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High price of hatching a nest-egg;Personal Finance

Susannah Kirkman reports on the battle for part-timers' pensions

Part-time teachers excluded from the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme may have to find thousands of pounds themselves if they are to receive back-dated pension benefits. Although employers will have to foot their share of the contributions bill, teachers will have to pay back contributions too.

A new ruling by the House of Lords has referred the claims of part-time workers to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, which will decide whether employers must backdate the part-timers' pension rights to 1976. A decision in 1994 by the Luxembourg Court stated that barring part-time workers, mainly women, from occupational pension schemes could amount to sex discrimination. Until then, all part-time and supply teachers paid at an hourly or daily rate were barred from the TSS. The part-timers are now challenging the English law which only allows employees to claim two years' pension rights retrospectively.

Teaching unions are optimistic the two-year rule will go. Last year the European Court permitted two part-time mental-health workers in Northern Ireland to backdate their claim to 1976. If the claims are successful, local education authorities could face a bill running into millions of pounds, and individual teachers could be paying several thousand pounds to guarantee their retrospective pension benefits.

So far, teaching unions have no solutions. "It will be a large amount of money for some," admitted a spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers. "We haven't addressed the problem yet." But UNISON, the public services' union, is looking at ways of helping its members raise the money they may need; negotiating favourable loan terms with finance companies for successful claimants is one possibility. UNISON sees no problem in raising loans as the lump-sum payments and other benefits will far outweigh the money employees need to find. "It would be ridiculous if, having gone to these lengths, people fell at the last hurdle for lack of a concerted effort to help them," says a spokeswoman.

The current test case began in 1994. In 24 cases, the Industrial Tribunal, Employment Appeal Tribunal and Court of Appeal all held that the two-year time-limit applied and refused to refer the matter to Luxembourg. Now the House of Lords has overturned this decision, the case is likely to drag on for another 18 months.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers believes more than 3,000 teachers have already registered claims with industrial tribunals. Many more may also be allowed to claim if the European Court overturns another English law: that claims must be filed within six months of leaving the job.

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