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State Pension Underpayment Errors

Volume 830: debated on Tuesday 16 May 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to tackle under-payment errors in state pensions.

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to ensuring that state pension error is put right as quickly as possible. More than 1,300 staff have been recruited or redeployed to the ongoing state pension underpayment correction exercise, with case reviews expected to significantly increase this year. This is an issue that dates back many years, and we are working hard to correct these historic errors and to ensure that they do not happen again.

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for his reply and I know that he takes the issue seriously. However, it is notable that the figures published last week by the Office for National Statistics showed that the main cause of underpayment was what it termed “official error”, and in the last financial year, the underpayments totalled £580 million—£50 million more than in the previous year. It is getting worse. I note what the Minister says about additional staff, but it is clear that more needs to be done.

The noble Lord is right. We know that 700,000 cases require review; an estimated 230,000 customers will be affected. In terms of what we have actually done, 173,538 cases have been reviewed; 46,760 underpayments have been identified, and just over £300 million was paid in arrears. As for the reasons that were highlighted by the noble Lord, they are multifarious. One is that DWP staff sometimes fail to manually set an action system prompt on state pension accounts to review payments, such as reaching an 80th birthday.

Is my noble friend aware of the beneficence of his department in that those who have reached their fourscore years get a huge 25p a week supplement, which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been reviewed since 1971? Is this good value for money?

I take note of what my noble friend has said. It is interesting to note that we are talking about an overpayment rather than an underpayment. Far from me to authorise taking away 25p from my noble friend, despite the fact that I am a Scotsman.

My Lords, the department has said that the current large-scale correction for those cheated of their full entitlement should be completed by the end of 2024, but in its most recent annual report it admitted a different error, relating to home responsibilities protection, where thousands of mothers are missing out on NI credits. Can the Minister assure the House that the department will not wait until the end of the current correction exercise before it starts on this new category of cheated errors?

The noble Lord makes a good point about home responsibilities protection, which is one of the issues that we are looking at in a timely fashion. We will be providing estimates and next steps for corrective action in the summer. Obviously, we are looking to move at pace to resolve these issues.

My Lords, the noble Viscount’s Written Statement last week celebrated the fall in fraud and overpayment error in the social security system as a whole, but it rather glossed over the increase in underpayment to £3.3 billion. That is money which is not going into the pockets of people who need it. Do the Government not think that under- payments are as important as overpayments, and what are they doing to minimise underpayments?

Of course they are important. Any underpayment is incredibly important, as I am sure the noble Baroness would agree. The department became aware of issues with state pension underpayments in 2020 and, as mentioned earlier, the issues go back several decades and through different Governments. We have taken immediate action to investigate the extent of the problem and are carrying out highly complex scans of computer systems. Correction activity commenced on 11 January 2021; I say again that this is an important matter and we are moving at pace.

My Lords, as the exercise is focusing on women, and women’s state pensions are still noticeably lower than those of men, are those who are entitled to arrears also entitled to some kind of compensation or consolation payment? How is my noble friend’s department prioritising the work?

I note what my noble friend says about the gender disparities, which we are alert to. Indeed, the department has a discretionary scheme which allows special payments to be made to customers to address any hardship, but particularly injustice caused by DWP maladministration. Consistent with other large-scale LEAP exercises, special payments under the DWP discretionary scheme will not, however, routinely be made, but I assure the House that they are regarded or assessed on a case-by-case basis. Finally, on prioritising, it is important to note that we are prioritising those who are alive over those who are deceased.

My Lords, I am one of those women who were underpaid. For years, I got £6 a week—I was very exercised over how to spend it—whereas many of my women friends who had never worked at all were getting much more than that. With expert advice, I was able to access the department and it was set right, but it seemed to me that the problem was how to access the department. Once it had the issue in hand it responded, but people need to know the email addresses and there need to be pamphlets in post offices. There need to be easy ways for older people to speak to someone in the department and get an answer when they write—without, of course, having to hold on to the phone for ages. Will the Minister ensure that that happens?

Indeed, and it is very important that we engage much more closely with the customer base. Where underpayments are identified, the DWP will contact the individual to inform them of any changes to their state pension amount and of any arrears involved. There is now, I am pleased to say, a more direct route for those inquiring about underpaid state pension. Guidance on this, the House may not be surprised to hear, is on GOV.UK and went live in July last year.

My Lords, these cases are very urgent for some people; 25p may be an issue for the over-80s, but in just January and February 14,500 over-80s were found to have been underpaid—out of a total of 46,000 underpayments. The worst affected were those who had been widowed, who were underpaid by, on average, £11,500. We all know how quickly the DWP will go after you if you get overpaid, so can the Minister assure us of two things? First, is priority being given to those who most need the money and who, frankly, may need it rather more urgently for reasons such as more advanced age? Secondly, the NAO suggested in its very damning report that the department assess all underpayments to see whether there is a systemic cause which might affect other cases. Is that now being done?

Very much so; it is being done. I think I alluded to this earlier. Any systemic problem has to be looked at as a matter of urgency. On the other question the noble Baroness raised, I mentioned the number of extra people we have put on to this particular case. I reassure her and the House that the data shows that we have reviewed an average of more than 15,000 cases per month between November 2022 and February 2023, compared with an average of only 5,000 per month over the first 22 months of the exercise.

My lords, it is estimated that between 20,000 and 25,000 pensioners die each year because of low income and the hard choices they have to make between heating and eating. Can the Minister explain whether any assessment has been made of the deaths and hardship caused by underpayment of state pension over the last 13 years?

No, I do not have any figures to support the argument that the noble Lord is proffering. What I can say is that we very much take note of wanting to support the most vulnerable. We have increased benefits in line with the September 2022 consumer prices index of 10.1%, including around 12 million pensions.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, due to their incompetence, the Scottish Government have underspent their budget in the last financial year by £2 billion, which could have been spent helping carers and others? Will the Minister confirm that this money will now go back to the Treasury and not be spent helping poor people in Scotland?

Allow me to look into that and provide an answer to the noble Lord. I think it is normally the case that the money goes back to the Treasury but, without knowing here, I do not want to stick my neck out on it.

My Lords, could the Minister indicate what corrective action will be taken to address the needs of the WASPI women, who have been underpaid for many years and are not entitled to their pensions from the age of 60?

I am aware, as we all are, of the WASPI issue. The noble Baroness will be aware of the judicial review against the PHSO. We are aware of it, but I am unable to comment because of the judicial review.