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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Exclusive: The great DWP rip off – Not one person out of a potential 11 million has won compensation for losing thousands of pounds of extra pension

Peter Schofield, DWP permanent secretary Pic credit: gov.uk

Those who follow my blog may remember I have been highlighting a horrendously complicated story of the plight of people who contracted out of SERPS 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.

This decision was never debated in Parliament or included in the Pensions White Paper and has meant the government 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 and women would be the worst affected.

Rob Behrens Parliamentary Ombudsman

The Parliamentary Ombudsman, Robert Behrens, was asked to investigate and concluded 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.

In September 2019 the Ombudsman gave the ministry three months to sort out this issue. 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. “

The DWP ignored the Ombudsman’s request and only last August -in the middle of the summer recess – put up a fact sheet to inform people. There is no reference 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 figures used to say how much people underplayed what people lost. And the Ombudsman wimped out of pressing the government to do anything.

Stephen Timms MP, took up the case and sought answers from the DWP

Now this month the results of these devious ploys have been revealed in a letter to the Commons Work and Pensions Committee after Stephen Timms, its chairman, took up their cause.

Not ONE person in the UK has received any compensation and only four people have written to the Department about it. None of the four were entitled to extra money. Given the deliberately obscure way the fact sheet was constructed and the lack of a mechanism to apply for compensation – it is hardly surprising. The Department is also insisting that these people are better off- because the triple now double lock – has given them more money. But that is a universal payment and pales into insignificance when you think of thousands of pounds many of the people have lost.

I expect Therese Coffey, the Secretary of State and Guy Opperman, the pensions minister, were probably holding a joint celebratory karaoke session in their offices – as they had avoided paying out an extra penny to the people they had deprived of compensation.

Therese Coffey, Secretary of State Pic credit: Twitter

The level of deception was heinous given that Chris Thompson, a reader who has enormous knowledge about GMP, had put in a freedom of information request to find out how many people had contacted the DWP to request compensation. He was told it was ” too expensive ” to give him the information. What mendacity by officials, how expensive is it to tell them that nobody got it and just four applied.

This sorry tale bodes ill for the 50swomen who are fighting for compensation for a similar pension maladministration – it is obvious that officials and ministers in this case have perfected a procedure to be as obscure as possible and not create any mechanism to claim compensation. Also they can’t rely on the Ombudsman to stick by them – in this case he wimped out and didn’t even hold the DWP to the fire to do what he asked them.

This is yet another example of a ministry that has no interest in justice and can rely on bamboozling the public and fake excuses for not replying to freedom of information requests.

Peter Schofield, permanent secretary at the DWP, has promised a review of the fact sheet now. I am not holding my breath.

The letter – the horrendous disclosure is at the bottom

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MPs vote to stop pensioners to get a big rise next April

Commons vote to throw out Lords case for a revised triple lock rise

Guy Opperman, pensions minister,” reckless to pay pensioners more”

The House of Commons last night voted down the Lords case for a higher pension rise next April with Guy Opperman, the pension minister, describing such a move as ” reckless” as there could be no robust figure to work out a compromise figure suggested by former Tory pensions minister Baroness Altmann. He boasted that the government were spending huge sums on pensions ” amounting to £129 billion this year”.

Full list of MPs who didn’t want pensioners to get a bigger rise below -all Tories

Baroness Altmann had argued for a higher figure than the government’s 3.1 per cent but below the 8.3 per cent rise in earnings if the government had kept the triple lock. This follows the latest estimates for inflation rising as high as 5 per cent by next April. The government won by 300 votes to 229 and by 299 to 53 to disagree with the Lords.

Full vote on pension uprating here. Those who were against any more money for pensioners included Sir Geoffrey Cox, who has made a £1m advising a tax haven, Alok Sharma, the president of Cop 26, Red Wall Tory, Ben Bradley for Mansfield and Lee Anderson, MP for Ashfield Bob Seely, Isle of Wight with a large pensioner population; millionaire Grant Shapps, the transport secretary; Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross; Peter Aldous, joint chair of the APPG on 50s women’s pensions and a clutch of Tories who won seats from Labour in the last general election. Two Tories rebelled and voted for the Lords uprating, Esther McVey, MP for Tatton and Derek Thomas, MP for St Ives. Derek Thomas it turns out voted against the government by mistake and then went into the government lobby. So he voted twice. Independents voting for the rise included former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

There were a lot of MPs who didn’t vote including Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson and among Labour, Andrew Gwynne, joint chair of the APPG on 50s women’s pensions, Jack Dromey and Margaret Beckett.

The government was opposed by Labour, the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the Alliance Party, the SDLP, and the Democratic Unionist Party. Only one Tory backbencher spoke to defend the government, Duncan Baker, the MP for Norfolk, North. Most Tory MPs stayed away from the debate.

Duncan Baker, Tory MP for Norfolk North. Claimed his large number of elderly pensioners accepted the logic of the need not to keep the triple lock this year.

He argued that his large number of elderly pensioner constituents understood the need not to increase pensions by 8.3 per cent because of the current financial situation. Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s social security spokesman, supported the Lords move and rejected the government’s case -saying it was reasonable for the government to find a figure.

The strongest support came from John McDonnell, who argued the full triple lock of 8.3 per cent should be paid because of pensioner poverty, women being especially hit. ” Under the Lords amendment we are talking about giving pensioners an extra £2.75 a week – it is ridiculous that we are arguing against this. I would give them the full 8.3 per cent – worth £7 a week.”

Three Scottish MPs – two from the Scottish National Party David Linden and Patricia Linden – and Liberal Democrat Wendy Chamberlain argued against the government. Wendy Chamberlain said she had not received a single letter supporting the government abandoning the triple lock and many letters opposing the move.

Stephen Timms, Labour chair of the Commons works and pensions committee, challenged the government to make up the shortfall and was sceptical whether the government would abandon the triple lock next year ( Guy Opperman denied this) but even if not, it meant pensions would continue to fall behind wages.

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Too expensive to tell you – the DWP cover up on whether they are really compensating millions who lost out on a Guaranteed Minimum Pension

The Department for Works and Pensions has compounded the big scandal over millions of people who are entitled to compensation for the ministry’s hidden decision to scrap an annual increase worth anything up to £27,000 over the lifetime of a pension for those, particularly women, who were contracted out of Serps by private companies.

Previous blogs highlighted this scandal after the Parliamentary Ombudsman ruled that there was maladministration in not telling millions of people that they would lose out when the new state pension was introduced in 2016. Only two people were compensated with sums of £500 and £750.

But the Ombudsman wimped out in enforcing the compensation for millions by allowing the DWP two years to take action to compensate people and then allowing them to create a factsheet which didn’t tell the full story.

Suspicious that the DWP was still avoiding to do anything a campaigner on this issue, Chris Thompson, put in a freedom of information request to the DWP to find out how many people have asked to be compensated,

The answer has now come back. The DWP said:

We can confirm that we hold information falling within the description specified in your request. However, we estimate that the cost of locating, retrieving and extracting the information for these requests, when aggregated, would exceed the appropriate limit of £600. The appropriate limit has been specified in regulations and for central Government it is set at £600. This represents the estimated cost of one person spending 3½ working days in determining whether the Department holds the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting the information.”

This was only asking about emails and letters the ministry had received since August 12 this year – a matter of a few weeks- it is rather suspicious if not laughable that this would take more than 3.5 days to find out. Surely the department would have a simple database to do a computer search.

Suspicion that nobody or few people have contacted the DWP

Mr Thompson suspects there is another reason.

” I think the reason the DWP don’t want to give me the information is that no one has contacted them or only a few which would show up by putting it on GOV.UK so that people only find out by happenchance which is not very satisfactory. For GOV UK to be a suitable way for people to find out about loss of GMP indexation then a majority of the 11 million people should see it. I wonder if they did any sort of assessment to find out how many people they thought  would find the fact sheet on the GOV.UK website.”

Again this bodes badly should the women born in the 1950s and 1960s achieve compensation for maladministration over the up to six year delay in receiving their pensions when the age was increased from 60 to 66. It sounds like the government won’t be very helpful in telling people how many were compensated.

However they may be another way to get hold of what is happening or rather what is not happening.

Stephen Timms MP to press DWP over numbers

Following some lobbying by Mr Thompson and myself Stephen Timms, the Labour chair of the Commons works and pensions committee, plans to tackle the government over this omission.

He has been promised a six month review by the ministry on how the use of the factsheet is working.

He told us that he intends to write to the ministry in December demanding that as part of the review they disclose how many people have applied for compensation.

This means whether they like it or not the DWP will have to spend some money and time finding out – unless they are going to tell Mr Timms that it is too expensive to do the exercise. We shall wait and see but for some of the people who don’t know they are entitled to this money – it could be a matter of life and death – as they may already be in bad health and could die before they realise.

Previous blogs on this:

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How the ” emotionally attached ” architect of Universal Credit will now be its chief DWP scrutineer

Dr Stephen Brien: The architect of Universal Credit. Pic credit: BBC

Self declared non politically active appointee turns out to be one of Iain Duncan Smith’s close advisers

A very important quango appointment has been made by the Conservative government which could affect the treatment of millions of benefit claimants -especially the huge number on Universal Credit.

It is to a fairly obscure body known as the Social Security Advisory Committee – which provides impartial advice on social security. It scrutinises most of the complex secondary legislation that underpins the social security system.

Put it more simply, its advice will influence how the DWP treats millions of poor, disabled, jobless people who are living on the breadline. It will cover a period when the government plans to to claw back money after the huge spending splurge to combat Covid-19.

The appointment is for the chair of the body and it has gone to Dr. Stephen Brien, a man who is publicly credited as the architect of one of the country’s most hated benefits, Universal Credit.

He will now lead until 2024 a committee of people who will both comment on future benefit changes and do independent research on the effects of the benefits system on the poor. The membership of the committee includes Seyi Obakin, Chief Executive of the homeless charity Centrepoint: Phil Jones,Director, The Prince’s Trust Cymru and Liz Sayce, board member of the Care Quality Commission.

Charlotte Pickles.Pic credit: Conservative Home

But Therese Coffey, the secretary of state for works and pensions, has also recently appointed Charlotte Pickles, director of the “non partisan” think tank, Reform and former adviser to Iain Duncan Smith, who piloted Universal Credit. She wrote an article for Conservative Home calling for the abolition of child benefit for millions of people and taxing the Disability Living Allowance. Read it here.

The appointment process for Dr Brien was marred from the start. The works and pensions committee was never informed of the recruitment process which is a breach of Cabinet Office guidelines as the appointment has to be scrutinised by Parliament. They learnt about it after a member of the committee staff spotted it.

This led to an exchange of correspondence between Stephen Timms, the committee’s Labour chairman and Therese Coffey. It is reproduced here.

Not only did Mr Timms complain about the omission but also some subtle change in the wording of the job specification. The 2018 wording asked for ” strong leadership qualities”. The 2020 specification is ” measured and balanced leadership qualities”. Similarly the words ” independent” has been dropped in favour of “impartial”.

Therese Coffey defended the change in wording to reflect the future strategic direction of the organisation and that she wanted ” to strengthen relationships” between ministers and shareholders. She admits she was embarrassed by the omission but can’t bring herself to apologise. It took an earlier letter from Mr Timms to Baroness Stedman-Scott, Lords minister for work and pensions to give her ” sincere apologies”.

The appointment process looked fair – though the small number of applicants -12- were overwhelmingly white with just one disabled person. Six were ruled out without an interview including the disabled person.

Six made the interview including one BAME person. Four were women and two men but only three were considered appointable.

The interviewing panel itself did include one BAME “fast track” woman , Tammy Fevrier, from the DWP Partnership Division.

Dr Brien’s appointment comes under the category of a ” non political ” one according to the code adopted by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. He declares himself :” I am not now and have never been politically active.”

Yet his CV is pretty questionable on this matter. As well as developing the idea for Universal Credit he was on the board of Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice from 2008-11 and 2013-19. This is where he developed the idea of Universal Credit and this is the body that wants to deprive people in their late 60s and early 70s of a state pension by raising the age to 75.

Official Commons portrait of Sir Iain Duncan Smith

On top of this he was a special expert adviser to Iain Duncan Smith in the coalition government from 2010 to 2013 at the DWP where in his words he “Played a substantial role the DWP’s engagement with the Treasury and Office for Budget Responsibility to secure the financial settlement for the reform programme” and “Worked in partnership with the senior officials delivering the Universal Credit”.

This was the time the Treasury insisted on speeding up the rise in the pension age to 66, refused to introduce national insurance auto-credits for women born in the 1950s while keeping them for men and imposed other welfare cuts.

And guess what Charlotte Pickles – also just appointed to SSAC- started her policy career at the Centre for Social Justice and then went on be the expert special adviser to Iain Duncan Smith at the DWP.

Critical friend

MPs did question Dr Brien thoroughly at the appointment hearing – with both Labour MPs Stephen McCabe and Debbie Abrahams pushing him on disabled people’s deaths and whether he was emotionally attached to Universal Credit. See here.

Dr Brien’s mantra was he would be impartial and he kept repeating he will be a ” critical friend” of the ministry.

I wonder. It depends on the balance of being friendly and critical. Either he will use his knowledge- he claims to be passionate about social security since he was 19- to try and make the new system work better. Or will he be part of the new Chumocracy – which takes in everyone from Dominic Cummings, the PM’s adviser and Michael Gove to Rishi Sunak – and give a fair wind to new benefit cuts no doubt with the approval of Charlotte Pickles.

I did an article for Byline Times on how the Conservatives through a former Vote Leave adviser are trying to pack quango appointments with Brexit inclined Tories – though it is not clear whether this is one of them.

I shall be watching. He can start with something he did promise to MPs over transparency. The minutes of SSAC should be public. They have not been published for over a year which is a disgrace. Let’s see how he gets on with this first.