HC Deb 16 December 1952 vol 509 cc1205-8

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

170. SIR E. KEELING: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence if he will now make a statement about the pensions of the widows of officers of Her Majesty's Forces.

171. DR. BENNETT: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence if he will now consider increasing the pensions for Service widows.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence (Mr. Nigel Birch)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will make a statement in reply to Questions Nos. 170 and 171.

I am now able to announce the results of the review of awards to widows and children of officers and other ranks in the Services which, as I told the House on 19th November, the Government have been engaged upon. The announcement relates to ordinary pensions and not to pensions paid to dependants of those whose death was attributable to service.

As the House knows, the basic rates and conditions of award have, for the most part, been unchanged for some 100 years, and the position of these beneficiaries is therefore radically different from that of other State pensioners. The criticisms which have been made by members of all parties and by the public in general have been directed to three main points: That the awards are inadequate; that proper awards were not made to widows and dependants of other ranks of very long service; and that the conditions of award are unfair and out-of-date. The scheme which I am now announcing on behalf of the Government does what is possible to meet these points.

First, as regards rates of award. These have been increased throughout. At present, for example, the basic rate of pensions for the widow of a captain in the Army is £50 a year, or £90 a year if the widow is entitled to increases under the Pensions Increase schemes. In future the rate will be £110 per annum. For a lieutenant-colonel's widow, the present basic rate is £90 per annum or £140 with pension increases. The future rate will be £180 per annum. For a lieutenant-general's widow the rate will be increased from £187 10s. or £252 including pension increases, to £350 per annum. The new rates will not qualify for increases under the existing Pensions (Increase) Acts.

As regards other ranks, the present scheme is restricted to the widows of warrant officers, Class I, in the Army, and warrant officers in the R.A.F. In future, the widows and children of other ranks will be eligible, provided the men in question have completed certain specified periods of long service. For example, the widow of a warrant officer, Class II, with 22 years' service, will receive 12s. 6d. a week, rising to £1 a week for 37 years' service, and the widow of a sergeant of 27 years' service will receive 10s. a week, rising to 15s. a week for 37 years' service. The new rate of allowance for officers' children will be £32 a year, compared with the old rate of £16, which, with pensions increase, is now £22. For the children of long-service other ranks covered by the scheme, the rate will be 3s. 6d. a week, and can be drawn in addition to family allowances.

These ordinary widows' and children"s pensions are payable in addition to any entitlement under the National Insurance Acts. These improved rates will apply to all widows and dependants at present receiving benefits under the current scheme, regardless of the date of retirement of the husband. In the case of benefits arising from the extension of the scheme to other ranks of long service, payments will be made to the dependants of those who have served since 31st August, 1950. The increased rates will in all cases be payable from 1st December, 1952.

There is one further benefit of some importance which I should mention. cases where a regular officer or other rank who would have been entitled to a terminal grant under the 1950 scheme dies during his service, his widow, whether or not she is eligible for a pension, will be entitled to the gratuity which he would have received had he been invalided at the date of his death, though account will be taken of any post-mortem allowances which she may have received. These gratuities will be paid to surviving widows in all eligible cases where death has occurred during service since 1st September, 1950.

I now turn to the conditions of award. The main changes are as follows. The means test will be abolished. The conditions that the officer must not be more than 25 years older than his wife and not over 60 at the time of marriage will also be abolished and, subject to certain safeguards, a wife who married a husband within a year of his death will also be eligible. Cases will also be admitted where an officer who marries after retirement is subsequently re-employed for certain minimum periods. Cases which have hitherto been excluded under all these restrictive rules will be reviewed.

The present scheme is on the noncontributory principle which has obtained for the ordinary pensions scheme for the Services for over 100 years. When a widows' and dependants' scheme for the Civil Service was introduced in 1948, the Government of the day announced that it proposed to work out a similar scheme for the Services. Much consideration was given to such a scheme both by the late and by the present Government. A scheme was in fact prepared some two years ago, and the opinion of a cross-section of all three Services in all ranks was taken upon it; but in spite of the earnest consideration that had been given to it, the scheme proved unacceptable to the Services.

I hope the announcement of the Government's intentions will be generally welcomed in the House as evidence of the Government's desire to help those widows and children of men in the Forces who are still receiving pensions based on the rates fixed, in the main, a century ago. Furthermore, by thus improving the conditions of service of regular officers and other ranks we shall help recruiting and encourage long-service engagements. Full details of the scheme will be issued in a White Paper, which will be available when Parliament meets after the Christmas Recess.

Sir E. Keeling

While we should like time to consider the statement, and may refer to the matter again in the Adjournment debate on Friday which deals mainly with retired pay, may I ask whether my hon. Friend is aware that this new code, for which I thank him, is regarded by many of us as a notable advance towards justice to these widows and children, who have been so long neglected, including the widows and children of sergeants who, before, got nothing at all?

Mr. Birch

I hope that the announcement is not altogether unseasonable.

Mr. H. Morrison

As the Parliamentary Secretary said, this matter had been under consideration by the previous Government at the time we left office, and I think the House will generally welcome the statement. Obviously, we must postpone final judgment until we have seen the White Paper and, of course, have studied the somewhat lengthy statement of the Parliamentary Secretary.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

We are to debate this subject on the Adjournment Motion on Friday, and as we are so much behind time I hope the House will now pass on to the next business.