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Mr. Caplin rose—

Mr. Howarth: I will give way to the Minister if he wishes to repent.

Mr. Caplin: I am not prepared to allow the hon. Gentleman to get away with such an outrageous and disgraceful comment. I have never said that the widows and widowers were not a deserving group. I was merely pointing out the specific issue in relation to widows, Government policy and wider pension policy.

Mr. Howarth: Well, I am afraid that that does not stack up, and I will explain to the Minister in words of one syllable in a moment why it does not.

As I say, £7 million is hardly a king's ransom. Furthermore, the Minister knows that those who have been seeking to put right this anomaly have made genuine efforts to give the Government the opportunity to put it right. They have made plenty of efforts both here and, in particular, in another place, where Lord Freyberg introduced the amendment and secured the support of their lordships in the vote. They reduced the entitlement and narrowed it down to those over the age of 75 in an endeavour to meet the Government part way. Indeed, as one of my hon. Friends pointed out to me a moment ago, when we calculate these figures, we also have to take into account the fact that there will be some saving in social security. Although these pensions will be payable out of the public purse, many of those who would be the beneficiaries if the amendment were accepted are currently in receipt of social security payments. Given that they would no longer apply, there would be a counter-balancing saving to the public purse.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me for making a slightly ungracious intervention. He must bear it in mind that he is advocating something that has been rejected by all Governments for all time. Will he tell us why the argument on read-across does not apply? If we retrospectively change the law on pensions, why will we not be asked to reopen the matter in many other cases for younger age groups?

4.30 pm

Mr. Howarth: I shall come on to read-across in a moment. It is common ground among us that the matter is one of several legacy issues that Governments of both political complexions have found it difficult to address. We believe that it is now time to address the matter—we suggested others for consideration, but we have
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narrowed them down to one. I hope that the fact that the proposal has found favour in the other place will carry some weight with my right hon. and learned—and, if I may also say so, noble—Friend. Let me remind him that Lord Freyberg's amendment, which would limit the entitlement to those over 75, was carried by 149 votes to 126. Among those who supported the measure was the most recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Boyce. Many of us would argue that he was one of the most distinguished people who have had the honour to serve in that post, and he has made no secret of his worries about several issues, of which this is one.

Mr. Caplin rose—

Mr. Howarth: I shall give way to the Minister in a moment.

If the Government give life peerages to all and sundry, but cannot find 150 people to turn up and support them on this measure, they clearly either have given peerages to the wrong people—perhaps they did not give the Labour party enough money—or could not persuade them of the argument. Frankly, I think that the latter is the case.

Mr. Caplin: That was a cheap shot—we are hearing plenty of those at the moment. The hon. Gentleman might like to reflect on the number of Labour peers who voted in that Division and the number of Conservative peers. I am sure that he has the figures to hand, but if not, I can certainly tell him.

Mr. Howarth: I have not done a detailed analysis on those who voted, although I note that at least one Labour peer voted with Lord Freyberg, who is, of course, a Cross Bencher. Cross Benchers, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats supported the amendment, and I think that most of those who voted against it were members of the Labour party. However, the Government have created many Labour peers, so if they do not turn up to vote, either they are not earning their corn, or they do not believe in the Government's policy.

I doubt that I am alone in finding it pretty grubby that the day after Remembrance Sunday, the Government's message to widows who married after their spouses had left the service of the Crown is, "We realise that your spouse risked his life for this country, but we are sorry that, as his widow, you are not entitled to anything from his service." Many such widows aged over 75 will have been married to men who served in the second world war, so hon. Members on both sides of the House and the British people will share our dismay at the Government's refusal to make such a small provision for some of the oldest and most vulnerable of our forces' widows.

I cited two cases the last time that we discussed the Bill, and I shall cite another today. A lady from Oxfordshire said:

That is the tenor of many letters that have been sent to organisations that champion the cause.
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The Minister sometimes adopts a hectoring manner and it has been suggested to me that he has said that if he fails to get his way on the matter, he will pull the Bill. Indeed, he made it abundantly clear to the House that that remained his position.

Mr. Brazier: Surely there is a second argument besides the strong one that my hon. Friend puts. The armed forces are in a unique position, with the possible exception of the diplomatic corps, in which people are moved about quickly and sent abroad for long periods. As a result, many personnel have less opportunity for marriage. Above all, unlike all other forms of public service, they typically retire in their 40s, so half their life's pension, which they acquired in the armed forces, cannot be read-across to a later marriage. The problem does not usually arise for someone who retires at a later age in any other part of public service.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend is right and I am grateful to him for that. Hon. Members will know that it was almost frowned on to get married too early. The practice was that people married after they retired rather than when they moved around the world in service.

The Minister made it crystal clear again that if the House votes against the amendment and if it is carried in the other place, he will pull the Bill. That is as churlish as it is unlikely.

Mr. Caplin: Let me clarify something. I said that if the Lords insisted on the amendment, the Bill would be very different. Conservative Members criticised the Government in Committee because the Bill was enabling legislation, to be followed by secondary legislation. It would clearly be wrong for this matter, which does not need legislation, to be in the Bill.

Mr. Howarth: The Minister blows a hole in the Bill by making it crystal clear that it is essentially enabling legislation, as I made clear at the outset. There is some consistency in his argument that to include the measure would go against the Bill's general principle. In that case, we would be delighted for him to say that the Government will introduce proposals in a statutory instrument to achieve the same effect if the amendment is not insisted on in another place.

Mr. Caplin: I intend to respond to the debate in full and will give my thoughts about the future then.

Mr. Howarth: The Minister will need to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if he wishes to respond. We had his definitive statement. I find it astonishing that he is suggesting that something is up his sleeve that he wishes to impart to the House at the end of the debate. If he has good news for us, perhaps he will kindly tell us now so that I can properly respond.

Clearly, the Minister has nothing to say. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will have to consider whether there is any point in him winding up if the Government have nothing additional to offer. It will be unfortunate if he imparts new information that he was unwilling to give at the start of the debate, without enabling us to comment on it.
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As I said, it is as churlish as it is unlikely that the Minister will pull the Bill. He would look pretty silly explaining how a small group of widows, their cause championed in this House and another place, had so overwhelmed the Ministry of Defence that it was forced to deprive tomorrow's armed forces of the myriad benefits he has claimed the Bill will provide.

The Government have cited a policy of no retrospection as grounds for resisting the amendment. In 1989, the then Secretary of State for Defence, Tom King, agreed a £40 a week tax-free payment to pre-1973 widows without any implication for retrospection in other areas. That provision was said to have been made for a "uniquely deserving category". Surely those widows of post-retirement marriages over the age of 75 today, like the lady from Oxfordshire whose case I quoted, should qualify as another uniquely deserving category. We were talking about read-across earlier, but it was not an issue when my noble Friend Lord King made that special gesture. The Ministry of Defence was clearly not telling him that if he made that concession, there would be a read-across to every other Government Department. It is unacceptable and outrageous that the Ministry and its officials should insist that if we look after a unique category of people, similar provisions should be made for every other Department so that an expenditure of £7 million on that small group would become £500 million across Government.

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