HC Deb 23 May 1978 vol 950 cc1362-4

4.38 p.m.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision for service pensions and in particular to provide pensions for widows of non-commissioned servicemen who retired before 1st September 1950. People may think that "Upstairs, Downstairs" was a television series which portrayed an age that is past. But "Upstairs, Downstairs" lives on today in the pension arrangements for widows of our Service men. The widow of an officer who retired before 1950 receives a pension. The widow of a man who served as a non-commissioned officer or in the ranks does not. This Bill would correct that indefensible unfairness.

Parliament represents the employer of all those in the Armed Forces and, broadly speaking, it has done well by those now serving and recently retired. Inflation-proofed pensions have enabled many Service men and their families to retire in dignity and some comfort—although their pensions still compare unfavourably with those of most other countries.

However, the widows of non-commissioned ranks who retired before 1950—the pre-1950 widows—receive what they have always received from the Ministry of Defence—nothing. Widows of officers have received pensions for many years. It was not until 1952 that a pension entitlement was introduced for widows of ranks below WOI and a cut-off date was set at 1st September 1950. The widows of men retiring after that date were given a pension of one-third of that received by their husbands, which was increased to one-half in 1973. But the pre-1950 widows were left out. The latest estimate—made in 1972—of the number of widows involved is about 30,000. The cost of granting pensions would be about £4 million a year, also calculated in 1972.

Pension schemes need to have cut-off dates. Therefore, what is special about the pre-1950 widows? Their husbands, to be eligibile for pension themselves, all served a minimum of 22 years in the Armed Forces in conditions which would now be intolerable. Every man served through one world war, and many through two. They endured long periods of separation from their families, with pay so low that personal saving was difficult, if not impossible. Moreover, inflation has made a mockery of any personal savings they had. The Service man's entire recompense for his period of service is therefore tied up in his pension, and in the case of a Service man who retired before 1950 this dies with him and no benefit passes to his widow.

The continuation of this position derives from Government policy over a number of years. I quote from a letter written by the Prime Minister on 26th May 1976: The principle on which public service pensions are based is that any improvements apply to those leaving the service after the date of introduction, but not retrospectively to those who retired earlier. But this principle is not sacrosanct. Any good pension scheme should give the trustees discretion to make special payments.

Let me give an example. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) was responsible for social services, he introduced pensions for the over-80s, not because such pensions were actuarially correct but simply because the over-80s had been left out and this was not fair.

What kind of people are we dealing with? I have a letter from a constituent, a letter which I happened to take from a pile of letters, two inchs deep, from hundreds of people. It is typical of what is contained in that correspondence. This gentleman, a constituent, served in the Services for 22 years, and he points out that he survived the bombs and torpedoes that sank HMS "Prince of Wales". He says: My wife is 70 and I am 77 years of age. My main concern is now my wife. I hate to think what will happen to her if she is the survivor. She will have to revert to the lowest of incomes. … My wife is the same as the other widows. Her pride would not let her apply for social security when she is really entitled to part of my pension. These Service men and their wives think that there is an entitlement. I feel that they have been left out of the provision, and that is not fair.

The widows remain as a symbol of a bygone age of service and unquestioning loyalty. They see the world changing around them and benefits of all kinds being enjoyed by people who are less deserving. Is this fair? Is it not proper for us to reconsider the position of those who have been left out of pension improvements?

There is money available when political necessity demands. Only yesterday the Secretary of State for Defence announced that Service men retiring now will enjoy the benefit of increased pensions as if they had retired on the increased 1980 pay scales. Yet the pre-1950 widows remain left out.

The Bill which I now present has the support of representatives of all parties, and indeed every person who studies the facts—indeed, every person I have ever spoken to on the subject—gives sympathetic support to the cause of the pre-1950 widows. My Bill will convert that sympathy into action.

I ask leave to introduce my Bill, and I plead with the Government to take up its provisions.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Peter Viggers, Mr. Alan Lee Williams, Mr. Philip Goodhart, Mr. Stanley Newens, Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles, Mr. Richard Crawshaw, Mr. Julian Critchley, Mr. Emlyn Hooson, Mr. Iain MacCormick, Rev. Ian Paisley, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, and Mr. John Ovenden.