HL Deb 26 July 2000 vol 616 cc428-33

.—(1) The Secretary of State shall review the operation of this section when—

  1. (a) a report on the armed forces pension scheme has been laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State for Defence; and
  2. (b) the results of any public consultation upon a report as cited in paragraph (a) above have been published;
and a report of any review carried out under this section shall be laid before Parliament.

(2) Subject to subsection (3), a widow in receipt of a widow's pension under any of the enactments mentioned in subsection (4) ("the DSS pension") and in receipt of a pension paid under the Armed Forces Pension Scheme shall on remarriage or when living together as husband and wife with a member of the opposite sex only retain the Forces Family Pension (attributable).

(3) Subsection (2) does not apply to a widow in receipt of a basic pension under section 44 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992; and a widow in receipt of such a pension who has remarried or is living together as husband and wife with a member of the opposite sex may not retain the Forces Family Pension (attributable).

(4) The enactments referred to in subsection (2) are—

  1. (a) the Naval, Military and Air Forces etc. (Disablement and Death) Service Pensions Order 1983, and any order re-enacting the provisions of that order,
  2. (b) the Personal Injuries (Civilians) Scheme 1983, and any subsequent scheme made under the Personal Injuries (Emergency Provisions) Act 1939,
  3. (c) any scheme made under the Pensions (Navy, Army, Air Force and Mercantile Marine) Act 1939, or the Polish Resettlement Act 1947 applying the provisions of any such order as is referred to in paragraph (a),
  4. (d) the order made under section 1(5) of the Ulster Defence Regiment Act 1969 concerning pensions and other grants in respect of disablement or death due to service in the Ulster Defence Regiment.")

The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason

26A Because it would involve charges on public funds, and the Commons do not offer any further reason, trusting that this reason may be deemed sufficient.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 26 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 26A.

The reason given in the other place for rejecting your Lordships' amendment was that it infringes its financial privileges, but there are other reasons. Your Lordships will be aware that last Thursday the Government announced their intention to allow widows and widowers to keep their Armed Forces attributable pension should they choose to remarry. This will be achieved through secondary legislation and therefore the new clause inserted in the Bill is no longer required. I am sure that all noble Lords will want to join me in paying tribute to the War Widows Association and to the noble Baroness, our noble friend, Lady Strange, who have campaigned so assiduously to ensure that the war widows who are currently in receipt of an attributable Armed Forces pension can continue to receive the payment if they decide to remarry.

As your Lordships will know, the Government have been examining the case for changing the services' occupational pensions as part of the current review of the Armed Forces Pension Scheme. That review is looking at the whole package of pension benefits and the outcome will be subject to full public consultation.

I am pleased to be able to advise the House that one of the recommendations of the review will be that all widows or widowers of service personnel covered by the new pension arrangements will be able to keep their service pension for life. That is regardless of whether the death was attributable to service or to some other cause. As is normal with changes to pension schemes, this provision will apply to future service and future pension recipients only.

It was in the knowledge of the recommendations of the review that at earlier stages of the Bill I asked the House to wait and not to cut across it. However, as the timing of the review has slipped somewhat, it seemed right in the context of your Lordships' concerns that we should bring forward and announce that part of the review. It was always intended to arrest your Lordships' concerns.

In addition, we have recognised the exceptional circumstances in which the Armed Forces operate, so we intend to ensure that widows and widowers already in receipt of an attributable pension will be able to retain that pension should they decide to remarry. The new provision will be operable as soon as we are able to amend the existing legislation.

Therefore this change will be introduced ahead of the introduction of any other recommendations made by the review. It does not require primary legislation. It can be introduced using regulations in the prerogative instruments, which will need to be amended, approved by the Queen and placed before Parliament before the policy can be implemented. The rules applying to each of the services can be changed by subsidiary legislation to be effective in the autumn.

Furthermore, the new clause excludes widows who qualify for a category A DSS retirement pension. We see no reason why, in the spirit of your Lordships' concerns, widows and widowers who have reached pension age should not be allowed to remarry and keep their pension if they want to do so. The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, did not go far enough, so we propose to go further and extend the right to retain the war widows pension on remarriage to those who are currently over pensionable age.

The Government have announced that they will introduce amendments to the existing service pensions regulations. We will provide that in future widows and widowers will be able to retain their attributable pension should they decide to remarry. The intention is that the legislation will be in place in the autumn and will go further than provided for in this clause. The wider pension review will come forward with provisions for existing servicemen, which your Lordships' debate cut across.

For that reason, we are accepting the substance of your Lordships' recommendations. It was part of the review which slipped in time but we are going further and extending the provision to those over the age of retirement. In the light of that, I hope that your Lordships will be pleased not to insist on their amendment.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 26 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 26A.—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I have not often served on committees set up to give reasons to your Lordships for rejecting or accepting amendments. However, like the noble Baroness, I believe that from time to time such committees are unimaginative and come up with the usual formula. In fairness to the Government, perhaps excessively so. The committee could have stated that it was making alternative arrangements which were better, and it missed a spin point!

However, the amendment is welcome and I join the noble Baroness in congratulating the War Widows Association and in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, on the way in which she has pursued the provision.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, we are sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, is not here today to see the final vindication of her campaign. We on these Benches strongly supported the amendment and are delighted that, although it will not reach the statute book, a better version will find its place. We are therefore entirely happy with the amendment.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, this is a very special parliamentary occasion for many of us in all parts of the House, not least of course for the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, whose constancy in the cause of making life better for Britain's war widows is rightly honoured by all who know her.

It is a special occasion also, as my noble friend said, for the admirable War Widows Association, over which the noble Baroness presides and of which the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and I have the honour to be vice-presidents.

The conventions of the House do not allow me from these Benches to call the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, as a Cross-Bencher, "my noble friend". But in fact we have been good friends and fellow campaigners for many years. Her parliamentary record is held in high admiration and has been further enhanced by her work on the Bill.

As she is unable for compelling family reasons to attend the debate, she asked me by letter to say how deeply sorry she is not to be here. Characteristically, she writes in praise of everyone who contributed to previous debates on this issue and specifically referred to my noble friends Lady Hollis, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean and Lord Carter, as well as to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, in full recognition that Ministers past and present who have been unable to help on the scenes have often done so behind them.

Her message also refers to the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, the noble Earl, her kinsman, Lord Russell, Mrs Jacqui Lait MP and, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, who has often spoken here and with such distinction about the rightful claims of war widows.

My right honourable friend Jeff Rooker MP has also been most supportive. Indeed, he personally espoused the war widows' cause and is to be warmly congratulated on his speech about it in another place on 24th July. He said: Members of the armed forces enter into a unique contract with the state. In effect, they agree to die for their country if necessary. They are commanded to go into situations where they might be killed. It goes without saying that the people of this country … are extremely grateful to them for their dedication, service and sacrifice".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/7/00; col. 816.] That is the case which many of us here today—and of course the noble Baroness, Lady Strange—have argued in justification of the change in the law that has now been announced. For my part, I believe that of all duties that it falls to Parliament to discharge, none is of more compelling priority than our bounden duty to act justly to men and women who were prepared to lay down their lives for this country and the dependants of those who did so. That is the duty we are addressing today.

A war widow's pension is not a passport to la dolce vita, and it never has been—as I know from being the son of a war widow who was widowed when I was seven—any more than a war pension itself. Indeed, I am reminded of Kipling's sharp comment on the subject when he wrote: Think where 'e's been, Think what 'e's seen, Think of his pension— An' Gawd save the Queen". I want also briefly to refer today to all the enormous help given by the Officers' Pensions Society on this and related issues of importance to war and service widows and, in particular, to the untiring efforts of its former General Secretary, Major General Peter Bonnet. I know that his friends on both sides of both Houses of Parliament wish him Godspeed in recovering from his illness and look forward to seeing him again soon. We shall rejoice to see him.

General Bonnet's successor, Major General James Gordon, wrote to me yesterday welcoming the Government's decision to introduce pensions for life for war widows, regardless of whether they remarry. However, like others of us, he deeply regrets the continuing exclusion of service widows and widows who have already remarried, or whose spouses died from non-attributable causes while serving just as devotedly, or whose circumstances pre-date the changes in the regulations. General Gordon writes: This Society has always maintained that all service widows should be treated the same when it comes to remarriage, as why should anyone be financially penalised for the natural act of trying to build a new life after bereavement. If the MoD Pensions Review eventually delivers that, as was indicated in a joint MoD/DSS press release on 21 July 2000, a great wrong will have been righted, but the 'no retrospection' rule will inevitably exclude many equally deserving people". I know that my noble friends Lady Hollis and Lady Symons of Vernham Dean will have that in mind in their continuing work on provision for war and war service widows and hope very much that they will keep in close touch with the Officers' Pensions Society and the War Widows Association alike on all issues of concern to them.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I shall be brief. As my noble friend Lord Higgins said, one would not know from the rather dull words of Amendment No. 26A that any good news has been given by the Government. The words look like the usual dead hand of the Treasury. However, the good news has been given and I believe that it is only fair and, indeed, perhaps gallant of me to stand up and congratulate the Government on taking this decision.

I want to make one serious point. I understand that the noble Baroness is saying that the regulations will not come into force until later in the year. I believe that we shall have to make it clear to certain war widows who may be lining up their men for a trip to the altar that they should wait until the regulations are passed or they may find themselves on the wrong side of the dividing line. I am sure that the noble Baroness and her noble friend Lady Symons are aware of that point, and I shall probably send an e-mail to the indefatigable Mrs Jenny Green to remind her, not perhaps for her own benefit but so that she may disseminate the information to other members of the War Widows Association who may well be making plans.

I believe that two groups should be thanked: first, your Lordships. I regret to say that, despite the noble Baroness's words, I am fairly certain that if we had not put a little steel into this issue, the Government would still be allowing the MoD to slip, as it is so good at doing and has done so efficiently for many years. Therefore, I believe that your Lordships, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, are to be congratulated.

It is also only fair that I should remind your Lordships of the remarks that I made on a previous outing of this matter when I said that, as a Minister, I had tried to shift the MoD but had failed fairly miserably to persuade them to move. They continually told me that the matter was under review. My noble friend Lord Astor, who was then at the MoD, tried as well, and was probably told the same thing. I concluded that I hoped that the noble Baronesses, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean and Lady Hollis, would do better. In fact, I believe that I used a Scottish expression, hoping that "the lasses would do better than the laddies". I am pleased to see that the lasses have, indeed, in this instance at least, done better than the laddies.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am most grateful that the House has responded so warmly. I am delighted to be associated with this announcement. Therefore, I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 26 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 26A.—(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.