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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