Get the pension you've worked for

Tue 31 Jan 2017

You plan your future around your pension, so mistakes can really throw a spanner in the works. Craig Ryan spoke to one MiP member about how the union helped rescue his retirement plans.

Pensions are hard. In the NHS, with several different schemes and many arcane rules, even the supposed experts can get it wrong. When they do, your union can help you to navigate the system and get the pension you’re entitled to.

In 2012, Paul (not his real name) decided to take redundancy from a PCT that was being wound down as part of the Lansley reforms. As a former mental health nurse, he had “special class status”, which meant he had the option to take his full pension at age 55 instead of the usual 60.

“I was 51, so I decided to take my chances of finding a job somewhere else to fill the gap until I could get my hands on my pension,” Paul explains. “So you can imagine, I went to great lengths to establish with the NHS Pensions Agency the impact of accepting a redundancy package on my special class status and my ability to take my pension unreduced at age 55.”

But getting a straight answer proved tough. It took several months, and even an exchange of letters between the chief executives of Paul’s PCT cluster and the Pensions Agency, before his position was confirmed in writing: provided he didn’t rejoin the NHS pension scheme, Paul’s right to retire at 55 wouldn’t be affected if he took redundancy.

After leaving the PCT, Paul took an interim job before moving south to work in London. “I planned my whole life, including my family’s, around the fact that I was going to retire at 55, even to the extent that we lived in the North West and we sold up and moved down to the south coast,” says Paul. “So we made lots of decisions based on all this advice from the pensions agency.”

But when he moved to another trust six months later, Paul got a nasty shock. His new payroll department discovered that the Pensions Agency had removed his special class status and increased his pension age to 60.

Paul recalls: “I then spent a couple of months to-ing and fro-ing with the Pensions Agency, and they wrote to me saying ‘the advice we issued in 2012 was erroneous. We apologise, but your normal pension age is 60’.”

Paul contacted MiP national officer Jo Spear, who drafted in UNISON’s national pensions officer, Alan Fox, to help Paul with the first stage of the Pension Agency’s two-stage dispute resolution process. This proved unsuccessful. “The outcome was basically, it’s tough, we apologise, but it is what it is,” says Paul.

“At the first stage, I completed all the paperwork myself, with some help from Alan, but basically I got on with it,” Paul explains. “At the second stage, Alan completed all the documentation and got the union’s solicitors, Thompsons, involved.”

This time the Pensions Agency found in Paul’s favour. “Basically, they’ve put me back to the position I thought I was in in 2012, which means I’ve been able to apply for my pension and take up a part-time role,” says Paul.

If the decision hadn’t been reversed, Paul would have had to work five years longer than planned and would have missed pension contributions for the years he had opted out of the scheme – on the agency’s own advice.

“Naturally we’re delighted for Paul as this outcome really does make a significant financial and work/life balance difference for him,” says Alan. “This is another example of why being able to seek UNISON assistance is so vitally important for MiP members.”

MiP national officer Jo Spear says mistakes and unfair decisions are all too common with NHS pensions. “They can affect your career decisions even while you’re still working, so speak to your MiP rep if you think something’s wrong. Mistakes can often be rectified if you get the right support.”

“Without the union’s help, and the legal support they were able to pull in around me, I think the outcome of the second stage would have been the same as the first,” adds Paul. “As I sit here now, I would probably be waiting for a hearing with the pensions ombudsman, which can take years and years.”

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