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Mystery of lost years in pension forecast: Sue Fieldman tackles a puzzling and costly discrepancy that has confused even the DSS

STUDYING for a university degree at the age of 57 is child's play for Joan Luckhurst, compared with trying to understand how the Department of Social Security has worked out her pension forecast.

She is not alone in her confusion. A press spokesman for the DSS is also completely mystified.

Like thousands of married women, Mrs Luckhurst stopped working when she had children. In 1978, while she was still at home, she asked for information about her pension entitlement.

She was told that at age 60 she would qualify for a pension of 65 per cent of the standard rate.

She subsequently returned to work. In 1990 she received a notice that she had underpaid contributions to the tune of pounds 3.95.

Mrs Luckhurst says: 'This in itself was mysterious, since I had been paying through PAYE. I asked for a pension forecast in order to ascertain whether any other payments had been ommitted, but learned it was only the pounds 3.95.

'My pension forecast was shown at 59 per cent. I paid the pounds 3.95 and received a new pension forecast which, to my dismay, showed a pension of only 62 per cent.

'Upset by the discrepancy between this and my 1978 65 per cent quotation, I took the matter up with the DSS.'

The DSS has tried to explain the discrepancy, but the explanation is incomprehensible. Mrs Luckhurst says: 'My problem is that I fail entirely to understand why, when having carefully maintained a payment record since 1978, the DSS has now deemed me to have 12 instead of 17 reckonable years between 1978 and my retirement date of 21 August 1995.

'I am currently a full-time university student and am maintaining my contributions voluntarily.'

A DSS spokesman admitted: 'I am confused as well.' He suggested that Mrs Luckhurst ask her local DSS office to get the file reviewed. If the review did not throw up a satisfactory answer, then there were appeal procedures that could be implemented.

We intend to return to this story when Mrs Luckhurst's case has been reviewed. Meanwhile, if you are unable to work because you look after children, then you need not lose out on your basic retirement pension just because you do not pay National Insurance contributions.

Home Responsibilities Protection (HRP) can safeguard your basic retirement pension.

When your pension is being worked out, the number of years for which you get HRP will be taken away from the number of qualifying years you would otherwise need for a full pension.

You will get the full pension if you achieve this reduced number of qualifying years, except where the number of years is less than 20.

But remember, HRP only affects the basic pension, not Serps, the additional earnings- related pension, and this can affect a later decision over opting in or out of Serps.

You can get HRP for any complete tax year after April 1978 if, throughout the year, you were the main payee getting child benefit for a child under 16.

Many people who stay at home to look after children get HRP automatically. But it is worthwhile checking with the DSS.

Anyone who wants to know what their future pension entitlement is can always get a pension forecast using form BR19, available from local DSS offices by telephone.

You will receive in due course a lengthy forecast letter. David Rothenberg, of the chartered accountants Blick Rothenberg, says: 'They are beautifully typed, often totally incomprehensible, and not always right, particularly where people have received HRP.

'Some years ago my wife got a pension forecast saying that it was on the basis that she was not entitled to HRP. In the same post she had a letter setting out her HRP entitlement.'

If you want to double check the forecast you can always ask for details of your contribution record. Apply to the Contribution Queries Section of the DSS in Newcastle.

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