HL Deb 15 January 1996 vol 568 cc355-7

Lord Campbell of Alloway asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will extend eligibility to war widows pension, payable since 1978, to potential widows who married after 1964, in the light of similar entitlement under the Parliamentary Pensions Scheme.

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

My Lords, under the rules of the Armed Forces Pension Scheme, before 1978, a widow had to be married to her husband while he was still in the Armed Forces to qualify for a pension. From 6th April 1978 the entitlement was extended to the widows of those servicemen who married after retirement. We have no plans to extend the provision retrospectively to recognise service before 1978. Provision for widows' benefits, regardless of the date of marriage, has been a feature of the Parliamentary Pension Scheme since it was first established. Both the funding of that scheme and the levels of contribution have taken this into account.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply, but would he accept that the scheme as conceived and as implemented is not only arbitrary but also anomalous? Further, can my noble friend say whether further consideration may be given to such disentitlements? I have in mind, as an example, the potential widow of Lieutenant Colonel David Hunter MC of the Royal Marines, who married again after the death of his first wife in 1974. That man had seen 25 years of armed service. He was put in the bag in 1940 and spent most of his captivity in Colditz.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I understand very well that there are cases such as the one mentioned by my noble friend which involve considerable hardship. There is no doubt that the introduction of any change to a pension scheme can cause seeming unfairness. The recognition of post-retirement marriages was one of a number of major improvements which were made to public-service pension schemes in the 1970s. Each of those improvements was introduced from a fixed and current date. The government of the day felt—and I have no reason to criticise their view—that none of those improvements could have been afforded if they had had to be extended retrospectively to recognise previous service. That remains the position today.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does it not seem quite extraordinary that a man who has lost his first wife and who has, presumably, been paying the contributions like anyone else should not be able to get the benefit for the second wife after he has remarried? It is difficult to follow the logic. It seems to me to be very inconsistent. The Minister has already told us that such great expenditure cannot possibly be afforded, but how much would it really amount to?

Earl Howe

My Lords, we simply do not know the number of post-retirement marriages contracted before April 1978. Therefore, it is only possible to make a stab at how much it would cost. The estimate that we have made is that it would cost about £60 million in total for the Armed Forces to recognise all service prior to 1978. As I said earlier, any changes in the rules of a pension scheme are bound to introduce what are regarded by some as anomalies. However, one can only afford to make such changes if one does so from a fixed and certain date.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that such an extension was the subject of an amendment to the Pensions Bill when it was before your Lordships' House? Indeed, the Government did not support it. Does the noble Earl further agree that, whatever unfairness is introduced—the Minister frankly recognised that there will be unfairness; and there is unfairness—it is up to the Government to ensure that at least the least unfair option be chosen? That is not the case at present.

Earl Howe

My Lords, if I may say so, that was not the view in the mid-1970s of the government of the party that the noble Lord represents. They decided—and successive governments have taken the same view—that improvements to a pension scheme are certainly desirable. However, the question then is how to introduce those improvements. The route chosen by the then government, and, indeed, subsequently by this Government, was to do so progressively. That, I suggest, is the sensible course.

Lord Desai

My Lords, what is the maximum number of widows who may be involved? The noble Earl may not know the exact number, but can he not indicate the maximum number? I am sure that even the maximum is not a very large number.

Earl Howe

My Lords, as I have already said, we simply do not know the number of post-retirement marriages that were contracted before April 1978. It is only possible to make an estimate. It is not simply a matter of how much this would cost, it is also a matter of principle. To change the terms of an occupational pension scheme retrospectively is not a route we should go down.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I understand the arguments that the noble Earl has put forward and I accept most of them. However, in the light of the widespread concern about this situation, will he not ask his right honourable friend whether the Government will look at the problem again to see whether there is a case for a change in this particular instance?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I very much respect the point of view of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. I am sure that this debate will be brought to the attention of my right honourable friend. As I am sure the noble Lord knows, a number of suggested changes in connection with the Armed Forces Pension Scheme were recommended by the committee chaired by Sir Michael Bett on the pay and conditions of the Armed Forces. The Government are looking at that report carefully and we shall announce our response later in the year.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, will my noble friend be kind enough to look again, with an open mind, at the anomaly in relation to the Parliamentary Pensions Scheme? It is all very well, but the members of that pension scheme are not on active service and are not exposed to any form of danger.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I understand my noble friend's point. With great respect to him, I believe that the guiding principle is that improvements to occupational pension schemes are made on the basis that they benefit only those giving service on or after the appropriate date. That principle is completely unaffected by Parliament's recent approval of an amendment to the parliamentary scheme. The change will only affect those who are still serving Members of Parliament. Those who had ceased to be MPs at the introduction of the improvement will not benefit from it. That is a far cry from what is requested within the scope of this Question.

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