When PHSO decided in 2017 to intervene on behalf of the WASPI women and ‘speed up’ maladministration cases many believed that action was finally being taken to deliver justice. Two years later and PHSO have yet to commence any investigations on behalf of these women. What went wrong?
Changes to state pension age were originally brought in by the Pensions Act 1995 and at that time it was stated there would be 15 years notice for changes to pension arrangements. But the Pensions Act of 2011 brought forward the timetable and increased state pension age to 66 for both men and women. Little or no notification was given by the Department for Works and Pensions (DWP) to those who were affected, in particular 50’s born women, many of whom were expecting to receive their pension at 60.
As realisation grew, complaints were made to the DWP regarding the way they handled the changes to pension arrangements and seeking recompense for the hardship caused as a consequence. Approximately 3.3 million women have been affected and many have become destitute due to lack of income.
In November 2017 the DWP had fully processed just 6 complaints from a total of 4,557 submitted. Commonspace article 27.11.17
The DWP’s Independent Case Examiner (ICE) set up a team of just three case managers from existing resources to deal with these complaints and as they made slow progress, thousands more joined the end of the queue. ICE was clearly overwhelmed. On 30th November 2017 it was reported that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) would intervene in order to ‘speed up’ the process; this coupled with a vote of support in the House for improving transition arrangements, gave encouragement to many WASPI women that their long fight was coming to an end.
THIS WEEK HAS turned out to be a hopeful one for the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) campaign, with an intervention from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to speed up its maladministration case against the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), followed closely by a unanimous vote of support in the House of Commons. commonspace 30.11.17
It was unusual for the Ombudsman to step in at this stage as they regularly state that they cannot intervene in cases which have not completed the first stage investigation and neither are they permitted, by legislation, from investigating cases where there is an alternative legal remedy. A FOI request in December 2017 asked PHSO for confirmation that their decision to intervene at this stage was permitted by law. They were, after all, working alongside the very body [ICE] they would later be holding to account. Prior to this announcement by PHSO #backto60 One Voice campaign announced (18th November 2017) that Michael Mansfield QC agreed to represent them and fund raising began in earnest to Judicially Review the actions of the DWP. Despite access to alternative legal remedy and a possible conflict of interests, PHSO agreed to work with ICE to identify sample cases for investigation as part of a bid to ‘streamline’ the DWP case handling process.
Given that the Ombudsman’s intervention was intended to hasten the delivery of justice it has done just the opposite. A year was apparently ‘lost’ in negotiation as it was not until October 2018 that PHSO announced they would investigated 6 sample cases. In the meantime ICE closed down all the WASPI complaints waiting for attention. Now all hopes for recognition of injustice rested with the Ombudsman. Just one month after selecting the 6 cases PHSO put all investigations on hold when in November 2018 it was announced that a Judicial Review had been granted.
We considered the impact of the judicial review on our proposed investigation and reached the view that it would not be practical or proportionate for us to investigate while similar and related issues were being considered by the court. Ombudsman.org
The Ombudsman is generally very strict on its observance of access to alternative legal remedy. It will close down cases on the basis that the complainant has/had an opportunity for legal recourse even when the complainant has made no mention of any such intention. It is a value judgement on the part of the Ombudsman as to whether or not it is ‘reasonable’ for the complainant to resort to legal remedy due to the discretion allowed in their legislation.
The PHSO promise of intervention in 2017 gave false hope to WASPI women
that action was being taken on their behalf.
Why did PHSO use Ombudsman’s discretion in 2017 to become involved in cases which, at that time, had not fully completed the internal complaint process and which would most likely be the subject of legal action?
Perhaps this article from Civil Service World, January 2018 explains the motivation. Speaking about government departments such as the DWP Rob Behrens, Ombudsman says;
…there is “goodwill towards us because people recognise that the ombudsman is the last in the line for complaints, and departments understand they rely on the ombudsman for relieving them of issues they can’t deal with”. Civil Service World Jan 2018
It was clear that both DWP and ICE could not deal with the continual flood of WASPI complaints. Having ‘relieved them’ of their burden PHSO then ‘paused’ all activity due to impending legal action. PHSO could have used their discretion to scope investigations to look specifically at aspects of DWP/ICE ‘maladministration’ as this matter was not subject to legal scrutiny, but they chose not to. WASPI women should note that historically, PHSO uphold very few cases against either the DWP or ICE as can be seen below. (no data yet available for 2018/19). Parliamentary stats 2017/18 (p.7)
Amanda Campbell CEO at the Ombudsman’s office was asked by Dr Rupa Huq MP to explain the delay in dealing with the WASPI cases. Ms Campbell’s response does not consider for one moment the urgency and desperation many WASPI women face as they struggle to survive year upon year without their state pensions. Have the WASPI women been given false hope by the PHSO intervention only to be let down?