HC Deb 11 December 1989 vol 163 cc667-74 3.32 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom King)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about war widows. The Government recognise the great strength of feeling that has been shown by Members of this House and of another place, and by so many throughout the country, in support of improving the position of the widows of members of the armed forces and others who gave their lives in the service of our country.

Previous Governments have sought to give special recognition to the position of war widows, and this Government in particular have steadily improved the pensions and allowances payable to them. The war widows' pensions, which are paid to all war widows, are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. Quite apart from the 10 upratings over this period, in 1979 my right hon. Friend the Lord President, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, made the pensions completely tax free. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has already announced that the amount of those pensions that is not counted in assessing income-related benefits will be further increased.

At the same time, the structure and the value of age allowances have been significantly improved, and my right hon. Friend has already announced a further real improvement, especially for the war widows over 80, to take effect next April. These improvements have helped the vast majority of pre-1973 war widows, who are aged 65 or over. In addition, war widows who have paid national insurance contributions are uniquely entitled to receive a retirement pension, based on those contributions, in addition to their pensions as war widows.

The armed forces pension scheme, which is the responsibility of my Department, and to which significant improvements were made in 1973, provides an occupational pension scheme for service personnel. This scheme also includes a provision for widows. Although the scheme is formally described as non-contributory, it in fact involves an effective contribution from a service man's salary. This is the adjustment made by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body on an annual basis as part of the process of recommending pay levels for service personnel, which is currently equivalent to a deduction in pay of 10 per cent. Occupational pension schemes of different kinds cover a vast number in the public service—including about 2 million pensioners—and it is clearly not possible to apply restrospectively the benefits of improved schemes to those whose husbands were never members of them. There will therefore be no change to the armed forces pension scheme.

The Government have, however, taken full note of those who have argued strongly that much more should be done to improve the income of those earlier war widows who cannot benefit from the later pension schemes, and have been giving urgent attention to how best this could be done. The Government accordingly propose to bring forward arrangements which will be implemented, along with the other improvements to which I have already referred, in April next year, to give the pre-1973 widows a new special payment of £40 a week. This additional payment will be entirely free of tax. Further, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security will be taking steps to ensure that this whole sum is not counted for the purposes of calculating income-related benefits. Both these advantages do not in fact apply to the armed forces pension scheme. The new scheme will cover all those currently eligible to receive benefits under the pre-1973 war pension scheme, and will be administered by the Department of Social Security on behalf of the Ministry of Defence.

The payment proposed will be increased in line with the normal annual uprating. The cost of these proposals is some £110 million in the first year, which will be met from the reserve, within the public expenditure planning totals announced in the Autumn Statement.

The Government recognise the very special place that these widows hold in the affections of this country and the particular debt which we all owe them and the strong feeling of many Members of both Houses and the public throughout the country that they should be treated as a quite exceptional and distinctive case. I believe that the proposals that I have announced today are a proper and fair response to that public interest and concern, and a genuine recognition to those whose husbands gave their lives for our country.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

I am sure that hon. Members of all parties will welcome today's response to the financial problems experienced by war widows.

This is a major, although acceptable, U-turn. Only two weeks ago, on 23 November, in an Adjournment debate called by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), the Minister of State for the Armed Forces firmly ruled out any concessions on this matter when he stated that it was unlikely that there would be any change in Government policy.

We recognise that pressure from the public, from the many war widows' organisations and from hon. Members of all parties has led the Government to re-examine the case for improving the lot of pre-1973 war widows. The nation owes a special debt to the widows of those men who gave their lives in the service of their country. They brought up families and carried a burden through the hardest years of their life, often alone. They are now in their old age and extreme old age, Christmas is approaching, and it is important that the major problem has at long last been recognised.

Have the Government accepted the principle that an injustice exists by adding an arbitrary block date within the existing rules? Will the Secretary of State confirm that the increase will be a net increase for all elderly war widows, and in his summary will he give a comparison of United Kingdom war widows' pensions with those of war widows in other countries?

Today's statement still leaves many thousands of widows below parity with those widowed after 1973. Will the Secretary of State come to the House with further proposals some time in the near future? That is the least that he can promise to do for those women who have suffered so much over the years, especially as it is so near to Christmas.

Mr. King

I appreciate the general welcome that the hon. Member gave to the statement, and I am conscious of the anxiety of all right hon. and hon. Members about the issue. I do not accept that we have made a U-turn. Throughout their period in office the Government have made steady progress in improving the situation for war widows, and I am proud of what we have done.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the stance of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. All right hon. and hon. Members realise the difficulty one faces as a Minister when one is aware that a matter is under consideration, but one has to maintain the line until a statement is made. My hon. Friend has taken a considerable amount of flak during that period, and the House should know the true facts.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the arbitrary block date. I have heard other phrases, and I have heard that referred to as a technical bureaucratic rule. Everyone in industry or any organisation throughout the country is familiar with the problem that, when a new pension scheme is introduced—we had a similar problem in a company that I was involved in—existing pensioners are not able to enjoy the benefits of the new scheme. One seeks to make available to them, through ex gratia payments, some of the financial advantages that they have lost, and that is what we have sought to do.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Speaking as the chairman of the all-party group for pre-1973 war widows, I thank my right hon. Friend and the Government for their unique gesture. My right hon. Friend has answered every request we made. On behalf of all pre-1973 war widows, I say that the Government's action is greatly appreciated and that we are indebted to the Government.

Mr. King

I am well aware of the close interest and the active part that my hon. Friend has taken in the matter. He wanted a significant and substantial increase in pension provisions, and I hope that he feels that that is what I have announced today. I commend the provisions to the House.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

In welcoming the improvement for elderly war widows, can I ask the Minister about the crucially important change that was made in the 1973 scheme in June 1988? That change made the higher pension paid to post-1973 widows non-contributory in that, even if their husbands opted out of the 1973 scheme, their entitlement to the higher widows' pensions is not affected. Does that not destroy the argument that there has been no change since the 1970s? Is the Secretary of State aware, on present calculations, that 1,200 war widows whose husbands died in the two world wars will die before next April? Can he help them at all?

Mr. King

The first matter that the right hon. Gentleman raised—I have heard him mention it in other quarters and on the radio—is wrong. Deductions are made in the assessment of the rate of pay. That means that even if some men opted out, it was only just that their widows should continue to be included in the scheme because, effectively, they continued to make their contributions. A unique feature of the scheme is that, even if people had opted out, they could not reduce the contribution that they were assessed to make.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has done something which I think the whole House recognises is hugely important. My right hon. Friend intends to ensure that war widows do not receive with one hand and lose with the other. That is a crucial feature of the arrangement. It will involve a certain amount of work and consultation with local authorities to ensure that, when people declare their income for community charge or housing benefit purposes, they understand that they do not have to declare this additional special payment. While one might have hoped for things to be different, the overall package should commend itself to the House.

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there will be widespread rejoicing that the Government have acted quickly, fairly and generously, given the justice of the cause which was giving us the problem? Will my right hon. Friend assure those who may still think that the settlement is not what it should be because he has not conceded parity—for technical reasons, which many of us understand? Will he assure us that the scheme with regard to tax and benefit disregards will mean that the most needy pre-1973 war widows will be as well off as, if not better off than, post-1973 widows?

Mr. King

I agree with the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, although it depends on housing costs. The sum will be disregarded from housing benefit, and tax free. A younger war widow of the pre-1973 group is bound under these proposals to get £100 on which she will pay not a single penny of tax. In addition to this £40 disregard, there will be another £10 as a result of changes that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security is making in April. One of the older widows who also receives an old-age pension will get close to £170, on my assessment, which is subject to no tax at all.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that the group of people whom these proposals are intended to benefit have behaved in an entirely dignified way throughout the campaign which has been waged on their behalf. I have no doubt that they will welcome these proposals, as do I. May we take it that the Secretary of State will ensure that these arrangements will be kept under constant review and that, if it is thought that there is any deterioration for any external reason, the Secretary of State, or his successor, will be willing to consider similar recognition of the special place these ladies have in the affections of the people of the United Kingdom?

Mr. King

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member. War widows will continue to be entitled to various other benefits in appropriate circumstances. I believe that this announcement makes a significant contribution. This extra special payment will be subject to uprating. I hope that, with increases in age allowance, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has already announced, and the disregards that I have announced, these people will be much better placed.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a close analogy between pre-1973 war widows and those who were not allowed to contribute to the national insurance scheme when it was introduced because they were too old? As a previous Conservative Government should be proud of having helped non-pensioners in the circumstances I have described, so my right hon. Friend and the Government should be proud of what they have announced today.

Mr. King

I know of my right hon. Friend's interest in this matter and I am grateful for what he said.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I warmly welcome the statement. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he has just demolished the case of his predecessor, who argued that ex-service men and women who were disabled due to negligence before 1987 could not be helped because the legislation of that year, which enabled such people to sue for negligence, was not retrospective? The Secretary of State has today accepted the principle of retrospection. As those men and women helped others, will he consider doing what he can to help them and to give them a special payment?

Mr. King

I do not accept what the right hon Gentleman says, I made it clear in my statement that retrospection was not a possibility but that we were anxious to do something to help what the whole House has agreed and so many campaigning on this issue have promoted as a uniquely deserving category. In the presentation of their case the special position of war widows was underlined, and it was on that basis that the Government felt able to act.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I thank my right hon. Friend warmly for the statement, which will bring great satisfaction in the country and a greater sense of dignity to the ladies involved. Does he agree that the campaign on their behalf was, rightly, all-party and non-party? Does he further agree that we on the Conservative Benches can take a greater sense of pride that we have found the money to act and show recognition of those who died and their widows?

Mr. King

That is correct. I said in my statement that the campaign and the cause have been supported throughout the House, in another place and throughout the country. It is only because of the strength of the economy and of the Exchequer that we are able to take action. No one in his right mind would dream for a moment that. whatever their good intentions, Opposition Members would ever be in a position to make an equivalent statement.

Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich)

I warmly welcome the Government's change of heart towards pre-1973 war widows. However, several anomalies and disparities still exist between pre-1973 and post-1973 widows. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the Government are committed in principle and in practice, and by whatever means, to complete equality between the two groups?

Mr. King

I am afraid that the hon. Lady did not understand my statement. If by "equality" she means retrospection of the armed forces pension scheme, I made it clear that that is not possible. However, we have sought to embrace a slightly wider group. My hon. Friends may be interested to know that the special payments will be available to more people than those who technically would have qualified for retrospection of the armed forces pension scheme. The scheme will include the widows of merchant seamen and some in the civil defence who lost their lives in the war. There are differences because the payment will be tax free and will not count against benefits. In view of the impossibility of retrospection, the arrangements are the most viable that could be made.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his caring and sympathetic attitude on this matter as soon as he became aware of the full facts of the case. Will he confirm that he has made war widows a special case because he was aware that so many men who died did so as volunteers or conscripts and clearly did not have the resources to make provision for their wives and families and that is why we needed to treat war widows as a special case?

Mr. King

I recognise my hon. Friend's active and energetic participation in the campaign. I agree with him, and I said in my statement, that we consider war widows as a special case. To quote the Officers Pension Society, No other group could claim the special nature of the debt of honour. We believe that that is right, and that is why we have taken action.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Now that the Secretary of State and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security are prepared to make pension adjustments for a wider range of those penalised by war, will he look at those disabled in the second world war? I should perhaps declare an interest, and I hope that the Secretary of State will accept that it is not a special plea. I have had personal acquaintance with and knowledge of many tragic cases of war widows. Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to consider carefully the wider gap that is opening up between the second world war disability pensioners and those categories that all hon. Members have been so concerned about today?

Mr. King

The difficulty in and obstacle to making any improvement in a scheme or arrangement is often the anxiety about how much more widely the change may spread. That was undoubtedly an obstacle to the improvement in the position of pre-1973 war widows. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) said that the top priority of the ex-services' organisations was proper financial provision for elderly war widows. Others also emphasised that. That is the only basis on which I have been able to make this announcement today.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must have regard to the subsequent business before the House. It is an important debate in which many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall take three further questions from each side. Then, regrettably, we must move on.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who take a close and special interest in the conditions of the armed services, especially the widows of those who served in the armed forces, are grateful to him for taking this problem under his wing so soon after assuming the office of Secretary of State for Defence? I am sure that both sides of the House agree that he has gone through a difficult exercise trying to preserve a balance between one group and another and that he has emerged with credit to his office and the Government.

Mr. King

I appreciate my hon. Friend's kind words. I am not sure that I took the matter under my wing so much as had it shoved forcibly there by many right hon. and hon. Members. Those of us who have been working on this in the Department, especially the Ministers of State and Under-Secretaries of State, are aware of the assistance we have received from my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security and, never to be forgotten, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

I welcome the increase. May I declare an interest? I am a war pensioner, my mother who came into this category and was nearly 90, died recently, and I am an honorary adviser to the British Legion. When I go to ex-service men's conferences, I do not find them to be as partisan or advantage-seeking as many hon. Members whom I have heard today. These are complicated matters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) asked about the disabled. Is it not time that we had, as they have in Europe and the United States, a department of ex-service men's affairs, instead of their affairs being split between about 11 Departments? Unless the Prime Minister steps in and knocks everybody's heads together, as in this instance, nothing is done. There is a case for a Department that looks after the interests of ex-service men.

The number of war widows who will be dead before next April is large. That is the nature of life. Could the increase be introduced more quickly? Could the bureaucracy be speeded up, as it has been in the past fortnight, so that war widows would not have to wait until next April?

Mr. King

I note what the right hon. Gentleman says from his personal and, obviously, intimate experience of the problem. I cannot add anything to what I said about the problem of the date. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that heads were clashed together. I think that the Prime Minister would give me authority to say that one or two others were equally anxious about the problem.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

In welcoming my right hon. Friend's extremely positive statement, which does so much to repay the great debt we owe to war widows and their dead husbands, may I suggest that a reason why the Government found it possible to make this unusual and generous offer was precisely because several other groups, including BLESMA, which represents the war disabled, generously and disinterestedly made statements promising that they would not try to climb on the bandwagon if something special was done for the war widows?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has made a very important point. Those who promoted the cause of war widows, and many other organisations, made it clear that this was a unique case. It was against that background that it has been possible to make the statement.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

On behalf of the Scottish and Welsh National parties, I thank the Secretary of State for his positive and most welcome statement. I pay tribute to those organisations outwith this place who have consistently and honourably fought in the campaign. Will it be possible for the right hon. Gentleman's Department to publish a table that is similar to the one circulated by his ministerial colleague on 28 November so that hon. Members are able to study closely the significance of disregards and tax allowances? All of us are interested in how close the parity between pre-1973 and post-1973 war widows will be.

Mr. King

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for what she has said. However, it will be difficult to do that; it will depend on individual circumstances: on whether the £40 not being taken into account for housing benefit and community charge will affect their cost of living and what advantage they will gain from the increase. However, I shall consider what the hon. Lady has said and see what we can do to help.

Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government on the statement. Will he accept no carping or criticism from Opposition Members who had an opportunity to acquit this debt to war widows, but did not choose to avail themselves of it? His announcement will go far towards acquitting that debt of honour to those who laid down their lives for our freedom and to their widows who have suffered for a lifetime since then.

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He takes a keen interest in the issue. I hope that it will be seen as a very real response to people who deserve our interest.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

I thank the Secretary of State for the real progress that he has made in finding a solution to the problem. I ask him not to dismiss the idea that the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) advanced. His package is extremely complex and will depend on individual circumstances. An illustrative table would help us to judge the basis of the award.

The Department's expenditure on war widows fell by £25 million in the last financial year. The number will continue to fall as many of these ladies die. The problem will therefore, unfortunately, eventually solve itself. Will the Secretary of State undertake to re-examine whether, within the expenditure constraints, he could achieve complete parity without breaching pension regulations for the armed forces?

Mr. King

I am aware of the interest that the hon. Gentleman has taken in the matter and the early-day motion in which he is very much involved. He referred to my announcement as a complicated one. It is not complicated at all; it is extremely simple. The complexities arise from the circumstances of the people to whom it applies. We shall certainly do what we can to help; but even if we produced illustrative examples, I think that I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security does not have information on how many would fall into the individual categories. We shall do what we can to help, but that will be one of the problems.