Women’s State Pension age: our findings on the Department for Work and Pensions’ communication of changes

Our findings

125. It is not our role to substitute DWP’s decisions about how changes to State Pension age should have been communicated with our own, and we recognise the discretion available to DWP in these matters. When considering whether there was maladministration, we look at whether applicable standards of good administrative behaviour were met. We have considered whether DWP exercised its discretion in line with the relevant standards.

126. DWP says it took adequate steps to encourage people to check their State Pension position, including their State Pension age. It also says that it is reasonable to expect members of the public to investigate how pension and retirement rules apply to them, and that employers routinely provide information about retirement and pensions. Employers did have a role to play, as envisioned in the 1993 White Paper. But information communicated via employers was likely to be highly variable. In our view, employers having a role to play does not relieve DWP of its duty to have met principles of good administration. In any event, information from employers would not reach women not in paid employment.

127. Complainants have told us they began work after leaving school with the expectation that they would receive their State Pension at the age of 60. They say there was no reason for them to question that expectation or whether new rules had been introduced, and so they should have been personally notified that their State Pension age had changed around the time the 1995 Pensions Act was enacted, or soon after. However, there is no applicable standard that required DWP to write to affected women around the time of the 1995 Pensions Act to tell them their State Pension age had changed.

128. We accept that DWP’s pensions education campaigns encouraged the public to consider their State Pension and retirement plans. While Ministers did not see a pressing need in 1997 for a campaign specifically about changes to State Pension age, the pensions education campaigns included information about State pension age changing, and from 1993 information was publicly available about changes to State Pension age in leaflets, through DWP’s agencies and online.

129. Leaflets containing information about State Pension entitlement were available through DWP’s agencies, online and via stakeholders. This reflects commitments set out in the Benefits Agency Customer Charter and the Pension Service’s Customer Charter. Around 70% of the leaflets we reviewed included that women’s State Pension age was changing. Given the subject matter and target audience for the range of leaflets, it was appropriate they did not all include reference to State Pension age changing. We recognise that communicating changes to State Pension age was just one strand of a wider pensions campaign.

130. Where State Pension age changes were mentioned, generalised messages that State Pension age was ‘being equalised’ from 6 April 2010 and would increase ‘from 2010 to 2020’ or ‘by 2020’ would not necessarily have alerted women that they could be personally affected. We recognise, though, that leaflets cannot deliver individualised information and the majority we have seen did include advice about how to ask for a State Pension statement or forecast, check the online State Pension age calculator, and/or seek additional information by requesting other leaflets that contained more targeted explanations about the changes (for example, EQP1, EQP1A and/or PM6).

131. A few leaflets we have seen misquote by a day when State Pension age would begin to change or who would be affected. For example, BR19L (April 2003) says ‘Women born on or before 6 April 1950 are not affected [by State Pension age change] and will still be able to claim their State Pension at age 60’. This is inaccurate. Women born on 6 April 1950 would be affected.

132. APF1 (August 2004) says ‘In 2020, when the State Pension age for women is raised from 60 to 65 …’. In fact, the State Pension age for women was due to increase incrementally from 2010 so that it reached 65 by 2020, rather than rise from 60 to 65 in 2020. Elsewhere, APF1 accurately states State Pension age is ‘… between 60 and 65 for women, depending on your date of birth. But from 6 April 2020, the State Pension age for both men and women will be 65’.

133. Given we have found errors in only a few leaflets among the almost 250 we have reviewed, we do not consider the overall standard of accuracy fell far short of the DWP Policy Statement requirement to produce information that was ‘correct’.

134. Complainants in our sample told us they did not see any leaflets or posters in Jobcentre Plus5 including during fortnightly visits over a six-month period in 2009. And we note that a 2006 Government response to a Work and Pensions Committee report6 includes that it was concerned to learn that some leaflets relating to pensions were not available at DWP sites and were difficult to obtain elsewhere. The Work and Pensions Committee report drew on information from a National Audit Office study testing the accessibility of up-to-date leaflets at sites where people might ask for them. This suggests some variation in the accessibility of information between different DWP sites.

135. Complainants have told us about women who worked for DWP saying they did not recall issuing leaflets or displaying posters about changes to State Pension age, nor being aware of this information being given to staff. And we have seen a ministerial submission from December 2007 that says a recent staff survey showed some awareness of pension reform amongst staff in the Pension Service, but indicated that more needed to be done to ensure ‘a deeper understanding of the detail’.

136. We cannot say now what happened in individual offices, and we cannot now know which aspects of pension reform the submission refers to. We have reviewed DWP’s staff bulletins and training material explaining changes to State Pension age. The evidence shows DWP gave its staff the information they needed to be able to correctly advise enquirers about their State Pension age. This reflects the commitment in the Benefits Agency Customer Charter.

137. Clear information about State Pension age was included in the example of an early State Pension statement we have seen. APFs do not mention that State Pension age is changing. DWP has said it deliberately did not include an individual’s State Pension age or the earliest date they could claim their State Pension in APFs because of concerns about the accuracy of address information held on its systems, the risk of exposing citizens’ personal data, and the need to comply with data protection laws. We consider DWP’s decision here took account of relevant considerations.

138. One of the leaflets included with APFs (APF1) mentioned State Pension age change. As already noted, a section of the 2004 version of the APF1 could be read to say that State Pension age would rise from 60 to 65 in 2020, rather than State Pension age would rise incrementally from 2010. That ambiguity was corrected in revised versions of the leaflet issued in 2005.

139. From around 2001 the online State Pension age calculator was available for people to find out their own State Pension age. Complainants have pointed out that, during this time, fewer people had internet access, and that women would have had to have been aware of the changes to State Pension age to seek further information online. We recognise that internet use at the time was more limited than it is now. But we also recognise that DWP did not rely only on information being available online; it was one among a number of means by which information about State Pension age changing was available. Personalised information about State Pension age was also available on request through DWP.

140. Complainants have also told us the Government Gateway website incorrectly stated State Pension age for women was 60 as late as 2016. DWP has acknowledged that incorrect information was shown on an index page of the Government Gateway website, which had not been updated. The pension forecasting tool (to which the link on the index page had pointed) had been updated and correctly calculated State Pension age. DWP became aware of the problem on 1 February 2016 and corrected the index page within 24 hours. It took prompt steps to correct the error and ensure publicly available information was accurate. In our view that reflected the Civil Service Code (2006).

141. We recognise that communicating changes to State Pension age was one strand of a wider pensions education campaign and at the time DWP was publicising information about a range of pension reforms. Based on the evidence we have seen, our view is that, between 1995 and 2004, adequate and accurate information about changes to State Pension age was available through DWP’s campaigns, in leaflets, through DWP’s agencies and on its website. This reflects expectations set out in the Civil Service Code, the DWP Policy Statement, the Benefits Agency Customer Charter and the Pension Service’s Customer Charter. The DWP Policy Statement says information should be ‘targeted’. Up to this point, information was generally targeted at particular audiences, for example, people reading women’s magazines, people who responded to surveys or people visiting Benefits Agency offices, rather than individuals. Individualised information was, however, provided in response to requests.

142. Complainants have told us they did not see any of the publicly available information because, for example, they did not read magazines, did not see leaflets, or had no reason to visit Benefits Agency offices. And they say that because they had no reason to question their State Pension age, they did not request information. While we now know some women were not aware of the changes, we have to consider whether there was reason at the time for DWP to think information about changes to State Pension age was not reaching the people who needed it, and what DWP did if that were the case. DWP had a responsibility, as set out in the DWP Policy Statement, to balance ‘resource and effort’ and spend money appropriately. We cannot expect it to divert additional resource to fixing a problem if it did not know, or could not be expected to know, a problem existed.

143. As DWP says, it has monitored awareness of State Pension age changes. In line with our principle of ‘getting it right’, DWP should have given due weight to relevant considerations when making decisions, including what was known about the need for individualised, targeted, information. In order to ‘seek continuous improvement’ it should have used feedback to improve service delivery, including research about levels of awareness of changes to State Pension age, what more needed to be done and how it should be done.

144. A DWP memo from September 1999 recommended that the feasibility and cost of publicising State Pension age changes should be looked into further. We have seen no evidence or research about what prompted that recommendation. Neither have we seen any evidence that DWP gave any additional thought to the options for further publicising State Pension age changes then, or to making State Pension age changes a more prominent feature of its pensions education campaigns. DWP has told us the lack of evidence does not mean that conversations did not take place. We acknowledge that conversations may have taken place, but we have seen no evidence they did. At the same time, we have seen nothing to show that at this point DWP had reason to suspect the steps it was taking to let people know about changes to State Pension age were insufficient or ineffective. We therefore cannot say that more should have been done at this stage.

145. The earliest research we are aware of that pointed to concerns about awareness of changes to State Pension age was in 2000/2001. We have not seen the detail of that research, but we know the researchers considered action was needed to improve women’s awareness of when they would receive their State Pension. While we have no evidence of how this research influenced DWP’s thinking at the time, we know the ‘Working Dogs’ campaign continued after this point and that campaign included information about changes to State Pension age. Later stages of the ‘Working Dogs’ campaign included communication channels not used in the first waves in 2001. In 2002 it included two phases of direct marketing in addition to TV and press adverts.

146. The 2003/2004 research, reported in October 2004, focused specifically on public awareness of State Pension age equalisation. It showed information was not reaching the people who needed it, and recommended information should be ‘appropriately targeted’, including at women who would be affected by the changes in State Pension age. The August 2005 policy document, and the emails preceding it, show DWP was actively considering what it might do in light of that research and options for targeting information, for example, through including information about State Pension age in APFs and through direct marketing activity as well as through leaflets, online and through the media. Despite having identified further options, what it ended up doing was what it had already done.

147. Most APFs did follow this research, but DWP has emphasised to us that communicating changes in State Pension age was not their primary purpose, and the recipient’s State Pension age was not included in APFs because of data protection concerns.

148. Complainants have told us that APFs could have included a general message about State Pension age changes. Given that DWP had already issued APFs to a proportion of the women affected by the time it was considering the 2003/2004 research, it was already too late for some people. But we cannot see that, having considered that research, DWP did anything different to what it had already tried to target information at the women who needed it.

149. We do not think DWP’s decision making following the 2003/2004 research was in line with the principles of good administration. The steps DWP took, having considered the research and discussed the options, had already been tried. DWP knew those steps had not resulted in information reaching the people who needed it. It also knew that too often people do not understand how information about pensions relates to their own situations and that individually tailored information was needed – the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions had made that point in February 2004. It is not reasonable to do the same thing and expect a different result.

150. DWP did not ‘get it right’ at this point because it failed to give due weight to all relevant considerations. It did not take adequate account of the need for targeted and individually tailored information, or of how likely it was that doing the same thing would achieve different results. Despite having identified more it could do, DWP failed to provide the public with as full information as possible, as required by the Civil Service Code. And it did not ‘seek continuous improvement’ by using feedback to improve performance and services. That was maladministration.

151. DWP first proposed writing to women individually to tell them about changes to State Pension age after the survey in 2006 found 50% of women whose State Pension age had increased still thought it was 60. The proposal to write directly to affected women was reasonable, given what the research showed. And the fact an options appraisal document was prepared demonstrates DWP was exploring the merits of options available to it so it could make a considered decision.

152. Evidence suggests the November 2006 proposals were not progressed until December 2007, after further ‘depressing’ research results. The December 2007 ministerial submission includes that a working group would identify women to write to, as well as consider what should be included in the letters and how the mailing would be phased. However, the November 2006 memo had already set out options for how to identify and contact women in the target group, when to write and what information to include.

153. The plan in December 2007 was to begin writing directly to women in 2009. DWP has told us a start date of April 2009 for a mailing of the scale proposed in December 2007 seems ‘unremarkable’. Writing directly to the numbers of women affected would have required significant planning and DWP needed to effectively manage spending public money. But the evidence suggests that DWP first proposed direct mailing in 2006, not 2007.

154. The 2006 Civil Service Code required DWP to deal with the public and their affairs promptly. The public’s need for time to adjust their retirement plans was set out in the 1993 White Paper and the need for significant pre-warning of changes in State Pension age had been highlighted again by the Pensions

Commission in 2005. The 2006 research showed a significant proportion of time had already been lost, given the changes were due to take effect from 2010.

155. DWP failed to act promptly on its 2006 proposal to write directly to affected women, or to give due weight to how much time had already been lost for women who remained unaware of the changes in the 11 years since the 1995 Pensions Act. It appears to have made no progress in developing its proposals between November 2006 and December 2007, despite the November 2006 memo saying an approach for direct mailing would be shared with Ministers before Christmas. We take that to mean Christmas 2006. We have seen no evidence a ministerial submission was made until December 2007.

156. DWP failed again to ‘get it right’. It did not act promptly as required by the Civil Service Code and did not give due weight to how much time had already been lost. And it failed again in its responsibility to ‘seek continuous improvement’ in response to the 2006 research. That was also maladministration.

157. DWP began writing to people affected by the 2011 Pensions Act within a couple of months of the Act becoming law. An effect of the maladministration, however, is that letters were not issued unsolicited about the effects of the 1995 Pensions Act until 14 years after that Act was passed. A 2016 Work and Pensions Committee report notes that Paul Lewis (a financial journalist) had calculated that letters informing women about the effect of the 1995 Pensions Act were received, on average, one year and four months before they turned 60.

158. The 2006 options appraisal paper includes that DWP considered ‘a targeted, personalised mail-out’ was the ‘most appropriate’ option for getting information to the women who needed it. The December 2007 ministerial submission includes that writing to women would ‘provide the clarity needed’. It is reasonable to infer that DWP would have reached a similar decision about the merits of direct mail, and begun exploring how to write directly to women sooner, if it had made a reasonable decision about targeting information in August 2005 in response to research reported the previous year.

159. DWP told us it could not have written to women sooner than it did because CIS was not sufficiently reliable in 2005, and there would have been concerns about the accuracy of address and other personal information held on its IT systems at the time. It said this is demonstrated by:

  • it having deliberately omitted State Pension age from APFs sent between 2003 and 2006 due to concerns about protecting personal information
  • internal research about APFs from 2008 showing that ‘of the 2.2 million records for women in the UK “in the age group in question” around 235,000 were marked “DLO” (a marker suggesting that previous communications had been returned undelivered), and that of a further 65,000 the address quality was such that the Post Office would have been unable to deliver a letter. In other words, the DWP could not have reached at least 1 in 10 of the women it wanted to reach with its direct mailings’.

160. APFs were issued using the NIRS2 database rather than CIS. As we have already noted, we accept DWP’s reasons for why APFs did not include personal information. The fact APFs omitted personal data is evidence of contemporaneous concerns about the reliability of NIRS2. The internal research from 2008 that DWP mentions is about CIS. But DWP could not have known in 2005 what research done in 2008 would show.

161. DWP told us it does not consider it unreasonable ‘not to decide to use a new and untested system immediately to undertake a complicated individualised mailing operation’. We understand that improvements would have been made following the introduction of a new database. But from evidence DWP gave the courts for judicial review proceedings7, the introduction of CIS in 2005 reduced concerns about ‘out-of-date’ citizen data, and was a more reliable and cost-effective database than NIRS2. We have seen no evidence that DWP decided not to use CIS for targeting mailing before 2009. The options appraisal paper created in 2006 includes that DWP had ‘identified that only two IT systems contain the relevant data to allow us to identify women in the target group’ - CIS and NIRS2. It includes ‘there is little, if anything, to choose between the two systems in terms of data quality’.

162. DWP also told us the situation changed between 2005 and 2007 (when the decision to send letters in 2009 was made). It said that in 2007, having considered further research from 2006, it considered ‘the risks associated with the use of CIS and NIRS2 databases (even with the inaccuracies they contained) were justified’. The 2006 research may have influenced DWP’s decisions in 2007 about direct mail. But the lack of awareness evident from the 2006 research was already clear from the 2004 research. We have seen no evidence that DWP decided not to use CIS in 2005 on the basis of a risk and benefit consideration.

163. Finally, DWP told us it had ‘alternatives available to it’ in 2005 that it considered would address the lack of awareness. We agree DWP had alternatives available: the options it was discussing then demonstrate that. But what it ended up doing was what it had already done.

164. We cannot now second guess what DWP might have decided in 2005 about the reliability of CIS. That said, using CIS for a direct mail exercise was not the only available option. As DWP identified at the time, it could have purchased databases to enable information to be targeted at the people who needed it. Or it could have written to affected women with a targeted message, tailored to that group of women’s needs, without including personal information. For example, it could have shared information about State Pension age as set out in Schedule 4 of the 1995 Pensions Act (listing State Pension age within certain age brackets) without including the recipient’s own date of birth in the letter. We know it could identify and write to these women using NIRS2 because it did so to issue APFs.

165. We know that it took 16 months for letters to be issued once DWP decided in December 2007 to send them. If DWP had made a reasonable decision about direct mail in August 2005, and over a year of planning and implementation time had not been lost between November 2006 and December 2007, it is likely letters about the effects of the 1995 Pensions Act would have been issued within 16 months of August 2005 (that is, from December 2006). That is 28 months earlier than when DWP actually started to issue them (April 2009). Had DWP issued letters from December 2006, there would have been no need to pause direct mailing pending the 2011 Pensions Act.

166. DWP has told us that, even if it had decided to pursue direct mail in 2005, letters would not have been sent by December 2006. It highlighted:

  • the issues with CIS
  • it would not have undertaken such communication activity so soon after a general election
  • operational factors would have needed to have been taken into consideration.

It is reasonable to infer, however, that the lead-in time would have been similar to the actual time taken once DWP decided to write to women in 2007. We have seen no evidence to suggest otherwise. And we cannot see how a sitting Government winning the May 2005 general election would have impacted those timescales. Further, it is possible that using a purchased database or sending a targeted message to women to whom DWP had already written would have led to letters being issued sooner.

167. DWP has also told us that individualised letters are not the most effective way of communicating information about changes to State Pension age. It has drawn attention to a research pilot done in 2014 showing just under half of people who had received a direct-mail letter remembered getting it. Of those who recalled receiving the letter, just over half said they had read all or some of it. DWP has also told us it cannot be expected to provide individualised communications about all the issues it deals with.

168. Our view is not that direct mail was the only effective way of communicating the changes, and we are not suggesting DWP has a duty to provide individualised communication about all policy matters. In this case, research showed targeted information was needed and DWP itself identified in 2006 that direct mail was necessary and would target information at the people who needed it. Based on the decisions DWP itself made in 2006, we think it is likely it would have made a similar decision earlier but for the maladministration in 2005. It could not have known then what a research pilot in 2014 would show.

5 In 2001 the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service were merged to form Jobcentre Plus.

6 Report on Pension Reform: Government response to the Fourth Report of the Works and Pensions Select Committee, Session 2005-06 [HC 1068-1] Cm 6956.

7 R (Delve) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2019] EWHC 2552 (Admin) and [2020] EWCA Civ 1199.