Father triggers pensions bonanza

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The Independent Online

A father of four whose wife died of breast cancer is leading a one-man legal crusade that, according to lawyers, could end up costing the Government hundreds of millions of pounds.

A father of four whose wife died of breast cancer is leading a one-man legal crusade that, according to lawyers, could end up costing the Government hundreds of millions of pounds.

Les Withey will be the first man to bring legal action under the new Human Rights Act, claiming sex discrimination because widowers are not entitled to the same pensions and benefits package as widows.

His case has been taken on by a London law firm that plans to bring a class action which could lead to payouts of tens of thousand of pounds to as many as 40,000 widowers.

The momentum for the class action began with a hopeful letter sent by Mr Withey. Angry that he was denied a widow's pension and a widowed mother's allowance, he wrote to the Conservative Party's prospective parliamentary candidate for his local constituency of Torridge and West Devon to see what could be done. By chance the Tory candidate turned out to be a human rights barrister, Geoffrey Cox, who promised to take on the case for free.

He in turn contacted the London solicitors Royds Treadwell, which is now scouring for further clients to bring a class action against the Government.

Mr Withey, 55, said last night: "I was very angry with the inequality. The money would have come in extremely handy - the difference between scraping along and being just a bit more comfortable."

The anomaly in the legislation was inherited by Labour. It was saddled with making two out-of-court settlements earlier this year prior to the cases reaching the European Court of Human Rights. But the introduction of the Human Rights Act, which comes into force in England on 2 October, is expected to lead to a flood of legal claims in this country.

The current legislation entitles widows to a lump sum of £1,000 on the death of their husband, a widow's pension and a widowed mother's allowance, if there are dependent children. Widowers have never received the benefits, a rule which is blatantly in contravention of the Human Rights Act, say lawyers.

Those benefits are being replaced by non-discriminatory allowances but they will not come into force until 1 April, next year giving widowers scope to sue for the next six months as well as looking to bring retrospective actions through the European courts.

"At a conservative estimate it could cost the Government between £100m and £200m," said Mr Cox. "This would make it the largest claim [against the Government] in legal history."

A DSS spokeswoman said: "We are not expecting a flood of cases because in order to come to the European Court they have to have made a claim for widow's benefits. There is no rule on retrospective payments. There is potential for some cases. But sums of hundreds of millions of pounds is just not going to be the case."

* Pensioners will be told this week that the savings limit is to be removed to enable more to qualify for the pensioners' minimum income guarantee. Alistair Darling, the Social Security Secretary, is responding to protests that many pensioners feel penalised for saving for their old age.