The letter began by saying that her entitlement to invalidity benefit had been revised upwards as a result of a landmark legal case heard by a social security commissioner last year. It stated: 'A commissioner has decided that the UK social security law discriminates against women and that they should be treated in the same way as men when being paid invalidity benefit.'
That sounded promising. However, four sentences on came the bad news: 'Payment of the revised amount has been suspended by the Secretary of State. For the time being, we will continue to pay your invalidity benefit at the old rate.'
Before Mrs Chamberlin reached 60 last year, her benefit was more than pounds 62 a week, the figure she would still be getting were she a man. However, after her birthday and without warning the benefit dropped by more than 33 per cent, to less than pounds 41 a week. The rules state that while people are allowed to continue claiming invalidity benefit for five years after the state retirement age (60 for women, 65 for men), the actual amount paid is reduced to the state pension entitlement level.
'It was a big drop. I know there are people worse off than us, but our standard of living has gone way down, particularly as my husband lost his job just afterwards,' Mrs Chamberlin said. 'It's wrong that people should receive less because they are women.'
The Social Security commissioner's decision last April, which was based on a legally binding EC Directive of 1978, is now the subject of a government appeal. The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) is not convinced that the DSS is right in holding back the extra benefits pending the appeal hearing and is hoping to challenge this through a judicial review. Otherwise women like Mrs Chamberlin will have to wait until the appeal process is exhausted (likely to be a long time) before knowing whether they really will get their extra money. In exceptional cases there is help. 'There are instructions to local DSS offices that if women are in hardship as a result of the downrating, the Secretary of State should be asked to remove the suspension,' Penny Wood of the CPAG said. 'Women in this situation should seek to get the suspension lifted.'
The discriminatory treatment of women receiving invalidity benefit is merely one of a number of problems stemming from the different state retirement ages for men and women (in certain circumstances, men can be penalised). However, the fall in benefit levels for women when they reach 60 may be particularly steep because of gaps in their national insurance contribution record, caused, for example, by years spent out of work bringing up children.
National Insurance 'home responsibility' credits are now automatically given to women receiving child benefit. However this does not help women like Mrs Chamberlin. She has three grown-up children and brought them up before the scheme was introduced in 1978.
Christine Humphreys, a Citizens Advice Bureau manager in Stoke, has taken up the cases of several women in this situation. 'Many women have paid contributions only at a reduced rate, so they are not entitled to a full retirement pension,' she said. By contrast, invalidity benefit is based on recent years' national insurance contributions. 'We have had people who are getting between pounds 57 and pounds 58 invalidity benefit then drop down to pounds 24 or even less,' she added.
Nevertheless, even with the reduction to state pension levels, invalidity benefit is paid free of tax, unlike the state pension.
'Generally speaking, it is advisable to choose to stay on invalidity benefit,' said Ms Wood. 'People should realise that they don't have to claim a retirement pension.'
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