HL Deb 02 March 1954 vol 186 cc21-7

3.35 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, before I come to deal with the Bill itself, I should like to say how glad I am to see my noble friend Lord Moyne here this afternoon, because he has been one of the leading champions of the Royal Irish Constabulary widows for a number of years. One might say that the noble Lord and others are really the architects of this Bill. Whether they think the edifice as finally before them is exactly in accordance with their drawings, I cannot say; but at any rate, this much I believe my noble friend will concede: that at least an edifice of some kind has appeared, and I hope that that is some source of gratification to him. I should like to acknowledge the efforts he has made on behalf of the R.I.C. widows.

As your Lordships know, the Royal Trish Constabulary was disbanded on August 31, 1922. From that date the legal provisions governing the payment of pensions to widows of members of the force have been administered by the Home Secretary. At present there are 1,727 widows receiving pensions. Broadly speaking, the Royal Irish Constabulary widows enjoyed parity of pensions provisions with similar categories of English police widows until 1948; but in that year certain improvements were made in the code of English police widows' pensions which were not also accorded to the comparable R.I.C. widows In the first place, provision was made for granting pensions to English "pre-1918" widows—that is to say, the widows of men who retired from the English police forces before 1918. The widows of such men, even though they did not become widows until long after 1918, were not until 1948 eligible to receive a pension under the English police pensions code; and this is still the position as regards the "pre-1918" R.I.C. widows. The second advantage given to the English widows in 1948 was that if they were receiving pensions at less than the National Insurance rate they could have them supplemented up to that rate: at the discretion of the police authority.

The decision not to make similar adjustments in the R.I.C. pensions code was naturally received with keen disappointment by the widows themselves and by the ex-members of the force. I am bound to say that the letters which they wrote showed that many of the widows were living in conditions of hardship and privation. In the light of the many representations received, their position was reconsidered, and the conclusion was reached that something should be done to ease the burdens of these widows, who are nearly all elderly and whose number, already small, must in the course of the next decade or so, steadily diminish.

The Bill is, frankly, a measure for the relief of hardship. It will enable the Home Secretary to ensure that any widow who qualifies under the prescribed. conditions—the most important of which are set out in Clause 1, subsection (2)—shall receive a minimum income of the current National Insurance rate—at present 32s. 6d. a week. Grants made under the Bill will be discretionary, and in exercising his discretion the Home. Secretary will have regard to income received from other sources. But I think your Lordships should know that it is considered unlikely that there are many of these widows who are not in need of the extra money which can be granted under these provisions. However, it must be made clear that extra money granted under this Bill will be fully taken into account by the National Assistance Board, and widows who are already receiving national assistance will find that those payments are correspondingly reduced

I do not think I need detain your Lordships long in explaining the terms of the Bill, as they are relatively straightforward, but I think I ought to say a word about the conditions set out in Clause 1 (2). Clause 1 (2) (a) is a standard provision in R.I.C. and other United Kingdom police pensions legislation, and, indeed, it is common form in general superannuation schemes which provide awards for widows in relation to their husbands' employment in the public service. The provisions in paragraph (b) in the same subsection are in line with those in the National Insurance Acts and those governing the grant of English police widows' pensions. The residence qualification dealt with in paragraph (c) will include the great majority of R.I.C. widows. The hardship with which the Bill deals is, I think your Lordships will realise, related to the economic conditions in these Islands, and we have not received any complaints of hardships from widows living abroad. Finally, the provision in paragraph (d) merely defines the "pre-1918" widows by reference to the dates laid down in the Constabulary and Police (Ireland) Acts, 1918 and 1919.

For the rest, I would refer only to Clause 2 (2) which deals with gratuities. Small gratuities were in certain circumstances payable. under the Constabulary and Police (Ireland) Act. 1883, and under the R.I.C. Pensions Order, 1922, to widows of men who died while serving if they were not entitled to a pension. The purpose of Clause 2 (2) is quite simple. It is to make it clear that a widow will not be debarred from receiving help under this Bill merely because many years ago she received a small gratuity. I do not think there is anything I need add. I feel sure that this is the sort of Bill and the sort of proposal which will find a sympathetic response in your Lordships' House, and I beg to move that it be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2.—(Lord Lloyd)

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, this Bill is a rather belated recognition of the claims of widows of men of that one-time famous force, the Royal Irish Constabulary, who did their duty in the circumstances in which they were placed in those battles of long ago. It provides for widows of members of that force who either retired or died prior to 1918, for whom, apparently, no provision has been made—nor, indeed, was it made so far as the English police were concerned. Secondly, it makes provision for those widows of members of the Royal Irish Constabulary who, though in receipt of a pension, are not in receipt of a pension which is the equal of that granted under the various National Insurance Acts. On grounds of common humanity, if on no other ground, we on this side of your Lordships' House, approve the Bill. Some of these widows have been without pension for, I think, thirty-six years or more, and others have only had a modified pension. Some credit should, I think, be paid to my right honourable friend Mr. Chuter Ede, who, when Home Secretary, made the same provision for the English police—if I may so term them—and who, I think the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, will agree, gave instructions for this present scheme, or something like it, to be drawn up during his period of office. It was not possible, however, to bring this Bill before Parliament during that time.

There are two matters upon which I should like to comment. One is the provision to which the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, referred, in Clause 1, subsection (2) (a). That provides, as one of the conditions on which a grant of pension may be made, that the widow concerned should have married her husband "before he ceased to be a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary." I think that condition is rather hard. A woman who married a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary after he retired could not have anticipated that she would, even at this distant date, receive a pension—at most she could have had only a pious hope. But presumably she would have been a great comfort and help to her husband during the time that she was married to him. I do not know whether it is possible to make any provision in that way, but it would seem not unreasonable to do so, particularly since, in the case of war pensions (I think I am right in saying), that provision is now made.

Formerly, and up to the outbreak of the recent war, no provision was made for widows of soldiers who were married after the war injury was sustained. During the war years provision was made that, notwithstanding that a woman married a man after he had suffered injuries in the war—and, indeed, after he had left the Service—she should be entitled to a pension after the year 1939. I should have thought that some similar compromise might have been made on behalf of that class of widow in this case.

The only other comment I would make is that there is a rather remarkable provision in the Bill, which I think is in other Bills—namely, that regulations may provide for securing that where a widow of a former member of the Royal Irish Constabulary has remarried, and again becomes a widow, the same payments may be made to her under the regulations as if she had not remarried. That, I think, is a generous provision. The powers given to the Secretary of State under this Bill are purely discretionary. The members of the Royal Irish Constabulary served the United Kingdom Government of those days, and did their duty. It seems only right, therefore, that provision should be made for their widows. I can only express the hope that the discretionary power vested in the Secretary of State may be exercised as generously as possible.

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say a few sentences, mainly in praise of this excellent Bill, which I believe has the blessing of all Parties. I would, at the same time, acknowledge the sympathetic way in which my noble friend Lord Lloyd, and before him Mr. Chuter Ede, have so patiently listened to my representations, together with the representations of many others, on this subject in the past. As Mr. Chuter Ede said in another place, this Bill does a tardy act of justice. My chief complaint is of its tardiness. I cannot see that there ever was arty logical reason for treating these widows whose husbands retired before 1918 any less well than if their husbands had served under the Crown in this country, instead of in Ireland, since at that time the two countries were one. Therefore, I think that this measure of justice should be made retrospective to 1948 when, by the Police Pensions Regulations of that year, similar benefits were made available to all other pre-1918 police widows.

I am glad, after the sad letters I have received from some of these widows, to know that action has at last been taken. I feel a little uncomfortable, therefore, at asking for more. But if we do not make this measure retrospective to 1948, shall we not he spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar? Is not absolute justice better than approximate justice? I have already made this suggestion unofficially, and I believe there was a feeling that such a thing could not be done because there existed no precedent for giving pensions retrospectively. I hope that I shall not shake Whitehall to its foundations if I say that the observance of precedents is, after all, only a means to the end of fair treatment, of seeing that people with like claims are treated alike. I suggest that what has happened is in itself without precedent. These poor widows were for some reason overlooked; they were excluded from the benefits rightly granted to all other police widows. The Government—all praise to them!—are now putting this position right; but ought they not to undo the differentiation against the Irish widows as though it had never been made? It may well need unprecedented measures to remedy an unprecedented situation.

There is another defect in this admirable Bill, as has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds. It makes no provision for the widows who married Royal Irish Constabulary husbands after these had been disbanded or had retired on pension. The health of their husbands, in many cases, had been undermined by the hard conditions under which they did their duty during the six years of fighting in Ireland and, in consequence, many died young. As was urged by Sir David Campbell in another place, I feel that provision should be made for these widows also. I know that marriage during service is made a condition of granting pensions to other police widows, but in the case of the Royal Irish Constabulary the force was disbanded; and so the circumstances are different. I would ask Lord Lloyd to consider these two suggestions, with a view to embodying them in the Bill; and I would express my confident hope that the Home Secretary will exercise his power as generously as possible as regards the pre-1918 widows and those others whose existing pensions so badly need supplementing.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, if I may deal with the points which have been made in reverse order, I would say, in response to the hope which both noble I Lords have expressed that my right honourable friend will exercise with sympathy and understanding the powers which he is being awarded under this Bill, that I think I can repeat the assurance that that is his intention; certainly it is the intention of the Bill. Then I come to two other points. One, which both the noble Lord, Lord Milner, and my noble friend, Lord Moyne, raised is the question of the woman who married after her husband had left the force. Although I am naturally prepared to consider any suggestions put forward by noble Lords, I am bound to say with regard to this and, indeed, to the other point raised that I should be dishonest if I were to give either noble Lord very much hope.

Lord Moyne rather scoffed at precedent; I will be quite frank and say that both the courses suggested by the noble Lord are without precedent. He said that this is a special case; but I have never heard any case which has been put up for relieving some particular section of the community where there has not been special pleading of some kind, and that is really why these precedents are established. It would, indeed, be without precedent to award a pension to any widow who had married only after the husband had left the police force. I do not know of any case where that has been done, nor do I know of any case in which a pension has been awarded retrospectively. I do not wish to disappoint the noble Lord, but I must say I think the prospects of our being able to fulfil his requests are rather remote. However, I am perfectly prepared to consider what the noble Lords have said, and to draw the attention of my right honourable friend to it. I accept the tribute paid to the former Home Secretary, who very seriously considered this matter during his term of office. In conclusion, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the support they are giving to this Bill, and I hope your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2; and corn-milted to a Committee of the Whole House.