HL Deb 02 March 1995 vol 561 cc1579-82

3.15 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, as part of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, they will arrange for a substantial increase in war widows' pensions.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)

My Lords, the Government have always recognised the special sacrifice made by war widows. The majority of World War II war widows now receive a totally tax-free pension of almost £140 per week, which is more than two-and-a-half times a national insurance widow's pension. Bearing this and the other unique concessions which are available to war widows in mind, we do not consider that a substantial increase in war widows' pensions can be justified.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I accept what my noble friend has said as to the steps that successive Ministers have taken to improve the war pension, but, if we are to have a sincere commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, surely there are few better ways of doing this than by adding something to the income of those who made the greatest sacrifice of all—the loss of a husband in defence of his country.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I do not in any way dissent from my noble friend's sentiments, but we did not need to wait until this 50th anniversary before doing something very special, which is what we did in 1990 when we increased war widows' pensions by £40 a week, which is equivalent to 53 per cent. That was a far better signal of our appreciation than would be given by doing something in this special year.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, while I appreciate the Minister's interest and his endeavours to help the Royal British Legion—we are grateful for that—does he not agree that on occasions there are special cases and special circumstances which require special examination? If such instances should arise, would the Minister at least be prepared to examine them?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's kind remarks as regards the various meetings I had with the Royal British Legion. Of course one has to look not just at war widows' pensions but at the whole field of war pensioners, including those men who have been left severely disabled. We should not lose sight of them. Of course we look for ways of improving the situation both for war widows and war pensioners. As I have already explained to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, we took a special step in 1990.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, is the Minister really saying that in this year of all years there is no positive gesture the Government can make to improve the lot of war widows, many of whom, because of the anomalous way that pensions are paid in practice, are suffering great deprivation in the evening of their life? Does he not agree that money being spent, however wisely and sensibly, on commemoration and celebration in May and in August will be that much less acceptable to the veterans if they think that the widows of those who made all this possible are still suffering great hardship?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I appreciate the point that the noble and gallant Lord makes about this special year and about the celebrations and remembrances we shall have of events 50 years ago.

However, I return to my point that five years ago we appreciated the need of pre-1973 war widows and took the step then of increasing their pension of £74.45 by an additional £40 a week. That was a significant step. I believe that it is more important to look at what we do, not when we do it.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, can my noble friend not show a little compassion? While we understand that it may not be possible to increase the pension received during the course of the year, could the day of celebration be marked by giving a lump sum to war widows? I do not mean the equivalent of the £10 Christmas bonus given to ordinary pensioners, but something substantial like £500.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, as I said earlier in answer to a previous question, there are more people involved than war widows. There are war pensioners and people such as the limbless who are looked after by BLESMA and the like. We should not lose sight of them. We have to try to make sure that whatever we do in this field is fair to all the people to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, does the Minister accept that we welcomed the increase in 1990 and we recall the terrific campaign throughout the country that led up to that increase on behalf of war widows? He mentioned other means that might be adopted in this respect. On this 50th anniversary will he look at the possibility of index linking the pensions of thousands of ex-servicemen who are still receiving a pittance of a pension instead of the index-linked pension to which they are entitled?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am not entirely sure to what the noble Lord refers. War widows' pensions and other pensions paid to war pensioners are already index linked with prices in exactly the same way as many other benefits.

Lord Freyberg

My Lords, does not the Minister think that for war widows who remarry it would be sensible to guarantee the automatic restoration of the DSS war widows pension on second bereavement, thereby encouraging war widows to remarry and thus saving the DSS large sums of money?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, saving the DSS large sums of money appeals to me greatly. However, spending more money does not seem to be the way to save money. I suspect that the noble Lord's proposal, which he also put forward in the debate that we had on this subject, would increase our expenditure in this regard. I explained to him on that occasion why the war widows' pension is applied as it is. If widows remarry they obviously cease to be widows, and one assumes that their second husbands have made some provision for their retirement and any second widowhood.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it was not only servicemen who were killed by enemy action but many others, including merchant seamen, lifeboatmen, people working in the ARP (who suffered greatly in the Battle of Britain) and firemen? Does he agree that if there is to be recognition, it would be difficult to draw the line?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, my noble friend makes a valid point. There is special provision for some of the categories mentioned, but there are many others who suffered in the war in various ways who do not come into any of the special categories. That does not take away in any way from the special regard in which we hold war widows and which is clear in the very much larger widows' pension we give to war widows than to any other widows.