HL Deb 09 November 1999 vol 606 cc1324-7

The Commons disagreed to Amendment No. 20B for the following reason—

20C Because it involves charges on public funds, and the Commons do not offer any further reason, trusting that this reason may be deemed sufficient.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 20B to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 20C.—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 20B to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 20C.—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Baroness Strange

My Lords, we are very disappointed that once again the Government are not prepared to save taxpayers' money by accepting the amendment that I moved yesterday with splendid support from your Lordships, particularly my noble kinsman Lord Russell whom I always hope has more jolly limericks, if not mice, up his sleeve. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for all the help and support that she has given me in this matter. There has been more than a whiff of unpleasantness in the air—never a very nice smell—but despite this the amendment has come back from the other place a third time. It would not be constitutional to send it back again. Unlike some noble Lords, I always abide by what is constitutional. I believe totally in our constitution and therefore I shall withdraw my objections this time.

Earl Russell

My Lords, Mr Frank Field, whose support this House may again be proud to have received today, once remarked that if the House of Lords should spot so much as a grammatical error in an Act of Parliament a government whip would be found to rise to move that that House do disagree with the Lords in the said amendment. Today, I was very much reminded of that remark. I listened to Ministers with considerable care to find out why they saw fit to reject the amendment. Their formal reason was privilege, but the Minister said that clearly it was not a perfunctory matter of £3 million. I hope that I have his words correctly since I was not allowed to write them down.

We are told that a review is necessary. It has never been explained to this House or, as far as I could hear, the other place why a review is necessary. They tell us that it will be completed in the summer. A question was raised as to when that would be. Summer is a movable feast, regrettably sometimes by as much as 12 months in the British climate. I heard that they rejected the amendment because they felt like saying no. If that is incorrect I should be extremely grateful to be told why. Relations between the Houses do not work in this spirit. If we want a bicameral parliament we need rather better communication than this.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I shall not detain the House for more than a moment. The House will be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, for the way in which she pursued the matter.

I turn to the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, as regards the timing. The Government have said clearly that they are carrying out the review. As the noble Baroness pointed out, it is concerned with timing, context, ring fencing and fairness. But if the matter is to be pursued with suitable urgency, to wait until next summer seems an excessively long period. Perhaps the Minister can indicate that it can be done in a shorter timescale.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, as I think the opinion of the House reflects tonight, I believe that we have taken the matter as far as possible at this stage. I am very grateful, as I am sure is the House, for the great dignity, courtesy and charm with which the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, has fought the corner on behalf of a group of women with whom, in particular this week, we deeply sympathise and whom we respect.

I have had the pleasure—it is a pleasure—of working with the War Widows Association over the past couple of years, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange. I think that they are as brave and gallant wives and widows as the spouses they lost; we pay tribute to them tonight.

I am grateful that the noble Baroness is not taking the issue further. We have argued from the Dispatch Box that we do not think an amendment to a welfare reform Bill is the appropriate vehicle for an issue which is essentially about the occupational pension provision of the Ministry of Defence. We believe, as we argued at the time, that this should be embedded in a wider review of the MoD, which is happening at the moment and which will become public and available for consultation in the summer. I expect that the noble Baroness—perhaps I may call her my noble friend—will be leading the case for war widows on that consultation exercise.

The House of Commons rejected the amendment on financial grounds. Your Lordships will know, because we quoted the Red Book last night, that this is the conventional formal ground for disagreement. However, two issues remained, and this is what I think persuaded the Government that at this stage they should resist the amendment. First, although the sum of money involved for this group, £3 million, is a modest sum in the context of government expenditure, although perhaps not by other standards, there is a real difficulty of ring fencing, as the noble Baroness must accept. One cannot seriously ring fence for attributable widows but not the other service widows who have suffered as great a loss. Therefore, the repercussions for them and, beyond that, for public service pensions are very considerable. That there may need to be a debate at some stage about public service pensions will be for your Lordships to determine in due course.

The second point I wish to make as regards war widows is that, given that the MoD is having its review, that it will be published this summer, and that there will be plenty of other opportunities for the noble Baroness to pursue her case—we are delighted that she will remain in your Lordships' House—I am sure that we shall revisit the issue. At that point, we should have behind us, or with us, the position of the MoD as reflected in the review, which may change the context.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I am sure that I speak for the entire House in expressing appreciation for the way in which she handled the issue. I do not want to say that I look forward to the debate again on another occasion! None the less, the noble Baroness has fought well and hard, and just as we are proud of the War Widows Association, so it should be proud of her tonight.

On Question, Motion agreed to.