A former senior NHS boss who was kicked out of his job a month before he became eligible for a pension worth up to £1 million yesterday took his bid for compensation to the Court of Appeal.
Nigel Woodcock, 53, former chief executive of North Cumbria Primary Care Trust, says the only reason his employment was terminated a month before his 50th birthday was to deny him the ‘enhanced’ pension.
His legal team argues his “distinguished and lifelong career” in the NHS was brought to an end simply to save money, which could not justify discrimination on grounds of his age.
But the NHS, contesting the case, says previous decisions by an Employment Tribunal, and later by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), rejecting his compensation bid, were correct.
Mr Woodcock’s barrister, QC, Paul Gilroy, said the case was very important, as it would determine the extent of the defence of ‘justification’ in age discrimination claims.
“Both the Employment Tribunal and Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) found age discrimination to be justified on the grounds of cost alone,” he told the court.
“Cost alone is not capable of amounting to a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim and thereby justifying unlawful discrimination.”
In its ruling last year the EAT ruled it was “legitimate” for Mr Woodcock’s bosses to save taxpayers’ money by getting rid of him as cheaply as possible.
EAT president Mr Justice Underhill accepted that Mr Woodcock was “unfairly dismissed” but said the ruling was of no financial benefit to him because he had already received a £220,000 redundancy payment.
Mr Woodcock had held down top NHS jobs since 1992 and was one of the youngest chief executives in the country at 32 but his position as boss at the PCT ceased to exist due to a reorganisation of services in 2006.
Had he still been employed in June 2008 – when he turned 50 – he would have been due an ‘enhanced’ retirement package worth between £500,000 and £1m.
But he was handed his notice in May 2007 which meant that after serving his 12-month notice period his employment came to an end a month before his 50th birthday and he did not qualify for the early retirement benefits.
“This matter is of the utmost importance to the appellant, whose distinguished and lifelong career in the NHS was terminated on the grounds of age,” Mr Gilroy said.
“As a result, the appellant lost both the opportunity to continue his career, his right to a genuine consultation process and his entitlement to an enhanced pension, earned and accrued over a lifetime of service to the NHS.”
He said the tribunals had been wrong in concluding that discrimination in Mr Woodcock’s case was a “proportionate” way of achieving “legitimate” aims.
“In the present case, the relevant age discrimination was plainly not justifiable,” he said.
For the PCT, Andrew Short QC said cost was not the only reason for removing Mr Woodcock. It had also wanted to prevent him achieving the “windfall” of an enhanced pension and, in any event, there was no other job there for him.
“Reducing cost and maximising efficiency is a common and, certainly in a non-technical sense, legitimate aim for employers,” he said. “Many, and perhaps most, decisions made by employers will be based upon, or have regard to, cost.”
The appeal judges, Lady Justice Arden, Lord Justice Rimer and Mr Justice Ryder, reserved their decision on the appeal until a later date.
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