By Paul Lewis
BBC Radio 4's Money Box
The DWP has said the delays were due to a casework increase
A Labour MP has condemned delays at the National Pension Centre which have left tens of thousands of retired people waiting for their correct state pension.
The problems affect widowed and divorced people whose pensions should be boosted by the National Insurance contributions paid by their spouse.
But delays in doing the complex calculations at the National Pension Centre in Newcastle have led to a backlog which had grown to more than 36,000 by the end of 2003.
Labour MP Jim Cousins, who represents the Newcastle constituency where the National Pension Centre is located, told BBC Radio 4's Money Box programme:
"The basic state pension is the foundation of all income in retirement.
"It is not acceptable to have delays where pensioners are bereaved, or where their relationships break down, or where there is a need to calculate a complicated entitlement to the basic state pension.
"These things must be got right."
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) acknowledges that the problems affect mainly women who are divorced or widowed.
At the end of December, new pension claims from nearly 16,000 recently retired, divorced or widowed people were stuck in a queue while officials worked out what they were due.
The calculation is not straightforward because it depends on two sets of National Insurance contributions, those paid by the pensioner themselves and those paid by their spouse.
The DWP also revealed that another 20,000 people were waiting for their pension to be recalculated after the death of their spouse. The total number waiting is now six times what it was three years ago.
A spokesman said the delays were due to "a general increase in casework", and said that since the end of 2003 more staff had been hired and the delays have now been reduced.
But he confirmed that 13,000 people are still waiting for their pensions and nearly 17,000 have not had the correct pension increase.
He promised things would be back to normal "by the Summer time".
These assurances were not enough for Sally West, Income Policy Officer with the charity Age Concern. She told the programme:
"It is completely unacceptable. It will often be a bereaved woman and if you are recently bereaved the last thing you want to worry about is your pension."
She said a straightforward claim should be paid within 60 days and as people can claim four months before they reach pension age the money should normally arrive on time.
And she encouraged people to take action if they were left without their pension.
"If there is a problem paying a pension they should be making interim payments.
"So, if you are getting little or nothing, get an interim payment. You can also ask for compensation for losses incurred because of not getting the pension sorted out in time."
BBC Radio 4's Money Box was broadcast on Saturday, 21 February, 2004 at 1204 GMT.
The programme was repeated on Sunday, 22 February, 2004 at 2102 BST.