50s women pensions: Flaws in the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s preliminary maladministration report ?

Last week I had sight of the Parliamentary Ombudsman confidential preliminary report into whether there was maladministration in informing some four million women that their pensions would have to wait another six years before they got their penswion.

The report found that there was – but only from 2005. The report exonerated the Department for Work and Pensions for its handling of everything from 1995 – when the Pensions Act was passed – to 2004.

Its official words were: ” Between 1995 and 2004, accurate information about changes to State Pensions Age was publicly available in leaflets, through DWP’s agencies and on its website. What the DWP did reflects expectations set out in the Civil Service Code, the DWP Policy Statement, the Pension Services Customer Services Charter and the Benefit Agency Customer Charter”.

I thought I would check their findings against the release of hitherto secret documents from the DWP following the court case brought by BackTo60 which I obtained when the case was over.

The Ombudsman’s report says it applied the same standard to events that happened before 2005 and after 2005 – when internal documents showed the ministry did have tougher standards for the delivery and supply of information for benefits and pensions from 2006 which strengthened the Ombudsman’s hand.

What surprised me therefore was the lack of weight in the Ombudsman’s report placed on a key document in February 1997 -just months before the general election that saw Tony Blair’s landslide victory.

It read: “Ministers have seen your submission of 20 January seeking agreement to run an advertising campaign aimed at informing/reminding women of the change in state pensions age following the Pensions Act 1995.

“Ministers do not see a pressing need at this stage to run such a campaign but would be prepared to re-consider at a later date.”

Lack of curiosity

There seems to be a remarkable lack of curiosity by the Ombudsman about this. For a start the internal document shows it went right up to Peter Lilley, then Secretary of State, which is the highest level in the ministry. Secondly they don’t ask what sparked civil servants to seek such action.

Perhaps it might be because the the DWP devoted just two sentences in an appendix to the legislation to any thought of communicating the change to millions of people. They decided to leave it in the hope that employers might voluntarily tell their staff. Why should they, surely it is the government’s job? The DWP anyway insisted in the court case they had no obligation to tell anybody.

The second point is that the Ombudsman is right to mention that leaflets were printed, there was some advertising and were distributed in benefit offices and citizen advice bureaux. What they don’t say is the quantity. Internal documents show the DWP spent just £80,000 printing 47,000 leaflets to inform the 3.8 million women affected. How pathetic is that for a communications policy?

Priority given to independent financial advisers

Priority was given to informing independent financial advisers, representing the wealthiest pensioners, who received personalised letters. For some reason, this letter appeared to be missing from the 1,600 pages of documents submitted by the DWP as part of the judicial review.

Yes some £6.5 million was spent by Alistair Darling, the Labour social security secretary in 2001 on advertising -including the notorious talking dogs advert – but ministers at the time tell me the emphasis was then on getting people to take out a second workplace pension to supplement the state pension not on the impending rise in the pension age for women.

So it seems curious for me that the Ombudsman has let off the ministry for this period while coming down strongly against them after 2005 when people had little time left to plan to alter their retirement plans. The evidence that millions of people didn’t know as the internal documents reveal is shaming for the DWP, as is the slow way they reacted to the facts. Indeed, ironically it was only because civil servants feared someone would complain to the Ombudsman that they thought they must cover their backs.

Flaw in the process

My other thought about the report is the process. Normally the Ombudsman might be dealing with one family or a small group of people in handling a maladministration case. In this instance they are asking six people to respond to their report on behalf of four million people. It puts a huge burden on those six people to have the knowledge and time to respond to get this right. I don’t know who they are but I am not sure in this case this is entirely the right process – since they can’t share the findings with other people or get advice.

This is one reason once I discovered the report had been circulated rather more widely than the six – including with the DWP and MPs – that I thought, on public interest grounds, it ought to be more widely known.