Former north Cumbria health boss Nigel Woodcock, who lost his job in the midst of a massive NHS shake-up, is to mount a landmark ‘age discrimination’ test case at the Court of Appeal.

Mr Woodcock, former chief executive of the North Cumbria Primary Care Trusts, says the only reason why he had his employment terminated a month before his 50th birthday was to deny him early retirement and cut his pension entitlements by up to £1m.

His legal team, headed by top QC Paul Gilroy, argues his ‘distinguished and lifelong career’ in the NHS was brought to an end when it was for reasons of ‘cost alone’ which could not justify discrimination on grounds of his age.

Mr Woodcock had his bid for compensation rejected by an Employment Tribunal, and later by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), but was yesterday granted permission to fight on before three of the nation’s most senior judges at the Court of Appeal.

In its ruling last year, the EAT ruled it was ‘legitimate’ for Mr Woodcock’s bosses to save taxpayers’ money by dispensing with his services as cheaply as possible. Mr Woodcock, 52, described as ‘a very able manager’, had held down top jobs within the NHS since 1992, but his position as chief executive of the North Cumbria PCTs ceased to exist due to a massive reconfiguration of NHS services in 2006.

Had he still been employed by the Cumbria Primary Care Trust in June 2008 – when he celebrated his 50th birthday – he would have been due an ‘enhanced’ early retirement package worth between £500,000 and £1m.

But he was handed his notice in May 2007 and that meant that, even after serving out his 12-month notice period, his employment came to an end a month shy of his 50th birthday and he did not qualify for the early retirement benefits.

Mr Woodcock’s legal team attacked the move as ‘age discrimination’ but, dismissing that claim, Mr Justice Underhill said it was ‘entirely legitimate’ for his bosses to dismiss him as redundant.

His job had ‘in practice disappeared in early 2006’ and, had he been allowed to stay on past his 50th birthday, the extra benefits would have been a ‘windfall’, said the judge.

Attacking the EAT ruling at the Court of Appeal, Mr Gilroy argued that, if it was legitimate for his bosses to sack him for reasons of cost alone, that would “fundamentally undermine the protection against discrimination on the grounds of age”.

He told the court: “This matter is of the utmost importance to Mr Woodcock whose distinguished and lifelong career in the NHS was terminated on the grounds of age.”

After accepting that Mr Woodcock has an arguable case, Lady Justice Smith, yesterday granted him permission to put forward five grounds of challenge to the EAT’s decision at an Appeal Court hearing which is likely to take place in October.

A summary of Mr Woodcock's EAT case can be found here.

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