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Lord Ennals: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Before he proceeds, can he say what consideration has been given by him and his officials to the fact that on the whole this is an aged population and, sadly, the numbers will be reducing fairly rapidly year by year?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am not sure what argument led the noble Lord, when he was the Minister responsible for these matters, to reject the case that has been put to us tonight. But I must tell him that I asked the question that he asked me; in fact, I asked it when I joined the department. It is rather inelegant to talk about deaths and recruitment to widowhood, and so on. But it is a fact, as I hear the noble Lord rightly remind me. The decline in the number of war widows is much slower than one would anticipate because there are still recruits (if I may call them that rather inelegantly) to the ranks. Those who are widowed now because their husbands were so severely disabled that their deaths are attributable to their war injury, become war widows. So it is not just a case of the elderly passing on. It is also a matter of others being

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added. The decline in numbers is very much slower than the noble Lord's intervention would lead me to understand.

Perhaps I may remind the House, as I did the last time that we discussed this matter, that the war widows' pension is a generous one. It is awarded where the husband's death was either due to or hastened by an injury which was attributable to or aggravated by any service in the Armed Forces. It is important to stress that for ex-servicemen it is not necessary for death to have been caused by injury sustained in battle or even on active service.

The rationale behind the war widows' pension is that it should assist with the loss of support that a widow could have expected from her late husband. The pension is not and never has been intended as compensation for his loss. No pension could possibly do that.

It is logical that, if the widow remarries, the war widows' pension is withdrawn. She is no longer a widow but the wife of her second husband. The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, seems to have accepted that in the argument that we had on the earlier amendment by not coming back with that particular new clause. As a special war widow's preference, a gratuity worth £7,000 for most is awarded at that stage of remarriage; but thereafter she has no further claim on the war pension scheme unless of course her second husband should die also as a result of service in the Armed Forces.

The amendment seeks, first, to restore the war widows' pension should the second husband die. I consider that to be neither logical nor fair. It is not logical because, although it is clearly very unfortunate that she should be widowed again, the fact remains that this time the widow has not been widowed as a result of her husband's service in the Armed Forces. She has lost her husband in exactly the same way as very many other women do.

In many cases the second marriage will have lasted for many years. Over 80 per cent. of former war widows who remarried did so before 1955. On second widowhood, the former war widow is thus likely to have had the support of her second husband for longer than many national insurance widows have had the support of their only partner. I am sure that we can all think of ladies we know—I certainly can—who have been widowed in exactly those circumstances. To do as the amendment proposes would be most unfair to the majority of widows in this country.

The second aim of the amendment is to restore the war widows' pension if the second marriage should fail. That would mean restoring the pension not only on divorce, but also where the relationship has broken down short of divorce. That would be even more unfair to other women in similar situations. There is no state pension provision available to them when their marriage fails. It would also be unworkable in practice. Who would be the arbiter of whether a marriage has failed? We should be entering quite difficult territory there.

A further unfairness lies in the selective nature of the amendment. A number of noble Lords have pointed out that the amendment before us would benefit only the ex-war widows of servicemen and not other widows who have lost their husbands in the service of the country in

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one way or another. When listening to one of the speeches, I was reminded of a day last year when I stood in front of the merchant navy war memorial on the Embankment. I was overwhelmed by the large numbers of merchant seamen and fishermen whose names are inscribed on that memorial and whose widows undoubtedly were left in quite similar circumstances to those about whom we have heard. I do not know whether it is intentional that they have all been omitted from the amendment or whether it is an oversight. It certainly appears to be discriminatory, as a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, said.

I have already said that war pensions are given at a very preferential rate. I trust that your Lordships will not take it amiss if I remind them of what I have said on the matter. In recognition of the special circumstances of widowhood and the sacrifice made by the late husband, for most war widows this pension is worth almost two-and-a-half times more than a national insurance widows' pension, which is received by the majority of widows in this country: £140 per week and tax-free compared with £57.60 and taxed.

The amendment is also incorrect in describing the £48.70 a week tax-free supplement for pre-1973 war widows as "ex gratia". Your Lordships should be left in no doubt about it: it is not ex gratia. The supplementary pension is a legal provision which was introduced by this Government in April 1990.

Of course, we all have great sympathy for those widows who lost their husbands as a result of the war and who, consequently, for all these years since, have not had the partnership and support that they naturally expected. Much has been said today about the emotional traumas and difficulties that those women have faced and how much they deserve our full support. I agree wholeheartedly. Half a century on, there are roughly 50,000 of them who rightly receive a war widows' pension substantially above the rate of other widows, as I just said. It is no more than their due.

However, this amendment is not about those ladies. It is about ladies who remarried. The vast majority of them will have had the support of a second husband for many years and financial support during the marriage and thereafter in the widow's provision made by the second husband.

This is a difficult and emotive area for us all. But bearing in mind the original rationale behind the provision of war widows' pension, we can see no justification for amending the legislation so that the pension may be restored on second widowhood or on the failure of the second marriage. As one of my noble friends said, for a moment let us just let our heads rule our hearts. On that basis, I am unable to commend this amendment to your Lordships.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Freyberg: My Lords, I should first like to thank all the noble Lords who have spoken for this clause. The Minister restated the provisions that exist for war widows. But the war widows about whom we are primarily speaking are the pre-1973 war widows who

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remarried; and, no matter how important they now are, they have been completely excluded from any pension provision, either the DSS or the ex gratia payment.

It is important that war widows who have seen their husbands die in the service of their country in war, on active service or attributively, should have some form of safety net built into the pension provisions which would allow them to remarry without fear of financial hardship should anything go wrong with the second marriage.

I should also like to refer to the Minister's comments on gratuities. It is true that on remarriage the DSS awards each widow a gratuity equivalent to one year's pension. As some 90 per cent. of those who died in the Second World War were non-commissioned, the majority of their widows received extremely small pensions. Their gratuity often amounted to as little as £20. That is not much compensation for losing a war widow's pension for life. Furthermore, so far there have been only 34 widows who received the maximum of £7,000.

There is little doubt that, given the choice, most war widows considering remarriage would prefer to have the safety net of automatic restoration of their DSS pension were they to be widowed again or divorced rather than the gratuity. I should like to emphasise that there is every sign that the enormous decrease in the number of First World War widows between 1968 and 1978 will be repeated in the next decade now that the Second World War widows have reached the same age. In 1968, there were some 44,000 First World War widows. Ten years on, there were some 17,800. Today, we have approximately 46,000 Second World War widows. So in the next decade we can expect a similarly very significant reduction in numbers. That will inevitably also lead to a significant reduction in cost. It seems only decent, therefore, that the Government should extend the war widows' pension to those who have already remarried and have been widowed again or divorced. I would emphasise that such provision is the norm for all allied and European comparable armed forces pension schemes.

Finally, I cannot stress too strongly that this ruling is the source of much unhappiness and poverty, frightening war widows against ever remarrying and punishing those who suffer second bereavement or divorce. Britain must not leave elderly widows of so many of its fighting men in dire straits any longer. It is for this reason that I must test the opinion of the House.

6.50 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 185) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 191; Not-Contents, 145.

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