bringing the police in to make mass arrests of strikers. A reminder of the miners’ strike.

There were other gems from the minutes – which in my view revealed the attitudes of the DWP and committee members

There was much questioning about the effect this could have on 16-24 year olds which suggested the programme could work for them. There was concern about the disabled – and an admission by the DWP that except in Yorkshire it had done hardly any research on how this could affect them.

DWP building

What was tellingly missing was the complete lack of interest from the DWP or committee members about the effects on people over the age of 50 and 60. The DWP didn’t even bother to give the committee a breakdown on them. But it is a fact that the rising of the pension age to 66 -particularly among women has seen a big increase in numbers on Universal Credit who can’t get jobs.

I really wonder whether this is prejudice. Women like Therese Coffey, who is 50, have had stellar careers and I wonder if they think women born in the 1950s and 1960s who are on the dole are failures or nonentities, don’t cause them a lot of trouble and don’t turn physically aggressive like some men. So they can be safely ignored. Certainly any thought about their plight or indeed any old person was spectacularly missing from discussion about this new drive.

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Can the DWP’s newest feminist recruit give the ” shambolic” ministry a more people friendly face?

Elizabeth Fairburn,(right) now the Department for Work and Pensions new customer experience director

Last week I watched the polite questioning by MPs of the top officials from the Department of Work and Pensions about their latest published accounts – which I have already lambasted in a blog here.

At this hearing of the Commons Public Accounts Committee – see this link – once again Peter Schofield, the permanent secretary – had to apologise to the nation’s pensioners for the ministry’s failure to rectify the underpayment of pensions to hundreds of thousands of pensioners, some who may still have to wait until 2024 to get their money. He promised 1000 more staff -having started with just 100 people – to sort out this scandal.

Once again – it is the 34th year in a row – the top officials had failed to balance the books – because of benefit fraud and error reaching record levels. Again it was promised that this will be sorted – we shall see whether this is really true next year.

Peter Schofield, DWP permanent secretary

But the most interesting aspect of the hearing was a new face on the block. She is Elizabeth Fairburn, who is the customer experience director at the DWP. She has been recruited from Direct Line Insurance as the head of claims response – where she deals with insurance claims from customers. She is quite obviously not a career civil servant unlike Peter Schofield, her boss whose cv shows, apart from a secondment to 3i, is a mandarin to his fingertips.

What is even more interesting she is a firm campaigner for women. She recently gave an interview to mark International Women’s Day this year with Gatenby Sanderson, a head hunting agency recruiting executives for the public sector ( recent appointments included the chief executive officer of the National Cancer Research Institute and the people’s director for the London Fire Brigade).

I have reproduced it at the top of this blog. As well as talking about her career, she is committed to equal pay for women, proper career paths for women who return to work after looking after children and most importantly women having real self belief in themselves and not being put down by men. She also is a coach for women to believe in themselves.

Can Elizabeth Fairburn do anything for claimants and pensioners?

But can she do anything for the millions of claimants and pensioners who have to endure using the DWP? She admits in the interview that she knew little about the working of the organisation.

At the hearing she made some interesting comments. She told MPs:

:”We are mapping out the plans and trying to piece things together. It is a big Department, and I am trying to get my head around a lot of things. I can see some real opportunities in how we could use different approaches to map out the journey from a customer’s point of view, which would help us as the civil service understand what that looks like and therefore where we can make improvements. Peter [‘Schofield] has already referenced the work that we are doing on digital and automation, which is a real opportunity, but we cannot automate processes that are clunky or difficult. We have got to review those, simplify them and then make them available on a digital solution to encourage customers to “engage with us.

On communicating with pensioners, particularly those owed money she told MPs:

“I have a team within customer experience who are continually looking at the communications that we send to customers to make sure that they are simple. Obviously, we are reliant on listening and learning techniques, such as what we see through complaints, to identify where to look. When we see those things, we can simplify the processes, and potentially the communications to customers, to help them with that and keep them updated.”

On stopping people’s benefits she said she had a team of 36 people checking the vulnerability of people before they did this:

“They are there proactively to support the wider DWP in identifying and signposting support for our customers with the most complex needs. In the example you were just talking about, my team work closely with Bozena’s [Bozena Hillyer in charge of counter fraud and compliance] team and, when there is a difficult decision to make about stopping someone’s benefit because of potential fraud, my team are there to support the frontline to say, “Have you considered X, Y or Z to ensure that we are doing the right things for our customers and making the right decisions?”

Egregious frightening letter from the DWP to a pensioner

Can she make a difference? As this blog has shown some of the communications have been egregious. Like the one I featured last August to pensioner Rosie Brocklehurst when the department was conducting a pension review which said: ““If you fail to be available for this review and do not contact me, your entitlement to State Pension may be in doubt and your payments may be stopped.”

This was , of course, totally untrue – the department can’t stop anybody’s pension.

So at the moment the jury will be out on how successful Elizabeth Fairburn will be in changing the culture. But I will be watching to see if this determined woman from Leeds can make a difference or not. Her Linked In self description describes her as “A passionate, energetic and inspiring people leader, renowned for the ability to champion change and transformation especially in underperforming teams or functions with a need for significant cultural revolution. “

Watch this space to see if this is true for the DWP.

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DWP in 2021: Record fraud, record management bonuses and record pension underpayments

Department for Work and Pensions

The latest annual report for the Department for Work and Pensions was published last week and reveals yet another litany of failures in this ministry. After a drubbing last year from Parliament’s watchdog, the National Audit Office, its accounts were qualified again making it the 34th year in succession it has failed to balance the books accurately.

This finding may also be a Whitehall record – there can hardly be another ministry in Whitehall that has so spectacularly failed to produce accounts with a clean audit sheet.

The big benefit fraud failure is again the government’s flagship Universal Credit. In 2020 it the rate of overpayments increased from 4.4% in 2019-20 to 7.5% in 2020-21. Nearly all of the increase in fraud and error was on Universal Credit. DWP estimates it overpaid £5.5 billion of Universal Credit (14.5%) and underpaid £540 million (1.4%).

In 2021  it overpaid £8.5 billion of benefits – the highest level recorded. Fraudulent Universal Credit claims account for £5.2 billion of the £8.5 billion overpaid. DWP estimates that it overpaid 14.7% of all Universal Credit payments in 2021-22, compared to 9.4% in 2019-20 (the year preceding the pandemic). DWP paused fraud and error prevention measures due to COVID-19 disruption, some of which have not yet been reinstated.

As at 31 March 2022, DWP is owed £7.6 billion of benefit overpayments, Tax Credits, and advances by around five million claimants, an increase of over £1 billion from 2020-21. DWP expects this pattern to continue until it has fully embedded new prevention measures. It recovered £2.0 billion of this debt in 2021-22, with 90% of debt recovered through benefit deductions. DWP can only recover overpayments it identifies – most overpayments are not identified and will not be recovered.

Disabled people are also suffering mainly from underpayment of attendance allowance. The NAO report says: “The estimated rate of overpayment in Attendance Allowance is 2.2% (£120 million), and the underpayment rate is 4.3%(£230 million).

” These estimates suggest that Attendance Allowance has the lowest rate of overpayment (excluding State Pension), but the highest rate of underpayment of the benefits sampled this year. Almost all the underpayment of Attendance Allowance is classified as claimant error. In previous years the Department has used Disability Living Allowance (DLA) as a proxy rate for Attendance Allowance.”

Turning to pension payment once again women are being singled out to receive the worst treatment after being underpaid for years.

Widowed pensioners left to wait 18 months to 2 years

The report says DWP now estimates that it has underpaid £1.46 billion to 237,000 state pensioners. This is an increase of £429 million and an increase of 105,000 pensioners on its best estimate at the end of 2020-21. DWP has carried out additional reviews of its records to understand the pensioners that may be affected, but the full extent of the underpayments will not be known until every case has been reviewed. DWP aims to complete its review of State Pension underpayments by the end of 2023 for two of the three affected groups2 but this deadline will not be met for the largest group, widowed pensioners, which may take until late 2024 to complete. DWP will need to significantly increase the rate at which it reviews cases.

This means if you have been widowed civil servants will not even look at what you are owed for another 18 months  and you will be lucky to get the money by the end of 2024.

However while pensioners and the disabled wait for their legally entitled payments it has been a bonanza year for the top management of the DWP. This year a record 7 of the 11 ( it was 5 the previous year) top management walked away with extra bonuses for their work. This may be due to how the department had to handle extra Universal Credit payments during the pandemic but it is startling given the abysmal report by the NAO on its control of fraud and failure to pay people the right pensions.

You will have to remember some civil servants can retire at 60 depending on what civil service pensions scheme they belong to – 6 years before the public get their state pension – with both high pensions and a generous one off payment.

This is the roll call of the beneficiaries.

From top left: John-Paul Marks, Jonathan Mills, Neil Couling, Peter Schofield, Kate Farrington, Debbie Alder and Nick Joicey. Pic credits: gov.uk

Peter Schofield, permanent secretary and accounting officer, is already on £185-£190,000 a year. He gets a bonus of up to £20,000 plus £33,000 into his pension. He has accrued enough money to retire on £75-£80,000 a year plus a one off payment of up to £170.000 and his pension pot is worth £1.394 million.

Debbie Alder, director general, People, Capability and Place,£145-£150,000 a year. She gets a bonus of up £15,000 plus £57,000 into her pension. She has accrued enough money to retire on £35-£40,000 a year. She has a pension pot of £543,000.

Neil Couling, director of change and resilience (responsible for Universal Credit).£165-£170,000 a year. He gets a bonus of up to £15,000 and £16,000 into his pension. He has accrued enough money to retire on £75-£80,000 a year plus a one off payment of up to £190,000 and a pension pot worth £1.654 million.

John-Paul Marks, who left on 31 December last year, received £105-£110,000 for nine months ,a bonus worth up to £15,000 and £31,000 towards his pension. He left with enough money to retire on £40-£45,000 a year and a pension pot worth £532,000. He is now permanent secretary to the Scottish government.

Katie Farrington, director general, disability, health and pensions ,£120-£125,000. She gets a bonus of up to £10,000 and £87,000 paid into her pension pot. She has accrued enough money to retire on £30-£35,000 a year plus a lump sum of £50-£55,000 and pension pot worth £531,000.

Jonathan Mills, director general, Labour Market Policy and Implementation,£135-£140,000 . He gets a bonus of up to £5000 and £35,000 paid into his pension. He has accrued enough money to retire on £45-£50,000 a year plus a lump sum of £80-85,000. His pension pot is worth £690,000.

Nick Joicey, director general, Finance, £150-£155,000 . He gets a bonus of up to £5000 and £36,000 paid into his pension pot. He is also the husband of Rachel Reeves, the shadow Chancellor.

He has accrued enough money to retire on £55-£60,000 a year plus a lump sum of £90-£95,000 and a pension pot worth £967,000.

I don’t think I have to say anything more and leave the reader to make his or her judgement on the state of the DWP

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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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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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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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Delays, miscalculations and unanswered calls: How the DWP is cheating first time pensioners

Chaos inside the Department for Work and Pensions

As 1950s born women finally get their first pension at the age of 66 a new problem is emerging.

The chaos inside the DWP , which is coping both with new applications for pensions and having to pay back over 100,000 people who it cheated out of their pension in the past, has now spread to first time pensioners. As already revealed by this blog the DWP has secretly put through a ” drop and go” scheme and decided to prioritise simple cases – nearly always men – over complicated ones, such as widows entitled to past Serps payments to their husband’s pension and divorced women.

As a result the pension help line can’t cope, staff handling cases have not been properly briefed, and barely properly trained. People are starting to wait months beyond the due date when they get their pension. And when they get it the calculations can be wrong.

Pauline Hinder

To illustrate this scandal one of my blog readers, Pauline Hinder, a 1950s born woman, who has kept meticulous records of her pension entitlement, and is a supporter of BackTo60, kept a diary of her trials and tribulations with the Department for Work and Pensions in trying to get her correct pension.

The story does have a happy ending but only because a former Liberal Democrat pensions minister, Sir Steve Webb, intervened on her behalf. Until then she was at a dead end.

DWP’s pension estimate was less than half Pauline was entitled

If that hadn’t happened she would have lost tens of thousands of pounds over the lifetime of her pension. They offered her a pension of just under £69 a week. Her real pension entitlement was £141.84 a week -more than DOUBLE the money they offered her.

Unlike many people she had records which could prove what they should pay her. But getting through to the DWP proved impossible.

As her diary reveals : “

 “rang  08007310469 opt 2 then opt 4then opt 2 

Spoke to Lee 10.20 He said I had to ring  08007317898 ‘new claim’ option – even though I’ve already made my claim!

Rang 08007317898 New claim opt 2 Then Hold for advisor

“Spoke to a polite man Anthony He was working from home ..but saw they’d received my letter of 6 pages of evidence to prove my entitlement was double their official pension quote yet couldn’t say when they’d received it. He said he’d flag it up to check but it would take 4 weeks…..I asked when 4 weeks started – he said today!  

“I said no!  Unacceptable – I’d phoned and written early in January and it was a 6 week response time then..

“I insisted a manager call me back  I explained that the DWP had already underpaid a raft of earlier womens’ pensions and made amends/still making, without interest or compensation.  Have they learned nothing – or are they committing corporate fraud as they are now repeating the same mistakes with a new generation of applicants. 

” He was polite but batting me off with hogwash”

“He requested a callback within 24 hours for me. He was polite but batting me off with hogwash about no one to speak to, no supervisor blah blah. ..but he did put me on hold for a couple of minutes so I guess he was contacting someone from his home.  “

As she says: “The DWP telephone line was useless….working from home, no managers, no access to screens telling them where matters were at.  I sent all copies of my historical records supporting my correct position and their error in January and to date I have had no acknowledgement of that correspondence receipt but I know they’ve had it because I asked in one of the several pension helpline calls I made!  The last helpline call I made I insisted a manager called. 

” They called about an hour later but I think I was dog walking and missed the call. You can phone the number but it has a pre-recorded message saying they wanted to speak to me but they’ll call if they need to.  They didn’t call again….”

Former pensions minister Sir Steve Webb intervention meant it was sorted in 24 hours

In desperation she turned to Sir Steve Webb, the former pensions minister in the coalition government.

He intervened by calling the DWP on her behalf.

Sir Steve went to a Pensions Customer Care Manager called David at the DWP.  He was very helpful and genuinely empathetic. 

 Sir Steve was involved and job done in under 24 hours.  Written apology in 48 hours and revised pension award in 72 hours.  

An apology from the DWP showing the right pension

Sir Steve told me: “I’ve generally tried to help a small number of existing and new state pension recipients where they have got stuck on a complex issue or where there appears to be an unresolved underpayment.

“In Mrs Hinder’s case she had clearly understood the rules and spotted when a more recent state pension forecast (and award) was far below the correct amount.   I passed her details on to DWP who quickly accepted that an error had been made.

“I do remain concerned that despite all the focus on historic state pension errors, errors are still being made on new claims.   Whilst Mrs Hinder’s case relates to quite a narrow and specific issue (a special concession for women who paid the ‘reduced stamp’) a more common error I still come across is newly retired widows who are not getting the inherited SERPS they are due from a late husband on top of their own new state pension   It’s a trickle rather than a flood, but, as we know, only a small percentage of a very big number is a lot of individual cases.”

My take on this is that Pauline Hinder showed amazing initiative and finally got her pension. But Sir Steve Webb cannot be expected to intervene in every case as he wouldn’t have time to do his day job. What we need is proper system with enough trained staff to do the job. It is quite clear we haven’t got one and ministers are to blame, They should sort it.

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