The utter disgrace and scandal of DWP and the near-impossibility of getting advice on topping up
I have today, after must time-wasting – endless calls with multiple choice dial-ins all of which warned that the high volume of calls might result in my being cut off before I was answered – paid £650 to top up four missing years of my State Pension, which I will be claiming from September when I turn 66.
Whatever number I tried, at whatever time of the day, I was indeed cut-off. Callers are told the deadline for topping up has been extended from April to 31 July and warned not to leave doing so until the last-minute. But what are they to do when even holding isn’t an option?
I had initially made the foolish assumption that everything could be accomplished easily online – that Check Your State Pension Gov/UK would tell me clearly how to do it and might even provide a link to do so. But they don’t, and the various online forums and comments pages show how much fury and distress and confusion there is abroad in the land.
This week, having tried a new route in, only to find that I was required to input a reference number for my NICs, a reference I couldn’t find anywhere, I called HMRC. After 54 minutes, the call was answered. I explained my predicament and the woman at the other end of the line managed only to tell me that the number had to be provided before I was cut off. BT gremlins, I think.
Two days later I tried again, putting the phone on speaker so I could continue working. After almost 90 minutes, a helpful woman in HMRC’s Newcastle office knew immediately what I needed and provided the reference number. She said it was sometimes printed on a P60, but nowhere else. There had been lots of calls. I explained that I wanted to fill in one missing year in order to bring my pension up to just below the new maximum. While she couldn’t tell me how much I was due to receive, she could see the missing years and told me that to fill one would cost £150. Surprised, I asked the cost of all four and was told £650. Check Your State Pension had shown that each unfilled year would cost a minimum of £800.80!
My new friend was concerned that I shouldn’t just pay £650 from my bank account to HMRC as, if it was an overpayment, a refund would be difficult. We agreed, however, that there might be no alternative. As well as providing the bank details required for online payment, she gave me a new number to call, suggesting I did so at 8AM. To no avail, as it turned out.
We chatted, the HMRC adviser and I, and while indicating that she wasn’t supposed to comment, she said that it was a mess. Nothing joins up, she said, and DWP had been repeatedly warned about the problems. Yes, she agreed, it should be possible to provide a link via which top-ups could be paid, the requisite reference number made available. She agreed that statements such as (in my case) “42 years of full contributions” are misleading because they led people, including me, to assume they were fully paid up. Many people, like me, had made that interpretation.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking down on the time available to plug gaps. My position is not dire: part of the problem is that I contracted out, as people were encouraged to do, for a brief period, though it is not clear how much that decision cost me. I had no workplace pension but had paid into a private pension (my late father worked for Legal & General!) from the day I started working. For most of my life I was employed, though I always had a freelance income on top and I always filed a separate tax return. I was made redundant when the company closed in 2008 (HMRC were so laggardly responding to my query about wrongfully applied tax that I lost money) and set up a modest online business. I left that in 2015 to pursue my own writing and creative projects.
I wasn’t earning much, and was spending time looking after my frail father, and – assuming I had already made sufficient NIC contributions – stopped paying in. Given my under-payment, should not the DWP have alerted me?
After the call, I logged back into Check Your State Pension. The page had changed since I last looked two weeks previously when it told me very specifically how much it would cost to fill each year: £824.20 for the years from 2016-19; and £800.80 for 2021-22. Now, for all those years (and the years when I was in full time education) it simply said: “Year is not full”.
Why the change? And how many people might have wrongly paid thousands of pounds to top up their funds when in reality the cost was only a few hundred? Is the DWP and HMG deliberately misleading people – or is it just utterly in competent? Either way we’re screwed.
Of course staff have been cut to the bone, which makes no sense on any level -whether it’s about sorting pension queries or collecting dosh from tax evaders and avoiders. But lives and livelihoods are at stake here. People with far less pension provision than I stand to lose out. And not everyone has access to computers and broadband or can sit on hold for 90 minutes – what if you’re a busy carer, juggling family commitments and a second job?
This is an utter disgrace. A real scandal – on top of the scandal of the WASPI women – and at a time when inflation is raging, utility prices are sky high, and the most basic shopping basket goes up week on week. And all this in a country that now has no safety net.
I hope the payment I made (proof of which I attached) can connect with my lifetime payments and that, if I have overpaid, I will be refunded and, if I have underpaid, alerted. I hope I will be sent a proper calculation. But I don’t hold much hope because this is now a country without hope in which none of the people supposedly running it take responsibility.
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