HC Deb 02 August 1972 vol 842 cc567-91

3.46 p.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I have the good fortune to be first on the list to speak in today's debates, and I hope that this will mean that those for whom I am pleading will have a better future. Appeals for widows and orphans of members of the Armed Forces have been before Parliament since 11th May, 1949. I will quote what Mr. A. V. Alexander said in answer to a Question on that occasion: As hon. Members are aware, a review was initiated some time ago into the long established scheme of non-contributory pensions for the widows and orphans of regular members of the Armed Forces. While this review was in progress, His Majesty's Government decided to promote a family pension scheme … Agreement has been given in principle to the introduction of such a new and comprehensive scheme for the Forces, and details are being worked out as quickly as possible. That, I may say, was more than 22 years ago.

Mr. Hare, as he then was—he is now in another place—asked: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it was as long ago as 12th May, 1948, that his hon. Friend the Civil Lord said that a review affecting the widows of officers in the Armed Forces was in an advanced stage? A very old friend of ours, Commander Pursey, joined in and asked: Is it not the case that hitherto there have been no pensions whatever for 'other ranks' and that it is of the utmost importance that for the first time in history of the Services, 'other ranks' are included in the scheme and pensions paid to widows?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th May, 1949; Vol. 464, c. 1850–2.] Many of my constituents have written to me, and many have written to the Ministry of Defence. A reply has been received from a civil servant, which reads as follows: I am afraid there is nothing I can usefully add to my letter of 19th June, and in the circumstances I can see no value in any further correspondence. I think that is an unfortunate attitude to take, and this, regrettably, has been the attitude of Ministers of both parties since 1950–22 years ago. It is frightening, especially if the husband had—and many even alive at the present time have—only 24s. 9d. a week. The 9d. was for a medal, and only 24s. a week otherwise. He obviously could not save any of that money or put any by for his wife. There are several servants of this House who are in this condition. When they die, their widows will receive absolutely nothing despite the magnificent service the men have given to the Armed Forces and to the House. By now also the widows will be fairly old, they cannot go out to work and are therefore unable to find any jobs to support themselves.

Of the other ranks, only the widow of a warrant officer, first class, receives a pension. In 1947 the pension for the widow of a warrant officer was £35 a year. In 1950 it was stated that the last revision of pensions before 1947 was in about 1920, so little interest was taken by successive Governments in the Armed Forces. The then Member for Petersfield, Sir George Jeffreys, proposed a Select Committee on this subject. He made a long speech which was supported by many hon. Members, and regrettably all of them have now passed away. In those days they made particular efforts to try to get some form of pensions for these widows.

On 3rd May, 1950, in a reply to Mr. Low, who was then a Member of this House, the Minister said that he had nothing to add. It is an interesting fact that following the sinking of HMS "Saumarez" and HMS "Volage" off Corfu, pensions were awarded to the widows and orphans of the officers and men who lost their lives. Those pensions were paid in accordance with the rates laid down in an Order in Council of 4th June, 1946. They were not considered to be pensions, but compensation. I believe that all Service widows should be compensated for the loss of their husbands.

In a letter dated 15th March, 1972, to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Wingfield Digby), the Minister stated: When all is said and done"— and I must say that plenty has been said but nothing has been done— the fact is that they are in the same position as any other widow whose husband left a particular employment before his conditions of service provided widows' pension. I am sorry to say that there is no prospect of giving retrospective entitlement to those widows. Widows in this category whose husbands were not in the Armed Services were very much better treated. In many cases Royal Naval personnel got only a shilling a day. They had no opportunity whatever of saving on that amount and certainly it was not open to them to take out private insurance, even if they could afford to do so as their expectation of life was not very good, and the premiums would have been far too high for anybody serving in the Armed Forces. Furthermore, wives of Royal Naval personnel often had to cope with all home problems for up to three years while their husbands were at sea. The conditions of service were very different from the conditions today. Servicemen in those early days had to endure hardships, danger and living conditions which would not now be tolerated in prisons. There was separation from wives and families year after year, after which the men received miserably inadequate pensions with no terminal grants or gratuities; they also had a commitment to instant recall to active service for 20 years, if the need arose. I hope that my hon. Friend will bear this factor very much in mind. Many were called up for service in the Second World War.

Having listened to many of my constituents, I realise the hardship which they suffered. For example, there is a part of Devonport known as China Town because sailors returned from service with their pigtails, without any knowledge that pigtails were no longer a naval custom. It is extremely difficult for elderly widows many of whom live in close proximity to younger Service widows who in comparison draw large pensions with no strings attached.

In July, 1970, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that the Government would make sure that the elderly would know they would get their rewards. Since the pledge to the over-80s has been fulfilled, why can we not now help the Service widows?

There are three classes of Service widows with two cut-off dates. There were the pre-1950 widows with no pensions, the 1950–1972 widows with one-third pensions, and the post-1972 widows with half pensions. I admit that the same criterion would apply to other sectors of the public service, but the difference is that in all cases except the Armed Forces, these pensions are based on cash contributions paid by husbands.

In the case of the Armed Forces only, pensions are based on the service given by the husbands, many of whom were killed. If I may quote one example, a woman recently wrote to me and said that her husband was presumed killed in 1943. Had he lived another 2½ months he would have completed his six years' active service, but since he did not live for that length of time no gratuity was paid. That short period of 2½ months made the major difference that no pension was payable to his wife who survived him.

We must remember that there would not have been any public service pensioners had the men of the Armed Forces not won the First World War. The Armed Forces protected us in this country, and for that reason many of the public service pensioners were able to survive.

Lord Mountbatten stated at a Royal British Legion conference, which was commemorating 50 years of work: It is painful to sit here and realise that we are behind every Commonwealth country in the treatment of war widows. Why is it that year after year Governments are so hardhearted about it? Even German war widows receive better treatment. It seems to me fantastic that widows of men in the Armed Forces, who fortunately have never heard a shot fired and who were often accompanied when on active service by their wives and families. should receive so much better treatment than those who fought for the freedom which we enjoy today and who have had to endure poverty and the lack of a true married life.

In 1970 the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), who was then in the Ministry of Defence, made a cruel statement. In January, 1970, he said that we could not make an estimate of how many Service pensioners would be affected were we to decide retrospectively to extend the provision. Certainly some pensioners had died, and the hon. Gentleman then said that there were about 30,000 widows in 1970, some of whom would have been widowed when young and would have married again. This reminds us of what used to happen when a woman came before a judge after suffering injuries in an accident, when the judge had to assess whether the woman was attractive enough to get remarried. This process certainly applied to the widows for whom I am appealing. I am glad that at least in civil life this attitude is something of the past, but apparently this is not true of Service life. I hope that the Government will be more generous to these widows, who must be growing less in number every year.

The hon. Member for Sparkbrook then made the point that any … hardship should at least be mitigated by supplementary benefits by rate rebates and other provisions".—[OFFiciAL, REPORT, 26th January, 1970; Vol 794, c. 972.] But these are proud women, and rightly so since their husbands gave their lives to the country—why should they be subjected to a means test?

I am sure that my hon. Friend has every sympathy with these widows and I hope that his Department will see to it that they receive their justifiable rights. Why should they be treated as inferior to any other kind of widow? Since their husbands have given such excellent service to the nation, why should their wives be subjected to a means test and other humiliating inquiries? I make this strong plea for these women today and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me a satisfactory answer.

4.0 p.m.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Sutton)

This subject has occupied the attention of many Ministers of Defence and other Ministers in the three Service Departments. It was a severe disappointment to me during my stay in the Ministry that we were not able to make this change. Since there is a collective responsibility in these matters, I accept my share of it, but I made no secret of the fact, both in the Department or outside it, that I believed this to be an anomaly which needed to be changed.

When we debated this matter during the Navy Estimates debate I made my voice quite clear then, and the Under-Secretary very courteously decided to make an important statement in winding up that debate, in that he would take the matter away and look at it.

This matter has been a running sore in the House, as the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) says, for decades. Many of us felt that on this occasion we would get a break through. There is a machinery inside the Ministry of Defence for a review of these matters which, if I remember rightly, occurs every four years. It seemed that we would live up to an agreement I got in the Department that this matter would be looked at again.

I have some sympathy with the Under-Secretary in that I suspect—although he will obviously not say this—that he has been unable to convince his colleagues. The only consolation I have is that, unless it was inevitable, I never allowed myself to be in the position of having to defend this decision—it was my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) who defended the Government's decision at that time—with which I did not agree.

I now put to the Under-Secretary the reasons why I think that successive Governments' replies have been inadequate. When I first went into the Ministry in July, 1968, the review was at its all important final stage. It was clear then, despite my views, that it was very difficult to get a change. The view, however, that there is an enormous anomaly here has been expressed by many in the past. My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), when Navy Minister, championed the cause of these particular pensioners. Although it has tended to be argued in terms of people from naval constituencies, we are arguing something much wider which cuts across all three Services.

In the Navy Estimates debate I indicated why I felt that we had more pressure in naval constituencies. It is the geographical location of having a large number of widows who fall the wrong side of the demarcation line. They live in the same streets, go to the same old-age pensioners' clubs and some may be even related. In their daily life they are constantly brought up against the anomaly that just because there has been a demarcation line they are not eligible for pension while other people, with a separation, perhaps, of only one month's service are eligible.

It is true that this demarcation has existed in our welfare system in many other cases. We have to draw the line somewhere. The Under-Secretary would be fair to invoke the fact that there is a serious problem in retrospection. It can be very expensive. It could also open the floodgates to retrospective demands from many other pensioners.

I should like to examine the arguments. It has been argued by the Minister—I take his arguments, because they are the most convenient, occurring on the occasion when we last debated this matter in detail, on 23rd July, 1970—that there are many other people in other categories, for instance, the National Health Service, the Civil Service and teachers. For the categories that have been quoted, it has been argued that if we were to operate retrospectively the abolition of the demarcation date in he case of Service widows' pensions, we should be under an obligation to open the same retrospection to the various categories I have mentioned. There is, however, a basic flaw in the arguments put forward by successive Governments. The facts are that we are already in an anomalous situation in that officers' and warrant officer I's widows are eligible for pension. This matter goes back for nearly a century. The decision to give them a pension preceded the 1952 Pension Act to which this is all related. But I plead with the Minister that, because of this anomaly of officers' and warrant officer I's wives having pensions, we are dealing with a unique situation in relation to Service pensioners as opposed to civil servants, teachers and others. This is the crucial thing.

The Ministry of Defence is faced with the problem of how it can possibly justify a different treatment for people all within one Service. It is against the whole ethic of the way the Ministry of Defence has tended to run its affairs over the last three or four decades under successive Governments—that, as far as possible, there should not be discrimination between officers and other ranks. I pay tribute to the fact that, in many cases, the people who have championed the cause of egalitarian treatment—not necessarily of benefit level but of principle—have been the senior officers in the Ser- vice, who are deeply concerns about this sort of inequality. There has been a steady move to try to provide throughout the whole Service the same sort of treatment. That applies the whole way through, to freeing-up promotions and removing the class structure and, as far as possible, making service conditions the same for whatever rank someone has held. This applies in the whole idea of married quarters, and I could cite innumerable examples. This has led to the betterment of the Services and to a tremendous improvement in morale.

One is left with this outstanding anomaly under which we treat officers' and a small group of warrant officers' widows in a way different from that in which we treat the widows of other pensioners. We cannot continue to escape our responsibility. While we have allowed the situation that pertains to officers, how can we continue to defend this anomaly?

It is perfectly possible to explain to the general public that the Services should be treated differently in this matter. For many years the Services had a tradition that their pay and pension structure were different from those in civilian jobs. I do not want to make too much of it. People have recognised that Servicemen have undergone risks and hazards, and that the whole question of Service life is unique. In consequence, over the decades Parliament has legislated for the Services in a unique way. Therefore, one cannot any longer continue to justify this anomaly by invoking the likely effect on other pensioners in the Government service. We should look at this matter on its merits and recognise that a historic anomaly exists, and we should overcome it.

This is now beginning to cause more and more distress as more and more women are widowed. That is the reason why Parliament did not start arguing very fiercely about this in the 1950s. But it has increasingly felt it as a serious problem recently because it is now coming to Members as a constituency problem. It is no accident that hon. Members attending the debate represent dockyard constituencies, and the large naval ports. Hon. Members are finding it impossible to justify this anomaly. A recent editorial in the Plymouth Evening Herald on 21st July, 1972, was headed: No mite for the widow. The article states: In terms of the Government's yearly budget, £1½ million—or even £3 million—is a paltry sum. Cash on this scale is just a drop in the ocean by comparison and sums like this are, in too many instances, apparently frittered away. The article goes on to give strong arguments as to why the Government should give the widow her mite and says that the public should press the Government until they do so.

This is not a matter of party political division. All Governments must accept responsibility for this. We have not faced this. The Ministry of Defence as a whole has not faced the problem with anything like enough urgency.

I plead with the Minister to take this matter away and look at it again. There are times when the voice of this House will have to be heard. Governments have to give way, and there is no one, apart from ministerial spokesmen who are put up at the Dispatch Box to defend collective decisions of Government, who believes the case that the Government have had to defend. We are putting Ministers in a very embarrassing position. When we return to the greater freedom of Opposition or of the back benches then we have more freedom. More and more of us are speaking our minds, saying that this is an anomaly which is unjustified.

I do not think that the Minister will invoke cost as being the major problem. The major problem is the possibility of this flowing over into other pensions. For the reasons I have stated, this does not hold. This matter should be the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence and the money should come, if necessary, from the Ministry of Defence. No one can tell me that the Ministry of Defence in its budget cannot find ½1¼ million if it wishes. What is missing at present is the will. The serious problem is that pensions, for very obvious and important reasons, are dealt with as a tri-Service responsibility. Somehow a Minister has to say, "I understand why there are no problems from the Army and the Air Force but this is entirely due to a geographical problem." I realise the justice of the case. It is coming to me because of the feeling in the naval ports, for obvious reasons, but the anomaly is the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence as a whole.

I urge the Under-Secretary to say the minimum possible today, except that he will look at the matter again. I believe that until a Government change their mind on this matter we shall go on having debates and the arguments put up by successive Governments will not be satisfactory to this House. That is why we are having this debate. We have consistently had such debates because the arguments which have been put forward by successive Governments have not been convincing.

I suggest that the Minister of State should take a broad view on this matter, should read the debate, should note the feelings which have been expressed on both sides for long enough, and should settle this anomaly once and for all. Then I believe that those who have campaigned in Portsmouth and in Plymouth and other towns—and individuals, for instance, Mr. Biddick in Plymouth—who have fought so long and valiantly will have won a fight which they are entitled to win.

4.11 p.m.

Captain Walter Elliot (Carshalton)

I confess that I agree with most of what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) said, but I also confess that I should have liked him to say those things when he occupied the position which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary now occupies. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, perhaps freedom in Opposition makes it possible to voice these matters rather more clearly. I do not want to make too much of that or to introduce too discordant a note into what I am sure is an almost unanimous approach to this subject.

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) on this matter. We all know that for many years my hon. Friend has given a lot of time and energy to finding out about all these problems. I am sure the Minister would be the first to admit that when my hon. Friend raises this subject it is the result of real injustices which she has discovered.

I should like to mention three points. The first underlines the point made by my hon. Friend about the circumstances of Service widows which are different from the circumstances of other widows because of the conditions under which their husbands served. They may not necessarily have been in the front line in a war. Service in all parts of the world, in ships, in the Army, or in the Air Force, in conditions which tax the physical conditions of Service men, bring a fairly regular death rate, as I know from my experience, from matters quite apart from actual fighting. There are additional hazards for Service men.

Secondly, we know very well that all Governments are concerned with cost, and we appreciate that concern of the Treasury about this matter. No doubt it is reasonable for any Government to say they hope that not only the Treasury is concerned with the proper expenditure of money. Although we apparently cannot get the approximate figure of widows who would he considered, I think it is reasonable to assume that, as 1950 is 22 years ago, the number cannot be all that great and, as my hon. Friend said, must be decreasing. I do not believe that the number and, therefore, the expense can be all that great.

Thirdly, from the practical point of view, which I am sure my hon. Friend has very close to his heart, there is the effect on recruiting. There is no doubt that if the conditions of service include security not only for dependants but for the Service man after he has retired, that sort of thing is passed on to sons and relations in the family down through the generations. In the past that has led to successive generations of families in areas like the naval ports or the regimental depôts going into the Services. Everyone agrees it is most valuable for the Services. If a Service man feels that his widow will be looked after, it is of great help. In my opinion, Service men are very unselfish in these matters. Although today's Service men may have no direct contact with the pre-1950 widows, it is a matter of concern to them if these widows are not properly provided for. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend will bear in mind the effect on recruiting. It is difficult to measure, it may be intangible, but it is very important. More conditions in the Services must be brought into line with conditions outside so that recruiting will be maintained.

When I entered this House 10 or 12 years ago we were always being told about the immutability of pensions. Of course, that has gone. We now have the biennial review. Outside the Services this Government, to their credit, have brought in pensions for the over-80s—those who made no contributions towards retirement pensions. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend will not allow himself to be constrained by the regulations or the conditions, because, over the years and again recently, we have, to our credit and to the satisfaction of the country and the people concerned, overridden those. I hope that my hon. Friend will not allow anything like that to stand in the way of his helping these comparatively few people at comparatively low expense, but of great benefit for both them and the Services.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I wish to make an appeal to the House. There are 22 topics for debate. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) was lucky to have her name drawn out of the hat first I hope hon. Members will be somewhat unselfish, think of the other debates which are to follow, and be fairly brief. I think that an hour is about right for each topic, and this one began at quarter to four.

4.19 p.m.

Mr. Frank Judd (Portsmouth, West)

I am sure the entire House is grateful to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) for taking this opportunity to raise this important subject. I should also like to pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) for having so candidly shared with the House what I know to have been his position consistently throughout the years when this subject has been brought to the attention of the Ministry of Defence.

I will not go into any detail, Mr. Speaker, bearing in mind not only your plea but the fact that in the past I have had several Adjournment debates on this subject and have raised it in the Defence Estimates debate.

I must emphasise to the Under-Secretary—knowing his general temperament and outlook I am sure he will appreciate this point—that there is a general atmosphere of profound disappointment amongst those affected, because they were hopeful at one remark which he made earlier this year about the review which was taking place within the Ministry on this subject, only to find these hopes dashed by a definite and negative reply subsequently. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton has already suggested, I suspect that the Under-Secretary of State is on our side. I wish not that one of his senior colleagues within the Defence Department were on the Front Bench but that a Treasury spokesman were there, because that is where I suspect the blame really lies.

First, I take up a matter which was stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton. We have heard a good deal about anomalies, and I am sure that all those who know about this subject agree that these anomalies exist. It is extraordinary that successive Governments have insisted on making comparisons outside the Service rather than within the Service. When we see the widows of commissioned ranks enjoying pension rights and the widows of non-commissioned ranks not enjoying those rights, that is a greater anomaly than if we were to take action on this but not to take comparable action in a whole range of other walks of life not involved in the Services.

I emphasise that it should always be remembered that this is essentially a non-contributory pension scheme. The pension is a reward for service of the individual concerned. Therefore, it is not relevant to suggest that the premiums paid, as might happen in other pension schemes, do not warrant an increase of this kind.

A point of elementary social justice which has to be stressed repeatedly is that these widows saw their husbands serving in a period of general hardship and difficulty which has not been rivalled since. They went through hardships and difficulties which have not, thank God, been the lot of the wives of Service men in subsequent years. That compounds the difficulties and injustices from which they suffer. Whether it is justified or not, the comment most frequently made to me is that there is a cynical attitude on the part of all Governments which suggests that if we wait long enough the problem will solve itself as the widows will die off and Governments will not be embarrassed any longer. It is a hard judgment but one which is being made. I am sure that that view is not held by the Under-Secretary of State.

Some 30,000 widows are involved in this problem. The cost of granting an increase in the pension of between £1 and £2 would be a mere £1½ million to £3 million a year, which is peanuts in terms of overall Government expenditure. I received a letter recently from someone who has been campaigning long and hard on this issue and which spells out in human terms—even if it is a slight over-simplification—how this injustice is seen by those who have to suffer under it. The correspondent writes: On 20th June I received a letter from the Ministry of Defence outlining the reasons for again rejecting the representations made in Parliament on the 10th April on behalf of the widows of Service men deprived of a share of their husband's pension. Having done this, Parliament decided that the pension of the Prime Minister is to be almost doubled to £7,500. The qualifying period is one day and he does not contribute a one pence piece towards it. On 23rd June the Prime Minister announced rises of £48 a week for the highest paid chairmen of State industries backdated to 1st January. Judges, top civil servants and senior services officers get more than £33 a week increase. Here you have the two extremes, those who have been struggling since 1952 for justice and on the other side of the coin the affluent, satisfied 'at a stroke'. I decided all this is sufficient justification for me to get back into the fight. I add my voice to those who have already spoken. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will never stop reexamining this issue. I hope that he will look at it repeatedly until the decision is revised, and that we shall get legitimate and long-deserved justice for this small section of the community.

4.25 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) for raising the matter. I know that my hon. Friend has been pursuing successive Governments on this matter since 1955. I have been doing so even longer, since the anomaly was created in 1950. I hope that we have come to the end of the pursuit and that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will say, "Enough. I am prepared to do something about these people."

I know the problems which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) had when he was Under-Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman emphasised the Under-Secretary of State's responsibility and indicated that much more driving force must be used if the Government are to give way. He was unable to do that when his own Government were in office, but I am convinced that my hon. Friend will do everything that he possibly can.

I, the House and the country would like to know how many of these widows there are. In common with every hon. Member who has spoken, my constituency has a considerable number of widows in this category, both Navy and Army widows, the Army also having played a long part in the military traditions of my constituency. Why should the widows of men who died before 1950 suffer while those whose husbands died after 1950 get a pension? It is an extraordinary thing to try to explain—indeed, it cannot be explained.

I remind my hon. Friend that these widows not only lost their husbands but, in a great many cases, because their husbands were Service men, were denied their company, presence and companionship for long periods during their married lives. Consequently, they had to bring up their families without the help of their husbands. These are a deserving group of women and I hope that my hon. Friend will look again at the matter.

Not only the Government but the whole country should understand that we are asking that pensions should be given to the wives of men who, in most instances, gave their lives for this country so that we could remain a democracy. Otherwise we should not be able in this House to speak for their widows. Surely that is a matter which the Government must consider. It is argued that these women can now draw social security. However, if they are to do so they have to subject themselves to a means test. Every hon. Member who has any close association with a constituency in which Service traditions are strong, and in which there are a number of these women, will know that they have an extraordinary pride. They are not women who will regularly ask for help from national assistance.

I plead with the Government to agree, even if my hon. Friend has to disappoint us today from his brief by saying that nothing can be done, that the whole matter will be reconsidered. I hope that my hon. Friend will take the feeling of the House to his Department. A Government, if they are to be a good Government, must be compassionate. The present Government have shown compassion for the over-80s, but a Service man's widow is not provided with a pension if her husband was killed before 1950. When she reaches 80 years of age she will get a small pension, but nothing in the meantime. A Government, if it is to be a good Government, must be compassionate.

But compassion alone is not enough. Justice also is required. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to tell the House today that the Government will not only be compassionate towards these widows but will also give them the justice that has been denied them for so many years.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)

I should like to echo, briefly but no less warmly, the eloquent plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers). Like other hon. Members, I have a constituency interest in this matter. The major shore establishment of HMS "Ganges" lies just outside my constituency and, as it was very often the last posting in a pre-war Royal Navy career, many widows of those who served live in Ipswich.

I should like to make four points. First, as has been rightly said, this is a geographical matter, but it is also a matter, as was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden), which involves the least demanding and the proudest of people.

Secondly, I believe that these people have done a great deal to earn the pension which is now being asked for them. The services that they gave, in many instances looking after husbands and bringing up children in the most difficult conditions, and indeed bringing up families after the deaths of their husbands, have given them every right to looks for some justice from the State.

Thirdly, these people feel a total sense of puzzlement at the anomaly. It is not a question of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary saying that the amount of money involved is so much; as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham said, the money is available in other forms, possibly in the form of social service benefits. This is a question of giving them the money with dignity.

Fourthly, I hope that the argument which has so often been put forward—one suspects that it is an argument which is advanced very often by civil servants in the Treasury or the Ministry of Defence—

Mr. Burden

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he not agree that if the Government can find so many millions of pounds to help Upper Clyde shipbuilders, some few millions could be found to help these unfortunate women?

Mr. Money

I feel that this is indeed a case, above all others, where these people are entitled to what is being asked for them.

I hope that we shall not get the age-old arguments which come essentially from civil servants in the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence, that to accede to this plea would be creating a precedent or that these pensions were not sought and there was no entitlement to them at the time these Servicemen joined and that, therefore, there is no right to them. These are the meanest and shoddiest of arguments and I am sure that they would give no pleasure to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary if he had to advance them. I am sure that he will give a better answer today.

4.33 p.m.

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

I have never doubted that the cause which my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) so eloquently put forward this afternoon was one which commanded general support on both sides of the House. This has been made abundantly plain today. This is, of course, generally true in personnel matters that affect my Department. Indeed, it is one of the advantages of the job that hon. Members, whatever they think about the Services, are all properly concerned about conditions of service because Servicemen are, after all, our employees, and this extends to their families and includes eventually their widows and dependants.

Over the years those of us like the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) and myself who have had the privilege of serving in the Ministry of Defence have been able to bring about significant improvements in conditions of service, and that includes particularly service pay and pensions. It is natural that these improvements reveal or highlight anomalies that existed before, and naturally there is pressure that these anomalies in turn should be put right.

I want to start with a point which I hope will command some acceptance in the House, and that is that if our programme of improvements, particularly in pensions, is to have maximum effect, it has to be selective. The record of the present Government in pensions indicates that we have taken our pension strategy very seriously, and I use the word "strategy" advisedly. A very considerable stride forward has been achieved.

May I recall one or two things that have been done in the past few years as respects pensions? First of all, there were the remarkable changes in the 1972 Pensions Code. Pensioners on previous codes have benefited greatly from last year's pensions increase measures. Not only do all Armed Forces and public service pensioners now have a copper-bottomed guarantee that pensions will be increased by annual review—not a biennial review, as was suggested—to ensure that their purchasing power is fully maintained, but these increases will be payable from next December from the age of 55 instead of 60 as at present. This is clearly of particular benefit to the Armed Forces, and we estimate that about 40,000 Service pensioners will benefit from it. These increases, therefore, constitute a major advance for all those who have already retired to pension, and for those yet to retire the new Code has very substantial improvements particularly for Service men who are discharged to pension in their early 40's.

The reason why I put forward this record is that in the context of this record of achievement the Government's action in not accepting what hon. Members have recommended today can be far more readily understood. The plain fact is that in order to achieve the most important and most beneficial improvement we have had to be selective and, therefore, by definition have not been able to accept all the proposals for improvement that have been made.

Nevertheless, as I promised in the Navy debate and as my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport and most other hon. Members are aware, I have reconsidered the position of the pre-1950 widows following representations made in the Navy debate earlier this year. I have had to look at this in the context of our continuing examination of improvements to pensions generally, and I regret to say that I have not been able to accept their views. I should say that in carrying out this review in response to points made in the Navy debate the main argument which it has been difficult to overcome relates to the question of introducing general improvements to pensions without limit.

Given that we do not have limitless resources for the constant up-dating of all pensions to a common set of rates as improvements are introduced, I am certain that we have been right to concentrate on the inflation-proofing of pensions increase arrangements. This has been a tremendous step forward which I am sure has been an immense source of security to pensioners in all branches of the public service.

The cause which my hon. Friend has put forward this afternoon has always been high on the list of those who seek extensions to our pension arrangements, and this is understandable. Many hon. Members have supported it, and I think it is fair to say that every Minister who has come to look at the problem afresh has naturally been disposed to look at it with a good deal of sympathy. I know that this is true of the hon. Members for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), for Plymouth, Sutton, and for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and I hope the House will believe it is true of myself as well. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton mentioned in the Navy debate in April, during his time in office it was agreed that this question should be looked at during the next review of pensions.

Almost my first job at the Dispatch Box after the General Election in 1970 was to answer an Adjournment debate on this subject started by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) and since then there has been a steady stream of letters not only from hon. Members but also from pensioners and pension societies. I would not normally single out any correspondent, but as the hon. Member for Sutton mentioned him I must say that I think Mr. Biddick, who has, I believe, written something over 200 well-reasoned letters to the Ministry of Defence on this subject, deserves a particular citation.

After all this activity, it is not to be expected that there will be many new arguments on either side, and so I apologise in advance if what I say sounds rather repetitive. I shall try to avoid repeating all that I have said before, but I must point out that the fact that arguments are familiar does not mean either that they are unsound or that they have not been looked at hard on many occasions to make sure that they justify repetition.

One point, about which, I think, there has been a certain mild confusion, should be made clear from the start. Just what sort of pension are we talking about? We are not dealing with widows whose husbands died as a result of service. Two of the instances cited by my hon. Friends were in that category. Those pensions are known as "attributable" or "war widows" pensions and are paid regardless of how long their husbands served. In parenthesis, I should add that they are a matter not within my responsibility but within that of the Department of Health and Social Security.

We are dealing here with the widows of Service men below the rank of warrant officer Class I who were not entitled to a pension until the Forces Family Pension Scheme was introduced in 1952. That scheme, like so many other pension schemes, laid down a qualifying date. It applied only to those widows—not whose husbands died before 1950, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) said, but whose husbands gave service on or after 1st September, 1950. If a man were discharged before 1st September, 1950, his widow is not eligible for an occupational Service pension regardless of his length of service and of the date on which she was widowed. On the other hand, any Service man who gave service on or after that date could gain entitlement to pension for his widow provided that he completed the minimum periods of reckonable service.

I shall not say more now about why that date was chosen, because I have gone into detail about it before. The important point is that there was such a date. I think that it will probably be more helpful if I move on now to deal with the question why we should stick to that date, and then do my best to answer the arguments which have been advanced to justify breaching it.

The scheme introduced in 1952 was entirely new, but it was one of a number of new or improved occupational schemes which made provision for widows for the first time. There was also the Civil Service scheme, introduced in 1949, and those for local government and the National Health Service which came soon afterwards. They were all part of the general extension and improvement of pension schemes after the war which has played an important part in raising the general standard of provision for elderly people.

These occupational schemes represented a general improvement, and each one had a qualifying date appropriate to the individual circumstances of the particular scheme, because it was argued at that time that the extra cost of general retrospection would have greatly reduced the amount of improvement which could have been afforded—the same argument I was putting earlier about selectivity being one of the principles which has been applied.

Indeed, it is axiomatic that a real improvement involves limitation of entitlement. Every pension scheme sets rules to limit its scope. It is all very well to say nowadays that our predecessors in the early 1950s should have done things differently. Perhaps they should. What matters is that we have to take account today of the scheme as established by them.

It follows that the main reason why extension of entitlement to these widows has been consistently rejected is that we should not alter one of the chief features of one particular occupational pension scheme long after the event when there are a number of similar schemes with similarly restricted entitlement. In particular, successive generations of Ministers have agreed that it would not be right to alter the forces scheme and to leave the Civil Service scheme unaltered in this respect.

There are obvious difficulties about making an estimate of the numbers involved. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham specifically asked me, I can only say that, although we do not have any administrative contact with the widows concerned, we reckon—or we reckoned in 1970—that the total was about 30,000, and almost certainly the numbers are still increasing, because Service men are discharged to pension much earlier than others are. On the other hand, the Civil Service widows probably now total as many as 50,000, but their numbers are almost certainly coming down because the age of retirement is later in that case. There are then the two schemes for local government widows and National Health Service widows, but for the sake of argument the Civil Service provides the most obvious comparison with the forces scheme.

The argument goes much wider than widows' benefits particularly at a time like the present when all public service pensions are under review, and even our own parliamentary scheme has just been reviewed. Whether we are dealing with wholly new schemes or improvements to existing schemes, broadly speaking a line has normally to be drawn to restrict benefit approximately to those serving at the time of the relevant change. If we were to pick out one feature of one scheme for application to those already retired, however deserving the particular cause might be, I do not see how my right hon. Friends and I could fairly resist pressures from other groups interested in the retrospective application of other features in other schemes. I assure the House that such pressures would be there in plenty, and large sums of public money are at stake.

I need not remind the House, for example, about, the pressure in the past to allow unestablished service in the Civil Service before 14th July, 1949, to reckon in full for pension instead of half. More recently, and perhaps nearer home, one of the most difficult points in the discussion of our own parliamentary pension scheme was the wish of many hon. Members to do something now for those who left the House before the scheme started in 1964 and who are now excluded by the 1965 Act.

That, in general, is the point I am making. The stumbling block in the examination of this question which has arisen over and over again while I was undertaking it, as I promised to do, was the question of comparability. Whatever hon. Members may say in debate, there is not the slightest doubt that, if we alter this particular aspect of this scheme, we shall open the door to applications in respect of a large number of other schemes.

I come to some minor points on matters raised in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport referred to the concession made in respect of the over-80s. This is not strictly comparable. The undertaking to pay pensions to the over-80s was given in the context of a general improvement across the board in respect of an obviously deserving category of widows whose husbands retired, in the main, long before the introduction of occupational schemes making provisions for widows. That is a very different proposition from making a particular exception for a single part of the public service.

The hon. Member for Sutton referred to the difference of treatment between widows of officers and widows of other ranks. Again, we face the plain fact that the entitlement of various groups of widows to pension derives from a number of different schemes. The widows of officers and warrant officers Class I—it is a curious anomaly that it covers warrant officers Class I thought not other warrant officers—have had entitlement to pension, as the hon. Gentleman said, for well over a century. The widows of other ranks were not entitled until the introduction of the present scheme, with its qualifying date of 1st September, 1950. Hon. Members will be aware that for local government and the National Health Service there were slightly different dates of introduction. But none of these schemes gave a pension to the widow of anyone who left the Service before a qualifying date. Therefore, the widows of whom we are speaking are by no means an isolated group.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot) argued that the amount of money in- volved was trivial, and the hon. Member for Sutton went so far as to say that, in his day, finding £1¼ million or £2 million from the defence budget was no trouble at all. I can only say that Treasury control under a Socialist Government is clearly much more lax than under a Conservative Government. We should have great difficulty in finding this money from the defence budget.

I do not agree that it would necessarily be a minor concession, however, because it would have important implications for the rest of the public service. As I said, we estimate that in 1970 there were about 30,000 widows involved, and we estimated the cost then at about £3 million. We believe that the number of widows has increased, and the best shot we can now make at a figure is £4 million. There is probably a comparable number of widows of former civil servants in the same situation today, apart from the other categories involved. Clearly, therefore, very sizeable sums of money are involved.

The hon. Member for Sutton asked about the next stage of the review. As I said, we have already made considerable improvements in rates of pension. For other ranks, they are just about double in many cases, and the terminal grants have been improved accordingly. We are now considering various other improvements in the second stage of the review, but it is not likely that we shall be able to say much about them for some time.

I think I should repeat the point that I made earlier. The extent to which one can make real improvements in any pension scheme depends on setting limits to entitlement. Extending entitlement limits the scope of improvement, and therefore when we consider the pensionless widows during the review we have to take account of the effect of any concessions on other categories of Service widow. It would not be fair to leave the impression that a pension review is a sort of magic wand which can be relied upon to improve and extend benefits for everyone.

Finally, I refer to two points made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West. He said that we always compared this with anomalies outside the Service. That is not strictly true. Anomalies exist inside the Service, arising in the same way from the question of a starting date. We are already receiving complaints that men discharged to pension on 31st March of this year will have sizeably less of a pension than men discharged to pension on 1st April, because it was on 1st April that the rate of other rank pensions practically doubled. This is a precisely similar anomaly arising from the question of a qualifying date. The only alternative is an absolutely open-ended commitment to retrospection right across the board, which would involve the Government in very substantial sums.

There is also the question of the difference between non-contributory and contributory pension schemes. I do not think that this affects the main point which I have been making, which is the question of the date. Every pension scheme has to start with a set of rules, and in a contributory scheme the contributions can be altered as time goes by. One can play about with it. In the Civil Service scheme widows and childrens' pensions are contributory, and subsequent improvements in the scheme have had to be bought by additional contributions in respect of previous as well as future service. One could argue endlessly about whether Civil Service widows are more or less deserving than Forces' widows, but I do not think that that has a bearing on the question of the extension of entitlement and the question of the qualifying date.

I know that again I have disappointed the House on this problem—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I assure my hon. Friends and hon. Gentlemen opposite that I have looked at this again with great care and sympathy, but I am afraid that, like my predecessors, I have, with regret, come down against it on what I believe are good grounds of principle, and I am sorry to say that nothing that has been said today has convinced me that this decision, which is an extremely painful one, has been wrong.