HC Deb 23 July 1970 vol 804 cc1011-22

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Clegg.]

5.47 a.m.

Mr. Frank Judd (Portsmouth, West)

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for detaining hon. Members at this late hour. I also take the opportunity of thanking the Minister and the staff of the Department for facilitating this debate and apologise to them for having detained them for so long. During the main debate this evening we have been discussing the protection of minorities and a profound issue of social justice. What I now intend to raise is, I think, very much in the spirit of what we discussed earlier.

Service widows' pensions are granted automatically to the widows of retired Service officers and to those other ranks provided: that the marriage took place before the husband's retirement from active service; that the husband died after retirement from active service; that at the time of his death the husband was in receipt of retired pay or a long-service pension granted in respect of his service in the Armed Forces; that the husband's death was not attributed to his service in the Armed Forces or considered to have been accelerated by his service; and in the case of other ranks pensioners only, the pensioner gave service reckonable for pension after 31st August 1950.

We must remember that for other ranks, Armed Forces pensioners' widows are divided into two classes—those whose husbands retired before 1st September, 1950, and those whose husbands retired on or after that date. The first group are not entitled to "ordinary" widows' pensions. The second group are entitled Officers' widows are not so divided. Provided they fulfil certain conditions, they all receive pensions automatically if their husbands die before them. Only one group is debarred. It is for this group that this House should seek justice and equity.

The claim can be put very simply. The pensions granted to officers' widows and the widows of other ranks pensioners who gave service on or after 1st September, 1950, are based on the husband's rank and length of service. They are, in fact, one-third of the pension which their husbands would have been receiving had they survived, with one modification. A minimum scale is laid down from time to time and even if the husband would have been under 60 and so not entitled to increases under the Pensions Increases Acts these increases are, nevertheless, taken into account in assessing the widow's pension.

The service given by men of the Armed Forces who were discharged to pension before 1st September, 1950, was in every respect at least equal to that given to men who retired on or after that date. Indeed, the service of the older pensioners was frequently more arduous, involving greater hardship in long separation from wives and families, disgracefully poor pay and living conditions and—at least, in the case of naval ratings—no married quarters, no paid passages abroad for wives and families and none of the other amenities which are now accepted as normal.

When these older pensioners retired they did so on pensions which were pitifully small compared to present standards and they were paid no terminal grants at all. Nowadays these grants can amount to as much as £2,340 for naval chief petty officers and to £2,730 for Army and R.A.F. warrant officers class I. They left the Services as a general rule ill-equipped for the competition of civilian life. Most of them were forced to take poorly paid, non-progressive jobs. They were frequently reminded by prospective employers that they had a pension to help them out. They stood little chance of making reasonable provision for their wives if they should die before them. Many of them were forced to commute the maximum permitted amount of their pensions to find sufficient capital to start buying a house in which to live and to furnish it, and so their pensions were reduced even more.

All these men served their country in one world war, many in two. They willingly gave the best years of their lives to the service of their country. It is the widows of these older officers who have been told that there is insufficient money available to pay them pensions and at the same time to increase the pensions of those who are already entitled. The only advice they have been given is to apply to the Department of Social Security for supplementary benefit if they are in dire need, and the only comfort which has been extended to them is the vague but never fulfilled promise that "the matter will be kept constantly under review".

What concerns me is not just the need to do justice to the present widows. While according to the Ministry of Defence there are, at present, about 30,000 widows, there are in the region of 100,000 pensioners still alive whose wives will in the course of time join the ranks of the pre-1950 widows if their husbands die before them. The number of widows involved at any given time will vary, but the general trend must be, towards zero. By the year 2000 there will be very few surviving. It would be sad if the matter were "kept under review" until that date so that at last the problem would have been resolved without the necessity to alter the system at all.

In the meantime, the older widows are dying off every day without justice ever having been done, and the husbands and widows who survive are filled with a sense of injustice and bewilderment that the country to which they gave the best part of their lives can be so indifferent.

At this point it may be worth considering how this situation ever arose. Before, 1952, Service officers' widows had been entitled to pensions provided that certain conditions were fulfilled. One condition was that a means test was applied to the widows. In 1952 the Government considered that a means test was "inappropriate to the middle of the twentieth century". It was also thought that the class distinction between officers' widows and the widows of other ranks pensioners should be removed. So the conditions for officers' widows were revised and widows of other ranks pensioners were brought into the scheme, but there were significant qualifications. One was that no pensioner who had retired before 1st September, 1950, would qualify, whether alive or dead.

At first, the injustice of this rule was not strongly felt. Other ranks pensioners had by their service grown accustomed to the class distinction between officers and men. At the time, this was generally accepted as inevitable. Those women who were already widows had never expected to get pensions, and it is probable that for many years a large number of them were even unaware that the regulations had been altered. That only widows who at that time became entitled were those whose husbands had retired after 1950 and had died before 1952. So the injustice of the regulation was obscured by circumstances. As time passed and more of the pensioners died, it became more and more apparent, until now it can be seen as a glaring example of had legislation. It must not be allowed to continue in force.

Since 1952 various attempts have been made to persuade the Government of the time to amend the regulations governing Forces Family Ordinary Widows' Pensions. Apart from the minor amendments of 1958 and 1963, however, these rules still stand.

It has been claimed that the regulations introduced in 1952 constituted a new scheme which had to have a commencing date and that 1950 was chosen because at that time a number of other improvements in the pay and conditions of Armed Forces personnel had been made. These included improved pay and pensions—for those still serving, not for those on pension—terminal grants, improved marriage allowances, and so forth. These have been referred to as a "package deal", of which pensions for widows of serving other ranks were only a part.

But so far as pensions were concerned, was this a new scheme? Or was it the modification of the existing scheme of officers' widows' pensions—which had been in force since the reign of Queen Anne—and the extension of these modified conditions to some other ranks? As for the references to "package deal", it is obvious that the extension of entitlement was not made so much in the cause of social justice, but rather as an inducement to recruitment and re-engagement.

It has also been stated that the 1962 Act could not be made retrospective to cover the men who had retired without an expectation of a pension for their widows, should they die before them. It is true, of course, that the husbands of the pre-1950 widows retired without an expectation of a pension for their widows. So did those who retired between 1950 and 1952, and the privates and corporals and sergeants who retired between 1952 and 1963 without sufficient service. Yet their widows receive pensions.

For many years there were men serving together in the Armed Forces, living and working side by side, sharing the same dangers and hardships, holding the same ranks and receiving the same pay. They had contracted to serve for the same time and under the same conditions. These conditions did not include pensions for their widows. Yet, because of the date of their birthdays, or the dates they happened to have joined the Services many years before, the cut-off means pensions for the widows of some, but not for others. To apply the yardstick of "expectation" to some of these men after they had left the Services is quite unjust.

It has also been stated that the object of the 1952 regulations was to remove "certain restrictions and conditions which were thought, and rightly so, to be inappropriate to the middle of the 20th century". Presumably this must refer to the class distinction between the widows of officers and of other ranks, and to the means test then applied to officers' widows. How much more inappropriate is it in 1970 to apply an even more invidious distinction between widows of the same group, and to force the older widows even now to submit to a means test if they are in need?

The actual cost of providing pensions is difficult to estimate. The Armed Forces Pensions Association thinks that about 30s. a week per widow would be a reasonable average, and that this would give a total of about £2.4 million in the first year. It seems, however, that the Ministry's estimate is nearer £3 million. Of course, this would not mean an increase of £2.4 million or £3 million in public expenditure. No doubt many of the widows are already in receipt of supplementary benefit and would lose part or all of it. Some of them might not be able to establish a claim to a pension if they could not produce evidence of eligibility.

It might be suggested that if such is the case there is little point in worrying about these pensions at all. But the essence of the matter is that the money should be theirs by right, not by a means test, and this is very important, especially to old people, who are prone to regard supplementary benefit as charity. Moreover, it would at last remove the feeling of injustice prevalent amongst the widows and the pensioners who are still alive. This is very important, too. Surely, our sense of compassion and our obligations to those who have served us so valiantly in the past demands that we act quickly to right this wrong before it is too late.

6.0 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Peter Kirk)

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) has raised, with his customary eloquence, a problem which is, I freely admit, one of the many anomalies which arise under our present pension system. It is not the first time he has raised it. On 23rd January this year he raised it on the Adjournment under the previous Government and received a reply from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will be altogether surprised if he finds in my reply echoes of the speech which the hon. Member for Sparkbrook made on that occasion. I assure him that I have looked at the problem again, and the fact that I have come to the same conclusion, although my political philosophy is different from that of his hon. Friend, may, perhaps, lead him to believe that there are problems here which are not easy of solution.

I shall begin, as did the hon. Member for Sparkbrook on that occasion, by underlining, lest there be any doubt in the mind of any hon. Member about it, that we are not concerned in this debate with the position of widows whose husbands died as a result of service. The pensions with which this debate is explicitly concerned are awards in respect of the husband's service and not pensions payable to the dependants of those whose death is due to service. These latter are known as "attributable" or "war widows" pensions; and the policy on them has, since the beginning of the last war, been the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Security. There is no complaint in this field, so far as I know, since all widows, regardless of when or for how long their husbands served, receive such pensions if the death of their husbands was due to service. We are concerned with a totally different category.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the position is that widows of officers, and, by a curious anomaly, of warrant officers class I, though not of other warrant officers, have had an entitlement to a pension for well over a century, but widows of other ranks were not entitled until the Forces Family Pension Scheme was introduced in 1952. This was all part of a great extension of pension schemes including provision for widows' benefit in the early post-war years. Among them were a number of new or improved occupational schemes which made provision for widows for the first time. The Civil Service scheme was introduced in 1949, and those for local government, the National Health Service and teachers came slightly later.

Each of these schemes had a qualifying date appropriate to the individual circumstances of the particular scheme. I underline that, because ours is not the only case in which there is a qualifying date or where a qualifying date creates anomaly.

None of those schemes gave title to widows of anyone who left public employment before the relevant date, whenever that may have been. There are, therefore, large numbers of Crown employees, quite apart from the Armed Forces, who have no pension beyond what may have been arranged for them privately or under arrangements by which husbands could give up part of their pensions to provide for their widows.

I do not wish to imply that it makes the position of those who come within the category which the hon. Gentleman has raised any more tolerable merely to know that their misfortune is shared with others, but I want to put the matter in perspective by reminding the House that the widows the subject of this debate are by no means an isolated group. They are part of a considerable number similarly placed: for instance, those widows of public servants whose husbands had retired before the qualifying date of their particular scheme, and, indeed, those widows of men whose service was nominally within the qualifying date but who were unable to afford the necessary lump sum contribution to buy themselves into the scheme, or who died before having the opportunity to contribute. I underline that simply to show that we are not dealing here just with a group of 30,000, or whatever it may be. We are dealing, if we are to deal at all, with a much wider section and one which extends beyond any responsibility which I have as a Service Minister.

It was in the context of those many other improvements in widowhood benefits in all fields that the provision for Service widows' pensions was extended. In fact, the scheme introduced in 1952 was a new one covering both officers and other ranks. The previous scheme for officers and warrant officers class I which had been in existence for many years was in many respects out of date. The pensions were means-tested and there were conditions relating to the difference in age between husband and wife, and to the husband's age on marriage. The pensions took no account of the length of the husband's service other than a minimum period to establish entitlement. They were at a series of flat rates, varying only according to the husband's rank, and the rates had not been improved for many years, although increases had occasionally been given in cases of hardship under successive pensions increase schemes. The scheme had not been revised immediately after the war along with all the other Armed Forces pensions.

An entirely new scheme was therefore devised. I stress that it was entirely new as the hon. Gentleman seemed to think that it was merely an adaptation of the existing scheme. It was an entirely new scheme which applied to all ranks and which dispensed with many of the restrictive features of the previous scheme, which were thought to be inappropriate to modern conditions. The new scheme was non-contributory, as with previous widows' and dependants' pensions schemes for the forces.

The new scheme took effect from 1st December, 1952, and, in addition to the widows who would have been entitled under the old scheme it provided entitlement to a pension for widows of other ranks provided that the husbands had completed minimum periods of reckon-able service. These were 22 years for warrant officers class II and staff sergeants, 27 years for sergeants and 32 years for corporals and below.

In 1958 there was a minor change to provide entitlement to a pension for a widow whose husband died on or after 4th November, 1958 provided he had qualified for a pension—that is, after 22 years' or if he died while serving provided he would have qualified if he had been invalided on the day of his death, namely, after 12 years' service.

At first the pensions, as for officers, were at flat rates varying according to rank, taking no account of length of service, but from 10th December, 1963, service widows' pensions for all ranks have been calculated so that they comprise either one-third of the husband's service pension or a minimum flat rate pension if this is more favourable. In assessing the husband's pension where he dies before reaching age 60 the additions to which he would have been entitled under the various Pensions Increase Measures on his 60th birthday are counted.

Another important feature of the new scheme related to widows of men whose death was attributable to service. Previously a widow could have only one pension, but the new scheme introduced modified Service pensions, usually at half rates but also subject to minimum rates, which could be paid in conjunction with an attributable widow's pension.

I have gone into some detail about this scheme to try to prove the point I made that this was genuinely a new scheme and not merely an adaptation of the previous scheme.

I come to the key point. This new scheme applied only to those widows whose husbands gave service on or after 1st September, 1950. It is this qualifying date that causes the difficulty. If a man was discharged before 1st September, 1950, his widow is ineligible for a pension regardless of his length of service and of the date on which she was widowed. It may seem—and clearly seems to the hon. Gentleman and those who are excluded—that this was an arbitrary date without particular significance. But in fact there were sound and logical reasons for choosing 1st September, 1950, as the qualifying date for entitlement under the new scheme. This date marked the introduction of a new Code of ordinary Service pensions for the Armed Forces drawn up as a result of the post-war pay and pensions review. This review introduced many other improvements in conditions of service, including increases in pay, revised rates of marriage allowance, better careers and opportunities for advancement and cash inducements to re-enlist or to extend periods of engagement. The new pension rates, announced on 3rd July, 1951, the year before this new scheme came into operation, applied to men who had given service beyond 1st September, 1950.

With this new Code of pensions, another entirely new feature was introduced—the lump sum terminal grant to help with resettlement. This philosophy was continued into the Forces Family Pension Scheme, introduced the following year, when gratuities, in addition to the new pensions, were introduced for widows whose husbands died while serving.

It is clear that all these improvements—better careers, re-engagement bounties, increased pay and pensions, terminal grants, widows pensions and gratuities—were the package to which the hon. Gentleman referred, a package specially designed as an incentive for men who would be serving in the future to ensure an increase in the regular strength of the Armed Forces. In this context it can be seen that it was justifiable on grounds both of logic and equity for the extended provision for widows to apply only to men who gave service beyond 1st September 1950.

It is normal practice that changes in occupational pension schemes and indeed any changes in conditions of service of State servants are not applied with unlimited retrospection. It would become an unlimited commitment and cost too much. One has to decide from which date to operate, and the date of 1st September, 1950, was fixed for the reasons I have given.

It may be argued, as the hon. Member has been arguing, that unlimited retrospection should be applied, but this one group cannot be considered in isolation. Here I return to the point that if unlimited retrospection were applied to this group of widows, inevitably there would be repercussions among other areas of public service pensions where there are significant numbers of widows who are excluded from benefit.

Mr. Judd

Would not the hon. Member agree that there is a fundamental difference between a contributory pension scheme in which contributions are related to the ultimate pension and in which if there is a prospect of a pension increase, contributions will similarly rise, and a non-contributory scheme which is based on service and in which payment is in the form of the service? If that is so, would he deal with the equity and social justice of a situation in which completely different rewards are paid to different people who have served for the same time and in the same conditions?

Mr. Kirk

I know that it is not wholly analogous, but the hon. Gentleman may remember that the contributory scheme introduced after the war provided that a man approaching the end of his service had to buy his way into the scheme at a cost which many of them could not afford. One can see that there is a parallel. If this form of retrospection were allowed, almost certainly there would understandably be demands from other public service widows for their case to be considered in the same way, and this would open the door much wider than the 30,000, or however many it is —for we are not absolutely certain of the number—with whom we are specifically concerned this morning.

I have looked at this problem with great sympathy and I have read the report of the previous debate, but those considerations have led me to believe that I should not alter the date. I wish that I could, but I do not believe that it is possible.

The overall cost is difficult to estimate, but the hon. Gentleman's figures are about right and the cost would be £21½ million to £3 million if we are right in thinking that there are about 30,000 widows. However, as the hon. Member pointed out, the number will inevitably increase as more pensioners die off and we may well be faced with a bill of anything between £6 million and £8 million for this group alone, let alone what else we might be faced with—and we do not know what other groups might put in for an increase. We could not undertake an open-ended commitment of that kind.

Although I must regret having to appear to be a Scrooge on this occasion, I do not see that there is any solution to this problem. I very much regret it, but I have to tell the hon. Member that, having looked at it I cannot recommend any concession.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Six o'clock a.m.