A highly critical National Audit Office report today exposes major shortcomings in the running of the country’s state pension system.
With some 12 million people relying on the Department for Work and Pensions to calculate their pension accurately the auditors reveal a sorry picture of outdated IT systems, civil servants reduced to making manual calculations and mistakes galore with no proper system to identify the errors in the first place.
The NAO investigation was triggered when former pensions minister Liberal Democrat Sir Steve Webb and Tanya Jefferies of ThisIsMoney.co.uk, last year started to refer a number of cases to the Department of women who had been underpaid. On 26 May 2020 Sir Steve published an estimate of the level of underpayments using the
information obtained from the Department combined with public information from the Family Resource Survey that at least 220,000 women had been underpaid including 131,000 married women, 56,000 widows and 35,000 divorcees.
90 per cent of the losers are women
Now the department has admitted that 134,000 people have indeed been given underpaid pensions and it will cost £1.053 billion to compensate them. This figures excludes those who have already died because the department wipes them from its records after four years
Once again 90 per cent of them are women, and only 10 per cent men.
What is particularly alarming is the summary in the report about the whole pensions system.
It says: ” The errors occurred because State Pension rules are complex, IT systems are outdated and unautomated, and the administration of claims requires a high degree of manual review and understanding by case workers. This makes some level of error in the processing of State Pension claims almost inevitable.
“The Department’s caseworkers often failed to set (and later action) manual IT system prompts on pensioners’ files to review the payments at a later date, such as their spouse reaching State Pension Age or their 80th birthday. Caseworkers also often made errors when they did process prompts because frontline staff found instructions difficult to use and lacked training on complex cases.“
Worse the department seem to have a top down approach to find out about errors – rather than a bottom up from the pensioners themselves who might challenge their pension awards. Therefore it never picks up a large volume of similar complaints.
Wrong assumption that there are no errors
As a result there always been the assumption – and it was taken until now by the National Audit Office- that there was virtually no fraud or error in the payment of the £100 billion plus to pensioners every year. This has now been proved wrong.
The ministry is recruiting 544 people – at a cost of £24.3 million – to chase up and pay out the money to people who have lost out. But it is going to take some two years to do this with priority being given to the over 80s and widows. It has no plan on how to compensate relatives of dead pensioners owed money- and the NAO think it should create one.
Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said
“Many pensioners – most of whom are likely to be women – have been short-changed by thousands of pounds which they are still yet to receive many years later.
“DWP must provide urgent redress to those affected and take real action to prevent similar errors in future.”
A DWP spokesperson said:
“We are fully committed to ensuring the historical errors that have been made by successive Governments are corrected, and as this report acknowledges, we’re dedicating significant resource to doing so. Anyone impacted will be contacted by us to ensure they receive all that they are owed.
“Since we became aware of this issue, we have introduced new quality control processes and improved training to help ensure this does not happen again.”
Fourth pensions scandal to hit DWP
However one must comment that this is the fourth scandal to hit the DWP over the payment of pensions and women are by far the worst treated. First we had the 3.8 million 50swomen not being properly informed about the raising the pension age which the Ombudsman has found there was maladministration. Then we had the complicated story of people losing their guaranteed minimum pension uprating which could affect 11 million people, mainly women. Again the Ombudsman found maladministration but only two people have been compensated. And now we are also having delays for people claiming their pension for the first time in getting paid.
Cynics might conclude the ministry is almost misogynist in its approach – and also all these delays is ensuring more people -particularly in the age of Covid- will be dead before they get the money that is owed to them.
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Inside story of how the government can’t even organise a Covid- 19 survey let alone sort out the pandemic
Much has been said of the government’s expensive muddle and mishandling of the Covid -19 pandemic where millions if not billions of taxpayer’s cash has gone down the drain. Contracts have gone to the Vote Leave chumocracy, apps have failed, people have unnecessarily died in care homes and it has been bonanza time for private firms.
What has been missed is that while all this is happening the Department for Health through the Office for National Statistics and Oxford University have undertaken a randomised survey of 220,000 people to find out about the spread of Covid -19.
This is not just a once off questionnaire but those taking part in each household can opt to participate for a year. For the first month they are swabbed once a week and then monthly. The aim is to provide the government with a detailed picture of the pandemic’s progress and once approved the effectiveness of any new vaccines.
The scheme has been branded with trustworthy names – who would object to helping researchers at Oxford University or the Office for National Statistics.
Private company bonanza
But in fact the work is yet another bonanza for private companies and labs just like test and trace. What could possibly go wrong?
Well it did and this blog is my personal experience and my wife Margaret’s experience.
It started with a package being posted through our front door.
We were invited to ring a free number to sign up. Then within a week you would have an appointment. A pleasant socially distanced study worker would turn up, take your details, show you how to administer your own swab and send it off to a lab. You would get the result – if positive – within 24 to 72 hours from Public Health England. If it was negative you wouldn’t hear. You would also be eventually paid £50 in vouchers for the first visit and £25 for subsequent visits.
Sounds a doddle. It wasn’t.
First try and ring up and get an answer. I got through on the sixth attempt. And it is not to Oxford University but to IQVIA, an American multinational based in Durham, North Carolina, not Durham, England, with an income of $11.11 billion – effectively a health care data mining company. They have set up offices in the UK and guess what they are under staffed – hence the difficulty in getting through.
I was told to expect a call from NatCen, a private social research company, based in London that were in charge of appointments.
A week went by, two, three, then a month and nothing. Finally there was a knock on the door and a genial man called Kirk asked me who I was.
” We have been trying to ring you for weeks and couldn’t get you. We got someone else who was already on the programme”, he told me
The reason was simple. The mobile number they had for me was not remotely like mine – they had put in someone else’s in their records
The came the swab – straightforward. We were told if we heard nothing after 48 hours we would be in the clear.
Then SIX days later we took a call from Hertfordshire County Council. It was for my wife – we are both in our 70s – she was Covid 19 positive . She had to self isolate for another four days. I was negative but had to self isolate for another seven.
The woman didn’t seem to know why we had been tested together, didn’t know about the national survey, and then told my wife not to have another swab in case it was a false positive.
This was scary because my wife did not have ONE SYMPTOM, no temperature, no cough, nothing. But we had to quickly cancel a hospital outpatient appointment for that day and cancel a visit due the next day from a physiotherapist.
The advice from Herts County Council was contradicted the next day by another study worker pointed out that the survey required people who were positive to take another test. He was puzzled that she – given we are part of the vulnerable group susceptible to Covid 19 – had no symptoms. He could not explain why we had been contacted by Herts County Council and not Public Health England.
After scary days of waiting to see if anything developed we had another call from IQVIA. It was to tell us that Lighthouse Laboratories – the privatised mega lab consortium – set up by Medicines Discovery Catapult Ltd and UK Biocentre Ltd- who tested the swab had got it wrong. She was not positive and the test had been invalidated because the lab had used the wrong compounds to test it.
Nor were we the only ones – an entire batch – was wrong. Imagine the distress this would cause.It wasn’t the first time either. The Independent reported in September that tens of thousands of people had been cleared of Covid- 19 by the same labs when they were positive.
We now await our promised vouchers. I see they are provided by Sodexo – a private company which I remember was responsible for the hopeless failed privatisation of the probation service. They also provide child care vouchers. I wonder what they can to do to muck things up. I can’t wait.