HC Deb 04 July 1995 vol 263 cc248-67 `Widows of members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces who retired or who died in service before 31st March 1973 shall, in all cases where a pension is payable under the terms of the Armed Forces Pension Scheme, be entitled to receive a pension based on one half of their late husband's retired pay or pension.'.—[Mrs. Ewing.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following: New clause 12—Post 1973 war widows `Notwithstanding any other enactment, a widow awarded a Forces Family Pension (Attributable) shall receive that pension for life.'. New clause 13—Post 1973 war widows (No. 2)`Notwithstanding any other enactment, a widow in receipt of a Forces Family Pension (Attributable) shall receive that pension for life.'. New clause 14—Post-retirement marriage: service widow's pension`Without prejudice to benefits already available under the terms of the Armed Forces Pension Scheme for widows of members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces with service beyond 6th April 1978, no widow of a member of Her Majesty's Armed Forces shall be disqualified from receiving a full pension under that scheme in relation to her late husbands's membership of Her Majesty's Armed Forces by virtue of the fact that the marriage occurred after he had retired from Her Majesty's Armed Forces, provided that that marriage was before his 65th birthday and had lasted for at least three years.'. Government amendment No. 84.

Mrs. Ewing

I feel greatly honoured to move the new clause, which is supported by hon. Members of all political persuasions. This year, we have seen the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the setting up of the UN. Those of us who are sharing a similar anniversary are only too well aware that our generation has grown up in a time of peace, and we owe a great debt to those who went before us. It is important that we pay tribute to the men and women who gave so much in previous wars to enable my generation and subsequent generations to have the feeling of peace within Europe.

I wish to pay tribute to the Officers Pensions Society, which has done so much to ensure that hon. Members are aware of the difficulties faced by war widows—or victory widows as we prefer to call them. It has done so much to ensure that people are made well aware of the implications of new clauses 11, 12, 13 and 14. New clause 11 focuses on those widows, all of whom are now over 75 years of age, whose husbands retired or died in service before 31 March 1973 and who, as a result, receive only one third of their late husbands' service retired pay or pension.

Hon. Members will have seen, either in the press or by reading their own mail, the case of Mrs. Wormack. They will have been as horrified as I was to find that the occupational pension earned for her by her husband after 23 years of service, including the whole of the second world war—service which saw him promoted to the rank of captain, involved him in risking his life in the service of the Crown and left him suffering until the day he died—is today worth, after tax, £140 a month. That lady is typical of hundreds of war widows who, in the evening of their own lives, look to us in this House today to take this opportunity to improve their position before it is too late.

Several of those widows have said to me, and, I suspect, to other hon. Members, "I suppose that they are just waiting for us to die." Those widows are dying at the rate of 1, 300 a year. If we agree to help them, as the nation clearly wants us to, it will hardly be an open-ended commitment. I feel that a principle of social justice is at stake—the debt we owe those widows and their families.

The Government contend that there are three main obstacles to improving the pensions. First, they say that it will cost £27 million each year. There are several points that we need to make. First, that is almost certainly an exaggerated figure. The Government said that 16, 500 widows would benefit from the amendment already secured by Lord Freyberg in the other place. Some four months on, only 6, 500 have applied, thus reducing the estimate by almost two thirds.

Secondly, many of the ladies are on some form of income support, which is vastly more expensive to apply than giving them the pensions to which their husbands contributed. The Government also say that it would not be right to pay older widows half-rate pensions, because their husbands did not buy into half-rate pensions as the younger service men did.

The truth is that, despite the fact that the Government received constant warnings in 1973, when the half rate was introduced, that there would be problems of hardship in future, the Government refused to give older service men the opportunity to buy in—most would have taken that opportunity. If there is an inequity, it is that the Government denied older service men the opportunity to provide for their widows. That was the inequity in which the Government persisted.

The subject of retrospection is often raised. That, in itself, is not worth considering; we all know of situations in which retrospection is ignored when it suits the Government. A detailed examination of 14 other comparable allied schemes reveals that the United Kingdom is the only state that persists in paying any service widows less than 50 per cent. Some states pay as much as 71 per cent. Meanwhile, we in the United Kingdom continue to pay our older widows 33 per cent.

Thirdly, the most plausible obstacle raised by the Government is that, if the elderly service widows were to be given 50 per cent. of their late husbands' service retired pay or pension, it would have to be paid to all the public services. How many obligations have the Government ducked on the basis of precedent? We must answer the question today, and decide whether or not the armed forces are a special case. I speak not only as a Member of Parliament with clear defence interests—with two key RAF bases in my area—but as one who has grown up in a generation of peace. I believe that we have a responsibility to all such widows.

Most people who write to me and to other hon. Members think that they are a special case. We tended to think so until the Whitehall ethic tried to subdue us all. I draw particular attention to the comments of the Prime Minister when he first entered Parliament—perhaps it is not a key thought in his mind this evening. In his first year as a Back Bencher, he made a memorable speech in a debate about service pensions, in which he said: service men, by virtue of their profession, are in a special position and should be treated accordingly…I ask him to promise that the door is not closed on justice for these pensioners and their widows".—[Official Report, 2 May 1980; Vol. 983, c. 1846.] That plea is echoed by all those hon. Members who have remained in the Chamber this evening to ensure that justice is done. That view is echoed also by the 251 Members of Parliament who put their signatures to early-day motion 186, tabled by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), and by the 59 Front Benchers who have written to the Victory Widows Campaign assuring it of their support.

In the first of the new clauses, we must decide to do what our constituents have asked us to do and what we feel is the right thing to do: bring the pensions of elderly service widows—our victory widows—up to the half-rate pensions which their younger colleagues receive, and closer to the pensions paid to service widows by all the European and western nations that fought with and against us in the war.

On the 50th anniversary of victory in Europe and victory in Japan, we would do well to remember that, from 1939 to 1945, those who were called upon to guarantee our continued freedom from fascism risked everything in so doing. We are talking about their widows this evening. I trust that the new clauses will be accepted as part of the Bill.

Sir Jim Spicer

I shall address my remarks to new clause 12, the second clause with which we are dealing tonight, which refers to war widows who have been awarded attributable forces family pensions. It states that they should keep that pension for life, regardless of any subsequent change in their marital status.

The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) spoke about elderly war widows; I am talking about the younger generation of war widows, who I believe have been treated quite disgracefully over many years. I shall expand on that point. War widows are not treated as well as many other widows. Should they remarry, war widows lose all pension rights, whereas most widows keep their pensions for life. Now is not the occasion to talk about private pension schemes, but 84 per cent. of widows involved in private pension schemes keep their pensions for life, and 21 per cent. of all public pension schemes in the United Kingdom are retained for life.

The lump sums on death awarded to widows of firemen or policemen are significantly more generous than those given to war widows. The widow of a policeman receives five times the annual salary. In the case of firemen and Royal Ulster Constabulary officers—whose situations are closest to those of soldiers and whose lives have been at risk over the years—their widows receive seven times the annual salary, whereas armed forces widows receive two times the basic salary.

Whatever else the Government can or cannot do, I would like my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People to give me an absolute commitment that the Government will re-examine the figure for war widows, and increase it sevenfold to match the sum received by widows of RUC officers and firemen. How can we possibly equate the situation of service men with that of firemen? How many times are firemen tragically killed on duty, compared with the number of service men killed on duty? I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that the Government intend to examine that situation.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way on that point, and particularly the contrast that he makes with RUC members. One sympathises with and understands his point. Twice a squaddie's salary is a pittance compared with five times the salary of an RUC constable. That is not in any sense treating in a generous spirit the widows of those who have served in the nation's defence.

10.30 pm
Sir Jim Spicer

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who reinforces my point. On the streets of Belfast or anywhere else in Northern Ireland, members of the RUC and of the armed forces have served side by side. They have shared the same risks and stood the same chance of being killed, so it seems intolerable that we should allow them to be treated differently.

The independent review team recommended that all service widows should receive a pension for life, regardless of any change in marital status. I should like an undertaking from the Government that that recommendation will be considered positively, and that action will be taken in the short term, not the long term.

The argument against is for doing nothing at all. Civil servants—with my apology to all civil servants—come out of the woodwork and say, "But Minister, if you do this, you might open the door to other people." There are no other people in the same category. Members of our armed forces are a special category, and deserve special treatment.

If I were a Minister and anyone said to me, "How can you say that these people are a special case? If you give a pension to them, you must give a pension to everyone else, " I would answer, "Go away. You don't understand what we have done and why we have done it." I beg Ministers not to be deluded by that totally wrong view, which would not be supported by the vast majority of the public. There would be no knock-on effect unless one allowed it.

The widows of men who die in the service of their country are a special case. In my view, public opinion demands that they be treated as such. There is no question of an overspill or a concession to other groups, so please let us not have that offered as an excuse.

There is no better year than this to deal with that problem. The husbands of a number of war widows—some of them are in the Public Gallery tonight—were killed on active service in the Gulf war. Those widows know that, if they remarry, they will put at risk their existing pension. It would be iniquitous to say to them, "You should not think about remarrying, or you should think three times about doing so, because if you remarry we shall take this pension away from you."

We are looking at a pittance in cash terms. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take a sensible view, and I beg the Government—if they cannot accept new clause 11—seriously to consider a times seven award and the other aspect that I emphasised.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

If I were asked to suggest a poetic text to preface the debate on this group of amendments—all of which have my support—I would be tempted to choose Rudyard Kipling's poem "Tommy": it's 'Thank you, Mister Atkins, ' when the band begins to play and it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot. But when the war is over, then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' Tommy go away. The hurt that poem expresses about double standards well reflects the feelings of many war and service widows as they strive—happily now with the support of hon. Members in all parts of the House—to remove the heartless and mindless restrictions that demean both them and the memory of husbands who fought that we might live in freedom. All of them are the widows of husbands who fought in war, to whom we owe an undoubted debt of honour. But, to the shame of Whitehall and Westminster alike, most of them now have to apply for some degree of income support even barely to make ends meet.

New clause 14 would affect, by definition, widows most of whom are now over 75 years of age. They could thus hardly be more deserving. There are no widows as disadvantaged as they are in any of the European or allied nations' military pension schemes that were examined by the Officers Pensions Society. Their husbands served through most of the second world war and retired before April 1973. They contributed to an eventual widow's pension both by their service to the Crown and by effective financial contributions throughout their service, a point to which I shall return as I proceed. They made only one mistake: they married after retirement, and, for that reason, all their contributions were cancelled.

One case which comes to mind is that of Lady Earle. Her first and second husbands gave between them 80 years of service in the Royal Air Force, yet she receives no pension from either of them. Officials call such widows post-retirement marriage widows, or PRM. In having no provision of a pension made for them, they are almost unique in the world. Our own pensions scheme provides pensions for all our widows whenever they marry. So, too, do the schemes of every other nation's armed forces. Even the UK scheme does so for the younger service widow, as do almost all commercial schemes and most public schemes as well. So why are the PRM widows so isolated?

The main argument for so astonishingly neglecting those widows is precedent—that, if they were granted pensions, civil servants would have to be given the same. The Victory Widows Campaign does not seek to evade that argument by claiming, as it might, that the armed forces are a special case, although we all know that they are. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) said, the Prime Minister explicitly and strongly made that point in a speech in this place.

No, the campaigners have faced the issue of precedent head on, by devising a scheme which provides a PRM pension only if the widows' husbands had been civil servants. They have imposed upon themselves the limitation that the marriage must have been entered into before the ex-service man reached the age of 65, the age up to which, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, almost all civil servants worked. By contrast, the average age of retirement for the armed forces was nearer 45, and post-retirement marriage was a most unwelcome problem. One important factor in choosing the age of 65 is that service men had, and in fact still have, a liability to recall up to that age.

Nor is it essentially a matter of cost. The Ministry of Defence insists that it cannot provide an accurate estimate of the cost, and this makes it uncertain ground upon which to argue. Experience shows, moreover, that most Government estimates in such matters are over-estimates. The Department of Social Security predicted that 16, 500 widows would apply for the enhancement secured by Lord Freyberg, to whom I again pay warm tribute today for his extremely important help in another place, when he amended the Bill.

Hon. Members will be familiar with the case of Mrs. Charney, featured in the Victory Widows Campaign's advertisement. Her husband was a Spitfire pilot. His early days included defending Malta from air attack. He and his few brave colleagues displayed unparalleled courage, and it was no surprise when he was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross. He flew with total disregard for his own safety in the battle of the Falaise Gap, for which he was awarded a second DFC. He married Mrs. Charney shortly after retiring from the RAF, on completion of 30 years as a fighter pilot. Simply because he married after retirement, his contributions were pocketed by the Treasury, and his widow gets not a penny. She has had a struggle to survive; she has sold his medals and his flying log book in order to raise cash.

In this 50th anniversary year of victory in the second world war, is that not a total disgrace? Does anyone in any part of the House dare to defend the grossly shabby treatment meted out to this unmerited victim of the present system?

I ask the House to see this as a matter of honour, a debt that must now be settled. I ask that elderly service widows like Mrs. Charney, on whose behalf I speak, be granted a pension comparable to that which they would have received had they married their husbands before they retired from HM armed forces. I so move, and, in moving, I must again make it clear that, if the battle still has to go on after tonight to achieve fairness for these widows, then go on it will.

Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham)

The hour is late and I want to touch on one brief, specific point on new clause 14. It is very similar to the point ably made by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris). It is an important point because it would right a particular unfairness well illustrated by a retired service couple living in my constituency.

The husband paid his contributions throughout his service. He retired before 1978. His wife, who of course qualified for a widow's pension, alas, died. The husband then remarried the widow of another former service man. On remarriage, as the rules stand, his wife naturally lost her service widow's pension. If her present husband dies before her, as the rules stand she will not regain the pension earned by her first husband's contributions which she forfeited on remarriage. She will also be denied any pension earned on her second husband's contributions. That is clearly not right.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to assure me in his response that he will find a way of automatically restoring service widows' pensions to those who were once entitled to them but lost them on remarriage if they are widowed a second time, and especially if they are left without any equivalent occupational pension on their second husband's contributions.

If he can so assure me, I shall admire my hon. Friend's humanity, I shall rely on his ingenuity, and I shall refrain from going into the Lobby in support of the new clause.

10.45 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

It is clear from the speeches already made, and from the new clauses of the hon. Members for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer), and of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), that what we are trying to do has huge support in the House. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I add our voices to those of not just the six political parties represented in the new clauses, but all our colleagues who have expressly requested the changes and the huge number of people who have written—I can certainly vouch for it from my postbag—in support of them.

I do not want to repeat what has been said by colleagues, but I shall add a word or two about new clauses 12 and 13—they are alternatives, one better than the other—and then say something about new clause 14. As has been alluded to, if not expressly set out, the present position is that war widows of service men who died on active service after 1973 are entitled to both the Ministry of Defence and the war widow's pension. I understand that there are 2, 200 such widows. Both those entitlements cease on remarriage.

Many people will testify to the fact that the consequence has been that many women do not remarry, in spite of their personal circumstances and wishes, because they know how that would prejudice their position. They are deprived of the opportunity of remarriage because it is not financially viable, and therefore have two alternatives—to carry on a relationship illicitly and risk running the gauntlet of the investigation services of the Department of Social Security and so on, or to be deprived of any stable second relationship. The War Widows Association of Great Britain claims that only one in every 100 war widows has remarried—far fewer than in any comparable group. Clearly, that statistic is a result of the present financial position.

The cost to the Treasury would reportedly be extremely small. The MOD in-house pension review team report concluded that retaining such pensions for life would cost less than £1 million a year. Moreover, the War Widows Association of Great Britain and others argue that actually the net cost could be negative, because of the benefits being claimed otherwise. We would give out with one hand but recoup with another. A young widow who does not remarry costs the DSS a considerable sum—perhaps as much as £1 million over her whole lifetime.

I ask the Minister to confirm that the change would not affect a huge number of people—indeed, that the number is small—and that it would not necessarily mean a net cost to the Treasury. But as the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe made absolutely clear, even if it did mean a net cost, it is something that in all justice we should do.

The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) is not in his place now, but in 1989, when he was Secretary of State for Defence, he said in the House that the husbands had fully paid for the pensions for life. There is no argument about that; the contributions have been fully made.

By way of comparison, 84 per cent. of all public and private pension schemes in this country now pay a pension which, once obtained on widowhood, is retained for the rest of one's life, irrespective of changes in one's status. We have heard that that is true of most other military pension schemes, too. We are the only country with a hard, immovable rule, which is not only unjust but has been unjust for far too long. It seems incompatible with everything that we said on the 50th anniversary of VE day, to continue that penny-pinching anomaly.

Any widow of someone killed in an industrial or mining accident receives compensation that is not affected by subsequent remarriage. Policemen's and firemen's attributable pensions, largely in the form of gratuities, and the occupational element, are in the same category, in the sense that they are restored on subsequent bereavement.

I hope that the Minister will agree to the new clauses, or at least, as the hon. Member for Dorset, West requested, that he will say that before the end of this year the Government will agree to the changes for which we ask. Clearly, new clause 12 is more generous than new clause 13, because it would apply to all widows.

New clause 14 deals with a small anomaly that it is mean for the Government not to correct in the way that it suggests. Post-retirement marriage pensions have been in existence for 17 years, but only service after that time counts towards a pension. Therefore, two categories suffer. Older widows receive nothing, as do widows of husbands who retire between 1978 and 2000, or, as I understand it, 2012 for officers' widows. Those categories receive only a variable fraction of the full war widow's pension.

The point of principle has been made that the new clause would give fair treatment to service widows who married their husbands after they had left the service. There is a qualification in the new clause that the marriage must be before a 65th birthday and has to have lasted for three years. Those are perfectly reasonable preconditions for entitlement. An amendment was moved and the case well argued in another place, but unfortunately it is not something that the Government have conceded. The real unfairness of not doing so is that the majority of comparable schemes in other countries would give the entitlement.

We as Members of Parliament—Ministers and Members alike—have voted that we have this entitlement, so marriage to a Member of Parliament subsequent to service, provided that it meets the preconditions, entitles somebody to the Member's pension. It is not acceptable that we vote for the entitlement for ourselves, while those who have served, and their dependants after their death, are not entitled to it. It is unacceptable that widows who are in the category before 1978 receive no pension.

I hope that the Minister understands the strength of feeling. The issue will not go away, and it does not deserve to do so. Given that the Government may be feeling a little more relaxed and enthusiastic this evening, I hope that the Minister will start doing things that are not only right but vote-winning. I offer him this, as do my colleagues, as the first way in which to restore the Government's credibility. A victory in Committee Room 12 is one thing, but a victory on the Floor of the House is much more valuable and might do much more for the Prime Minister's image than the votes of his colleagues earlier this evening. It is a chance for the Minister to make another mark in his career. Who knows? He might be rewarded as early as tomorrow morning.

Sir Andrew Bowden

I support the new clauses. I shall concentrate my comments on pre-1973 war widows. After 50 years, it is too easy to forget that when they were young women, they watched their husbands go to war and never return. It is a matter of deep shame that the pensions that they receive are the worst in western Europe. Immediate steps should be taken to increase their pension from 33; per cent. to 50 per cent. of their husband's pension. Some 80 per cent. are over 70; the majority are between 75 and 85. Nearly all of them have financial problems, and it is appalling that so many have to apply for and receive income support. But for the sacrifices of their husbands, this debate would not be taking place.

The words that so many of us will have heard at meetings of Royal British Legion branches are appropriate in this debate: When you go home, tell them of us and say For your tomorrow we gave our to-day. The present position is appalling. Those war widows deserve and must have a better deal now.

Mr. Hague

I begin by assuring the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that we on the Conservative Benches are as relaxed and enthusiastic as ever this evening, and in the spirit of agreement across the House that we had in dealing with new clause 21, which was proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer), I deal first with Government amendment No. 84, to which no one has yet referred in the debate, but which is grouped with the new clauses.

Government amendment No. 84 extends clause 165 to Northern Ireland. It deals with the effect of remarriage on war pensions for widows. As the armed forces of the Crown, including war pensions, are an accepted matter under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, it is appropriate for clause 165 to extend to Northern Ireland.

The background to the other new clauses is the substantial change in war widows' pensions that is already part of the Bill. The DSS war widow's pension is awarded to the widow of a man whose death is due to any service in the armed forces; to most that is worth about £143 a week, and is tax free. As a pension for the maintenance of the widow, it is withdrawn on remarriage and currently there is no provision for it to be restored later. As a result of debates here and in the other place, however, it became clear that the current position was unacceptable, and we therefore decided to restore the pension in certain circumstances.

That amendment is now part of the Bill. The Government amendment that I moved in Committee, which tidied up that provision, goes further than the Lords amendment: it includes, for instance, the widows of certain merchant seamen, civilians and Poles who served under British command during the last world war, and ensures that the war widow's pension is restored in the event of a second bereavement or failure of a second marriage—and, moreover, that it is restored in the event of any subsequent widowhood or divorce. That change is estimated to benefit about 16, 500 former war widows at an estimated cost of some £45 million a year.

The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) gave certain figures, but according to the latest estimate, some 8, 000 former war widows have now lodged claims, and the number is rising steadily week by week. The estimate of 16, 500 still stands, so the estimate of £45 million of additional expenditure per year also still stands.

The new clauses seek further changes, not this time to the DSS war widow's pension but to the separate Ministry of Defence armed forces pension scheme—a public service pension scheme. They seek improved pensions or pension rights for the widows of ex-service men. We have serious problems with the new clauses on grounds of principle.

The introduction of half-rate widows' pensions was one of a number of major improvements made to public service pension schemes in the 1970s. Each of those improvements was introduced from a fixed and current date, and none could have been afforded if they had been extended retrospectively to recognise all previous service.

New clause 11 seeks to make an exception for one group of public service pensioners—the widows of ex-service personnel—by backdating an improvement to the armed forces pension scheme that was made in 1973.

We should be clear that the majority of widows who would benefit under new clause 11 are not "war widows" in the sense used in our debate about the DSS war widows scheme, or in the sense covered by new clause 12. In over 80 per cent. of cases, widows receiving pensions from the armed forces occupational scheme will have been married to service men who have died after retirement from causes unrelated to service. Those who are war widows in the proper sense will be receiving a tax-free war widow's pension from the DSS in addition to their pension from the armed forces pension scheme.

We have estimated that there are some 53, 000 pre-1973 service widows whose pensions would have to be reviewed if the new clause were implemented. It is not possible, in advance of the review, to arrive at a clear estimate of the cost of full retrospection, but it is estimated that the cost to the armed forces pension scheme would be some £27 million per year. The final cost would be substantially higher if the same principle were extended to other public service pension groups to which the same rules apply.

The widows of members of the forces who retired or died in service before 31 March 1973 and who are in receipt of an armed forces pension are therefore not a uniquely disadvantaged group. We recognise the debt that we owe to those who served their country in those difficult times, but we could never have afforded to introduce the improvements that we have made to public service schemes since then if we had extended them retrospectively to recognise all past service.

It is for that reason that we must maintain the principle that improvements in public service occupational pension schemes are made on the basis that they benefit only those giving service on or after the qualifying date. I say to my hon. Friends that, if we are remotely serious about controlling public expenditure in coming years, we cannot enter into the sort of open-ended commitment that we are asked to enter into with proposals such as new clause 11.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I want to pick up one point that reflects a point made by the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer). The group that the Minister described is not uniquely disadvantaged, but is a unique group for the reasons given: it is part of the family that gave military service to the country. Does the Minister accept that the issue should be considered, not on the basis that everyone who is in the same boat should have a change, but on the basis that that group should be considered on its own?

11 pm

Mr. Hague

The hon. Gentleman might find that a difficult argument to sustain with members of other public service occupational pension schemes. As I said, certain arguments have been advanced about war widows and attributable pensions. We are talking about a public service occupational pension scheme, the majority of the beneficiaries of which are not war widows in the sense that death was a result of service in the armed forces. Of course one can argue that military service is different from other things, but one can also argue that the fire service, the police service and parts of the civil service are different from other things, so I am not sure that I can accept the hon. Gentleman's point.

Sir Jim Spicer

My hon. Friend has just made the point that one could argue that military service is different from other services such as the fire service. Does not that emphasise my point that the very least that one could do is to reconsider the amount that is paid in a gratuity when a debt occurs and to upgrade it substantially?

Mr. Hague

I shall come to my hon. Friend's point in due course. He raised it earlier and I shall of course refer to it in my remarks.

Mr. Alfred Morris

In the brief from which the Minister is reading, there is no mention at all of the point I made—that people who married after their service terminated had contributed year by year to an entitlement to widow's pension if they died and were survived by their wives. That is a very important point and supports the views of the Royal British Legion, the Officers Pensions Society and the War Widows Association in support of the amendment. In terms simply of equity, something that was paid for, in their view, ought to be delivered; but there is no mention of that in the reply that the Minister has been reading, which was prepared for him before the debate.

Mr. Hague

I am just coming to the right hon. Gentleman's new clause. New clause 14 seeks to make an exception for one group of public service pensioners, the widows of ex-service personnel, by backdating an improvement to the armed forces pension scheme that was introduced with effect from 6 April 1978. Pensions for the widows of those who married after their husbands had left the scheme occupation was one of a number of major improvements to public service pension schemes in the 1970s, but, again, each of those improvements was introduced from a fixed and current date. None of them would have been afforded if they had been extended, retrospectively, to recognise all previous service. They were not made retrospective in the 1970s by the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member. That was an important factor for that Government then, and it is an important factor for this Government now and for all Governments in the future.

Before the Social Security Pensions Act 1975, it was a normal and well-established principle of occupational schemes, including those in the public service, that to qualify for a pension, the widow of a pensioner had to be married to him at the time when he was engaged in the occupation covered by the scheme. In that aspect of its provision, the armed forces pension scheme, a public service scheme, was similar to others—for example, the civil service, education, health, police, fire and local government schemes.

The new clause seeks to entitle any service widow of a post-retirement marriage to a widow's pension regardless of the introductory date applicable to other public service schemes. The Government of the day, when introducing that improvement, were well aware that, as usual, there would be people who fell just the wrong side of the implementation date and would therefore not benefit from it. The improvement was given a phased introduction in so far as only service in the relevant occupation from April 1978 could count.

We have no record of the number of post-retirement marriages contracted before 1978, so the full extent of the cost of giving full retrospective recognition to all past cases is difficult to determine, but we estimate that the total cost of the new clause might well be in the region of £60 million for the armed forces pension scheme. That figure would increase substantially if the same principle were extended to other public service pension groups to which the same rules apply.

Mr. Dewar

Purely for clarification, the Minister said in Committee, at column 594 on 13 June 1995, that that £60 million was an estimated cost for the Ministry of Defence alone and did not take in anything else. It has been suggested to me that that £60 million is a cumulative cost over a run of years, and I wish to establish whether that is so.

Mr. Hague

Yes; the hon. Gentleman is quite right. That is a total cost over the years of £60 million. The figure that I gave earlier for the previous new clause was a per year cost of £27 million, and the figure for the change in the DSS scheme is a per year cost of £45 million, but this one, as the hon. Gentleman rightly identifies, with his usual perspicacity, is a total cost.

It is a fundamental principle that improvements to occupational pension schemes can benefit only those serving on or after a qualifying date. The rules in force at the time when an employee leaves the scheme occupation determine pension entitlement. It would be impossible on cost grounds alone to introduce major improvements to occupational schemes without imposing a fixed and current date for the award of additional benefits. The knock-on effects for other public service pension schemes if an amendment were to be introduced would be substantial.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hague

I shall give way once more to the hon. Gentleman before discussing the other new clause.

Mr. Hughes

First, it is important that we obtain the figures. Does the Minister have before him—and if not, will he undertake to give it on another early occasion—the cost if one were seeking to provide only for those who were at retirement pre-1978, not those who have reduced entitlement because they fall in after 1978?

Secondly, surely it would be possible, even if one did not backdate to 1978, to introduce the scheme from now, at considerably reduced cost.

Mr. Hague

I do not have the more detailed numbers and I am not sure that it is easily possible to calculate what the hon. Gentleman asked for, but I shall consider that and write to him with those details.

There may be alternative proposals that would cost differing amounts, but they are not the proposals that are before the House, and of course those that cost less would be of much less benefit to the people whom hon. Members have spoken about.

I shall now discuss new clause 12. The rule that a widow's pension ceases on remarriage is common to all public service occupational pension schemes. That is on the basis that widows' pensions are intended to give financial support for as long as the state of widowhood continues. The effect of new clause 12 would be to apply different rules to a minority of service widows, and to apply a rule change retrospectively.

It is claimed that it would not cost very much to make an exception for that group. Although the cost to the armed forces scheme would be relatively small—although we believe that it would be a net cost of about £1 million per year—there are other groups to consider.

I am aware that provision of a widow's pension for life is a feature of most private sector schemes, but against that background it would be difficult to argue, if those new clauses were accepted, that other service widows and the widows of other public service scheme members should not also have the right to retain on remarriage the pension to which, they will claim, their husband contributed.

As in other public service occupational pension schemes—

Mrs. Ewing

How many are we talking about?

Mr. Hague

I wish to make another point before dealing with that.

The tragic circumstances of the Chinook accident last year, in which police officers and civil servants died alongside service personnel, show how difficult it would be in practice to make a clear-cut distinction between members of the armed forces and other public servants in this respect. As in other public service occupational pension schemes, a forces family pension or attributable forces family pension ceases on remarriage. There is, however, discretion—this relates to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd)—to restore the original pension on the subsequent marriage coming to an end. More than 80 per cent. of such applications are successful.

I am conscious, however, that the uncertainty as to the outcome of any restoration application, should the need arise, can be a source of great concern to a service widow contemplating remarriage. The current arrangements are discretionary, but the Government are prepared to undertake to make amendments to the rules of the armed forces scheme to provide for the automatic restoration of an attributable forces family pension, if the subsequent marriage should come to an end, on a similar basis to the arrangements now agreed for DSS war widows. Those amendments can be made without the need for primary legislation.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West that the Government will be considering the report of Sir Michael Bett's independent review of the armed forces manpower career and remuneration structures. The report has recommended that all service widows should retain their pension on remarriage. It has also made recommendations about lump sum benefits payable on death in service—the issue to which my hon. Friend referred—and the need for a study of the rules for assessing whether incapacity is attributable. The Government will be giving all those recommendations very careful consideration.

The principle of paying widows' pensions for life is an issue that affects all public service schemes.

Mr. Bayley


Mr. Hague

We believe that it would be wrong to make changes to the rules at this time for one very small group in isolation. I therefore cannot recommend to the House that the new clauses be accepted.

Mr. Dewar

I shall be brief. This is clearly an extremely important and sensitive aspect of policy. The arguments have been expressed tonight with a great deal of feeling by many right hon. and hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), for example, has an especially long and distinguished record in this sphere. He is a persistent man, and I have no doubt that he will continue to be persistent and put his case forcibly to a Labour Government after the next election. [Interruption.] Many others—including the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) who, with his "Ho, ho, ho", has just drawn attention to himself—have also presented strong arguments.

I must in all honesty make it clear that I shall not be supporting the new clauses, and I want to explain why. A number of important questions of principle arise, which we can and no doubt should discuss in the future. I understand the strength of feeling, but there are difficulties with, for example, the principle of a widow's pension being paid for life, irrespective of status.

Indeed, when that matter was debated in another place, my Front-Bench colleagues there did not support that particular amendment—

Mr. Simon Hughes

If they had, it would have got through.

Mr. Dewar

I am not hiding. Politics is not always about doing the popular thing; it is occasionally about considering the arguments and trying to do the right thing. That is a lesson that I accept.

I shall try to say this as calmly as I can. There are problems with the principle of having a pension for life, irrespective of status. It clearly has implications for other schemes and other parts of the public sector. It was on that basis that, in another place, we carefully backed the amendment that got through—it is worth recording that it did so against the Government's advice—which allowed the reinstatement of a pension for someone who had seen a second marriage end for some reason.

We have to be selective, although I understand the pressures. I understand that there are post-1973 widows who feel that the possible loss of a pension if they remarry is an inhibition and a barrier to marriage. I am not sure how strong that feeling is in all cases, but I recognise that it does exist. The principle has to be looked at rationally and sensibly in the wider context, and I am not satisfied that the Government or the House have done that so far.

Similarly with the argument of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing): I see that it is very attractive to say that there is a group of pre-1973 widows who did not buy in on a half-pay basis. That they did not and were not given an opportunity to do so, I accept. But there is the difficulty which should not be ducked. There were also people who served beyond 1973 who bought half-pay basis for their previous service. Frankly, we must consider the imposition and equity of that as well, because they have paid and obtained.

If we are to extend retrospectively without additional contribution—to raise from a third to a half—those people might well feel that they are due, for example, reimbursement. That is the kind of rather prosaic detail that we have to weigh in the balance before we go down that particular road.

I also find—of course—new clause 14 attractive. We are not talking about war widows in an emotive sense, but about service pensions, which is an important distinction. The Minister might think that I asked rather an unhelpful question about the £60 million cost. My understanding is that it is—and he confirmed—cumulative to 2035. In a sense, that undermines the financial argument against agreeing to the new clause, although it does, of course, have to be weighed in the balance.

It is not right simply to dismiss totally the retrospective argument, or the fact that it is difficult to isolate and ring-fence service pensions as a general category in the way that has been suggested as against other public service pensions, often in areas of activity where there is danger and stress and where, too, there are casualties. One has to be a little careful about approaching the matter from a simple isolation argument, without considering it in a broader context.

11.15 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes

I hear the hon. Gentleman's argument, and I understand it, but I do not agree with it. Can he justify treating ourselves and our dependent successors differently and better than the people of whom he is talking?

Mr. Dewar

I can, although, again, it is not necessarily a popular argument. The parliamentary pension fund, which I think was introduced in 1965, is an occupational pension scheme giving rights ab initio. Therefore, the funding and the contributions were based on that principle. In other words, the fact that the pensions had to be paid was taken into the calculation, and the contribution was set on that basis. That is very different from changing the rules retrospectively when no accommodation has been made for such benefits. There is therefore a distinction to be made, although I understand why people throw that point at us, and why they feel so strongly about it.

Although I have taken a decision which I have not enjoyed because of my situation and that of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, I recognise the temptation to say yes, I recognise the strength of feeling over the matter and I was glad to hear—one of the more significant comments made—the Minister refer to the Bett review and its recommendations. Those recommendations are on the table, and it would be of some consolation to the House and the hon. Member for Dorset, West, if it was a clear understanding that they would be under active consideration in the wider context about which I have been talking.

I do not think that we should proceed on a piecemeal basis, nibbling away, providing a little goodie here and a little goodie there, without putting them in some sort of rational context and ensuring that we have a defensible position against other claims which may be forthcoming and which we may want to distinguish or feel that we have to distinguish.

It is not—I am afraid—an easy decision, and I understand why many hon. Members will disagree, going into the Lobby. But after—genuinely—a good deal of agonising in the past day or two, my recommendation to my hon. Friends, on the Front Bench at least, is that we should not support the amendments.

Mr. Bayley

I am sorry that the Minister did not give way when he was announcing his intention to extend the service widow's pension concession by restoring a pension to those who remarry, lose their pension because they have done so and subsequently are widowed again, because he will recall that, in Committee, I pressed him about the Government's concession in relation to the Department of Social Security war widow's pension.

On behalf of some constituents who had raised the matter with me, I asked whether the Government would ensure that there was an automatic and simple procedure, with the minimum of difficulty, for those entitled to restart their war widows' pensions. I said that they should be able simply to notify the Department of Social Security and then have their pensions restarted.

Now that the Minister has made the welcome concession that the same principle of restarting the widow's pension will apply not only to the social security war widow's pension but to the service widow's pension, will he consider having a single application process, so that a service widow who received both a service widow's pension and a war widow's pension, subsequently remarried and lost her right to both those pensions, and then was widowed again, could make one simple application and automatically have both pensions restarted?

People in that position have told me of their concern that it could be a complicated process unless the Government take steps to make it as simple as possible. I hope that the Minister will respond briefly to that point.

Mrs. Ewing

Like other hon. Members, I have listened carefully to the arguments propounded from both sides of the House. I am sure that everyone will agree that members of all the political parties showed a great deal of feeling and passion.

I was interested to note that the Minister called in his defence the fact that Government amendment No. 84 met some of the arguments. It is worth reminding the House that the Government fought that amendment tooth and nail in another place. They have granted only a very grudging concession, but it is of great credit to those who worked so hard in the other place that we have even reached this stage.

I had hoped that, having given that grudging concession, the Government would take a more realistic approach to some of the points made in the debate. The Minister seemed to have great difficulty in defining a war widow. I am sure that everyone would agree that a war widow is a war widow is a war widow. It is a simple definition.

I referred earlier to the case of Mrs. Margaret Wormack. For the sake of those who have not received briefings or who follow our debates through the media, I shall read into the record exactly the sort of case that we believe merits a very small concession for a very small number of people.

Private Wormack joined the Army in 1933. He served in the infantry in Burma throughout the war, and at one stage he was captured by the Japanese. While escaping, he received severe bayonet wounds to the face, stomach and legs, and was left for dead. He and two companions struggled into the jungle, where they managed to stay together until one committed suicide.

When they were eventually picked up by a British patrol, Sergeant Wormack, as he had become, weighed six stone. He was temporarily blind and his face had been disfigured by maggots feeding on his bayonet wounds. He seldom spoke of the war. Mrs. Wormack learned about his experiences only from having to listen to his repeated nightmares. He was commissioned in 1944, and, although still suffering from recurring malaria, dysentery, a perforated stomach and facial wounds necessitating extensive skin grafts, he served until 1956, retiring as a captain.

Mr. and Mrs. Wormack were married for 49 years. Despite her husband's peerless service, Mrs. Wormack receives a one-third rate widow's pension, of just £140 a month after tax, or £1, 860 a year. Any of us who know of people in our families or, through our associates, of people who went through the horrors of what happened in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, will know exactly how difficult it has been for them to express their feelings, because they do not want to horrify members of their families with the reality of their stories. Yet this woman, who had to cope with a husband who had suffered that indignity during the war, is given £140 a month by the state.

We are asking for help for a small number of people. The Minister said that the figures have gone up from 6, 500 to 8, 000, but that is still less than 50 per cent. of those who are entitled to receive a half-rate pension, rather than the third-rate pension they receive at present.

I have said that these people are dying at a rate of 1, 300 per annum, so it is hardly a substantial sum that is being asked for from the Treasury to support these people, who certainly deserve our support tonight. It is all very well to talk about the technicalities of a 1965 pension fund for Members of Parliament. Is it because we did not have such technicalities drawn up in 1939 that our war widows and our victory widows are now to be denied their basic fundamental rights? It seems that we are rejecting compassion and social justice in favour of technicalities, and, in the circumstances, I have no alternative but to press the matter to a vote.

Dr. Marek

I am sorry to intervene, but my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Bayley) made a useful suggestion, and it would be nice if the Minister were to reply. The Minister, who is an honourable man, has a duty to reply, and I hope that he will be able to accept my hon. Friend's suggestion. I support the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), and I shall be joining her in the Lobby if the matter is pressed to a vote.

Mr. Hague

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) may not have been able to see my sign of communication with the hon. Member for York, in which I indicated—I think to the hon. Gentleman's satisfaction—that I would write to him about the specific matter he raised after my main response to the debate. It is a difficult matter, because the hon. Gentleman was talking about both the DSS scheme and the Ministry of Defence scheme. I shall look at the points raised and will write to the hon. Member for York. I hope that that makes the hon. Member for Wrexham very happy.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided:Ayes 41, Noes 199.

Division No. 195] [11.26 pm
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy McAvoy, Thomas
Barnes, Harry Mackinlay, Andrew
Bayley, Hugh Marek, Dr John
Beggs, Roy Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Bowden, Sir Andrew Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wy'nshawe)
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery) O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)
Chidgey, David Rendel, David
Cohen, Harry Ross, William (E Londonderry)
Corbyn, Jeremy Salmond, Alex
Cunningham, Roseanna Simpson, Alan
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l) Skinner, Dennis
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Foster, Don (Bath) Tipping, Paddy
Harvey, Nick Tyler, Paul
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Wallace, James
Johnston, Sir Russell Winnick, David
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Kirkwood, Archy Tellers for the Ayes:
Llwyd, Elfyn Mr. Andrew Welsh and Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones.
Lynne, Ms Liz
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Alexander, Richard Dover, Den
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Duncan, Alan
Amess, David Duncan-Smith, Iain
Ancram, Michael Dunn, Bob
Arbuthnot, James Durant, Sir Anthony
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Eggar, Rt Hon Tim
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Elletson, Harold
Atkins, Rt Hon Robert Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Bates, Michael Faber, David
Batiste, Spencer Fabricant, Michael
Bellingham, Henry Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Bendall, Vivian Fishburn, Dudley
Beresford, Sir Paul Forman, Nigel
Biffen, Rt Hon John Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling)
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Booth, Hartley Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Boswell, Tim Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) French, Douglas
Bowis, John Gale, Roger
Brandreth, Gyles Gallie, Phil
Brazier, Julian Garnier, Edward
Bright, Sir Graham Gillan, Cheryl
Browning, Mrs Angela Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Bruce, Ian (Dorset) Gorst, Sir John
Burns, Simon Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Burt, Alistair Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Butler, Peter Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Carrington, Matthew Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Cash, William Hague, William
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald
Clappison, James Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif) Hampson, Dr Keith
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy
Colvin, Michael Hawkins, Nick
Conway, Derek Hawksley, Warren
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Heald, Oliver
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Hendry, Charles
Couchman, James Hicks, Robert
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)
Davis, David (Boothferry) Horam, John
Day, Stephen Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Deva, Nirj Joseph Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)
Devlin, Tim Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Jack, Michael Porter, David (Waveney)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Jenkin, Bernard Powell, William (Corby)
Jessel, Toby Rathbone, Tim
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Redwood, Rt Hon John
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr) Richards, Rod
King, Rt Hon Tom Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Kirkhope, Timothy Robathan, Andrew
Knapman, Roger Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash) Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n) Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Knox, Sir David Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Sackville, Tom
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Lamont, Rt Hon Norman Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Lang, Rt Hon Ian Spencer, Sir Derek
Legg, Barry Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark Spink, Dr Robert
Lidington, David Spring, Richard
Lightbown, David Sproat, Iain
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Stephen, Michael
Lord, Michael Streeter, Gary
Luff, Peter Sumberg, David
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Sweeney, Walter
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Sykes, John
MacKay, Andrew Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Maclean, Rt Hon David Thomason, Roy
Maitland, Lady Olga Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Mans, Keith Thurnham, Peter
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Mates, Michael Trend, Michael
Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick Twinn, Dr Ian
Merchant Piers Viggers, Peter
Mills, Iain Waller, Gary
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Moate, Sir Roger Waterson, Nigel
Montgomery, Sir Fergus Watts, John
Moss, Malcolm Wells, Bowen
Nelson, Anthony Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Neubert, Sir Michael Whittingdale, John
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Widdecombe, Ann
Nicholls, Patrick Wilkinson, John
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Willetts, David
Norris, Steve Wilshire, David
Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Oppenheim, Phillip Wolfson, Mark
Page, Richard
Paice, James Tellers for the Noes:
Patnick, Sir Irvine Mr. Sydney Chapman and Mr. Timothy Wood.
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey

Question accordingly negatived.

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