HC Deb 17 July 1973 vol 860 cc448-54

11.46 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to an injustice arising out of the interpretation put on the superannuation Acts by the Ministry of Defence. It has resulted in my constituent, Mrs. Phyllis Coxon, being deprived of the widow's pension to which she, her late husband and everyone else thought she was entitled. These cases arise from the remarriage of civil servants when past the age of 60. Therefore, the number of cases in which these circumstances arise may well be very small. The principle, however, is very important.

The facts of Mrs. Coxon's case are these. Her husband, Frederick Coxon, was born on 7th December 1898. He volunteered in the First World War in 1914—he was, therefore, under age—and he enlisted in the Civil Service Rifles. He served throughout the Great War, and on demobilisation in 1919 he entered the Civil Service in an established post, initially in the Customs and Excise. In time he became an higher executive officer. He worked in the Civil Service without a break until his voluntary retirement in March 1972. Therefore, his total service was more than 53 years continuously, or rather 58 years' service to the nation if one includes his war service.

In 1958, being 60 years of age, he nominated his then wife Winifred as the person eligible to receive the widow's pension for which he had paid continuously. As with all others of his age, he found that his service then ceased to be pensionable, he having reached the age of 60.

He was transferred immediately to the non-established staff and continued to serve in the Civil Service in the same post without a break for another 14 years until his retirement in 1972. Soon after he reached 60—what to him was a purely administrative change in 1958—his wife died. That was within 12 months of his becoming 60. Mr. Frederick Coxon married Mrs. Phyllis Coxon in the following year, 1959. Neither he nor she realised that the widow's pension for which he had contributed over the years had been forfeited. Their marriage, which was happy, lasted for 14 years and terminated only with Mr. Coxon's death in a tragic road accident earlier this year. For more than 12 of those years Mr. Coxon had continued to work regularly as a conscientious and highly respected servant of the Crown. Only then, on his tragic death, did Mrs. Phyllis Coxon—now 61 and in poor health—become aware that she was not entitled to the widow's pension in respect of her husband's pensionable service.

When I raised this matter with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence, he told me that the rules governing the award of Civil Service pensions had been correctly applied, but I wonder whether this is so in view of the harsh effect of a widow whose marriage was contracted after the date of the formal ending of her husband's pensionable service. Any widow who married before that date—even on the day before—is apparently eligible for the full widow's pension. If, on the other hand, the wedding is on the day after that date, according to the interpretation adopted by the Ministry she gets nothing, no matter how long the pensionable or unpensionable service and no matter for how long the marriage lasts.

My right hon. Friend when writing to me about this case on 14th June this year said: If a man marries or remarries after he has formally retired and therefore has ceased to be an established Civil servant, then his wife will not be eligible for pension. Even if the man was re-employed at the time of the marriage as in Mr. Coxon's case, I am afraid his wife still does not come within the rules. I realise that there will be only a few cases like that of my constituent who married Mr. Coxon after his sixtieth birthday, but the principle is very important. If the Minister of State is right, the rules do not provide for pensions for widows of civil servants where the marriage was contracted after the husband had reached the age of 60, no matter how long his earlier service or how long his subsequent service and no matter what is the size of the fund that has been created by his own contributions throughout his service. As I said, Mr. Coxon served well over 50 years in the Civil Service.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to say that this interpretation of the rules is wrong, or at least that the glaring injustice which has been revealed by this case will be remedied in future.

11.53 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Civil Service Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stan-brook) for the way he has put his case He has spoken up well for one of his constituents who seems to have fared very badly in the application of the rules for Civil Service and public service pensions.

The facts in the case are not, I think, in dispute. Mr. Coxon formally retired from his department on reaching the normal retirement age of 60 as long ago as December 1957. He was immediately re-employed as a disestablished officer in a lower grade and served on for another 14 years until he finally retired at his own request on 31st December 1971 at the age of 74. His was a remarkable record of service in a number of Government Departments, spanning as it did more than half a century, and I should like to take this opportunity to express my sincere sympathy to Mrs. Coxon for the tragic loss she suffered when Mr. Coxon died in a motor accident this year.

When, in 1949, a scheme for the provision of pensions to the widows of civil servants was introduced, Mr. Coxon opted to join it. He paid contributions, during the rest of his service and by deduction from the lump sum awarded to him on the occasion of his formal retirement in 1957, to provide a pension for his wife, should she survive him. But that scheme, the terms of which were enacted in the Superannuation Act 1949, provided only for the wife to whom a civil servant was married at the time of his retirement. The Act specifically provided that any marriage which took place after a man had ceased to be an established civil servant should not be taken into account in deciding whether a pension should be awarded in the event of his remarrying. The cost of the scheme was, of course, assessed on this basis.

In this particular case, as my hon. Friend has said, Mr. Coxon was married at the time of his retirement in 1957. His wife at that time, Mrs. Winifred Coxon, would have been entitled to a widow's pension. But, sadly, very shortly after he retired Mr. Coxon's first wife died. I am afraid that the law in superannuation at that time, governing the scheme to which Mr. Coxon had contributed, meant that it was impossible for the widow's pension rights to be handed on when Mr. Coxon married his second wife, Phyllis. Irrespective of whether or not Mr. Coxon returned to work after his retirement, his second wife could not inherit the pension rights of his first wife.

However, Mr. Coxon continued to serve in the Government service after 1957. But he did so in a temporary or unestablished capacity and not as an established civil servant. Under the pension arrangements as they then existed, he was able at the end of 1957 to take the lump sum payment that was due to him. While he was working thereafter, he drew so much of his pension as would, together with his pay, give him the same income as he was getting when he was doing the higher grade job before his formal retirement. Moreover, his extra years of service enabled him to earn extra pension and lump sum benefits. When Mr. Coxon finally retired on 31st December 1971 his pension and lump sum benefits were reassessed on the basis of the higher rate of pay he was receiving in 1957 and the five years' service between age 60 and 65. Additional service of five years is the maximum allowed to reckon for pension under the pension scheme. He also received unestablished service gratuity equal to 13 weeks' pay in respect of the remainder of his 14 years of disestablished post-retirement service.

As I have explained, under the 1949 widows' scheme an employer's responsibilities for the dependants of members of a pension scheme extended only to those acquired during the employment covered by the scheme. No provision was made for marriages taking place after a civil servant had retired. That is still the position.

At one stage it was clearly intended that this particular restriction would not apply where the marriage took place during a period of re-employment. Thal is Mr. Coxon's position. But the Staff Side and Parliament subsequently accepted that, as with people who had actually retired, re-engaged pensioners should not be eligible to participate in the widows' scheme for the benefit of a wife married during re-engagement. We do not now accept that this was necessarily the right thing to do.

In the new Principal Civil Service Pension Scheme, which was introduced last year under the authority of the Superannuation Act 1972 after a long and full review with the Staff Side, we have managed to remove that particular disqualification to widows' benefits. We abolished the distinction which had hitherto existed for pension purposes between established and unestablished service, and now all service in the Civil Service, unless it is purely casual or is expressly determined to be non-pensionable because it is a short-term appointment, is pensionable. This means that, for widows' pension purposes, all marriages contracted during employment in the Civil Service, whether that employment was in an established, an unestablished, or a re-employed capacity, will be covered.

The House will recall that an even more significant move to extend the scope of widows' pension cover in occupational pension schemes was taken by this House when the Social Security Bill was further considered on 9th May. That Bill now provides that, as a condition of recognition for exemption from the State Reserve Scheme, occupational pension schemes will have to provide pension cover for the widows of all men who leave an employer's service with an entitlement to pension, regardless of whether the marriage was contracted during that service or afterwards. This is more generally called the post retirement marriage provision.

As I say, the House has decided that occupational pension schemes which qualify for recognition under the new social security scheme as from 1975 will have to meet that condition.

Mr. Stanbrook

Will this apply to Civil Service pensions in future, therefore?

Mr. Baker

My hon. Friend anticipates my next point.

This new improvement in widows' pension cover is something for the future. Both we, in relation to the Civil Service, and the managers of all other occupational pension schemes will need to consider with the staff what changes should be made to those schemes to meet the requirements of the Social Security Bill.

It is very rarely practicable, however, to apply a change in pension arrangements to those who have already retired, and I would expect that, as in the case of the improvements introduced into the Civil Service Scheme last year, the changes can apply only to people retiring after they have been made.

Much as I sympathise with Mrs. Coxon over the death of her husband, I am afraid that I have no powers now— nor am I likely to have in the future—to provide her with a widow's pension under the terms of the Civil Service Pension Scheme. I do not wish to sound harsh or in any way unfeeling about this, but these pension, schemes have been based on insurance principles and they can only pay benefits in respect of the insured risks.

The fact that the wife of a re-employed pensioner would not be covered under the 1949 scheme if the marriage took place during the period of re-employment was well publicised by the staff associations in 1949, and Mr. Coxon ought to have been reminded of this provision by the fact that the contributions he had been paying during his earlier service were not demanded of him when he had resumed work and had married again. I do not think, therefore, that he can have been misled into believing that the present Mrs. Coxon would be covered.

I fear, therefore, that I have to give a disappointing reply to my hon. Friend and to Mrs. Coxon. The law governing the scheme to which Mr. Coxon contributed until his formal retirement did not provide cover for a marriage which took place after retirement. The cover enjoyed by Mr. Coxon's first wife could not be passed on to his second wife. Mr. Coxon's employment from 1957 to 1971 was "disestablished" and he did not contribute to the widows' scheme to provide cover during that period. The House has, I am afraid, denied me any power to award a pension in these circumstances. I am sorry that this is the effect of the law in Mrs. Coxon's case, but, given the circumstances, I think my hon. Friend will appreciate that she has not been treated in any way different under the law from other people in similar circumstances.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Twelve o'clock.