HL Deb 04 December 1989 vol 513 cc597-600

2.42 p.m.

Lord Molloy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will bring pensions of war widows of husbands killed in the First and Second World Wars into line with those of widows of servicemen killed in Northern Ireland and the Falklands.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (The Earl of Arran)

My Lords, there are no plans to do so.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that that reply will grieve not only the Royal British Legion but also probably the entire nation? In 1973 when the proposals were first made the Royal British Legion was consulted. It was later discovered on implementation that war widows of servicemen killed in the 1939–45 war subsequently became worse off than widows of servicemen killed in later wars. Is the Minister aware that many of us feel that that is wrong? Is he aware that the British Legion is asking that widows of all wars in which soldiers, sailors and airmen gave their lives should be treated the same? The servicemen made no differentiation in their deaths, and the Government should not differentiate between their widows.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, first, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, as I have done on several previous occasions, that the interest of the Royal British Legion concerning war widows is always kept very closely in mind and will continue to be kept closely in mind. As regards the unfairness of which the noble Lord spoke, for the third time in three weeks perhaps I may remind your Lordships that the Government are not insensitive to the case of war widows. But at the same time I must make it clear that that is why the pensions paid to war widows under the DSS scheme and the extra allowances are much more generous than the state pension for other widows.

Your Lordships are by now well aware of the position, but we cannot ignore the fact that from next April war widows will receive between 30 per cent. and 72 per cent. more than other widows receiving a state pension. In addition, all those payments are tax-free. Furthermore, some 75 per cent. of war widows of retirement age also receive a retirement pension as a result of contributions made during their own employment. I apologise if that explanation seems tedious and repetitive, but I want to make clear the Government's aim in this matter.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I express my admiration for my noble friend's robust defence of the indefensible, but will he tell your Lordships whether those in the Government who take these decisions fully understand that opinion in both Houses of Parliament appears to be overwhelmingly in favour of making that concession? In those circumstances, would it not be better for all concerned, including the Government, if they were to yield gracefully and quickly?

Earl of Arran

My Lords, once again I must say to my noble friend, who, I think, raises the same problem on behalf of all your Lordships, that other ministerial colleagues have explained clearly all along —as I hope I have done —the difficulties involved in making such a change.

Lord Carver

My Lords, I recognise that it would perhaps be invidious to distinguish between the widows of those killed in action and those who died of war wounds or, for instance, in prisoner of war camps. But will the Minister realise that constantly comparing the pensions of war widows with those of other widows does not answer the question? As the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has said today and on previous occasions, the question is: why should there be an enormous anomaly between the position of those war widows entitled to a pension before 1973 and that of war widows entitled to a pension after 1973?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, as I have tried to point out in the past, I understand the argument put forward by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, with regard to this problem. But I hope that, as I have endeavoured to do in the past, I have pointed out the difficulties on the occupational scheme side of trying to make equal pre–1973 war widows and post–1973 war widows. I have endeavoured to point out, first, the considerable cost of £200 million. Secondly, it would be impossible to leave out the war disabled, costing a further £400 million. Obviously, there would also be the knock-on effect of taking into account all the other public services.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, did my noble friend or his advisers read the excellent article in The Times by Mrs. Parker explaining that the top-up arrangements given to pre-1973 war widows could invoke serious poverty trap problems and that all those problems would go away if the Government behaved sensibly and humanely and made all widows' pensions the same? This matter gives the Government a bad name and, as a loyal supporter of the Government, I do not want that to happen.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, in answer to my noble friend I can say that there is a statutory disregard of £5 per week set against war widows where claims for income-related benefits are made. That disregard is to be increased to £10 from April next year. Furthermore, war widows are also able to receive state retirement pension in addition to their war widows' pension if they have worked and paid contributions. It is estimated that about 75 per cent. of those who are of retirement age receive extra pension. Finally, I can also say in rejoinder to my noble friend that my right honourable friend the Minister for Social Security has said in Committee in another place that he would be content to consider cases of hardship to see what further assistance might be given.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, as the noble Earl quite rightly said, the Government's arguments have been stated clearly and repeatedly by several Ministers. However, is he also aware that those arguments are rejected by a large and increasing all-party body of Members of both Houses? Will he heed carefully the advice given to him by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, to withdraw now when he can do so with some dignity?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I have made it clear on two previous occasions that I have informed my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. On both previous occasions I have been able to inform your Lordships that my right honourable friend pays great attention to the feelings of noble Lords and what they say in the House.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, how can the Government justify the recent huge pay rises to Members of another place when they refuse to raise the pensions of pre-1973 war widows to the level of those of post-1973 widows?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I think that that is another question for another day.

Lord Irving of Dartford

My Lords, in view of the growing support for this measure in both Houses, does the Minister think that it would be wise for the Government to be generous and consider at least a review rather than have legislation dragged out of them through a Private Member's Bill which will receive much support in both Houses?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the situation as regards war widows is always kept under review.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, did I hear the Minister aright when he said that the total cost was only £200 million and that if the disabled were added it would be £400 million? Have not the Government lately poured far bigger sums of money than that into projects much less worthy? As the noble Baroness said, do we not read every day of increases in pay and allowances and so forth throughout the public service which make this sum look like chickenfeed?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, with respect, I do not think that the noble Lord heard my previous answer correctly. It was perhaps my fault, for which I apologise. The total combination of war widows' pensions and the war disability situation would amount to some £600 million. The further point that I want to stress is that the knock-on effect would cost billions of pounds in the public services.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that not only Members of this House but those in another place too are crying out for this anomaly to be removed? The Minister accepted that there is an anomaly. He told us why things could be different and how much it would cost. But perhaps I may remind the Minister that this Government paid something like £4 billion —or was it even more than that?—into the national debt. Is the Minister telling us that the Government cannot find £400 million?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I do not think I have anything further to add to what I have already said on this particular point.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, can the Minister illuminate the House on one point? He said that the immediate effect would be a cost of £200 million and that there was a further £400 million in disability which, by the token of the present Government's Autumn Statement, is chickenfeed, as one noble Lord said. The Minister then referred to knock-on effects. What are those knock-on effects and can he quantify them?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the whole point of any occupational pension scheme is that it is forward-looking and futuristic. The noble Lord knows very well that occupational pension schemes were not made to be retrospective.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, if the noble Earl is really so worried about the retrospective nature of the payment —and throughout this discussion I have been waiting for him to say that —what on earth is there to prevent the Government producing a single one-clause Bill to ensure that these particular widows will be given a pension? One need not tack it on to previous legislation.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I have explained on previous occasions the problem about ring-fencing. This would be a very difficult situation in which to ring-fence.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, I appreciate that the noble Earl is doing his best. However, since the noble Lord the Leader of the House is not present, I wonder whether the noble Earl the Deputy Leader would care to comment on a situation wherein the whole House unites in a particular view. In my opinion the Leader of the House ought to be here to listen to this discussion. It is a matter on which this House will not let go.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, in view of the fact that my noble friend the Leader of the House is not here, the only comment I shall make is that the view of your Lordships' House is perfectly clear. This discussion has been going on for quite a long while and my noble friend has accepted the questions which have been given to him. I shall draw the views of the House to the attention of my noble friend the Leader of the House and also to that of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. Having said that, I think it would be appropriate for us to move on to the next Question.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, are the Government aware —

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Lord Molloy

My Lords, it is my Question.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, we have been discussing this Question for quite a long time. I know that it was his Question originally, but I think that it would be appropriate and for the convenience of the House for us to move on.