State pension debacle: Row in parliament over scandal of women underpaid for decades
The Government has brushed off calls to reveal details of an investigation into cases of chronically underpaid state pension, but promised that staff training was being stepped up when the scandal was raised in parliament.
Tens of thousands of elderly women could be owed an estimated £100million in state pension after a major blunder, which was uncovered by This is Money and our columnist Steve Webb.
Labour MPs yesterday pressed the Government to reveal the scale of its probe, how many women are being paid incorrectly and when they would all receive their money.
Pensions Minister Guy Opperman sidestepped questions about the extent of the debacle, and sought to place the blame on Labour over a key rule change in 2008.
This introduced automatic payment uplifts for married women who retired on small state pensions before April 2016, at the point when their husbands reached retirement age too.
Before that women had to apply to get the full sum they were due.
But many were unaware of the little-known uplift and protest they were never given this crucial information by the Department for Work and Pensions.
>>>Are YOU being underpaid state pension? Find out how to check below
Those whose cases fall before the 17 March 2008 cut-off date when increases became automatic are only getting one year of arrears, rather than full backpayments.
Meanwhile, This is Money has covered two cases of widows who were underpaid for 20 years and have received backpayments of well over £100,000 each.
Both now suffer dementia and are tragically unaware of their vast payouts.
Labour MP Paula Barker said in the House of Commons yesterday: ‘Estimates suggest that as many as 130,000 women could have been underpaid their state pensions, so will the Minister confirm the total number who have been affected by the department’s error and how he intends to ensure that they receive the full amount which they are actually entitled to.’
Opperman responded: ‘This matter dates from 2008 and a Labour government who introduced these particular changes but the department continues to check for further cases and if any are found awards will also be reviewed and any arrears paid in accordance with the law.
Who are ‘WASPI’ women?
WASPI or Women Against State Pension Injustice is a protest movement by women whose state pension age was raised from 60 to 66.
The women say they have suffered financial hardship because the Government did not inform them of the changes, and then speeded them up in 2011 so that millions only got five year’s notice of the longer wait.
Opperman declined to comment on this issue yesterday, except to note that a judical review in the High Court had found in favour of the Government on the matters of ‘notification and communication’, because it was still the subject of an appeal.
This morning, the Court of Appeal dismissed that challenge, which was brought by two women supported by BackTo60, a separate protest group to the WASPI campaign.
‘We continue to encourage anyone who believes they are being underpaid state pension to contact the DWP.’
Dame Diana Johnson MP said many of the women who have already contacted the DWP were wrongly told that they were not entitled to any additional money.
She asked, ‘Can the Minister say what more is he going to do in light of the miscommunication that affected thousands of the WASPI women to ensure that these women who are affected are contacted and given the correct information?’
Opperman replied: ‘We are improving the training and the ability of the individuals who are handling the cases.’
Shadow Pensions Minister Jack Dromey weighed in to say: ‘There is an investigation under way. When will that investigation finally conclude so that those women, many of whom are in the twilight of their years, get the justice that they deserve?’
He also called on the Government to deny reports that it is ‘considering scrapping the triple lock when UK pensioner poverty is the worst in Europe’.
The triple lock guarantees annual state pension increases of at least 2.5 per cent, and there is reportedly a rift at the top of the Government over whether to break a promise in the 2019 election manifesto to retain it.
Opperman did not comment on the triple lock, but said Labour had ‘so grievously underpaid state pension’ that the Coalition and the current Government had ‘transformed’ the basic rate so that it is more than £1,900 a year higher than a decade ago.
Neil Gray MP, the Scottish National Party’s spokesman for work and pensions, said the issue of underpaid state pension came in addition to the UK government continuing to deny justice for WASPI women. and at a time when women were disproportionately impacted socially and economically by the coronavirus outbreak.
He called for a full impact assessment on women of both the WASPI issue and the underpayment of state pension.
Opperman hit back, saying that on the WASPI issue the Scotland Act gives the Scottish National government in Holyrood ‘extensive powers to intervene if they choose to do so’.
Why are some married women being underpaid state pension?
Married women who retired on small state pensions before April 2016 should get an uplift to 60 per cent of their husband’s payments once he reaches retirement age too.
Since 2008, the increases are supposed to be automatic, but before that women had to apply to get the full sum they were due.
But Webb stresses that the website is simply designed as a useful tool, and anyone with any doubt about the amount of pension they are receiving should contact the Department for Work and Pensions.
If you are widow and think you have been underpaid, find out more here.