HL Deb 11 December 1989 vol 513 cc1136-41

3.40 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the leave of the House, it may be convenient if I repeat a Statement about the war widows pensions which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about war widows. The Government recognise the great strength of feeling that has been shown by honourable Members of this House and in another place and by so many throughout the country in support of improving the position of the widows of members of the Armed Forces and others who gave their lives in the service of our country.

"Previous Governments have sought to give special recognition to the position of war widows and this Government in particular have steadily improved the pensions and allowances payable to them. The war widows' pensions, which are paid to all war widows, are the responsibility of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. Quite apart from the 10 up-ratings over this period, in 1979 my right honourable friend the Lord President, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, made the pensions completely tax free. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has already announced that the amount of these pensions which is not counted in assessing income related benefits will be further increased. At the same time, the structure and the value of age allowances have been significantly improved, and my right honourable friend has already announced a further real improvement, especially for the war widows over 80, to take effect next April. These improvements have helped the vast majority of the pre-1973 war widows, who are aged 65 and over. In addition, war widows who have paid national insurance contributions are uniquely entitled to receive a retirement pension based on those contributions in addition to their pensions as war widows.

"The Armed Forces pension scheme, which is the responsibility of my department and to which significant improvements were made in 1973 provides an occupational pension scheme for service personnel. This scheme also includes provision for widows. Although the scheme is formally described as non-contributory, it in fact involves an effective contribution from a serviceman's salary. This is the adjustment made by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body on an annual basis as part of the process of recommending pay levels for service personnel, which is currently equivalent to a deduction in pay of 10 per cent. Occupational pension schemes of different kinds cover a vast number in the public service, including about 2 million pensioners, and it is clearly not possible to apply retrospectively the benefits of improved schemes to those whose husbands were never members of them. There will therefore be no change to the Armed Forces pension scheme.

"The Government have however taken full note of those who have argued strongly that much more should be done to improve the income of those earlier war widows who cannot benefit from the later pension schemes and have been giving urgent attention to how best this could be done. The Government accordingly propose to bring forward arrangements which will be implemented, along with the other improvements to which I have already referred, in April 1990 to give the pre-1973 widows a new special payment of £40 a week. This additional payment will be entirely free of tax. Further, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security will be taking steps to ensure that this sum is not counted for the purposes of calculating income related benefits. Both these advantages do not in fact apply to the Armed Forces pension scheme. The new scheme will cover all those currently eligible to receive benefits under the pre-1973 war pension scheme and will be administered by the Department of Social Security on behalf of the Ministry of Defence.

"The payment proposed will be increased in line with the normal annual up-rating. The cost of these proposals is some —110 million in the first year which will be met from the Reserve within the public expenditure planning totals announced in the Autumn Statement.

"The Government recognise the very special place that these widows hold in the affections of this country, the particular debt which we all owe them and the strong feeling of many Members of both Houses and the public throughout the country that they should be treated as a quite exceptional and distinctive case. I believe that the proposals that I have announced today are a proper and fair response to that public interest and concern and a genuine recognition to those whose husbands gave their lives for our country".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.44 p.m.

Lord Irving of Dartford

My Lords, we welcome the Statement, even if it still represents only a partial solution to the problem of justice between the pre-1973 and the post-1973 war widows. We are pleased that the efforts of Members of both sides of the House should have moved the Government to action in this matter. However, will the noble Earl say why he has marred the effect of an otherwise excellent proposal by a partial payment? Is he aware that £40 per week will still we believe leave a £29 a week shortfall for the pre-1973 widows? Will he confirm that? Why must these ladies wait until next April when at least some of them will not be alive to receive the money? Will the Minister look again at the matter to see whether at least a payment of some of this money can be made before Christmas?

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, from these Benches we too welcome the Statement. It is little more than half of what we hoped for and campaigned for, but we accept it on the good basis that half a loaf is better than no bread. I wish to reinforce the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Irving, which is that the scheme comes in an unusual form. The addition is made in an unusual administrative form and we can see no reason whatever why it should not be implemented earlier than April next year. It would be good to hear the Minister's reasons for that.

We know that the measure will nevertheless be a very welcome relief for many thousands of war widows. We appreciate that the Government have yielded to the powerful pressure from the public and Members of both Houses. However, it has taken a long time for this pressure to tell. If the measure had been announced a week earlier, it would have saved the Minister from his embarrassing ordeal last week of attempting to defend the indefensible against many voices in all parts of the House. Nevertheless, it would be ungracious not to welcome the step forward made by the Government.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I thank both the noble Lord, Lord Irving of Dartford, and the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, for their partial welcome of what the Government feel is a considerably improved scheme to negate the difference between pre- and post-1973 war widows. I shall deal with both the points made by the noble Lords in common because I believe they are common to each other. Our intention is to increase the additional pension annually in line with inflation. I would point out to the noble Lord, Lord Irving of Dartford, that when these proposals are introduced no pre-1973 war widow should receive less than £100 a week minimum and most will receive considerably more.

As regards timing, which again both noble Lords mentioned, we have endeavoured to make the proposed pension as simple as possible. Nevertheless no scheme of this kind can be implemented overnight. I think noble Lords will appreciate and understand that. A great deal of work has yet to be done in consulting local authorities to ensure that the payments do not affect certain income related benefits and in identifying precisely who should receive payments under the arrangements announced. While we wish to make the payments as early as we can, April 1990 is the earliest realistic date for this implementation.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us are glad that the Government have accepted the view expressed on all sides of both Houses that an improvement should be made in respect of the pre-1973 war widows? Is he further aware that many of us think it is particularly appropriate that it is he who has read out the Statement in this House in view of his extremely vigorous and active defence of the previous system on quite a number of occasions? Repentance is always said to be good for the soul.

Is my noble friend also aware that, although the Statement represents a great improvement, it does not go as far as some of us had hoped, in as much as, as I understand it, some inequality will continue as between the pre-1973 and post-1973 war widows? I hope that the Government will continue to consider narrowing that gap further.

Does my noble friend also recognise that the effect of this great improvement is somewhat marred by the delay in its implementation? Is he aware of the fact that many of us —particularly those of us who have been concerned with the administration of war pensions —are fully aware of the technical complications involved in making a change? Would it not have been possible, for example, to introduce the £40 per week increase immediately, preferably before Christmas, and thereby make the widows, most of whom are of a very considerable age, realise how warm is the feeling of their fellow countrymen for them?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter for his generous comments in your Lordships' House. I fully recognise that at all times there was very great pressure from your Lordships to improve the situation. I hope that the Government have done their very best in the particular circumstances. At all times I did my best to confirm to your Lordships that I would make the strength of your feelings known to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. He has taken very due note of the feelings of your Lordships and the strength of your convictions in this case.

As regards the question of timing raised by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, I reiterate that this is the most significant and substantial increase ever made to war widows' pensions. I am sure that that is how the population of the country will see it. I remind your Lordships that the increase is £40 per week, it is not taxable and the entire sum is not taken into account when calculating income-related benefits. I should like to emphasise those three aspects.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the reference in the final part of the Statement to the praise and honour accorded to war widows reflects sentiments that have been voiced day in and day out, month after month, in this House and in another place? Is he also aware that the Statement will nevertheless be regarded by the Royal British Legion and the general public as a very good start but not the end of the matter? Will he ask his right honourable friend whether it would be possible for the implementation of the increase to be speeded up so that the widows do not have to wait until next April? There must be a possibility of improving the situation so that the aim of our endeavours can be achieved — namely, that war widows receive the increase as quickly as possible.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, again I say to the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, that what has happened is in the past and that we must look forward to the future, particularly the future for the pre-1973 war widows. Regarding implementation, I repeat that it is a generous scheme and it is not possible to bring the scheme into operation until 9th April next year in view of the need to ensure that all the proper procedures are in hand for doing so.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, while I welcome the changes that have been announced today, in which I am sure the noble Earl has played his part as he promised the House on previous occasions, I should like to ask two questions. The noble Earl has told the House that the change will cost £110 million in the first year. Can he tell the House how much successive governments have saved by denying parity of pensions to pre-1973 widows for a number of years, a parity which the Government seem to accept only partially at present? Should the cost not be set against the savings that have been made by the earlier denial of rights to pre-1973 widows?

Secondly, while I understand the difficulties that I am sure the civil servants are making with respect to the time that is required to implement the changes, if it takes that length of time to deal with all those pieces of paper, why cannot the April award be backdated? In that case the widows would receive some arrears, which many of us feel have been due to them for many years.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, I do not believe that her argument is a fitting one because, as I have said, we should be looking to the state of play in the future rather than dwelling on the past. On the matter of timing I say again that proper arrangements have to be made. It is important to ensure that we are able to introduce the scheme as quickly, as sensibly and as reasonably as possible. That is what we are currently doing.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, will my noble friend say whether the current war widows' pension is tax free or whether tax-free status is confined to the grant that has been announced today?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the pre-1973 war widows' pension scheme currently administered by the DSS is tax free. The post-1973 scheme administered by the Ministry of Defence is taxable.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us would agree with him that we should not be backward looking in this matter? However, will he now answer the question put to him by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, as to why there cannot be backdating when the money is eventually paid in April next year? Will he answer that specific point?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I have already answered that question. I made it quite clear to your Lordships why that is not being done and the need for time to get the scheme right. I hope that I have your Lordships' agreement as to the generosity of the scheme, which provides an extra £40 a week which is non taxable. That is due to be paid from 9th April next year.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Vickers is not present in the House today. Many noble Lords will know that she has been ill for a long time. The noble Baroness is President of the War Widows Association of Great Britain. I know that were she here she would give the same welcome to the Statement that other noble Lords have given. In her absence I am standing in as President of the War Widows Association and I shall take over from her in the coming year. Therefore I should like to add my own thanks for the way in which my noble friend has responded to an all-party request for parity between pre- and post-1973 war widows. I do not wish to qualify that welcome except to say that we were all hoping for parity.

I should also like to join my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter in saying that it would have been most agreeable if the increase could have been implemented before Christmas. We are talking of people of a very great age who may not live until April; people in that age group are dying. I should like to give a thought to those people who have spent some years fighting for this particular cause and who have not lived to enjoy the benefit.

Nevertheless, I wish to give an unequivocal welcome to my noble friend's Statement today. The improvements that have been made by this Government through the Department of Social Security to meet the specific needs of pensioners are welcome. I hope that parity will one day be achieved for both pre-1973 and post-1973 war widows.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Blatch for her comments regarding parity between pre-1973 and post-1973 widows. I am also delighted to hear of her forthcoming appointment. I believe that your Lordships would wish me to express our sorrow at the illness of the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers. We wish her a speedy recovery and I am delighted to know that she also gives her backing to the removal of the disparity between the two pensions. I think that my noble friend Lady Blatch will agree that the Government have gone a very substantial way towards removing that disparity.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, in all fairness does the Minister agree that if the arguments which have resulted in this welcome Statement had been accepted by the Government five or six months ago—nothing has changed since then —the proposal would have been implemented by now instead of having to wait until next April?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, with respect I must point out to the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, that for the last 15 or 16 years all governments of whatever colour have had problems with these circumstances. They have fully understood the case for special treatment of pre-1973 war widows. I am glad to be able to say that the present Government have decided to endeavour to do something about it and to decrease the disparity between the two groups. But that will not take place until April of next year.