§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Burns.]10.14 pm
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
This debate is about widows whose claim to the attention of this House is one of compelling priority. They are the widows of men who died or who gave the best years of their lives in the service of this country. They live with a sense of grievance which is shaming to us all and which, in this 50th anniversary year of victory in the second world war, the House must now urgently address.
Their plea for help is being debated today not only here but in the House of Lords. There the debate is led by the young Lord Freyberg who, although he is a Cross Bencher, I am delighted to call my noble Friend. He is strongly supported by other peers of all parties and of none.
Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will recall my last Adjournment debate on war widows' pensions as the culmination of a campaign that led in 1989 to more adequate provision for tens of thousands of pre-1973 widows. But the campaign did not achieve all our objectives. There was unfinished business of importance both to war widows and to service widows which my early-day motion 186, with backing from all parts of the House, urges the Government to tackle without further delay.
The motion was tabled at the request of the Officers Pension Society and the War Widows Association of Great Britain, strongly endorsed by all the 123 affiliates of the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations, and by Help the Aged. Today, the early-day motion has 167 signatures in addition to the declared support of right hon. and hon. Members who, by convention, cannot sign such motions.
Some hon. Members have declined to sign the motion. They declined not because they disagree with its objectives but because they feel that early-day motions are of no importance. In my view, they are mistaken. It was the huge cross-party support for early-day motion 68 in 1989 that eventually persuaded that wily parliamentary tactician, Margaret Thatcher, as she then was, to concede the principal aim of the war widows' campaign of that year.
Moreover, those who support our further objectives but decline to sign the new early-day motion strangely imply that such parliamentarians as the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer), the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel), my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), among many other senior Members of this House who are sponsoring the motion, know less than themselves about parliamentary realities.
What is it that we now seek for war and service widows? We seek, first, pensions for war widows that will be for life; secondly, the provision now of pensions for the widows of men who married them after retirement from the services; and, thirdly, an increase in the pensions of elderly service widows from one third to one half of their husbands' pensions.
255 In regard to the first of our aims, let me make it clear that basic provision for war widows was markedly improved by what we achieved in 1989. But there remains a cruel and indefensible anomaly. If a widow remarries, she loses all her widow's pension. Should her further marriage end in a second bereavement, or if it fails, her DSS war widow's pension cannot be restored.
Younger war widows, who have an attributable occupational pension from the Ministry of Defence, can apply for restoration, but even this is subject to a demeaning means test which 25 per cent. of applicants fail. That is why only one in 100 war widows feel that they can take the risk of remarrying. The other 99 per cent. remain on state benefits throughout their lives. They also suffer the enforced loneliness imposed upon them by regulations which are now very widely seen as anachronistic and inhumane. Should any war widow be found cohabiting, she forfeits her pension forthwith.
I want to quote Janet Cross, from Manchester, whose soldier husband Phil was killed by an IRA bomb in 1991. Janet, now 36 and struggling to bring up their two sons on her pension, told me that because she and her husband had to move home every two years there was no way she could build up a pension in a long-term job. She added:I don't have a penny saved. If I marry again, or live with another man, I lose my pension.Janet was speaking to me in a year when the National Association of Pension Funds has announced that 84 per cent. of widows' pensions in issue are now for life regardless of any change in status. At the same time, careful research by the Officers Pension Society into 14 pension schemes of our allies and former adversaries shows that eight of them never remove war widows' pensions on remarriage and, of the remaining six, five provide automatic restoration of her pension if a widow is bereaved again or the marriage fails.
Ministers say that this is too costly for them to contemplate, but we are already paying full pensions for 99 out of every 100 war widows. There would also be savings to the Department of Social Security vote and the taxpayer if, as the ex-service community argues, the younger war widows retain only the Ministry of Defence attributable pension, but not the DSS war widow's pension, which I am assured would be accepted as reasonable by war widows themselves.
I turn now to widows who married their service husbands after they had retired from the forces. In these cases, the marriage is termed a post-retirement marriage—PRM. The younger PRM service widows are allowed a pension from the MOD in respect of their husbands' service after 1978, but the older service widows have no such entitlement. That not only causes undoubted hardship, but often blights the final years of the service man's life.
The prospect of leaving his wife penniless is deeply worrying to the service man, but all he can do is scrimp and save until he dies. It is especially unfair to the older service man because, in the late 1970s when almost all public servants worked until they were 65, he was compulsorily retired at an earlier age and much more likely to enter into a post-retirement marriage.
The experience of Mrs. Heather Matthews is highly instructive. She does not receive a penny from the Army because her husband, the late Major-General Francis Matthews, retired just before they were married. He fought in the second world war and served until 1970. 256 Then he married Heather. Five years later, he had a heart attack and she nursed him until he died in 1976. She now ekes out a living at her home in Wiltshire and is "very bitter" that Britain is one of only two comparable countries to deny pensions to widows who married their husbands after they had retired from the services. She adds poignantly:I hope something can be done for us.The Officers Pension Society and the War Widows Association of Great Britain want the Government now to accept that a service widow who married her husband after his retirement, but before the age of 65—up to which point the ex-service man is liable to recall—and provided the marriage lasts for at least three years, should receive a pension related to her husband's service. It is important here to note that pension provision in such cases is already made in 14 of the 15 comparable allied schemes studied by the Officers Pension Society.
Here again, Ministers will point to the cost; but in a great many PRM cases the widows are on income support. That is almost twice as expensive to administer as widows' pensions and with none of the dignity of the as-of-right benefit they deserve.
I come now to service widows who are entitled to only one third of their husband's service pay on retirement. Half-rate forces family pensions were introduced in April 1973, but those who had already retired—including many who fought in the second world war—were excluded.
It may come as a shock to many Members of the House that Britain is now alone, among all the countries with which it can be compared, in paying any service widow entitled to a pension less than a half-rate pension. In the United States, the minimum figure is 55 per cent.; in Germany, 60 per cent.; in Australia and Belgium, up to 67 per cent.; and in the Netherlands, 71 per cent.
The result of our Government's policy in retaining "third-rate" widows' pensions is exemplified by the case of a widow living in Oxford whose late husband was a Fleet Air Arm pilot. He flew throughout the war and took part in the famous raid on the Tirpitz in Alten fjord. He died at 37 of a massive heart attack while still serving as a pilot, but his death was adjudged not to be attributable to service. After tax, his widow's current MOD pension is £29.06 a week; scarcely enough, perhaps, for the main course of a meal fit for the chief executive of British Gas. In a recent television interview, she said:A half-rate pension would give me another £800 a year—which would revolutionise my life.That is how pushed she is on her present income.
The Officers Pension Society and the War Widows Association of Great Britain ask the Government to accept that, where service men had no opportunity to buy in an entitlement to a half-rate pension, their "third-rate" widows, most of whom are between 75 and 85, should now have their pensions increased to the higher rate for the closing years of their lives.
Ministers may object that this would involve retrospection. But we all know that when it suits the Government, they do not hesitate to act retrospectively. State earnings-related pension schemes and delayed pensions for women to 65 come readily to mind. The latter is expected to save £5 billion a year, some of which will come from service widows. Compared with that £5 billion, the costs of righting the wrongs which I have described are very small change indeed.
257 In a moving letter to The Times on 13 February, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, a former Conservative Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, wrote that this 50th anniversary year of the ending of the wars in Europe and the far east is an especially appropriate moment to give comfort to those who suffered the loss of a husband and the end of their married life. He added:Their numbers are with the passage of time diminishing, so the cost of a real improvement in their pensions will also diminish … An announcement of a generous increase in the awards to those who lost a husband in the War would seem to be the best way to commemorate the victory which their sacrifice helped us to achieve.Who can gainsay the justice of that appeal?
Does the Minister refute what Lord Boyd-Carpenter says? If so, how does he respond to one of the more elderly of Britain's 28,000-plus "third-rate" widows who has written to me to say:The Government will say yet again that there's no money left to help us. But there will be more than enough money for all the junketing that will take place. Tell them that not a single penny must be spent on that until there's some justice for us"?While millions will celebrate the 50th anniversaries of the victories of 1945, others will still mourn the loved ones they lost, not only the widows of men who gave their lives in the second world war but the widows of those who have died on active service since then—in Korea, the Falklands, the Gulf war, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. In a leader about their plea, The Sun states today:Both Lords and Commons will debate their shabby treatment. But words aren't enough. We need action. While we're laughing on VE Day, the widows will be crying. Brave men didn't die for that.The vast majority of people could not agree more. Our debt to war and service widows cannot be measured in money terms, but lack of money inflicts hurtful indignities upon them. Let us, therefore, agree tonight that there is no better way of celebrating the historic victories of 1945 than by, first of all, meeting in full our debt of honour to Britain's war and service widows. If we cannot agree tonight and the battle has to go on, then go on it will, until justice is secured for them.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. James Arbuthnot)
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) on obtaining a debate on this exceptionally important subject. He has secured the support of a number of his right hon. and hon. Friends and some right hon. and hon. Conservative Members. We can all understand the right hon. Member's wish to help war and service widows. No doubt he did all that he could for them when he was Minister with special responsibility for war pensions in the Labour Administration in 1978.
Today's war widow's pension is, for most widows, worth almost £140. In real terms, that is much more than it was worth in the right hon Gentleman's day. In 1978, half the war widow's pension was taxable; today, like all benefits under the war pensions scheme, that £140 is tax-free. In 1978, there were only two allowances in respect of age—at 65 and 70; today, there are three. The two earlier ones are worth more in real terms, and a new tier was introduced in 1984 for war widows aged 80 and over. That allowance is now worth £24.40 week.
258 As the right hon. Gentleman said, in 1978 there was no additional provision for pre-1973 war widows. Today, all second world war widows and many others receive, on top of the basic pension, a supplementary pension worth £48.70 a week. That supplement is not only tax-free but completely disregarded for income-related benefit purposes.
The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues. To avoid confusion, I shall try to deal with each separately. What is being asked for today, both in the Chamber and in another place, and by means of the early-day motion to which the right honourable Gentleman referred, which has attracted much correspondence from right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Houses is that, first, a pre-1973 DSS war widow's pension should be for life, irrespective of remarriage. Similarly, that widow's pension, under the post-1973 Ministry of Defence armed forces pension scheme, should be for life.
Secondly, the half-rate armed forces widow's pension should be extended to widows who receive only a third-rate pension because their husband's service terminated before 31 March 1973. Thirdly, provision for occupational widows' pensions under the Ministry of Defence scheme should be extended to widows who married their late husbands after retirement from the forces, where that retirement took place before 6 April 1978.
I shall deal with pensions for life first. The DSS war widow's pension may be awarded where the late husband's death is due to any service in the armed forces. Pension provision for widows under the Ministry of Defence armed forces pension scheme is a separate matter. The scheme pays two types of widow's pension: the normal forces family pension and the enhanced pension where the late husband's death was due to service. The rationale behind the DSS pension and both the Ministry of Defence pensions is to assist with the loss of support which a widow could have expected from her late husband. Those pensions are therefore paid not as compensation for the loss of a husband but for the widow's maintenance.
As the right hon. Gentleman correctly said, the consequence of remarriage, since the lady is no longer a widow, is that the widow's pension is withdrawn under both schemes. The DSS position on that reflects what happens to the national insurance widow's pension. The Ministry of Defence position reflects that of the other public service occupational pension schemes.
As the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, on remarriage, the DSS awards a gratuity equal to a year's pension, which normally amounts to about £7,000. Should the lady unfortunately become widowed again, she will be eligible for assistance from the social security system. There is no provision, under the DSS war pensions scheme, for the restoration of a war widow's pension.
However, under the Ministry of Defence scheme and in line with the provisions of other public service occupational schemes, there is discretion to restore the pension. That discretion is normally exercised where the widow is financially worse off on second widowhood than when she was first widowed. In recent years, in 80 per cent. of claims for restoration, the pension has been restored.
259 The DSS war widow's pension is paid at a much higher rate than a national insurance widow's pension. Most widows receive, as I have said, almost £140 per week tax-free, which is approximately 250 per cent. more than the national insurance widow receives. In addition, a war widow is able to receive a retirement pension based on her own contributions, which could increase her income to nearly £200 a week, irrespective of any other income that she might have.
For many widows, £58.70 of a war widow's pension may be disregarded as income for the purposes of claims to income-related benefits. Widows who benefit from improvements made to the Ministry of Defence scheme from 31 March 1973 receive a basic DSS war widow's pension but in addition can also receive a Ministry of Defence pension.
Our record in this area is a good one. For example, we have improved significantly the value of the age allowances payable on top of the basic war widow's pension, we have increased from £4 to £10 a week the amount of war widow's pension that may be disregarded for income-related benefit purposes, and we introduced in April 1990 a supplementary pension of £40 a week, which will be £49.77 from next April, for those war widows whose husband's service ended before 31 March 1973; that is not only tax-free, but is completely disregarded for income-related benefit purposes.
The proposal of the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe is that all those generous pensions should be granted for life regardless of any change in marital status. He referred to the matter of cost. He is right that war widows' pensions for life could not be introduced without further cost. Almost 90,000 war widows have remarried since 1939. Although we do not know exactly how many are still living and would claim restoration of their pension, it would almost certainly be extremely expensive. For pre-1973 war widows alone, it could cost about £60 million in a full year, and that is taking into account offsets for state benefits currently in payment.
I assure the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe that we fully appreciate the sacrifice that the late husbands of those widows made on behalf of their country. That is why we have ensured that the pension provision for war widows fully recognises that sacrifice. That of course is no more than the country would expect while the state of war widowhood remains. However, to continue to pay a very preferential pension when a war widow has remarried and still has or has had the support of a second husband is neither justified nor fair to the widow who loses her national insurance widow's pension on remarriage.
§ Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
There appears to be some disparity with our own provision in the House. I understand that, if we pass on and our widows remarry, they can still enjoy the benefits of our parliamentary scheme.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
I shall discuss that if I have some time later, but the difference that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) has drawn attention to stems from the fact that, when the scheme for the House was set up, the contributions were set to take into account the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.
I shall move on to those matters that relate solely to the Ministry of Defence armed forces pension scheme. The effect of accepting the changes that the right hon. Member 260 for Wythenshawe suggests would be to extend pension scheme improvements that were introduced in 1973 and 1978 to all widows of service men whose service ended before those dates. I should explain that it is a fundamental principle that improvements to occupational pension schemes should benefit only those serving on or after a qualifying date. There are good reasons for that.
It would be impossible on cost grounds, if for no other reason, to introduce major improvements to schemes such as that without imposing a fixed and current date from which those improvements can be made available. Even though the cost of making just one concession for the Ministry of Defence scheme might appear to be modest, the wider implications are significant. To make exceptions for that scheme in any of the ways which the right hon. Gentleman suggests can only have expensive knock-on effects for other public service pension schemes.
The first of the right hon. Gentleman's proposals under this heading is that all widows should receive a normal Ministry of Defence occupational widow's pension of at least half that of their late husbands' occupational pension. Before the introduction of improvements to the Ministry of Defence scheme from 31 March 1973, the widow received a pension at one third of the rate of her husband's pension. Those serving on or after that date were given the option of "buying in" to the new scheme and making direct contributions so that their widows could receive the half-rate pension. Each service man was given that opportunity, and many accepted it.
Clearly, the widow of a service man who did not choose to make such contributions cannot receive the enhanced pension. That is partly because it would he quite unfair on those who did pay, and partly because the normal principle for occupational pension schemes is that those retiring before the introduction of an improvement may not benefit from it. The option to "buy in" given to those still serving would in itself make it impossible, in all fairness, to extend the half-rate pension to widows whose husbands had left the service before 31 March 1973 and who had not, as a result, paid towards the improvement—indeed, they could not have done so.
I turn now to the last of the right hon. Gentleman's proposals—that a Ministry of Defence occupational pension should be available for widows who married their husbands after they had retired from the forces and where they had no service on or after 6 April 1978.
As I have said, when a person retires it is the provisions of the occupational pension scheme in force at the date of his retirement which determine his, and through him his widow's, entitlement to a pension. The Social Security Act 1975 provided that pensions should be given to those widows who married after their husbands' retirement. That improvement was introduced into public service occupational pension schemes, such as the Ministry of Defence scheme, from 6 April 1978 and those who left the forces before that date do not benefit from it. Even for those who do, because they left after that date, the post-retirement widow's pension may be calculated only on the length of service after that date.
Finally, I come to the comparisons which the right hon. Gentleman made between the DSS and MOD schemes and the schemes of other countries. It is true that, in some countries, widows' pensions are either never removed or restored on second bereavement. As far as the DSS scheme is concerned, those arrangements cannot really be considered in isolation, but have to be viewed within the 261 context of the general social and welfare environment of each of the countries concerned. While many countries continue or restore war widows' pensions, their original pension rates are generally lower than those in the United Kingdom. For instance, the rate of our war widow's pension is significantly higher than that of Australia, France, Spain and New Zealand.
As to the occupational pension schemes for the armed forces of other countries, again, comparisons are not valid. Apart from the different entitlement conditions that might apply, such as the level of contributions needed to qualify for a pension, different social factors will also apply in each country.
Comparison of occupational pension schemes within the United Kingdom would be more realistic, and in that 262 respect the MOD scheme compares well with those offered by most employers and, in particular, with those of other public service pension schemes.
As I have said, these are complicated and emotive issues, but I do not believe that there is any real justification either for providing pensions for life for the widows of men whose deaths were attributable to service, or for breaching the fundamental principle of public service pension schemes that any improvements to those schemes should not be made retrospective.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.