HC Deb 18 December 1975 vol 902 cc1741-62

7.56 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I quote from a letter recently written by a widow whose husband died in the Second World War. She says, King George VI wrote the following to me after my husband had been shot down in flames: 'We pray that your country's gratitude for a life so nobly given in its service may bring you some measure of consolation'. In practical terms, the country's gratitude is measured by the fact that that Second World War widow is granted, in pension, half—sometimes one-third—of the amount granted to a widow whose husband has been killed during the past two and a half years, particularly in Ulster.

The Second World War widow is receiving a pension that is one-third of the pension paid to her counterpart in Germany. I quote again, this time from an address given at a service in the Crypt of this very Palace of Westminster, last May: The widows of the men that were buried in the field-grey uniform of the Third Reich live, honoured and respected, with a pension of the equivalent of £50 a week—and we do not grudge them their security. But the widows of the men who died in khaki live in penury when they have no means of their own—on £13 a week. This is the measure and the price of the faith we kept. That is a pretty degrading situation. It shows a strange obsession of the Treasury, under Government after Government in this country, to discriminate against the war widows of the 1914–18 War and of the 1939–45 War. I know that the sum of £13 a week that I mentioned was increase to £17.50 last month, but it still remains less than half of that which the Government found it right to award to the widows of soldiers killed in Northern Ireland.

I have more than once had the honour of calling the attention of the House to what I have called unfair discrimination against the war widows of the First World War and the Second World War in the matter of their pensions. Between the woman who is left single by losing her husband in a war and the man or woman who is disabled by losing a limb in that war there is the discrimination that widows' pensions are taxed and disability allowances are tax-free. This is so ridiculous an anomaly that one wonders why it has continued for so long.

I do not intend to ask the House to consider taxation relief for war widows. I should be out of order in doing so, because legislation would be needed. But an increase in war widows' pensions is made by Royal Warrant, without legislation. To show how justified I am in asking for an increase in pensions for First and Second World War widows, I point out that after tax the 17.20 a week, their basis pension, is £15.73; that we are the only one of the Old Commonwealth countries that taxes war widows' pensions; that only a few of the emerging countries of the Commonwealth tax their pensions; that we are in the minority among countries in Europe to tax war widows' pensions; and that we are the only Summit nation—I include America, Russia, Japan, and so on—to tax such pensions.

Those facts were recognised in May 1973, when it was decided that the death of a Service man thereafter would result in a pension that is now about £38 a week. Therefore, the pension for the widow who lost her husband in Europe, the Middle East or the Far East is less than half that for the widow who loses her husband in Northern Ireland. The new figure is the right one. The war widows of the First and Second World Wars should have their pension brought up to that now granted to those good women who are unfortunately deprived of their husbands by death in Ulster. That pension should be granted irrespective of the date or place of the Service man husband's death on service.

Even though there could have been a serious breakdown in morale among men serving in Ulster, and perhaps a grave threat to recruitment—because Service men in Ulster faced death with the knowledge that, if it came, their wives would not receive a pension at a reasonable subsistence level—it seems to me the height of inhumane and cynical audacity to leave the First and Second World War widows in the cold when we made the necessary increase in pensions for the Ulster disturbance widows.

At its annual conference on 23rd October, the National Council of Women unanimously passed the following resolution: The National Council of Women of Great Britain in Conference assembled, calls upon H. M. Government to improve the Pension income of all War Widows and bring them into line with the greatly improved attributable benefits awarded to widows whose husbands served in the Armed Forces after 31st March 1973. There is an Early-Day Motion on the Order Paper in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), and signed by 64 other right hon. and hon. Members, saying: That this House calls on the Government urgently to re-examine the position of war widows and their dependants and to take every step to alleviate the financial difficulties they face and to give them a comparable pension right with war widows in the EEC and Commonwealth countries. I am told that various regiments are organising petitions on the same lines. The House will have noticed that that Early-Day Motion is headed: Financial Difficulties of War Widows". The financial hardships are severe.

The Government were recently asked in another place how many war widows receiving pension were on supplementary benefit. Lord Wells-Pestell replied: The number of war widows receiving supplementary benefit decreased from 9,000 in 1973 to about 5,000 at the end of 1974."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12th June 1975; Vol. 361, c. 485.] I cannot help feeling utterly ashamed that 5,000 women whose husbands made the great sacrifice of their lives in fighting for this country now have to plead for supplementary benefit because their pensions are too small to provide them with a proper existence. I suspect that they are the older ones, unable to work to supplement their meagre pensions.

I acknowledge the recently-introduced help for older war widows with the £l.70 a week increase when they reach the age of 65 and the £3.40 a week increase at 70. But they remain the Cinderellas in the war pension scheme.

How many war widows are receiving pensions? The Government seem to be in some doubt about that. When he was asked on 12th June, the noble Lord said: There are about 92,000 war widows and the number on supplementary benefit represents, if my calculations are correct, less than 5 per cent."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12th June 1975; Vol. 361, c. 486.] In a debate in this House on the Finance Bill, I said that one could accommodate in Wembley Stadium all the war widows receiving pensions I was not far wrong on the figure, but it seems to have been reduced since June, perhaps through death. One cannot help feeling that there is a great deal of stalling by the Treasury, in the hope that the worry about war widows' pensions will go away, because eventually they will all die. A Minister has told this House that: On 4th April 1975, the most recent date for which information is available, the number was 88,400."—[Official Report, 4th August 1975 Vol. 897, c. 361 It had dropped considerably in two months. That answer went on to reveal that the estimated cost of war widows' pensions for 1975–76 will be £86½ million. That is to cover the 88,400 war widows. I presume that that sum includes those who are receiving the very much higher pensions stemming from deaths in Ulster.

I gather that of the total of 88,400 widows now receiving pensions there are about 22,000 widows from the Kaiser's war and about 66,000 from Hitler's war. The cost of increasing their pensions to the level received by the widows of Service men killed in Ulster was said in another place to be £250 million a Year. That must be wrong. It the total cost of the war widows' pensions is £86½ million, how could the cost of increasing their pensions to the level awarded to widows who have been bereaved by the disturbance in Ulster amount to £250 million? I cannot think how Lord Wells-Pestell, on behalf of the Government, could have given that erroneous and misleading figure.

When we consider the amount that is clawed back by the Government in tax, I would have thought that to increase the First and Second World War pensions to the level now being given in pensions to the Ulster widows would cost between £25 million and £30 million. That is my own estimate, but the Minister may be able to give some indication of the figure involved.

It is true that the Ulster widows receive up to double the pension that is received by First and Second World War widows. The noble Lord made great play of that fact in an answer given on 12th June. He said that to give war widows the same provision as that given under the Armed Forces Pension Scheme would cost an additional £250 million a year. That is the figure which I have already given to the House. It is so ridiculous that it should never have been stated.

The Ulster widows' pensions are topped up by the Armed Forces Pension Scheme. That is an occupational pension scheme run by the Ministry of Defence. To a widow it is irrelevant whether she receives her pension from one Department or two Departments. It is nonsense to use the argument that those who have suffered bereavement in the Ulster disturbance are entitled to an occupational pension from the Ministry of Defence and that those wives who lost their husbands in earlier years, whether in prisoner of war camps in Japan or in action in the Middle East, France, Germany, or wherever, cannot receive the same sort of pension because for some strange reason they are entitled only to a pension from the Department of Health and Social Security. I do not understand the logic of that.

What is the logic of that sort of principle? It is a crazy principle. Is there any principle in logic, in economics, in psychology or in administrative convenience or inconvenience, that widows, and particularly older widows, should be deprived by this strange administrative business of the pension funds that come from two Departments?

The difference between the Kaiser and the Hitler widows, as against the Ulster widows, emerged from an earlier answer in another place. Perhaps the answer is a little out of date, but the ratio remains the same. It emerged that a widow who lost her husband in 1944 was receiving £680 per annum, while a widow who lost her husband in 1975 was receiving £1,850 per annum—about three times as much. Where is the logic in that? To the recipients it is irrelevant which Government Departments distribute the pensions. There seems to be a grand game of buck-passing between the two Departments.

I have refrained from going into the details of other anomalies, for example, between the First World War widow and the Second World War widow or between those whose husbands died before or after 1950. The situation is chaotic. In the chaos those who were widowed in the past are suffering from the ingratitude not of the public but of the public service. The idea would seem to be that it is not necessary to get their good will, because their husbands are already dead. It seems that they are ignored in the real pension reforms.

The Government—and I include previous Governments—have disregarded the fate of the war widows. Governments have made a few cosmetic changes but we have now reached the stage when the remaining war widows—and there are only 88,400—should be given pensions equivalent to those which we have found necessary, wise and prudent to give to the recent widows who have lost their husbands in the Ulster disturbance.

Both old and new widows are living in and having to exist in the same world. We should bring the older widows' pensions to the same level as the Ulster widows' pensions. I hope that the Minister will give us some hope and some assurance that the plight of the First World War and Second World War widows is recognised and that the Government will now do something about their position.

8.18 p.m.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

Without any disrespect to my colleagues, or with only minimal disrespect, I draw the attention of the House and, through the Official Report, the attention of the public to the unusually sparse attendance in the House during a debate on a subject which involves one of the most deserving sections of the community. I am afraid that it illustrates the truth of something of which we are constantly reminded but which none the less is unwelcome—namely, that there is no such thing as gratitude in politics. It seems that the attendance that the House enjoys is merely an indicator of the amount of economic or social muscle that can be deplored in given circumstances. In the past two years I have noticed how the House seems to fill only to witness the intermittent gladiatorial contests which we all enjoy or to discuss its own privileges or registers, whatever the case may be.

It may well be thought by many outside that we are neglecting one of our prime duties—namely, to scrutinise and protect the interests of particular sections of the community. In this case those interests are gravely neglected or overlooked. I recognise that all Governments share a measure of responsibility. But I fear that the level of complacency is not being reduced. I quote as an example a Written Answer given by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury regarding certain categories of war widow who were being taxed. He said: This is an indication of the much-needed improvement in living standards which the Government have secured for this section of the community."—[Official Report, 12th November 1975; Vol. 899, c. 796] That was a curious comment affecting the war widow who suddenly finds herself subjected to a tax demand reducing the actual level of what she believes to be due to her. Indeed, she must pay the sum due by four instalments a year. One can imagine her bewilderment when she finds that, far from the sum she was expecting to receive, the figure is reduced because of the payment of tax at quarterly intervals.

There is no doubt that a section of the community to which the House should devote much more attention—and I hope that the Minister this evening will give them some encouragement—comprises the widows of Service men who lost their lives in the Second World War. But the widows who are least able to look after themselves are the widows of Service men who died in the First World War.

In the other place a figure of £250 million was quoted as being the cost of extending the scheme retrospectively to these two groups. Surely that figure must have been inflated. It has an unhappy look about it since it is such a round figure. Many of the sums we hear about these days are nice round figures—such as £100 million, £200 million or £250 million. They are rounded off in the most suspicious way. Money could not be spent on a more deserving and helpless section of the community. It is certainly very different from the expenditure of a great deal of money to assist motor car workers in some distant part of the United Kingdom threatened by a separatist movement. I believe that a figure of £250 million, £200 million, or whatever it may be, as a sum for this category of persons is false and deceptive. The figure is being written down all the time.

Regrettably, many widows are now in the evening of their lives. The number of widows in the category to which I refer must be declining. Certainly on an actuarial basis we must assume that the number of First World War widows will be whittled down to an almost nil figure within the next five or 10 years. Therefore, it seems an act of meanness to deny them, in the closing years of their lives and at a time of constantly rising prices and a deteriorating standard of living, what should be their due. The same argument applies to Second World War widows.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) spoke of the humiliation felt by British war widows when they know that widows of our former enemies are paid three or four times as much as they are paid. We know from the supplementary benefit figures that many of our nation's Service widows are near destitute. The House must concern itself with this subject. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us encouragement and will not fall back on complacent answers such as that which I outlined from the Financial Secretary.

8.25 p.m.

Mr. Hamish Watt (Banff)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) on his foresight and determination in selecting this subject for debate tonight. I also praise him on his luck in having drawn so high a place in the Ballot.

On this last night of Parliament in 1975 it is proper that we should look back on the year that has passed. Perhaps the most important event was the irrevocable decision taken by the nation that we should remain members of the EEC. The Government and the country as a whole in taking that decision decided to take the benefits as well as the difficulties flowing from our membership of that partnership. If we are to be full partners in the Common Market, surely we should seek to equate our treatment of our people with the treatment meted out by our counterparts in the other Common Market countries.

In comparison with their EEC counterparts the situation of the British war widow is extremely bad. In Germany—our one-time enemy—the war widows receive adequate tax-free pensions to enable them to live comfortably without working. In the Netherlands war widows are allowed £52 per week, although they pay tax on that sum. In France the war widow's pension is tax-free and the French Government are so generous that they even allow a war widow who has remarried to retain part of her pension.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southwell)

I apologise for coming into the debate after it has started, but I do not intend to speak. I merely wish to express sympathy with what has been said so far. Does the hon. Gentleman understand that even if a German war widow is domiciled in Britain her pension is still tax-free?

Mr. Watt

I am grateful for that intervention and I understand that that is the case. It highlights the anomalies that am seeking to bring out in my remarks.

It must be said that many of the war widows are my contemporaries and indeed my friends. I remember the jubilation and great hopes of many people who married in the early war years. They were proud to be Service men's wives. Over the years I have seen some of the girls I knew grow a little older, as we have all grown older. However, those women who are now widows have, perhaps unlike many of us, grown bitter at what has happened. As the years have passed they have seen their position constantly weakened in comparison with other sections of the community. Their situation has become increasingly worse. Many have had to go out to work to be able to bring up their families.

Many of the people where I live do not want to hang around the place doing nothing. They want to contribute to society. But they are particularly bitter when they find that the pension given to them by a grateful Government in return for the loss of their husbands is taxed by the same grateful Government. I add my weight and that of my party to the plea made by the right hon. Member for Crosby and others and ask the Government to open their heart at this time of the year. Let them give us some hope to take back to our constituencies—

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Alfred Morris)

Is the hon. Member aware of by how much the war widows' pension has increased in the past two years? Can he give me the figure for the total increase in that period?

Mr. Watt

I am aware of by how much a war widow's pension has increased in the past year—from £13.30 to £17.20. A war widow who is working and earning a modest income is little better off. I know of one widow who is 40p a week worse off than she was two years ago. It is because of this that I have remained for this debate, rather than return to my constituency, so that I may speak on behalf of war widows who have this grievance. They cannot believe that a Government which are so generous to car workers, steel workers and many other sections of the community can neglect them in this shameful way.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

I would like some genuine information from the hon. Member. I know that he is interested in a number of businesses in Scotland. Does he make a point in his businesses of employing in any capacity whatever some of the war widows about whom he is so much—rightly—concerned?

Mr. Watt

I am somewhat at a loss to understand that intervention. While I am an employer of six people it so happens that I do not at the moment employ a war widow. If there were a case for my doing so, obviously I would. What incentive would she have to come to work for me, or anyone else, when she finds that the gratuity which ought to be hers is being so wrongfully taxed?

8.33 p.m.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

I cancelled a long-standing engagement for this evening so that I could take part in this debate initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page). I felt that I would not be doing my duty to my constituents if I failed to be present this evening.

My right hon. Friend always deals with a subject so thoroughly that there is little more to be said. There are, however, one or two points which I find most distasteful about this subject. The fact that my right hon. Friend has dealt with most of them in no way decreases the urgency of the problem. If a war widow decides to many again and, unfortunately, is widowed yet again, she loses any entitlement to her war widow's pension. What possible argument can there be for such a ruling? It is absolutely inexcusable.

Because my constituency is so close to the European Continent there are a number of people from Europe living there. The widows of our one-time enemies are, I find, receiving a much better pension than the widows of our soldiers who died defending us. It does not make sense. We ought to be thoroughly ashamed of it. This is no party matter. The Minister has referred to the increases in war widows' pensions in recent years, but he should not be too proud of that fact. With an increase of inflation of over 26 per cent., he should be ashamed of the fact that he has not done more.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) is one of my constituents. Both our constituencies have strong military connections and we both know from our surgeries of the many problems facing war widows. There is a general's widow living in my constituency. Her late husband gained great honours and recognition in the Second World War, but she is too proud to ask for any relief. It is pathetic to see the conditions in which she lives when one thinks of how she would have been living if her husband had been spared in the war.

I do not want to prolong this debate unnecessarily because there are many other important subjects to be discussed during the night, but I want to emphasise the problems of second-time widows and the fact, of which I am ashamed, that we tax war widows' pensions. It is pathetic when we put up widows' pensions to make it look as if we have done something for them and then tax the pensions. The Minister has boasted about the fact that the pension has been increased—

Mr. Alfred Morris

All I did was to ask a question of the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt). He gave me the wrong answer and revealed in that moment that he was not aware of the figures. I made no statement. Later in the debate, I shall be making a statement, but at that stage I was merely asking a question.

Mr. Costain

I have no doubts about the Minister's sincerity. We all admire the way in which he has pushed this matter with his colleagues. I object only to the fact that they are so unsympathetic to him. I know the Minister is doing his best and I hope he will believe that those of us who have stayed behind, at some inconvenience, are here because we want to help him in his task. However, when he draws attention to the fact that the pensions have risen more in recent years than in the past, he must also bear in mind that the cost of living and the threshold of taxation have also gone up Commonwealth countries and our onetime enemies give tax-free war widows' pensions. Is it too much to hope that we might follow suit?

8.39 p.m.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

I wish to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) in this small debate. He was often abused by the Opposition when he was a Minister introducing Government legislation, but very often he raises minority issues that really matter to people, and that is one of the reasons I am here to support him. We often forget minority groups, and if we are to mean anything as a Parliament we must think more often about minority groups

This debate gives us that opportunity to think about minority groups such as single-parent families and widows who have been left out of the mainstream of help. The problem is that they do not have any muscle. They have no CBI or TUC to back them. They have no trade association to rush in to make their case. They do not even represent a large number of votes, which often has a tremendous influence on Members of Parliament. They are just a small number of people who at present suffer considerable hardship.

We are discussing a small minority of war widows. My right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby said that they numbered about 88,000, and the number is diminishing steadily as they die off. None the less, they are important. A small proportion of them were widowed in the First World War. They made "the supreme sacrifice". It is easy for us in comfortable surroundings to forget that a woman widowed in these circumstances loses the mainstay of her life. She may have cared deeply about her husband. Suddenly, she is alone at quite a young age.

During the speech of the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt), the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) intervened to ask him whether he had offered employment to war widows in his factory. I thought that it was an odd question to ask, bearing in mind the likely ages of the women concerned. After all, they made sacrifices in both world wars. At the time, we made great statements about freedom and how these men had sacrificed their lives for the nation, and that we would look after their widows and think about them. But we do not, and it is a tragedy.

The trouble is that society thinks a great deal about any problem immediately that it arises. Like Northern Ireland, the problem is with us now, and we are conscious of it. But the First World War is a very long way away, and the Second World War is now getting to be a long way away, and we tend to forget. It is right to bring this subject to our attention, and we must all be grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby.

Looking at the European scene, one interesting aspect is the number of benefits in Europe which are given free of tax. Any subsequent earnings are taxed at normal rates, but a pension or benefit which a person gets as of right is paid tax-free. I am not sure that this is not the direction in which we should move. The benefit should be paid tax-free, with any money earned subsequently taxed at the normal rate.

Earlier today, I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer about tax thresholds, because they affect the woman widowed in the Second World War especially. If she tries to earn a living, because of the threshold, she is taxed at a very high rate on any earnings. This is a matter which should be looked into immediately.

We have all neglected this small minority. I make no party point, because Governments of both major parties are guilty of this. We have a Minister who is sympathetic to minority groups, and I respect him greatly for that. I hope that he will study all the sincere arguments produced in this short debate by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

8.44 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Alfred Morris)

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) for raising matters which this House regards as deeply important. He showed eloquently his own real concern for the problems of war widows. I am also grateful to other hon. Members who took part in the debate.

I feel that I should declare a personal interest in this subject. It arises not just in my capacity as Minister responsible for war pensions, nor even because I legislated on war pensions as a private Member when taking through this House the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill in 1969–70, but because my own father was disabled in the First World War. Until her death in 1959, my mother was a war widow for 24 years. Thus I knew from boyhood, my father having died in 1935 when I was only seven years of age, that it is not just sympathy that war widows and their families need but a humane understanding of their circumstances and problems.

When I first became involved in these problems through personal experience in the 1930s, most war widows suffered severe hardship. I do not underestimate—nor shall I ever do so—the problems of war widows in contemporary Britain. I must, however, emphasise that the Government have increased the rate of the war widow's pension three times since taking office, twice in the past year. The total increase in war widows pensions over the past two years is 70 per cent. plus. The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Watt) said that the basic war widow's pension had increased from £13 to £17.20. The Labour Government inherited a basic war widow's pension of £10.10, and last month the basic pension was raised to £17.20.

Mr. Watt

Will the Minister tell us whether the pension has increased in real terms?

Mr. Morris

I shall be coming to all the points that have been raised in the debate.

The three increases since 1973 have not only taken care of inflation but represent an improvement in real terms compared with 1973 when the economic situation was much easier than it is today. I do not claim that this is enough, but it is evidence that the Government have in no way neglected the claims of this special section of the community. I need not stress in this House that, no matter how much we do for war widows, it can never make up for their grievous loss, often after a relatively short period of married life, of a husband who is killed or dies later as a result of injuries received in the service of his country.

Before I go any further, it may help if I state briefly exactly who qualifies for a war widow's pension under the War Pensions Scheme administered by my Department. The basic condition for an award is that the husband's death was due to or hastened by an injury which was attributable to service, or the aggravation by service of an injury which existed before or arose during service. This means that not only can widows of men killed in action qualify for a pension but the widows of men who die many years after receiving an injury while in service can also qualify.

Over the years, the eligibility condition has been relaxed in many ways. For example where the war disablement pensioner was in receipt of constant attendance allowance at the normal maximum rate or higher when he died, his widow can be awarded a pension regardless of the cause of death. The latest available figures show that at the end of September last there were 91,000 war widows' pensions in payment, of which 25,000 resulted from the 1914 war—the Kaiser's war, in the language of the right hon. Member for Crosby. These figures include nearly 4,000 war widows resident outside the United Kingdom.

The extent of provision for these widows under the War Pensions Scheme is not always generally appreciated. Since the November increase, the standard rate of war widow's pension—payable to the widow of an Army private—stands at £17.20 a week. This gives the war widow a lead over the national insurance widow of £3.90 a week, or nearly 30 per cent. It must be said for successive Government's that this is a percentage difference which has been consistently maintained.

That is not the whole story. Where there are dependent children, a weekly allowance of £6.70 is paid for the first child. There are also allowances for any additional children. Receipt of children's allowance carries with it entitlement to a rent allowance of up to £6.70 a week, and in certain circumstances also education allowance of up to £120 a year. All these additional allowances are tax-free for war widows and, of course, neither the education allowance nor the rent allowance is payable to national insurance widows.

More elderly war widows are not forgotten. They receive age allowances in addition to their war pension. These age allowances, which are another unique feature of the War Pensions Scheme, are now, as the right hon. Member for Crosby pointed out, £1.70 a week at age 65, increasing to £3.40 on the widow's 70th birthday. About two-thirds of war widows over 60 receive two State pensions—their war widow's pension, plus any appropriate age allowance, and a retirement pension based on their own contributions.

As I have said, the standard rate of war widow's pensions has consistently exceeded, under successive Governments, the national insurance widow's pension rate by an average of 30 per cent. This figure relates solely to the pension paid to a widow of a private. It takes no account of the additional allowances for which a war widow may qualify, or the larger pensions received by widows of higher ranks. War widows' pension rates for widows with children or those over 40, range from the £17.20, which I have mentioned, to £1,507 a year.

From what I have said so far I hope that the House can see that this Government, like previous Governments—I make no party point whatever—is determined to ensure that the claims of war widows are fully regarded.

Mr. Graham Page

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that all the figures he has given do not amount to more than about 50 per cent. of the pension given to the widow bereaved since March 1973? Will he also confirm that the child allowances are irrelevant to the widows of the First and Second World Wars?

Mr. Morris

The right hon. Gentleman may regard it as unfortunate, but I have not yet finished with figures. When I return to them later I shall deal with this and the other points raised by the right hon. Gentleman.

Despite the Government's policy of giving them priority, war widows have many difficulties to face. In particular, I know that income tax is an issue which causes them concern.

It was right for the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to refer to income tax in the course of his speech. The House will appreciate—as the right hon. Gentleman has already appreciated—that the question of income tax is entirely a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Treasury opinion that war widows' pensions should not be relieved from income tax has not changed since 1919 when the then Chancellor decided that it was necessary to distinguish between war disablement pensions, which by analogy with workmen's compensation were tax-free, and war widows' pensions, payable not for disablement but in augmentation of income diminished by death.

However, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate that, as Minister for War Pensions, I take every opportunity of ensuring that Treasury Ministers are fully aware of the very strong feeling in the ex-Service world about the tax treatment of war widows' pensions. I know that the right hon. Gentleman will recall that during the course of the debate on his amendment to what is now the Finance (No. 2) Act 1975 it was pointed out that tax exemption for war widows' pensions would mean that other people with the same level of income and similar family circumstances would pay more income tax than war widows.

It is often said that our war widows fare badly compared with those in many other countries. That point has been made by more than one speaker tonight. Yet the basis for calculating war widows' pensions differs so markedly between different countries that valid comparisons are not always possible or even meaningful.

In making international comparisons it must be remembered that in several other countries—notably Germany—war pensions are at least partially means tested. This has a similar effect to income tax in reducing the pension in proportion to other income. In Britain, of course, a war widow's pension is awarded irrespective of any outside income.

Any comparisons between isolated items are meaningless unless all the relevant factors in the country of origin—such as the purchasing power of the pension, the full range of compensation and the social services provided—are taken into consideration. It is these items which determine the real value of cash benefits.

I must emphasise that, when deciding pension rates, the factors to be taken into account are the economic circumstances and living standards in the United Kingdom, not those obtaining in other countries.

I have already explained the way in which the war widows' special position is recognised in this country. Indeed, I think it only fair to emphasise that many people in other groups, such as the one-parent families and the civilian disabled, have a far lower degree of financial provision than war widows. That point was made in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell). Such widows point to the fact that the widows of Service men killed in Northern Ireland receive much higher pensions than others. We should bear in mind, however, that the Northern Ireland widow qualifies not only for a war widow's pension from my Department, but, as the right hon. Member for Crosby noted in his speech, for an occupational pension from her late husband's employer—namely, the Ministry of Defence.

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that the Ministry of Defence revised its Armed Forces Pension Scheme in 1973—that is, during the previous Administration—with the aim of ensuring that Service men and their dependants received the same level of financial security as is made available today by the good employer. The scheme provides pensions related to rank, earnings and length of service and is confined to regular Service men and their families.

Mr. Watt

Given all the factors brought out by the hon. Gentleman and the fact that we are living in the age of computers, may I ask whether he has fed the relevant facts into the computer and, if so, how the war widow in Britain compares with her counterpart in other EEC countries?

Mr. Graham Page

The occupational pension which is now awarded by the Ministry of Defence to widows bereaved since March 1973 is on the lines of pensions given by ordinary civilian employers. But those who joined up for the First and Second World Wars had no opportunity of obtaining such pensions. The Americans realised that and provided the same kind of occupational pension in the Second World War as the Ministry of Defence is now supplying. Therefore, it is impossible to compare the widow bereaved now with the widow of a young man who joined up in the Second World War who could not get this kind of insurance.

Mr. Morris

I have no wish to detain the House with a long speech. I gave way to the hon. Member for Banff and the right hon. Member for Crosby for the purpose of clarifying any points they wished to make arising from what I had said. I tried to make it clear that international comparisons were not only difficult but could be meaningless. One gets out of the computer what one feeds into it. If one is unable to make legitimate comparisons, a computer is as unlikely to help as any other means of adjudication. To make a meaningful comparison one would have to take many issues into account.

The right hon. Gentleman reminded us that those who were widowed by the First and Second World Wars had no opportunity of participating in the scheme introduced by the last Government—the Armed Forces Pension Scheme 1973. I appreciate that any innovation will cause problems, but the whole purpose of tonight's debate is to look at the problems of those who, because of the arrangements made in 1973 could not possibly be included in the scheme. The longstanding purpose underlying the War Pensions Scheme is quite different from the Armed Forces Pension Scheme. It exists to provide pensions for men disabled by service and for their widows and dependants where the man's death results from service causes. Unlike the Ministry of Defence Scheme, no limitations are imposed arising from the type of engagement or the length of service. A war widow's pension is intended to replace, to some extent, the income lost as a result of her husband's death, and the level of pension is determined by the general level of social security benefits.

I cannot speak for the previous Government, of which the right hon. Gentleman was himself a member, but I can say that this Government have not lightly dismissed the many representations on this matter which have been made on behalf of war widows. I have had lengthy discussions with the main ex-Service organisations, and their views have been considered very seriously. The main factor in the Government's decision not to equalise the benefits of the War Pensions Scheme and the Armed Forces Pension Scheme is the essential difference between the two Schemes.

The possibility of introducing retrospective payments into the Armed Forces Pension Scheme has been considered by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence. However, it is a standard principle of occupational pension schemes in both the public and private sectors that any improvement will apply only to those, or the widows of those, actually serving at the time of its introduction.

The effect of equating the provisions of the War Pensions Scheme wilh those of the Armed Forces Pensions Scheme covering service after 31st March 1973 would more than double the present cost of my Department's Scheme. The cost to the paying Department of giving all war widows parity has been estimated as being in the region of £100 million. This is, however, only part of the total cost of equalising the two schemes. Clearly we could not possibly exclude war disablement pensioners from the equalisation process. The combined cost may therefore be about £250 million. It was this point which was missing from the right hon. Gentleman's argument. We would have to include disablement pensioners as well as war widows in the scheme, otherwise there would be one Consolidated Fund debate after another about the new inequalities of what we had done.

I fully respect the right of the many organisations representing ex-Service men and war widows to press their claim for an improvement in these pensions. Since taking over responsibility for war pensions I have had full discussions with many of the major organisations. The hon. Member for Banff will be glad to know that I have discussed this with the Royal British Legion (Scotland) as well as with the Royal British Legion, and with many other organisations. I have had to point out that if the previous Government were unable to extend the provisions of the 1973 scheme, there would be intimidating difficulties in our attempting to do so in the daunting economic climate of 1975. Indeed, the most frequent call from Conservative Members is for there to be not increases but massive cuts in public expenditure.

I can give the assurance that we shall always seek to ensure that the rises in pension keep abreast of any rises in the cost of living. I cannot make any promises about special increases for war widows, but I can confirm my resolve, which is shared by the Government, to see that the widows maintain their present standing and do not slip back in any way compared with other beneficiaries.

Mr. Graham Page

Will the Minister give an assurance that he will look into the figures? He has come up with another figure of £100 million as the cost of increasing the pension of widows. He says he cannot make that increase without increasing the pension for the disabled, and that that would amount to another £250 million. These are round figures and, quite frankly, I have no faith in them. An undertaking was given by a Minister in the other place that the figures would be investigated and the cost of equalising pensions looked into. May I urge the Minister to stop throwing out these round figures and instead to instigate a proper investigation of them?

Mr. Morris

I give the assurance that I shall look into the figures if the right hon. Gentleman will apologise to those hon. Members who have debates later in the night and who may be delayed by a lengthy speech by me. The right hon. Gentleman and I should be in correspondence about the figures. Those I have given are the best available to me.

In conclusion perhaps I might return to my own close personal interest in the subject both as Minister with responsibility for war pensions, and as a man orphaned by the First World War. I do not think I need any spur to do my very best in this field, and I am sure that all of us have a special place in our thoughts for people who are disabled or widowed as a result of service to our country.