Innocent paperwork lapse shouldn't cost parents in old age
The Government will unfairly condemn many mums and dads to a poorer retirement if it doesn't respond to our campaign and give back their lost state pension credits.
People who give up jobs to care for children - usually, but not always women - are entitled to these credits.
They help ensure parents are not worse off in old age for doing this invaluable work for their families and society as a whole.
They should get all their credits, and they would if not for a burdensome administrative requirement to fill in a form decades in advance for something absolutely unrelated to the state pension.
An innocent paperwork lapse just after having a child shouldn't bring a penalty of losing tens of thousands of pounds in old age.
It's a disproportionate punishment for an entirely understandable blunder - because it's far from obvious to anyone that a mistake over a child benefit form might reduce your state pension payments years from now.
Who makes an intuitive leap between these two things? Unless you were told, you would never know. And the Government has made a complete hash of communicating the crucial link to parents.
Its recent official alert about child benefit and the state pension simply involved the Department for Work and Pensions putting out a rather limp press release.
The child benefit form itself is available online via Gov.uk and through Citizen's Advice, but is mainly distributed to new parents in Bounty Packs handed out in hospitals.
It was a very belated improvement, made only last year.
And it still needs to do much better. The form says near the top: 'Claiming Child Benefit can help to protect your State Pension.' That's such fuzzy language.
It's entirely unclear what 'help to protect' means, when applied to a pension you won't get for years, and which is a very low priority when you've just had a child and have dozens of other, more pressing things on your mind.
Even if you were worried about what the vague word 'protect' actually means, you would then have to go off and do further research since no immediate explanation is offered.
More likely, you would assume you have years to sort things out before you retire, and get on with caring for your new baby.
The message is so easy to fix. HMRC should just issue a straight-up warning that you could lose state pension - not just child benefit - if you ignore the form.
Child benefit form: Wording is too vague - it should warn that you could lose state pension if you don't fill it in
How about putting this at the top instead:
WARNING: Failure to fill in this form could mean you get a lower state pension when you retire.
And put it in huge red letters, to make it stand out against all that bland green, and ensure sleep-deprived parents flipping through 'coupons for nappies and nipple shields' (as one exasperated mum described the contents of Bounty Packs to us) don't miss this important document.
Ideally there should be a further prominent rider to deter the 'wrong' parent, who is already working and doesn't need state pension credits, from putting their name on the form.
How about: A parent who is NOT working, and therefore isn't already paying National Insurance contributions towards a state pension, should fill in this form. Failure to do this could mean you get a lower state pension in retirement.
One of the puzzling things about the Government's intransigence to date over fixing this botched system for parents is that it appears willing to make things as easy as possible for grandparents.
They are also entitled to state pension credits for taking on childcare duties for their adult children.
These are much deserved too as grandparents can be a huge help to parents, who often go back to work sooner as a result.
The Government lets parents transfer credits to grandparents in such cases, and backdates them all the way to 2011 - when they first allowed the right to claim them - at any time that they happen to come forward and apply.
That's two years before the child benefit changes in 2013 started tripping up parents, who no longer qualify for the actual payments and therefore stopped applying.
It is strange that parents are treated more harshly than grandparents - unless you subscribe to the cynical view that politicians always like to favour older people because they are the most likely to vote.
(By the way, if any grandparents have run into trouble over claiming state pension credits, please get in touch - details are in the box on the right.)
As the years go by, increasing numbers of parents are likely to join the ranks of those already losing credits.
Parents who had children in 2013 and haven't realised they needed to fill in the child benefit form yet are in the worst position, as they will have lost six years of credits by now - and rising.
Since parents were originally intended to get these credits, presumably they are still mostly priced into projections for what the state pension will cost in future years.
The danger of the Government continuing to ignore the issue is that as more parents are affected, and the black hole in their pensions gets bigger, the problem eventually gets too expensive to fix.
It's mainly mums who are affected, and the Government has already come under fire for failing to properly communicate state pension age changes to swathes of women, some of whom are suffering financial hardship because they have to wait for years longer than expected to get payouts.
That problem has arguably - and shamefully - already become too expensive to solve.
Now, another generation of women might discover, perhaps close to retirement and years too late to do anything, that they forfeited a large chunk of state pension because of a little-known rule that they must register for child benefit to get the relevant credits.
Not all will be able to work for long enough to fill in the gaps, or be able to buy state pension top-ups - and they shouldn't have to, since they were entitled to these credits in the first place.
The whole thing is a mess, and while improving the child benefit form might help a bit, the feasibility of linking state pension credits to birth registrations instead should also be explored, as this could make the system simpler in the longer run.
But by far the easiest solution right now is for the Government to stop wilfully damaging parents' pensions and fully relax backdating rules so that everyone who belatedly claims child benefit gets their lost credits back.
And if people make a simple mistake like using the wrong parent's name on the form, credits should be transferred to the other partner without all the hassle that entails at present.
We hope our campaign will do something to help raise awareness, and we are planning more coverage to put pressure on the Government in coming weeks.
Anyone reading this who knows parents who might have lost state pension credits should immediately warn them. Send them a link to our story.