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Mr. Hogg: Would my hon. Friend equip me with an argument that I can put to the widows of, for example, firemen, prison officers, policemen or teachers, and explain why they should not have the same benefit?

Mr. Howarth: Given the nature of my right hon. and learned Friend's constituency, which includes many Royal Air Force airfields and former RAF airfields, he will know that there is something unique about the people who fought in the second world war and whose widows would be the beneficiaries of the measure. I hope that I do not need to spell out the argument for him, because I am sure that it is apparent to him.

On the question of retrospection, there is plenty of precedent to show that the MOD has not needed to argue against retrospection in the past. More recently, the Civil Partnership Bill provides retrospective benefits dating back to 1988. If retrospective benefits are okay for homosexual couples, why is that not the case for the widows of men who fought for our freedom? I confess that I am surprised that the Minister has chosen to snub the widows as his parting shot. As he activates his ejector seat and parachutes back into the world of personal finance—my assumption may be unreasonable—which was comprehensively mucked up by the Government, he will surely want to be remembered with affection by that small but valiant group. The sum of £7 million, as well as being wholly justified, is an entirely affordable option. If the Government continue to be pigheaded and stubborn, next year's incoming Conservative Government will put the matter right and make provision for that deserving group.

I shall conclude by paying tribute to Lord Freyberg, who kindly mentioned me last week in the debate in the other place. We ought to leave the last word to him, because he concluded that debate and won the hearts of
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Members of the upper House. I hope that by repeating his remarks I can win the hearts of Members of the House of Commons:

Amen to that—I hope that this House, too, will grasp it.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I shall make only a few comments, because I want to ensure that the Minister has time to enlighten us about how he will bring our proceedings to an end. We have discussed the Bill seven times, and I hope that he agrees that when primary legislation is introduced it is not just a time to look forward and lay out plans for the years and decades to come, but to address perceived injustices in systems that have been in place for some time. There is widespread acceptance of the fact that certain injustices ought to be put right by the Bill. The group that we are discussing falls into that category.

4.45 pm

I shall say a little about why the Government say they cannot accept the Lords amendment. The first reason is retrospection. The only way in which perceived injustices from the past can be put right is through retrospective legislation. There are examples of the Government doing that. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) gave one recent example and there are others. It would be churlish of the Government to rely on the argument that they cannot act retrospectively.

A more important consideration is cost. Bearing in mind all the resources at the Government's disposal, we should by this stage have some clear actuarial figures to show what the measure would cost. The Minister says the cost could be substantially more than £7 million, but we do not know how much more, how the cost was calculated or whether it includes social security benefits that will not become payable. Given the length of time that we have been considering the Bill, there should be something rather more solid for us to debate, rather than our bandying figures across the Chamber.

Mr. Hogg: The cost depends on the extent of the read-across. It is difficult to quantify the cost until we know the extent of the read-over to other public service pension schemes.

Mr. Breed: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes my point exactly. That would have enabled us to define the extent of the read-across, and would have served the House in two respects. It would have given us a more solid estimate of the cost and provided boundaries to the read-across. As I understand it—I do not possess anything like the legal experience of the right hon. and learned Gentleman—there would have to be some comparability among the various schemes to which read-across applied. As has been pointed out,
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aspects of the armed forces pension scheme are fundamentally different from other public service pension schemes.

It would have helped us—perhaps that is why we do not have the figures—to know, rather than to guess, the extent of the read-across and the costs. It is almost impossible for us to debate these matters without more solid figures. It is a great shame that, after all this time, we do not have a clearer idea of the Government's views and the basis for their contentions.

I accept, however, that the Bill is valuable in other respects and I would not want to see it fall. Many aspects of it have received support across the House. The Government have missed the opportunity to address a widely perceived injustice, and it is a pity that that is being used as a hostage to fortune in the proceedings on the Bill. If the Minister indicates that the Government are willing to reconsider the matter and introduce a statutory instrument to address it, that will be welcome. Nevertheless, I am still minded to press this relatively small issue.

Mr. Hogg: I rise with some disquiet, as I dislike disagreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) on a matter of considerable sensitivity. I recognise that the group of people under discussion deserve well of the country. At the same time, one must ask some questions of principle. I was a member of a Government who, for many years, declined to reopen the question. We were satisfied that the reasons for not doing so were sound; they are two in number.

One should be very cautious about reopening contractual arrangements retrospectively. Contractual arrangements are based on a contract—certain payments to obtain certain benefits—and one should be slow to give benefits for which contributions have not been paid. Once one starts to do that, one abandons the basic rule that one should not make retrospective changes and opens oneself to a range of demands with huge public spending implications.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: My right hon. and learned Friend is right that one must exercise a great deal of caution, but I put it to him that such issues have been reopened on a number of occasions. He will remember that Tony Barber, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, made an ex gratia payment to war widows, and I have cited the individual, special case that occurred when Lord King of Bridgwater was Secretary of State for Defence—my right hon. and learned Friend was a Minister at that time and, indeed, may have been a Cabinet Minister. Those at the top end of the age bracket—in that case, over-75s—have a long history of special consideration, which we are trying to introduce here.

Mr. Hogg: The fact that my hon. Friend has identified only two cases—I am not saying that other cases do not exist—after, I suspect, considerable research, indicates the caution with which Governments have approached that proposition over the years. If one reopens contractual arrangements for over-75s, one immediately faces the question of why an arbitrary age limit should be imposed—why not 70 or 65? Once one breaches the
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principle of not making retrospective changes, one opens oneself to considerable demands with huge public spending implications.

Mr. Cash: My right hon. and learned Friend referred to comparisons with people in other activities. Does he apply that principle to those in the fire service or other dangerous activities, irrespective of whether the widowing took place as a result of that activity's danger or merely because that occupation is dangerous in general terms? I am sure that he recognises that the war widows situation arises explicitly when a war widow, such as my mother, is widowed as a result of her husband being killed in action.

Mr. Hogg: However, that is not true of the amendment, although it is, of course, true in some cases. The amendment does not deal with such a tragic situation; it deals with a wholly different situation in which a person in the armed forces continues to serve for many years and does not die in service, which is different from my hon. Friend's example.

One must face this question: if one makes such a change in respect of a deserving group of people, what does one say to widows in comparable circumstances—for example, the widows of policemen or firemen who die in service? Indeed, leaving aside dangerous occupations, what does one say to the widows of those in public service? By making such a change, one accepts changes to one kind of pension provision, and I find it difficult to resist the argument that pensioners or prospective pensioners married to other public servants should be entitled to the same benefits. I ask myself whether one can ring fence the surviving spouses of servicemen and have great difficultly in defining that principle.

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