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The hon. Lady also asked about strategic planning and joint strategic needs assessments. I have already answered her concerns in my earlier comments, but to reiterate, we expect that those will address the needs of people with autism. We will publish good practice guidance
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this year setting out what a good JSNA looks like to help assessors to identify the needs of people such as those with autism, who may be at risk of falling through the net.

Next, I can confirm that professionals who have particular responsibility for supporting people with autism, whether in social care, employment support or other areas, will receive appropriate training. I know that that was an issue of particular concern at Monday’s Public Accounts Committee hearing, especially with regard to employment advisers. I can assure the House that the Department for Work and Pensions will review the content of autism-specific training materials for their staff.

I was asked for assurance that assessments of the needs of people with autism will be person-centred and carried out by professionals with appropriate training. Yes, assessments must be person-centred—that is the essence of policy and practice. I have already made that clear.

On the question of the timing of the publications of the strategy and consequential guidance, I understand the concerns that the hon. Lady and others have articulated. I am happy to reiterate that our intention is to make the delay between the publication of the strategy and the guidance as short as possible, but we cannot begin to develop guidance to deliver the strategy until the content of that strategy is finalised. We cannot publish the guidance without a full consultation with all stakeholders, particularly those bodies that will have a duty to act under the guidance. It is our commitment that we will consult all stakeholders on the guidance and not just local authorities and NHS bodies.

On the question of evaluating delivery of the strategy and ensuring a review, it is a little too early to say what indicators would trigger a review, but in developing the strategy we will work closely with stakeholders to develop arrangements for local, regional and national monitoring of the delivery of key actions and will set in place arrangements for reporting and evaluation.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham asked about a named individual within the Department of Health who would be responsible for the success or failure of the strategy. I emphasise that we believe that the key to successful delivery is leadership at all levels from Ministers to the front line. We have a specialist external adviser on autism to support the development of the strategy. Once we have launched the strategy, we could consider whether there is a case for a national leadership role to steer delivery.

Mrs. Gillan: I can see that the Minister is getting to the end of her great sheaf of papers and I thank her for specifically addressing the points that I have made. I cannot stress too strongly the need to have a clearly identified position within the Department, as that would anchor the policy on this area firmly within the Department. I make that request again.

Ann Keen: I would not have expected anything less from the hon. Lady. Perhaps that could be discussed with the Minister responsible for these matters during the Bill’s passage in the other place.

On the issue of joint working across relevant Departments, I am happy to confirm that, although my Department is in the lead on this matter, it is a cross-Government piece of work. We have a steering group
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for developing the strategy which includes representation from all relevant Departments including the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Office for Disability Issues, and we are also working closely with Cabinet Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

I can confirm, as the hon. Lady asked me to, that we will ensure that the delivery plan for the strategy is robust and practical. We will assess the impact of the proposals and the benefits, weighing up the evidence in a systematic manner. We will be able to draw on the work of the NAO to develop our analysis.

I am delighted to be supporting the Bill. I am delighted to have been able not just to make my own contribution but to make the important contribution that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby, would have liked to make had he been able to be here today. We can confirm that the Bill is in a form that the Government can wholeheartedly support as it continues its journey through Parliament. We have made a difference in this Parliament. The hon. Lady has made a huge contribution, along with her colleagues but, of course, as we all recognise, it is the families and the people with autism who have made real progress. I hope that the House will give the Bill its Third Reading today and that the other place will ensure that it becomes an Act.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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Forces Widows’ Pensions (Equality of Treatment) Bill

Second Reading

12.38 pm

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The past three hours have seen the House of Commons at its very best. All parties have been striving to improve the condition of a minority whose conditions need improving. I wonder whether it is too much to ask that that spirit continues for the next hour or so and that the minority whom my Bill addresses will be treated in the same generous spirit by this Government.

I do not think that I have to, but I declare an interest in that I am in receipt of an armed forces pension, which would not be affected in any way by the Bill. I also want to say that my wife Christine was a war widow until we married, but she will in no way be affected by the Bill. It is proper, in this age of openness, to ensure that one does not omit anything.

This is the second time I have introduced a Bill to correct one particularly odious anomaly in the pension system for service widows, but it is not the first time I have tried to put right the myriad problems that have arisen with the forces pension system as a result of the many changes that have been made down the years. In 1989, the mere threat of a Bill promoted by me helped to persuade my noble Friend Lady Thatcher to agree to put right an unfairness in the treatment of 54,000 pre-1973 war widows. The change that I seek to make today is far more modest in terms of the number of widows affected and the likely cost. There will also, of course, be far fewer eligible recipients today than there were in 1989 because of the passage of time.

Through the Bill, I seek to end the unfairness whereby widows of those who retired before 31 March 1973, more than 36 years ago, receive a pension that is one third of their late husband’s pension, while the widows of servicemen who retired on or after that date receive a pension equal to half their late husband’s pension.

I am grateful to the Forces Pension Society for providing me with an example, which, sadly, the Ministry of Defence declined to do. The widow of an Army captain who joined aged 21 in 1938, and who retired at 55, as they do, on 1 April 1972, with 34 years’ service would be entitled to a pension of one third of his pay then, amounting to some £5,600 today. However, if that Army captain had joined aged 21 in April 1973 and retired aged 55 in April 2007, his widow would be entitled to half his pension. Given the same rate, that would be just over £11,000.

Both widows would have the same sort of household expenditure. One would have had a husband who fought for his country in the second world war, but would receive only a one-third pension; the other would have had a husband who served later and who had probably never gone to war, and she would receive one half of her husband’s pension. That difference cannot be dismissed as some technical anomaly resulting from improvements to the armed forces pension scheme. It is a gross injustice that should have been put right long ago. The purpose of the Bill is to enable the Government to put right that injustice, but the Bill would do so in a very particular way.

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I make no secret of the fact that the Bill is worded as it is because of the rules of the House. As a Back Bencher, I cannot introduce a Bill that would increase public spending without obtaining a money resolution. My approach has therefore been to propose a Bill that enables pensions made before and after 31 March 1973 to be paid on the same basis. Before the Under-Secretary suggests that this is a secret plan for Tory “cuts”—I am sure he would not do so—I should make it clear that I am not seeking to reduce anyone’s pension, only to increase it.

Any suggestion for improvements to the armed forces pension scheme always runs up against questions of cost. In evidence to the Defence Committee in 2002, the Ministry of Defence said that on the basis of a “broad actuarial assumption”—those were its words—the cost of raising a one-third pension to a one-half pension would be roughly £25 million to £30 million a year. Of course, that cost is falling all the time as widows pass on. Furthermore, the Ministry of Defence figure is a gross estimate. Part of the expense would probably be recouped through higher tax receipts and less spent in benefit payments, but the moral argument is more important to me than the cost.

I hope that I will be proved wrong, but I fear that when the Minister replies to the debate, he will make much the same arguments that a former Minister, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), made when my previous Bill was debated. In case he does, let us examine each of them, the first of which relates to retrospection. Whenever a legacy issue relating to the armed forces pension scheme is raised, Ministers say that Governments have always made improvements to public service pension schemes on the basis that they are not retrospective. They say that to single out the pre-1973 widows would be to break that fundamental rule. The difficulty with that argument is that the so-called “no retrospection” rule has been broken before. As I have said, in 1989, the Government made an index-linked payment to pre-1973 war widows as a result of a cross-party campaign that culminated in my introducing a Bill on the subject.

There have been more recent changes, too. Indeed, in a debate on my previous Bill, the hon. Member for Halton made the argument for no retrospection, but promptly discussed what he called the “change of policy” in 2000, which was retrospective in its effect. The changes made in 2000 meant that the widows and widowers of spouses who died in connection with service life could still receive a pension for life after remarriage or when cohabitating with someone else.

The Minister might well say that that was not retrospective because it applied only from that date onwards, but that is not the whole of the Government’s retrospection argument. They also say that pre-1973 widows should not benefit from an improvement to the AFPS because their spouses did not contribute towards the improved pension. But the Government chose to ignore that point when they decided that what the Minister last year—rightly in my view—called

should benefit from a retrospective change in the pension scheme in respect of remarriage.

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The retrospection rule was also broken, in the case of the armed forces, in 1963 when the then Prime Minister decided that the pensions of pre-1958 war widows should be calculated on a more favourable basis, following a recommendation from an independent committee. The Bill is simply part two of that attempt to catch up with past unfairness.

Ministers have, secondly, argued that improvements to public service pension schemes would be unaffordable if they were retrospective. The MOD expressed this point of view in a memo to the Defence Committee, in which it stated:

But my Bill is not proposing that all improvements should be retrospective. On the contrary, I am saying that the widows of service personnel are a special case. People who join the armed forces risk their lives for their country in a way that no other group of public sector workers do.

It is hardly credible for Ministers to say that raising the one-third pensions to one half for pre-1973 widows is unaffordable. The Government admitted to the Defence Committee in 2002 that they did not know how many such pensioners there were. I have tabled several questions over the years and have received the same response. The Government are unable to tell us how many widows there are whose husbands retired pre-1973, so suggesting that the cost would be up to £30 million a year has no credibility because no one can back it up.

Quoting sensational figures for the cost of some other retrospective changes, as the Minister did last year, is all very well but it avoids serious discussion of the plight of elderly widows on very low incomes who are now in the autumn of their lives. These are women who have been widows for at least 36 years. We should be focusing on their situation and not on far-fetched arguments about cost.

The final argument that Ministers have made is related to the last one. It is said that it would be unfair to single out one section of public sector pensioners for improvements in their pension because that would discriminate against other public sector pensioners. I regard this argument as absurd. Public sector pension schemes are not all identical. They reflect the nature of the occupation, including the degree of risk involved in day-to-day employment. The armed forces are in a different position from other public sector employees in both their conditions of work and the degree of risk involved.

There is an important but small additional difference between the armed forces pension scheme and the others. Members of the armed forces pension scheme are not represented on the pension scheme by trustees or other independent persons. Service personnel are entirely reliant on the Ministry of Defence to look after their interests. When the MOD fails to do that, as in this case, Parliament must step in. Sometimes in politics we are called upon to speak up for a group of people who do not have a powerful voice, people who cannot easily make their case in the public arena. This is one example. It follows the example that we have been debating in such a constructive fashion for the past three hours.

The widows who are trying eke out their existence in retirement on one third of their late husband’s pension are a diminishing number as nature takes its toll. The
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Minister has the chance to correct an unfairness and do the right thing by these widows, whose husbands did so much for this country and its freedom. I urge him do so, and I ask the House to support the Bill.

12.48 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) on bringing his Bill to the House and on the manner in which he presented it. It is a cause for which he has campaigned tirelessly, and I pay tribute to him for his perseverance.

I declare an interest as a service pensioner, a distinction that I share with my right hon. Friend. Although our service did not overlap, I believe we served for about the same length of time and retired at the same rank. It is more than a year since the Bill was debated in the House, a period in which our armed forces have continued to make us proud, whatever position we have taken on the Government’s foreign policy. Much has been spoken of the military covenant since 2003. The men and women of our armed forces have every right to expect Government to keep their side of the bargain in relation to the military covenant. The deal includes the proper recognition of the crucial role and sacrifice of dependants—a fact that, I think, is acknowledged by all parts of the House.

The Bill was last debated on 1 February 2008 and my right hon. Friend has given the background to it. We have heard that, prior to 1973, the widow of a retired serviceman was entitled to a pension equal to one third that of their spouse. In 1973, the armed forces pension scheme was improved. Service widows’ pensions were upgraded to half the spousal rate on that part of the pension earned by service after 31 March 1973. The difference between one third and half in respect of widows constitutes one of the armed forces pension scheme’s legacy issues to which we can add others, such as pension troughs, post-retirement marriage widows’ pensions, the pre-2005 non-attributable widows’ pension, Gurkha pensions and a number of others on which the Forces Pension Society briefs so admirably.

This issue has, quite rightly, generated considerable interest among the public, and I notice that the Bill has cross-party support. In February last year, the Minister’s predecessor estimated the cost of upgrading all pre-1973 widows’ pensions to the half rate to be £30 million pounds. Will the Minister today tell us the updated figure and how many widows would benefit from the changes that my right hon. Friend seeks? It is only fair to say that it has been the policy of successive Governments to resist retrospective changes to existing pension schemes on the ground that to do otherwise would invite consequential and unaffordable public sector demands. I have no doubt that the Minister will cover some of those points in his remarks.

When the Bill was last before the House, the then Minister estimated that the wider cost implications might total £3 billion. Is that still the Ministry of Defence’s estimate, and how was that calculation arrived at? Members will no doubt be aware of the provision in the amendments of 31 March 1973, which enabled members of the armed forces still serving on that date to buy in their prior service to the half-rate scheme. Apparently, it was a popular option, but it was not
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extended to people who had already left the services, and my right hon. Friend’s Bill is chiefly aimed at that group. If the retrospective changes that he seeks were made, the large number of voluntary buy-ins and their extra contributions would, presumably, have to be taken into account. How many people might that involve, and what is the value of their voluntary contributions?

I acknowledge that change can sometimes be achieved without risking meltdown in the public finances. In doing so, I note the amendments in 2000 for widows and widowers whose spouses died as a result of their service, and they may now retain their pensions on remarriage. The provision was extended to all widows under the terms of the armed forces pension scheme 2005, although not to those whose spouses died prior to transfer to the new pension scheme—an apparent anomaly that was brought to my attention by a service widow who came to see me recently, and about which I have written to the Minister. Given that, evidently, change is possible, I look forward to hearing what plans the Minister has for further improvements to the armed forces pension scheme.

12.53 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I shall be very brief in light of the time that is left. I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) not only on introducing the Bill, but on his long-standing work on the issue—work that I had heard of before I entered Parliament.

We support the Bill, because it removes the use of arbitrary dates as a means of deciding financial support for the individuals whom we are considering. We firmly believe that we need to recognise the value and contribution that forces families make, and we believe that a Government’s commitment to the military covenant should never be called into question. We welcome the Bill also as a step towards resolving many outstanding issues that service personnel feel need to be addressed, and we would like to be swiftly implemented, because—obviously and as had been said already—fewer forces widows are likely to see the benefit if time goes on and on before the change is made.

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