Whitehall’s rip off ministry: The DWP dodges paying compensation to millions of pensioners – and the Parliamentary Ombudsman lets it off

Department for Work and Pensions or Department for Deviousness and Dishonesty?

You may remember I wrote a long article on a decision taken by the Government to no longer provide an index linked guaranteed minimum pension to millions of pensioners when they new pension came into force. The blog is here.

This decision never debated in Parliament meant the government has got away with not paying out anything from a £1000 to tens of thousands of pounds over the lifetime of their pension, depending on how long they were contracted out by their employer from the old SERPS scheme. The numbers could be as high as 11 million.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman, Robert Behrens, was asked to investigate and came to the conclusion that there had been maladministration and two people shared £1250 compensation. Unlike the row over the 50s and 60s born women who lost out by not being informed by the government over the rise in their pension age, no record exists, as far as I can find out, of the ministry repealing this provision in the 2014 Pensions Act.

Steve Webb: Ducking responsibility

And the man responsible for piloting that legislation, Liberal Democrat minister Sir Steve Webb, while publicly championing millions of women pensioners who have been underpaid by the ministry, is strangely silent about this issue which is he must be responsible.

What has happened since has taken morality and standards in Whitehall to new depths and exposed a level of deviousness and dishonesty among civil servants and cowardice in the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s Office that fittingly goes with a government headed by a serial liar.

In September 2019 the Ombudsman gave the ministry three months to sort out this issue. His proposals were quite clear. He asked the ministry to “review and report back on to us on the learning from this investigation, including action being taken to ensure that affected individuals receive appropriate communication from the DWP about their state pensions.

“ln particular, the DWP should ensure that their literature clearly and appropriately references that some individuals, who have large GMPs and reach State Pension Age in the early years of the new State Pension, may be negativity affected by the changes. The DWP should advise individuals to check their circumstances, and should provide instructions for how to do this;”

Sweet nothing happened

So what happened? Sweet nothing. The DWP ignored the deadline and then produced a factsheet which I know from correspondence the Ombudsman clearly felt did not fit the bill. But after one attempt to get this changed the Ombudsman dumped the issue and wimped out of getting the ministry to implement their recommendations.

Their press office told me: “

“We closed this case in November 2020 after working with the Department for Work and Pensions on compliance. At this point we referred the case to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, to oversee DWP’s ongoing work in this area. They will hold the Department to account on the actions it has agreed to take.

Actually the communication got lost and the committee knew nothing of this to the following April.

The DWP to cover its back claimed when challenged said:

“Working with the Ombudsman, we have now published information on gov.uk about this complex policy area and welcome anyone who wants to know how they have been affected by the policy change to contact us.

“Publishing this factsheet is the final step in the DWP meeting the requirements of the PHSO findings in relation to the way the GMP indexation policy change was communicated.”

It turns out that the Ombudsman agreed to this tardy response.

23 month delay

What finally happened was on August 12 in the middle of the Parliamentary recess, the department 23 months after being asked put out a publication notice amending its guidelines. The link is here.

I can’t imagine a more devious method about informing people and Parliament about this – in the middle of the August holiday. It is designed not to be seen.

Furthermore it does not comply with the recommendations which is why I say it is dishonest. There is no reference as you will see to the Ombudsman’s report, and the fact that people could be entitled to compensation. There is no mechanism for people to apply for the compensation and the notice was not even accompanied by a press release.

The losses are considerable for some people – about £27,000 for some women over the lifetime of their pension – but the information does not spell that out properly. Indeed all the DWP had to do was copy and paste as I have – a table from the Government’s Actuary Department ( at the bottom of this blog) which provided an ” oven ready ” guide to the losses.

Pathetic consultation using ignoramuses

A pathetic consultation process was held by the DWP – where they sought out the most ignorant people about pensions to comment- and only found seven out of 40 who agreed.. We only know this because the Commons Works and Pensions Committee published the details – the ministry itself has not published it.

There are probably millions of people who should at least get £500 in compensation but Therese Coffey, the secretary of state, is determined that nobody should know about it. It does not bode well for the 50s and 60s born women over their pensions compensation. She has already said the Labour Party should compensate the women not the taxpayer.

Exclusive: Parliamentary Ombudsman proposes to say maladministration by DWP over the rise in the women’s pension age

Sir Robert Behrens – provisional ruling

Provisional findings point to some compensation likely to be paid to women born in the 1950s and 1960s

A confidential letter seen by this website shows the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Sir Robert Behrens, has managed to both exonerate and damn the Department for Work and Pensions for its handling of the administration of the rise in the pension age for millions of women born in the 1950s and 1960s,

The letter contains the provisional findings of an investigation which has taken years to undertake by his office – also wrongly temporarily halted because of a court case brought by Back To 60 seeking full restitution of the hundreds of millions lost by pensioners on grounds of inequality not maladministration.

The ministry is exonerated for all the work it did between 1995 and 2004 – from the passing of the 1995,Pensions Act.

DWP exonerated for first nine years of the announced change

The relevant paragraph reads: ” 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”.

But the provisional report go on to make findings of maladministration for the department’s handling of events from 2005 to 2007 when it belatedly found out through internal research that people still did not know about the change and needed targeted information.

The report reveals that at the time the ministry had a sufficient database to have issued targeted information to people who were affected by 2005. But the huge delay in sending out letters meant in the worse case scenario many women did not get an official letter until 14 years after the event. The letter quotes Paul Lewis, a financial campaigning journalist, saying on average women born in the 1950s did not get a letter until one year and four months before they turned 60.

DWP ” did not get it right “

It says: ” We think DWP’s decision making following the 2003/04 research failed to give due weight to relevant considerations, including what research showed about the need for ” appropriately targeted” information, what was known about the need for individually tailored information, or how likely it was doing the same thing would achieve different results. It failed to make a reasonable decision about next steps. In Augusts 2005 DWP did not ” get it right”. And its failure to use feedback to improve service delivery meant it did not seek continuous improvement. Our provisional view is that it was maladministration.”

” We think DWP then failed to act promptly on its 2006 proposal to write directly to affected women, or to give due weight to how much time had already been lost.. It did not get it right because it did not meet the requirements of the Civil Service Code and it did not take all relevant considerations into account. And it failed again to use feedback to improve service delivery and seek continuous improvement.. Our provisional view is that was also maladministration.”

” We think maladministration led to a delay in DWP writing directly to women about changes in the state pension age. In our view that letters would have been issued around 28 months earlier than they were if the maladministration had not happened.”

This led to women who were not aware of the changes being given less time to make changes to their retirement plans. ” The next stage of our investigation will consider the impact that injustice had.”

The report seems to exonerate Whitehall for the way it handled the pension changes in 2011 with letters going out 18 months after the further change. But because of a huge delay in sending out letters to the women affected by the changes in 1995 many did not know until just before they thought they were going to retire.

Updated:Why the archaic Parliamentary and Health Ombudsman needs a modern make over

Rob Behrens: The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Pic Credit: Ombudsman’s Office

If you have a complaint about a government department or the National Health Service your last port of call is Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. He is the current post holder of an institution set up 54 years ago by the second reforming Labour government led by Harold Wilson.

A report by MPs today is both critical of the performance of the Ombudsman – particularly over transparency – and of the government for not even considering new legislation to give the Ombudsman fresh powers and bring its work into the 21st century.

The minister blocking any change is Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister. He has ruled out any new law that could streamline the operation by combining its work with the local government and social care ombudsmen; give it powers to initiate investigations and strengthen its work dealing with complaints.

Michael Gove: Blocker in chief in making sure the Ombudsman can’t do his job properly Pic credit: BBC

No doubt as one of the country’s leading power couples – Michael Gove and Sarah Vine – are able to use their influence through the current ” chumocracy” to deal with any complaints they might have without having to resort to anybody like the Parliamentary Ombudsman But for ordinary people it is quite different

As the Chair of the Public Administration, and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Tory MP William Wragg MP said:

“The Committee appreciates the pressing priorities facing the Government, including, of course, the current pandemic. But reform of the legislation governing the PHSO is worthy of parliamentary time. The PHSO represents the final stage in a complaints process that can be traumatic for complainants and may include serious matters such as the death of a loved one. It is essential that people have faith in a transparent, effective organisation. The current out-dated legislation undermines this crucial ambition”. 

No action yet on long standing 50s women complaint

This leaves questions about how good Rob Behrens is in doing his job given the current restraints. He is currently looking at whether women born in the 1950s are entitled to any compensation for maladministration for failing to notify them of the raising of the pension age. And he is taking his time about it – despite MPs encouraging and recommending WASPI supporters to follow this route. Indeed the report includes a complaint from Frances Martin:

Her submission said:( I have left the capital letters) “There Is Still No Definitive Time Line For Finalisation, Nor, Importantly Has There Been Any Attempts To Provide An Impact Assessment, Notwithstanding, All Of The Above I Am Without Any State Aid Benefits Since Nov 2015, Am Redundant In A Jobs Blackspot And Have Been Excluded From Financial Assistance Through Rishi Sunak’s Furlough Scheme. As A Woman Of Over 60 Am At Greater Risk With Regard To The Covid Outbreak. None Of These Facts Seem To Have Been Considered By An Organisation Which Purports To Be Fair/Impartial Etc And Certainly Is Not Best Practice In Any Organisation That I Have Worked In Both In The Uk And Overseas.”

Both the MPs and the general public have raised a number of shortcomings. For a start he muddies the waters on the cases he takes up. The MPs report he conflates cases that “are not ready to be taken forward” and “should not be taken forward” so we don’t know what he is doing. He doesn’t report on the number of partial decisions.

He was accused of misleading Parliament by not proactively reporting that you can’t directly compare the figures for the number of cases referred to him over the last two years – because a new digital case system has made it impossible.

Since this blog was published there has been a sharp exchange of views between the Ombudsman and the chair of the committee over whether Rob Behrens misled Parliament by not proactively reporting the number of cases referred to him accurately. Mr Behrens accused the committee of being ” factually inaccurate” in suggesting this. William Wragg, the chairman, stood his ground and said MPs felt there were discrepancies in his evidence and it was important the Ombudsman updated information to MPs in a timely manner. He said that did not mean he was misleading Parliament. Letter exchanges are here and here.

He comes out well in treating people with dignity and respect and listening to their claims. But comes out badly for the time he takes to come to a decision and explaining it to the complainant.

More seriously he doesn’t seem to check back with the complainant that he has got all the information or give them a progress report.

” systemic disability discrimination in the Ombudsman’s office”

The report also contains some very critical comments from the public about the Ombudsman’s handling of some cases. MPs don’t investigate them but attach them to the report.

In one just known as A7 on the death of a disabled child in NHS care the person wrote: “In my and the experience of other parents of disabled children, rather than impartially investigating concerns concerning disabled children, with parity of esteem, investigations seem to be focused on justifying the actions of health professionals, however, unreasonable that behaviour is.”

The person added: “This seems to be a manifestation of the systemic disability discrimination found in poor parts of the NHS spreading to the PHSO office.”

Another from Dr Minh Alexander and Ms Clare Sardari on “a mishandled referral to the Care Quality Commission under Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Person, about an NHS trust director who had been found guilty of proven whistleblower reprisal and breach of the NHS managers code of conduct (an under-declared family interest), who was subsequently convicted of fraud and also criticised for her attempts to resist the proceeds of crime process.”

Ombudsman can’t “deliver accountability and good governance”

They conclude: “There was a lack of rigour by the PHSO in pursuing compliance with its recommendations for corrective action by the CQC, notwithstanding its lack of enforcement powers. It seemed to us that a procedural box had been ticked and thereafter, the PHSO was not interested in enough in ensuring that there was learning or genuine remedy of injustice.”

“We do not consider that the PHSO model is robust enough to deliver accountability and good governance in public life, because of insufficient powers and the lack of a duty on the PHSO to enforce improvements and corrections. It does not seem good value for money (budget 2019-20: £25.942 million) and we ask parliament to consider an alternative model of conflict resolution.”

I could go on with other examples. Suffice to say both Mr Michael Gove and Mr Rob Behrens seem to have a lot of explaining to do. Mr Gove for not bothering to do a thing about updating and strengthening the Ombudsman’s role and Mr Behrens for not being up front with complainants on how he is conducting his investigations.