HC Deb 02 May 1995 vol 259 cc159-60
5. Mr. Mackinlay

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he will next meet representatives of (a) the War Widows Association and (b) the Royal British Legion and other ex-service organisations to discuss the interests of ex-service people and their dependants. [20080]

Mr. Freeman

We continue to have a close interest in the views of all associations representing service widows and ex-service men and women in all matters affecting the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Mackinlay

Did the Minister see that, although the chairwoman of the War Widows Association of Great Britain, Mrs. Irene Bloor, last week welcomed the Government's decision to accept the Lords amendments, she expressed grave concern about the younger war and service widows? Is he aware of the continuing anomaly and disparity between local authorities over the disregard in relation to housing benefit and council tax as applied to war widows? Is it not time that, in conjunction with the War Widows Association and other ex-service organisations, the Minister called a conference with a view to presenting a Bill to remedy the anomalies relating to war widows and war pensions, so that the matter may be put to rest in this very important anniversary year?

Mr. Freeman

During an excellent debate, the hon. Gentleman spoke at length on a previous occasion about war widows. He will realise, however, that when one deals with an occupational pension scheme—I am referring not to the Department of Social Security's war pension scheme, but to the Ministry of Defence's own armed forces pension scheme—there will always be so-called anomalies. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but it is a fundamental tenet of any occupational pension scheme that advances are for those beneficiaries and their successors. On the narrower point about housing benefit, I shall certainly reflect the concern to my fellow Minister and ensure that it is followed up.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Does my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.].

Madam Speaker

Old soldiers never fade away. [Laughter.] I welcome the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) back to the House.

Mr. Winterton

The hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) still has a long way to go.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, in recent times, the best interests of war widows and ex-service men have been served by Back-Bench Members of Parliament? I refer of course to an amendment on war pensions moved by one of my noble Friends in the other place and to my own and other representations in this place in respect of pre-1973 war widows. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is about time that a single Minister dealt with such matters on behalf of war widows and ex-service personnel, to enable us to do our job better and to make it easier for those people?

Mr. Freeman

For the record, I am pleased to say that war widows receive about £7,000 a year tax free from the Department of Social Security. In addition, some may qualify for the armed forces pension scheme. That is a creditable record in comparison with that of many other countries. As for the narrower question about a single sub-department to deal with veterans, I have never known the hon. Gentleman to be abashed at having to deal with more than one Minister at a time. The plain facts are that a sub-department would be bureaucratic, and that the present system works well. The hon. Gentleman suggests a new organisation, but that would cost money and remove resources from the very people whom we want to help.

Mr. Jamieson

At a time when we are celebrating the gallantry and selfless bravery of our armed services, what measures does the Minister intend to take to compensate sailors who were exposed to the known risk of asbestos while serving in His and Her Majesties' ships in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and who are now dying in pain and poverty?

Mr. Freeman

Obviously any illness or death that, regrettably, is due to an incident connected with service will be reflected in the appropriate payments made by the Ministry of Defence. As for the merchant marine, if a condition can be classified as an industrial injury, the appropriate measures—

Mr. Jamieson

What about the Royal Navy?

Mr. Freeman

I have already said that if a condition is directly connected with service in the Royal Navy, the appropriate measures will apply. I am not aware of individual details, but if the hon. Gentleman writes to me I shall certainly pursue the matter.