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Lord Boyd-Carpenter: There could not be a more appropriate occasion for making a spectacular improvement for war widows than this year when we are celebratingand I use that word deliberatelythe 50th anniversary of our victory in the war.
I am sure that it would have a great appeal to the British public to know that in that way, rather than in formal celebrations, we are marking our gratitude to those who died and those who lost their husbands during the obtaining of those victories. The noble and gallant Lords opposite spoke with very great authority on this matter. I am sure that the Committee will wish to pay great attention to them.
As has been said, most of the widows concerned are of a mature age and therefore, sadly, the tendency will be for the costs to reduce. One can distinguish that particular social improvement from any others which one can mention. I hope that the Government will take this matter very seriously. The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, made an admirable speech following his admirable maiden speech which your Lordships greatly appreciated. The fact that these proposals are made by someone from the age group of the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, is rather impressive, far more impressive than the fact that they are supported by people in my own age category.
Therefore, the Minister must realise that there is very strong feeling about this. The Government have an opportunity to do something which will strike at and stimulate the imagination of the British people. The British people will approve of the Government taking a step which does justice to a section of society which has lost the most important thing of all. To have lost one's husband or wife in the service of one's country is the most terrible penalty. The fact that at this 50th anniversary, we are making some provisionI hope, ample provisionto help them will, I am sure, be widely appreciated by the British people. I beg the Government not to put this matter aside. I beg them to realise that this is a very serious matter which will move the opinion of the people of this country perhaps more dramatically and drastically than any other step which they could take.
Baroness Nicol: As vice-president of the War Widows Association, I strongly support all three amendments. The question which the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, has had put to her has also been put to me. I have been asked why service widows should be treated differently. My answer is that the life of a service wife is very different. She is obliged to move house frequently. She is unable to put down roots, to build a career or even to obtain a job of sufficient status to build up her own pension rights. That is becoming more important as the system moves away from state pensions and towards personal pension provision. She may have to travel abroad when her husband is stationed away or alternatively, she may have to spend long periods alone coping with family problems. The wife of a middle-ranking or senior officer or a senior NCO is expected to support her husband in his career. She becomes an unpaid social worker to other wives. That is expected of her.
Whenever the armed services are discussed in this Chamber, whether at Question Time or in longer debates, there is much interest and many speeches are made about how we should value our servicemen. As others have said, surely the most tangible way in which to record our appreciation would be by ensuring that those men have the comfort of knowing that in the event of their death, their bereaved wives would be adequately and permanently compensated. I strongly urge the Government to accept the amendments.
In recognising that fact, we must also take into account the needs of other widows. One of the matters which strikes me about the first amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord FreybergAmendment No. 191Bis that it deals only with war widows. It does not deal with other widows. I dislike intensely the withdrawal of all pensions on remarriage. That seems to me to be a relic of a past age. It is out of tune with modern thinking and the sooner we can be rid of that, the better. However, we must consider other widows in the public sector because they are all affected by that same restriction: that the pension is withdrawn on remarriage. For example, what about the widow of a policeman? Is she to be excluded from the provisions while war widows are included? What about the widow of a fireman? He does a very difficult job and it may well be that he dies young. What about the widow of a doctor?
I hope that the time will come when my noble friend will be able to assure the Committee that those restrictions can be removed from the public sector as a whole. But I am doubtful whether it is wise to remove it just for war widows, in spite of the fact that they are in a category which commands the sympathy of us all.
If the Government do not feel able to agree to get rid of all the restrictions throughout the whole of the public sector, it seems to me that it would be far better to concentrate on really generous increases in war widows' pensions. That would benefit all war widows, particularly in this 50th anniversary year.
Lord Chalfont: I support the amendment moved so ably by my noble friend Lord Freyberg. However, I should like to speak briefly to Amendment No. 191B, upon which I feel very strongly. That amendment deals with the removal of a pension from a widow if she remarries or, if she is not willing to remarry, cohabits while she is still a widow.
That seems to me to be a harsh and even cruel procedure and one which I hope the Government will see fit to look at very closely. There has been a certain amount of discussion already as to why we should make the provision only for war widows and what is different about their case as opposed to other cases. There is a very simple answer to that. Sometimes it is known as the unlimited liability. By the very nature of his profession, a soldier, sailor or airman is risking his lifethat is, the asset which he brings to his profession. It is his life that is at stake when he goes about the business of his profession. I believe that that is one of the major differences.
That also leads to another point which should be made; namely, that war widows of soldiers, sailors and airmen killed in action, tend to be young because the husbands whom they have lost tend to be young. Soldiers killed in action are, by the very nature of their profession, usually fairly young men. Therefore, when they leave their widows behind, they leave them with a
I should like Members of the Committee to contemplate what that change in status actually means and ask themselves whether the pension of a serviceman's wife, especially that of a war widow, should not be regarded as a lifelong entitlement and not something to be arbitrarily removed; and certainly not something to be subjected at some stage to the demoralising process of means testing.
The effect of the current system is to discourage war widowswho are sometimes, as I said, quite youngfrom remarrying. They fear that they will lose the only financial support that they have. Therefore, some of them choose, as the language has it, to cohabit; in other words, to live with someone without marrying. But if such women seek the kind of comfort and the kind of companionship that marriage can bringand it is sometimes the only course open to themand are discovered to be cohabiting, the pension is, again, arbitrarily removed. Let us not forget the ever-present whistle blower: the person who goes and tells the official that the woman is living with someone else.
The latter gives rise not just to the harshness of the application of the law, but also to ludicrous rulings from officials about what constitutes cohabitation. For example, I have heard people trying to describe it as being a matter of days which one spends under the same roof with someone else and even a question of whether those days are during the week or at the weekend. What an extraordinary way to deal with someone's life.
I am sure that there is no one in the Government who can be happy with the present state of affairs. I do not dismiss arguments about cost or about retrospection. I believe that they are real arguments and that the Government are right to put them forward. However, I put it to the Government that here we have an inequity, a harshness, and, as I said before, even a cruelty which they ought to be prepared to put right, even at the risk of retrospection and even at some considerable cost. I support the amendments.
Lord Elton: I trust that Members of the Committee will permit a very brief intervention on the third of the amendments. I am in favour of all of them, but the third amendment actually addresses a point of straight equity in my view. It has been suggested that the 1973 watershed is defensible because officers serving at the time were able to choose to buy back the right for their wives, when they were widowed, to receive half the pension that they had received during their lifetime after retirement. Some officers opted to do so, while others did not. Therefore, it is suggested that none should now benefit from a change in the law. However, that overlooks the fact that an officer who retired long before 1973 was not given that option. His widow has never had the chance of receiving such a benefit.
Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: I, too, support the amendments. However, I should like to speak especially to Amendment No. 191B. I should first declare an interest, but it is not a pecuniary one. Until recently, I was a member of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. That gave me the privilege of seeing close at hand the work that our service personnel carry out in such a committed and loyal way. It also gave me the opportunity to talk to them and their wives during the many visits that we made during the course of our work.
I hope that the Minister will accept the amendments today with good grace. How much better that that should happen than, perhaps, the Government having to do a "U" turn in the future because public opinion forces it upon them. How timely that it should happen this year.
I know that some people say, "Well, of course, the dichotomy that we have is that when a war widow remarries she in fact loses her public service pension". Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, mentioned that fact and the issue of policeman, firefighters and public sector workers. That is an issue which we raised from these Benches yesterday and asked the Government to look into. Unfortunately, but not too unexpectedly, the Government turned their face against it. I hope that that will not be used as an argument today to turn down what I would call a reasonable request.
The question has been put regarding the difference between a widow who was widowed because her husband was killed at war and the widow of an industrial worker who was killed in industry. It is difficult if not impossible to balance that kind of question; but there is a difference. The difference is that, in most cases, the widow of an industrial worker would receive a pension for life and would not lose it under the occupational pension to which her husband had contributed should she remarry. However, war widows automatically lose their pension in such circumstances.
We should also bear in mind the fact that our service personnel are young; indeed, many of them were young when they gave their lives in the service of our country. Some people say that that is an emotive argument. Yes, it is. If there were no emotion in the argument, I would suggest that we were a pretty cold-hearted nation. There has to be some emotion involved; but it is backed up by logic, justice, standards and the kind of way that we value those people who gave their lives in the service of their country.
This year is an important year. Of course costs are always a factor. However, I do not think they should weigh sufficiently in this argument for us to say that we can do nothing. I support these amendments and particularly Amendment No. 191B. Surely we can do something this year of all years to ensure that we treat the war widows fairly. They do not have their husbands to talk and argue for them.
I doubt very much that any one of those young men who gave their lives even thought that the country would do anything less than the right thing. The right thing has to be to meet the responsibilities that we have as a nation in paying these war widows their pension and ensuring, if they are lucky enough to marry again, that they do not lose their pension, andthe Government may decide that they will not go that farif the second marriage does not work out or if the women become widowed again, that their pension should be given back to them. Something has to be done. I support all the contributions in this worthwhile debate.
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