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Pension victory hailed by union

A retired lecturer's High-Court victory over pension rights will bring a flood of claims costing further education colleges tens of thousands of pounds, lawyers predicted this week.

The court has ruled that the Birmingham College of Food is liable to pay former lecturer Valerie Cook a previously agreed enhanced pension, even though she retired the day before the college was made independent of the local education authority.

Leaders of the college lecturers' union, NATFHE, have hailed the decision as a precedent-setting victory which will open the doors for hundreds of aggrieved lecturers to seek compensation over pension injustices and equal opportunities issues.

Valerie Cook took action against the college and Birmingham City Council to clarify who should pay her pension.

An earlier court ruling had exempted the college. But the High Court this week ruled that the council - represented by Cherie Booth QC, wife of Labour leader Tony Blair - was not liable.

Ms Booth persuaded the court that colleges were liable for a share of the pension for all employees up to the day before incorporation - when hundreds took early retirement. Lawyers acting for Ms Cook and NATFHE told The TES that claims would now be made by lecturers who also retired as independence loomed.

The Colleges' Employers' Forum insisted the ruling "did not set a precedent. A spokeswoman said: "We were not involved in this case but have fought and won a number of others. I do not think it opens the floodgate for anyone."

But NATFHE general secretary John Akker insisted it would. He said: "This case will also help clarify the responsibilities colleges have to their former employees. Equally important for NATFHE is that a member has been treated shabbily after years of dedicated service to her college."

While the college was still under LEA control, Ms Cook had agreed a retirement package with almost seven years' enhancement. But after independence, the LEA said it was liable for only five years and that the college should pay the balance, even though she retired on March 31, 1993 - the day before transfer of control.

Denying liability, the college argued that Ms Cook was no longer the college's employee at the "moment of transfer". Solicitors for the union said colleges that failed to settle before the cases came to court would face massive court costs in addition to the compensation payments.

The college was understood to be seeking a further appeal as The TES went to press. The CEF has also pledged to fight further claims. "In our view, the court made a maverick decision," the CEF spokeswoman said.

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