HC Deb 24 July 2000 vol 354 cc815-9

.—(1) The Secretary of State shall review the operation of this section when—

  1. (a) report on the armed forces pension scheme has been laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State for Defence; and
  2. (b) the results of any public consultation upon a report as cited in paragraph (a) above have been published;

and a report of any review carried out under this section shall be laid before Parliament.

(2) Subject to subsection (3), a widow in receipt of a widow's pension under any of the enactments mentioned in subsection (4) ("the DSS pension") and in receipt of a pension paid under the Armed Forces Pension Scheme shall on remarriage or when living together as husband and wife with a member of the opposite sex only retain the Forces Family Pension (attributable).

(3)Subsection (2) does not apply to a widow in receipt of a basic pension under section 44 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992; and a widow in receipt of such a pension who has remarried or is living together as husband and wife with a member of the opposite sex may not retain the Forces Family Pension (attributable).

(4)The enactments referred to in subsection (2) are—

  1. (a) the Naval, Military and Air Forces etc. (Disablement and Death) Service Pensions Order 1983, and any order re-enacting the provisions of that order,
  2. (b) the Personal Injuries (Civilians) Scheme 1983, and any subsequent scheme made under the Personal Injuries (Emergency Provisions) Act 1939,
  3. (c) any scheme made under the Pensions (Navy, Army, Air Force and Mercantile Marine) Act 1939, or the Polish Resettlement Act 1947 applying the provisions of any such order as is referred to in paragraph (a),
  4. (d) the order made under section 1(5) of the Ulster Defence Regiment Act 1969 concerning pensions and other grants in respect of disablement or death due to service in the Ulster Defence Regiment.")

Mr. Rooker

I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

So that there is no room for doubt, I should make it clear that we announced last week that we would introduce such a proposal by another route. I shall not spend a great deal of time on the amendment, but it is important to put a couple of points on the record. Members of the armed forces enter into a unique contract with the state. In effect, they agree to die for their country if necessary. They are commanded to go into situations where they might be killed. It goes without saying that the people of this country, especially those of my generation, who were born during the war, are extremely grateful to them for their dedication, service and sacrifice.

As the Government have said before—I have said this several times since becoming a Minister at the Department of Social Security—we have examined the case for changing service occupational pensions as part of the current review of the armed forces pension scheme. That review—that long-standing review—is considering the whole package of pension benefits available, and the outcome will be subject to full consultation. I am pleased to be able to advise the House that one of the recommendations of the review will be that all widows or widowers of service personnel covered by the pension arrangements that will be introduced following the review will be able to keep their service pensions for life.

As is normal with changes to pension arrangements, the change will apply to future service only, but we have listened to the concerns of groups such as the War Widows Association, which have campaigned for the attributable armed forces pension to be paid to widows for life, including widows who currently receive a pension and who wish to remarry. Hon. Members have expressed the concern that those widows should be able to rebuild their lives and get on with normal life without losing the attributable service pension. I have said more than once that I have considerable sympathy with that view, and several of my colleagues in the Government have also made such statements, but the question is how, within the Government machine, to take a decision.

In the exceptional circumstances when a spouse's death is attributable to service, we have decided that widows and widowers who already receive an attributable armed forces pension should be allowed to keep it if they remarry in future. We will introduce that provision ahead of the introduction of any other change recommended by the review. The change will be introduced by amending the existing armed forces pensions regulations; it does not require primary legislation. The rules will be changed in the autumn, as soon as the necessary regulations can be amended. Therefore Lords amendment No. 26 is totally unnecessary.

Such matters are not straightforward. I am told that each service has its own regulations, and Orders in Council may be required. I am not certain whether the regulations will require the negative or the affirmative procedure. The negative procedure has the advantage that we could quickly establish a start date once the regulations are introduced, and if they wished, widows could remarry and get the benefit. If the affirmative procedure were used, there would be a delay to allow hon. Members to decide whether to pray against the regulations and force the House to debate them. That is why I cannot give a start date, but I hope that the Ministry of Defence will produce the regulations in the autumn, before the end of this Session. I do not know the date because we have not yet announced the date of the Queen's Speech, but we all know when the House will return after the recess, and work is going ahead.

Lords amendment No. 26 would require the attributable pension to be withdrawn if the widow or widower qualified for a category A DSS retirement pension. However, there is no reason why widows who have reached retirement age should not be allowed to keep their pensions if they remarry. Another reason why I ask the House to reject the amendment is that it does not go far enough.

I shall not detain the House, but I must say that no one, least of all the Government, wants to gloat; all parties have raised the issue and pressed the case for change. I pay tribute to Baroness Strange and those on whose behalf she has worked—the war widows who receive an attributable pension. The change is little enough and it has come late, but I am glad to be able to say that we want to introduce it as quickly as possible later this year.

6.45 pm
Mrs. Lait

We are pleased that the Government made the announcement at the end of last week, and we support them in disagreeing with the Lords so that the matter can be put into the correct legislative order. We look forward to further clarification in the autumn. As the Minister has said, everyone has welcomed the change. I should like to put on record my appreciation both of the work done by Mr. Michael Colvin, the late hon. Member for Romsey, in pressing the issue on behalf of the War Widows Association, and of the work done by Baroness Strange in the other place. I congratulate the Minister on espousing the issue. He has worked hard to achieve a resolution.

The Minister clarified how the proposals will be handled, but I want things put in words of one syllable. Is it correct that two separate sets of statutory instruments will be introduced—one for those who will be widowed in future and another for those who are already widows? If so, will they be introduced without delay, before the review of armed forces pensions?

Mr. Rooker

indicated assent.

Mrs. Lait

The Minister agrees, and I am grateful to him for that. I am not carping, but I should like him to give further clarification. He has referred to those widowed since 1973 who have not remarried, but are there any proposals for the 20 to 30 widows who have remarried? I should be grateful to him if he could give an answer, either now or in due course.

We realise that such matters are the responsibility of the MOD, and we look forward to its final review of all pensions. I recently received a parliamentary answer that said that the review would take place this summer. I suspect that the definition of the term "this summer" is about as good as the DSS definition of the word "shortly", but we look forward to the review, which we shall scrutinise closely. We welcome the announcement, and I would be grateful if the Minister would clarify that small point in due course.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I, too, very much welcome the statement that the Minister has made today. He was at best unhappy with the answers that he gave when we discussed such matters previously. He has personally espoused the cause, and I am grateful to him for that; I am glad that the issue had a powerful advocate in government. The arguments have been presented time and again. I disagree with him only in that he said that Lords amendment No. 26 was unnecessary. I do not agree, because it was important that the point was made repeatedly to show the strength of feeling in both Houses.

As he rightly said, the Government position has not been wholly consistent; nor has that of the Conservatives. They not only refused to countenance any change when in government, but were not prepared to support such an amendment, even in the context of the Bill, at an earlier stage. A degree of opportunism has been applied to the cause in some quarters.

Having said that, let us not carp. Let us be grateful for those expressions of support, wherever they have come from. We should pay tribute to those in the other place who have been consistent on this matter, particularly Baroness Strange and Baroness Fookes, who have done much work, and my noble Friend Earl Russell, who has spoken on it many times. I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait): what is the position of widows who felt it appropriate to remarry or form a permanent relationship irrespective of their financial loss in terms of the attributable pension? Will they be eligible for restitution under the statutory instruments that the Minister intends to introduce? Those are my only questions; otherwise, I welcome what has been done.

Mr. Rooker

I had not intended to speak again, but the hon. Members for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) have asked the same question, to which I have an answer. [Interruption.] Well, the answer was implied in what I said. The changes will affect widows who already receive an attributable pension; those who remarried would not have received an attributable pension. Therefore the change will not apply to widows who remarried in the light of the circumstances that prevailed at the time. It is not possible to change that. Also, I was not conscious of its being an issue either when I first dealt with the matter at the Dispatch Box last November, or in Committee, or on Report. However, that is the legal position: widows who already receive an attributable pension will be covered by the change.

Lords amendment disagreed to.

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