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Thursday, 23 May, 2002, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
Widowers besiege Europe with benefit claims
Three hundred widowers have lodged claims with the European Court of Human Rights because the UK Government is refusing to backdate benefit rules, a BBC News Online investigation has revealed.
But husbands whose wives died before that date are resorting to court action because the government is refusing to apply the rule retrospectively.
The government has already settled 12 claims through out-of-court arrangements or so-called "friendly agreements" but about 300 remain outstanding.
Those affected say the system is unfair and inconsistent.
Roger Bingham of human rights law firm Liberty, which has been involved in a number of the cases, said: "The government seems to have accepted that the discrimination is unfair in Europe but continues to pretend that it isn't unfair at home."
Flood of claims
Out-of-court settlements mean no official judgement is handed down by the court, no precedent is set and the government is not compelled to compensate tens of thousands of other pensioners that may be in a similar position.
Campaigners and widowers are particularly angry because the government has so far made a number of substantial settlements to these 12 claimants. In one case as much as £21,000 was paid.
In some cases, legal expenses have also been met.
Mr Bingham added: "It does look as though the government has sat back and is waiting in the hope that the difficulty of applying to the European Court and the deadlines the court imposes will save it from having to pay out more compensation.
"It is not a great attitude."
Thousands of widowers
According to the Office for National Statistics, 791,000 men are widowers.
The bulk of those are more than 65 years old, and there are many thousands who are struggling to bring up children.
One widower, Graham Ogle from Holywell in north Wales, told BBC News Online he felt he was owed about £16,000 from the government.
Mr Ogle's wife, Adrienne, died in April 1997 and he was left to look after the couple's two children who were nine and six at the time, at the same time as running his own outdoorwear business.
He is excluded from any state bereavement allowances because his wife died before the law was changed.
"This calls into question the government's moral integrity. They are trying to block our attempts to get benefit help, because getting justice through the courts is a mountain to climb," he said.
"But if I have to fight for five years it will be worth the hassle. It is not just down to money it is a question of our rights and discrimination."
The situation has been highlighted following news of a £21,000 "friendly settlement" with Nicholas Downie, a widower and father of three.
Mr Downie's wife died in 1993 and he pursued a claim with the European Court of Human Rights for benefit entitlements for the period from her death until the law change.
His case has now been struck out by the court, as a result of the friendly settlement.
This situation is far from isolated.
In January 2002, the government reached a settlement with David Fielding.
He was given £19,573.32 by the UK Government. His case was struck out of the case list and he agreed not to make any further claims.
Another more recent one, in March 2002, was made with Joseph Loffelman, whose wife died in 1998.
He received a settlement of £19,744.53.
Campaigners are now hoping for a case to go to a full judgement, so a precedent can be set.
TaxAid, a tax website, has also been campaigning for a change.
It said that it now had 3,000 letters from widowers who were seeking the Widow's Bereavement Allowance, a separate "payment".
This allowance was introduced in 1980 as a benefit to widows but was abolished to applicants after 5 April 2000.
Rosina Pullman of TaxAid said she was surprised by the number of letters they received about this, particularly from elderly men, but their requests to qualify for backdated allowances were always rejected.
"It is an appalling number of men who are involved and poor enough to follow this up. For most of them, we are not talking about a lot of money.
"To have these very elderly men write to us about their very sad circumstances is appalling. We have been surprised that so many have found the route to us.
"Elderly men or men with small children on the death of their wives find it very difficult to manage."
The Department for Work & Pensions declined to say how many cases had been settled or how many applications had been made to the European Court of Human Rights.
A spokesman said it had nothing further to add.
In a separate statement, the Inland Revenue said that its new system no longer discriminates against both sexes.
It said that widowers with children under 16 could now benefit from the Children's Tax Credit, worth up to £520.
A spokesman said: "The government believes that this gives the right support to those who need it most. Through this package, they have put right a long-standing unfairness in the tax system."
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