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Government accused of discrimination in £4bn widower NHS pensions case

The spouse of a GP is at the centre of a High Court case that could dramatically change the support that widowers receive under the NHS pension scheme.

The judicial review - that concluded yesterday - has been brought by BMA lawyers on behalf of GP widower Ian Cockburn who receives £3,200 a year less than a female widow in a similar position would receive.

This is a situation that BMA lawyers claim is unlawful discrimination and, if the court rules in Mr Cockburn's favour, could have major implications for payments under the NHS Pension scheme.

The current regulations state when a female GP dies, her husband only receives a pension based on contributions made after April 6 1988. A female widow receives a pension based on all contributions.

Mr Cockburn's wife, Dr Clare Boothroyd, joined the pension scheme in 1982 and was a member for 24 years until she died of cancer in 2007. The schemes current regulations render Dr Boothroyd's contributions before 1982 worthless.

The Department of Health says if the BMA position is upheld it will mean the Treasury potentially having to find a further £4 billion, and that the current payments are appropriate and justified because woman have historically lower earning potential.

Acting on behalf of the BMA, John Cavanagh QC told the court: ‘Mr Cockburn faced discrimination every month that he drew his pension.'

A BMA spokesperson also said: ‘Government ministers have removed comparable schemes from a number of public sector schemes, including one that affects MPs.'

The judgement is not expected to be announced for a month because of its potentially major impact on public sector pensions.