Widower claims sex discimination against the NHS over late wife's pensionA test case, bought by a widower of an NHS doctor, will decide whether the NHS are guilty of sex discrimination by paying a lower pension to him than they would do a widow.

The legal action is being bought by 56 year old Iain Cockburn following the death in 2007 of his wife, Dr Clare Boothroyd.

Lower pension

Currently the NHS pension provides a higher income to widows, than it does to widowers, because of their lower earnings potential and child care responsibilities. When widowers’ pensions are calculated contributions made by deceased wives before 6th April 1988 are discounted reducing the pension payable to widowers. In contrast widows’ pensions are based on the full contributions made by their husbands.

Last year Mr Cockburn (right) received an NHS pension of £19,257, some £3,200 less than a widow would receive in the same position. Iain Cockburn

Mr Cockburn argues that his wife’s pension contributions were the same as her male colleagues and therefore should pay the same benefits. He said: “If the pension I should be getting is money that Clare had already earned and I am not getting it, who is?” Mr Cockburn continued: “Where is that odd £3,000 a year going? She earned it, not another doctor.”

Backing

The action by Mr Cockburn has the support of the British Medical Association (BMA).

Jonathan Waters, the BMA’s director of legal services, said: “This is a highly significant test case and we await the court’s decision with great interest.”

If successful could lead to the Department of Health having to pay an estimated £1 billion per year in extra payments to widowers. The Government has also suggested that if Mr Cockburn is successful in his legal fight it could have wider implications for all public sector schemes and increase the cost of widowers’ pensions by as much as £4 billion per year.

The Department of Health has defended the situation saying that the difference between the widow and widower schemes is “objectively and reasonably justified”.

However Mr Cockburn disputes this saying: “This is purely and utterly sexual discrimination.”

He continued: “This is an NHS pension scheme, so it’s all female employees, not just doctors. It is any male survivor of a female NHS employee who has been paying into the pension scheme for a reasonable length of time.”

Mr Cockburn and the British Medical Association were given permission for a High Court judicial review last October and the hearing took place earlier this month, a decision will be give at an as yet unspecified later date.