HL Deb 15 March 1994 vol 553 cc95-7

Lord Ashley, of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to restrict the pensions of widows of servicemen who died from smoking-related diseases.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Viscount Astor)

My Lords, following consultation with the Central Advisory Committee on War Pensions on our proposals to amend the law governing war pensions so as to exclude, with certain exceptions, death or disablement caused by a smoking or alcohol-related disease, we have decided to go ahead with the change but with a significant easement.

We originally proposed to except from the exclusion any individual who suffered from a service related mental disablement that was assessed at 80 per cent. or more and caused him to smoke or drink. Following careful consideration of responses, we have decided to set the minimum level of mental disablement that will be considered at 50 per cent. Individual claims will still be subject to the further test that, whatever the assessed level of disablement, it must also cause the individual to smoke, or prevent him giving up. An amending order will be laid shortly.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I do not consider that to be a significant amendment. Is the noble Viscount aware that it would be grossly unfair to interfere in any way with the pensions of those widows? Does he agree that it was the stress of service life, war and prison camps that led many servicemen to become addicted to tobacco? Is he further aware that in those days the Government provided free cigarettes because it was believed that tobacco and smoking relieved stress? Will he take on board that if the Government now try to relieve those widows of their pensions, that will cause stress both in and out of Parliament?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, there is no proposal to make changes for anyone currently receiving a pension. The reason that we are making the change is to clarify the position after a recent court case. The change will be effective from the date on which the amending order comes into force—28th March—and will not affect any war widow or disabled ex-serviceman who is already receiving a pension as a result of a smoking-related disease.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend say why the fact that someone indulged in what many of us regard as the unhealthy practice of smoking should deprive his widow of any degree of pension at all? Will he take note that the Question raises a very bad issue? Does he agree that the widow should receive a proper widow's pension whatever the cause of her husband's death?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the war pensions scheme was introduced in 1917 and provides compensation for those disabled as a result of service and for their widows. The war pensions scheme was never intended to compensate for the effects of a habit such as smoking. Smoking is the result of a personal decision and is not a requirement of service. It has been a long-standing policy of successive governments that smoking is only regarded as attributable to service when there is a severe disabling mental condition, itself attributable to service, that renders the individual incapable of exercising such personal choice.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, does the Minister agree that during the war the Army used to give cigarettes away free and urged everybody to smoke? Were not servicemen given 40, 50 or 60 cigarettes a clay? How can the Government at the end of the day suddenly relate that to pensions for widows?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, cigarettes were supplied to servicemen during the Second World War as part of the ration for those who smoked. There was never any official compulsion to smoke. The decision whether or not to do so remained a personal one. Even those who smoked during the war were free to give up the habit afterwards. The same applies to those who were able to buy cigarettes at a reduced price. I agree that during the Second World War and indeed at the time of National Service the dangers of smoking were not known, as they are now. Smoking was the normally accepted thing to do. But that applied to the population as a whole and not just to those who served in the forces.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the logic of his position means that people who smoke should not be accepted in the service at all?

Viscount Astor

No, my Lords. I do not think that it means that at all. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that the basic condition for the award of a war widow's pension, for example, is that the husband's death was due to, or substantially hastened by, service in the Armed Forces. There must be that causal connection; otherwise the very preferential rates of war widows' pensions could not be justified. For example, if the husband's death was not connected with service, the state provides for the widow's maintenance through the social security system. That is long established government policy. We are clarifying the law. We are not changing the policy.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will the Minister take note of the response of practically the entire House to the question raised by his noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter? Is not that what Back to Basics is all about?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I believe that I said—I shall say it again—that we are not changing the policy. It has been the policy of many governments over the years. All that we are doing is clarifying the law in this respect.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the Minister says that it is a matter of personal choice. Surely if the Government issue free cigarettes to servicemen it then becomes a matter of public policy. Do the Government accept that they should not have issued free cigarettes to servicemen? If so, why are they ducking responsibility now for the actions that they took then?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, until quite recently in the Navy, I believe, a tot of rum was issued to those who served. It has never been suggested that as a result we should give war pensions to those who claim that they became alcoholics because of their service.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, can my noble friend say how one knows whether or not a man died from smoking? We all know that smoking makes one more likely to suffer from lung cancer and heart conditions. But if a man dies from cancer of the lung or a heart condition, how can we know that it was smoking and not something else?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we do not intend to totally prescribe diseases linked to smoking or alcohol. The amendment will only exclude those claims where the disease is due to the effects of smoking or alcohol. For example, if a person claims as a result of a chronic chest condition and there is reliable evidence to raise a reasonable doubt about the condition being due to service in some way—perhaps because of poor living conditions during the war—the claim would not be excluded by the amendment. In a widow's claim, if there was more than one cause of death, one being smoking-related and the other not smoking-related but linked to service, the claim would again succeed.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I have no wish to embarrass the Minister. However, as he has such a bad case, will he please ask the Secretary of State to think again?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I said earlier in my Answer that we will shortly be laying the order. I must stress that it is not a change of policy. It has been the policy of many governments, including that of the noble Lord opposite when in office. We are simply clarifying the law after the recent court case.

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