§ 2 After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—
§ "Post-retirement marriages
§ As of 6th April 2005 widows, widowers and surviving registered unmarried partners of all service personnel shall receive a full widows' forces family pension based on their spouses' or partners' length of service and final salary, provided that their marriage took place before the service personnel's 60th birthday."
§ 2A The Commons disagree to Lords Amendment 2 for the following Reason—
§ Because it would involve a charge on public funds, and the Commons do not offer any further Reason, trusting that this reason may be deemed sufficient
§ 2C The Lords do not insist on their Amendment 2, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 2A, but do propose the following Amendment in lieu thereof—
§ Insert the following new Clause—
§ "Post-retirement marriages
§ As of 6th April 2005 widows or widowers over the age of 75 of all service personnel shall receive a full widows' forces family pension based on their spouses' reckonable service and final salary, provided that their marriage took place before the service personnel's 60th birthday."
§ The Commons disagree to Lords Amendment 2C for the following Reason—
§ 2D Because it would involve a charge on public funds, and the Commons do not offer any further Reason, trusting that this reason may be deemed sufficient
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 2C, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 2D.
With the House's permission, I shall move the Motion and look forward to answering any debate that there may be.
1444 Moved, That the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 2C, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 2D.—(Lord Bach.)
§ Lord Freyberg
My Lords, I am naturally disappointed that the Government have yet again rejected my amendment. The issue of post-retirement marriages is long standing and continues to create hardship for elderly and vulnerable widows. I should like to take the opportunity to thank the honourable Member for Aldershot, Mr Gerald Howarth, for his assiduous support of my amendment in another place. In addition, I express my thanks to noble Lords from all sides of the House who have supported me on this issue during the passage of the Bill, and the Minister for his forbearance.
At this late stage, I do not plan to take the matter any further. It has never been my intention to impede the progress of the Bill or the pension improvements that will shortly follow. However, pension matters relating to particularly hard-done-by military widows are rarely brought to your Lordships' attention, so it was right to ask the Government to think again. Moreover, in rejecting the amendment, the Government have given the impression that when past injustices have occurred, they are not willing to correct them. I am sure that that is not the case, but that is certainly how many will now perceive it.
The Minister in another place, Mr Ivor Caplin, on Monday repeated his offer to meet me and the Forces Pension Society to re-examine this matter after the Bill has passed. I look forward to taking up this invitation, and have taken some solace from what he said—namely:I am open-minded on the possibility of a measure that might make further improvements for especially vulnerable groups of armed forces widows, and in particular some of those who are older and less well provided for".—[Official Report, Commons, 15/11/04; col. 1053.]As the Government know, they do not need a Bill to correct past pension anomalies. I therefore hope that, even at this late stage, and especially given the strength of feeling expressed in both Houses, we might still be able to find a way forward to help these elderly, vulnerable and unfairly penalised widows.
§ Lord Astor of Hever
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, for his persistence, and I am sorry the Government have adopted such an inflexible line on this issue. The noble Lord made every effort to reduce his amendment down to a level of cost that was so low that it must have been affordable. He also argued convincingly that the issue of read-across to the rest of the public sector could be legitimately rejected. We on these Benches believe that the Armed Forces really are different and should be ring fenced.
We have enormous sympathy with this deserving group of widows and are committed to resolve the post-retirement marriage issue when we come to power. The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, mentioned that the Minister in the other place had offered to meet him and the Forces Pension Society, and that the Minister said that he was open minded on the possibility of a measure that might 1445 make further improvements for especially vulnerable groups of Armed Forces widows. I hope that that is not just spin and that the Government really will come up with something significant for the post-retirement marriage widows.
§ Lord Redesdale
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, for the efforts he has put forward in raising this issue. I quite understand his reasons for not tabling another amendment today; he has brought forward the case. I very much hope that the Minister will not take the tone that he did after the last vote, and that some accommodation can be reached between the Ministry of Defence and widows who have found themselves in difficulty due to the legacy issues.
With the passage of this Bill, we have lost another opportunity to put right some of the unfortunate aspects which have been left over due to the make-up of the Armed Forces legislation. The Minister said that accommodation will be reached with these groups. I very much hope that the most generous deal possible will be struck with them.
§ Lord Fowler
My Lords, I agree very much with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and of my noble friend from the Front Bench, but I agree particularly with what was set out by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. It is a very disappointing response. The reply given to us last time—that this was retrospective legislation—is not a good argument. As we all know, the Government do introduce retrospective legislation. The objection to enacting retrospective legislation is that it harms the citizen. In this case, there is no question of harming the citizen; we are trying to benefit the citizen.
What we have lost here is the opportunity to put right a very longstanding injustice to widows. I mentioned earlier a case that came to me concerning a widow in her 80s who had been left literally for years to bring up her family without any support whatever. One can do nothing about that past injustice, but we can at least try to do something now to help those widows in their 80s.
As I say, the Government's response is deeply disappointing. I do not claim that the previous government did more than the current one. However, from all sides we are saying to the Government that action should be taken. I very much hope that, as my noble friend indicated, if this Government do not do it, a future Conservative government will.
§ The Lord Bishop of Manchester
My Lords, it has been mentioned that all sides of the House are in support of the points that have been made and I would not want the Bishops' Benches to be excluded from that. Without wishing unnecessarily to extend the debate, I should like to add a few comments from these Benches. I should declare an interest as the national chaplain of the Royal British Legion and, in that role, say that these people are a special case. I endorse 1446 entirely the points which have been made. I hope very much that the Minister will take them extremely seriously.
§ Viscount Slim
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that in our debates there has been no real criticism of any sort about future pension arrangements for Her Majesty's forces, particularly for widows; a generous helping has been given there. As for saying that nothing can be done, however, as noble Lords have said, that is not proven. Very much to his credit, the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister acted wisely and boldly on the question of extra money far Far East prisoners of war. This is another case which any good government should be able to follow up. We are talking about real hardship, unfair treatment, and lack of interest by those in another place to put right something that has been wrong for far too long.
§ Lord Bridges
My Lords, it is clear that we will not get anywhere on this subject this afternoon, but perhaps one may be permitted to disagree with the reason given by the Commons—that this would,involve a charge on public funds",and that that,may be deemed sufficient [reason]".If an injustice has been committed, it may be necessary to spend public funds to put it right. I therefore hope that that reason will not be used in future.
It is also worth drawing attention to the fact that the same anomaly and injustice occurs to the other branches of the public service where the widow's pension is subscribed for by the officer. If he happens to leave a widow but she was not married to him during his Crown service, then nothing will be paid. That has happened in our service—the Diplomatic Service—for many years. Although that does not carry the same weight in public sympathy as the case of widows of the armed services, it should be put right at the same time.
There is an injustice here and it is a pity that the Government have not grasped it. If they are still in office after the next general election, I hope that they will do so.
§ Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde
My Lords, I, too, support the comments which have been made. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, for his decision not to press the issue. It is very important to Armed Forces personnel that the Bill is passed before we prorogue. I am pleased that the Minister in another place has made the statement that he has. I just hope that the Ministry of Defence is aware that, because of that statement, when this House says goodbye to the Bill we will not be saying goodbye to the issue. We will want to know how it progresses. It is an area of concern to many of us.
1447 I also recall that the Government have made important concessions in the Bill for some widows. I am enormously grateful for that, as I know they are. However, the issue has arisen continually. Many noble Lords will want to follow it through until it is rectified.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, I should like to congratulate my noble friend on his persistence. I hope that he will not be downhearted at not having his amendment, particularly his Amendment No. 2C, accepted. In my opinion, it was both too little and too late. If it had been accepted, it would have been difficult for him to come back to it again in the near future. As it has not been accepted, he may feel free to fight again—and hard—another day and very soon, with wide support from this House.
§ Lord Bach
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. The Bill began its parliamentary passage nearly a year ago and today we have reached the final stage. The Government have no doubt that the new pension and compensation schemes which the Bill will allow us to introduce are a good deal for service personnel.
Perhaps I may briefly remind the House that the schemes contain a number of significant improvements. The Bill provides, first, a pension scheme based on final salary, against the general trend which is seen all too often outside. Secondly, it provides a very significant improvement to widows' and dependants' benefits, especially on death in service. Thirdly, there is an extension of benefits to unmarried partners, including same-sex relationships. Fourthly, it introduces common terms for officers and other ranks. Lastly, it provides a new deal for the more seriously disabled, significantly improving their benefits.
Those improvements have been long sought by serving personnel and are strongly supported by service chiefs. I believe that they are widely supported in this House. In key areas they also reflect the concerns of many, many veterans' organisations.
I have carefully considered the contributions made in the previous three debates on this issue in this House. I have also had the pleasure of reading the contributions made in the four debates in another place, including the most recent one that took place just two days ago. The arguments on each side have been clearly set out and I do not propose to rehearse the detail of our position today.
However, let me say that the Government recognise that the issue under debate is not a trivial one. The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, has been a longstanding campaigner on this particular issue. I hope he will forgive me if I refer to the debate that this House had in 1995, which is when the noble Lord raised this issue previously. Looking at the voting lists on that Bill at that time it is remarkable to note that a number of noble Lords on both sides seem to have changed their positions since 1995. One person who has not is the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. I pay tribute to him for that. He has been a longstanding campaigner on this 1448 issue and has powerfully and compassionately represented the case for addressing the needs of those widows whose entitlement to a pension is affected by the fact that they married their spouse after he left the Armed Forces. I take the opportunity, as have other noble Lords in this debate, of acknowledging the commitment and passion with which the noble Lord and others have argued this case.
Only the most hard-hearted would not feel sympathy for such widows. We recognise that, in a world free of spending constraints, it would be desirable to do something for this and other pension legacy groups. However, those who continue to support a change on these lines must address—indeed, they and the noble Lord have addressed this issue—responsibly the very considerable financial implications. In short, our own conclusion is that the costs are not affordable and that it would be wrong for the Bill to fall because of this issue. I am grateful to the noble Lord for taking the attitude that he has today.
There was a suggestion in the other place—not in this place, I am happy to say—that the Government's refusal to concede on this amendment was evidence of some lack of recognition of the needs of deserving widows of those who have served in our Armed Forces. That is an unjustified slur. I would like to remind this House that the Government have already clearly demonstrated their sensitivity to the needs of older veterans.
Indeed, the House has just been reminded of the announcement made on 8 September in this House of a concession to the benefit of pre-1973 war widows. That was an entirely non-retrospective measure, reflecting the very special circumstances of a group of generally elderly and relatively poorly off war pensioners. That concession was targeted on a particularly deserving group, highlighted by the War Widows Association as meriting special treatment, whose case has long been championed by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, along with many other noble Lords in this House. The measure will cost the Government more than £20 million. Far from begrudging that, I am proud to have been able to announce it. Taken with earlier measures which we have introduced allowing retention of attributable pensions following post-retirement marriages and extending attributable benefits to unmarried partners, I argue that our record stands comparison with that of any other party which has been in government over the past few years.
Finally, and importantly, I want to repeat today the commitment given by my colleague, the Veterans Minister, Ivor Caplin, in another place on Monday. The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, referred to his words. Recognising the strength of feeling in this area, MoD Ministers remain open-minded on the possibility of a measure that might make further improvements for particularly vulnerable groups of Armed Forces widows, and in particular some of those who are older and less well provided for. We are prepared to meet the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, and the Forces Pension Society, once this Bill has received Royal Assent, to consider the issues raised in this area.
1449 Once again I thank noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. This issue, and the issues surrounding it—other widows issues are involved—have aroused a great deal of interest in this House, not to say, a huge amount of sympathy.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.