HL Deb 27 October 2003 vol 654 cc1-4
Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as vice-president nationally of the War Widows Association of Great Britain and as the son of a war widow.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are reviewing the level of benefits paid to war widows whose husbands died before the advent of the Armed Forces Pension Scheme.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, the Government recognise the sacrifices made by war widows. However, war pensions paid to those widowed due to service before the Armed Forces Pension Scheme was introduced in 1973 are already substantial, and we have no plans to review them.

All such widows aged 70 or over receive a tax-free pension of over £175 a week, of which £70 is fully disregarded for income-related benefits. The pension is not means-tested and is payable in addition to the widow's own state retirement pension.

Lord Morris of Manchester

I am grateful to my noble friend. Is he aware of the growing concern about Britain's older war widows, as those of later conflicts qualify for "infinitely more generous benefits"—I quote the Forces Pension Society—while theirs are eroded by above-inflation increases in state benefits from which they are excluded? Is my noble friend further aware that almost all Second World War widows are now over 80; that their health and other problems multiply as their average age increases; that due, not least, to the rising death rate among them, the total cost of Armed Forces pensions is now falling by 22 per cent year on year; and that thus higher benefits could well be afforded without coming anywhere near to breaching cost neutrality? As another Remembrance Sunday approaches, is it not time now for more help for our older war widows?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I acknowledge, of course, the role that my noble friend has played in supporting war widows over many years, along with many other Members of this House and the other place. I remember particularly their success in 1989 in persuading the previous administration to add a supplementary pension—now £60.97 a week—to the already raised pension that pre-1973 war widows receive.

We believe that the arrangements for pre-1973 war widows are satisfactory and generous. My noble friend is, as always, very persuasive on their behalf. Of course, those people are getting older and their lives more difficult, but we do not think that we should review their benefits at this stage.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does the Minister have an estimate of the number of widows in this category? Can he confirm that the description "war widow" applies to all those whose husbands have died while serving in the forces and is not restricted to battle casualties?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I can confirm the last point that the noble Lord made. War widows who are aged 60 and over make up 94 per cent; those who are 70 and over make up 87 per cent; and those who are 80 and over make up 62 per cent. On 30th June 2003, the total number of war widows—pre-1973 and more recent— was 46,935, of whom 41,050 were over 70.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is it correct that a war widow cannot claim a carer's allowance because of the rules about overlapping benefits? Is it right that it should be classified as a benefit in that category? After all, the pension has been earned by the loss of the husband's life.

Lord Bach

My Lords, as I understand it, a war widow can receive attendance allowance of either £38.20 or £57.20 a week, depending on the level of care needed, from the Department for Work and Pensions. That is paid on top of her war widow's pension and any retirement pension.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that my noble friends Lady Fookes, Lord Morris of Manchester and I all represent the War Widows Association of Great Britain? The association would like war widows aged 80 or over to retain their pension if they remarry or have somebody else living in their house with them. At present, they lose it. Is the Minister also aware that such ladies may not have children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren and may be lonely?

Lord Bach

My Lords, in answering, I acknowledge the role played by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, in supporting war widows over many years.

The war widow's pension is paid at a rate preferential to the social security widow's pension because of the special circumstances of widowhood. However, like the social security widow's pension, the war widow's pension is paid for the maintenance of a widow whose husband has died as a result of service; it is not and never has been a normal occupational scheme benefit.

If a war widow remarries or cohabits, she is no longer a widow. There is no justification for continuing to pay the preferential war widow's pension, and, as the noble Baroness said, it is withdrawn. That has been the attitude of this Government and of the previous one. However, should the further marriage end through widowhood, divorce or legal separation, or the cohabitation ceases, the war widow's pension is now restored, subject to a claim being made.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, bearing in mind that members of the Territorial Army are serving considerable periods at present in the Gulf, are the Government thinking of reviewing the situation concerning the lack of pension provisions for those in the Territorial Army?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I acknowledge that the Territorial Army has done a magnificent job during operations in the Gulf, which has brought it to the fore of our thinking. I am unable to answer the question about a specific review of Territorial Army pensions posed by the noble Lord, but I shall find out and write to him.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, the Minister is suggesting that people can live happily in the present age on about £10,000 per year. If a person has lost a husband, has not remarried and has not cohabited, that is the amount being spoken about. Is the Minister satisfied that MPs should vote themselves inflation-proof pensions and not give widows more than £10,000 per year?

Lord Bach

My Lords, a pre-1973 war widow, with entitlement to retirement pension in her own right, can receive more than £250 per week, which is almost 2.5 times the income of a widow on the social security scheme. To suggest that war widows are discriminated against in any way compared with widows who are not war widows would be unfair. The total can be as high as £252.82. A basic war widow's pension, including the supplementary pension and age allowance—to which I have not referred as yet—is £175.37. The basic retirement pension, with national insurance widow's benefit, including the minimum income guarantee, is £102.10. The noble Lord's question has a very wide application: it goes much beyond the income or salary of Members of Parliament; it goes to the salaries of many people outside Parliament altogether.

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