A Department in Disarray: The Secret Memos Revealing the Truth Behind the ‘Back to 60’ Pensions Scandal
Documents from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) tell a tale of a ministry not fit to handle informing millions of women born in the 1950s that they would lose their pensions and complacent politicians unwilling to take action.
Successive government ministers and Whitehall officials failed over two decades to tell 3.8 million women born in the 1950s that they would lose their pensions for up to six years, secret documents from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) reveal.
The documents – made public in last month’s ‘Back to 60’ judicial review – call into question whether the department was up to the job of properly informing millions of people of such a drastic change to their retirement plans.
The failure began on 6 October 1995 – just after the legislation raising women’s pension age to 65 was passed by Parliament – when the DWP decided to spend £80,000 printing 47,000 leaflets to inform the 3.8 million women affected. Priority was given to informing independent financial advisers, representing the wealthiest pensioners, who received personalised letters. For some reason, this letter appears to be missing from the 1,600 pages of documents submitted by the DWP as part of the judicial review.
“Despite a really strong defensive brief, we still have 50% ‘ignorance levels’ with three years to go”
Nearly two years later, Whitehall realised that the move had not worked and proposed a series of measures including sending out a leaflet with P60 earnings statements. These were turned down flat by the then Conservative Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley.
A memo dated 11 February 1997 distributed to all social security ministers 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.”
They never did. Labour won the general election and the then Work and Pensions Secretary Alistair Darling spent £6.5 million in 2001 – including on a ‘talking dogs’ TV advertisement – advocating the need for a second pension to supplement the state pension. But, it never included specific information targeted at the women who were going to lose their pensions.
Between 2004 and 2006, ministers were warned by their civil servants that something serious was going wrong, but they took no action.
On 12 November 2006, under John (now Lord) Hutton, the Labour Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, plans were drawn up for the first direct mailing of people. But, this was not to be implemented until 2009 – just one year before the raising of the pension age was to begin and 14 years after legislation had been passed.
The secret memo stated: “A direct mail to this group was the most appropriate way of minimising future criticism that the Department had not been sufficiently proactive in communicating to those women affected by this change.”
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However, figures in another secret memo dated 17 April 2007 revealed appalling levels of ignorance among the group: “50% think their state pension age is 60 and 7% don’t know”.
Even among those who had asked for an estimate, 23% thought it was still 60 or still didn’t know. The people most ignorant of the change were people not working. That means the equivalent of around two million of the 3.8 million did not realise that they would not get their pension at 60 some 12 years after it became law. Few realised it would soon be 66.
The document reveals that, at one stage, officials thought of contacting Ann Abrahams, the then Parliamentary Ombudsman, to ask her how she would handle complaints from the women who did not know.
The memo said: “If we go now. We face being painted into the corner. Despite a really strong defensive brief, we still have 50% ‘ignorance levels’ with three years to go. Ann Abraham’s first question will be what are you proposing to do about it?”
“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”
So, they kept quiet and today there are already 2,500 maladministration complaints before the current Ombudsman.
A survey by Ipsos Mori for the DWP of 10,000 people in 2014-15 still found that many people did not know how to find out about their pension. This was at a time when a new state pension was about to be launched and the Government was halfway through the raising of the state pension age for women. The database used was faulty and out of date. More than 2,200 people could not be traced because the Government did not have the correct contact details for them, even though they were paying national insurance contributions.
The overall picture is one of a department that was not fit to handle the problem and of ministers – from all the main parties – who were either complacent about the fate of 3.8 million women or, in the case of Peter Lilley, who piloted the raising of the state pension age, actively against spending money to tell them.