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Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I, too, have considerable regard for the spirit of the amendment. It amplifies the determination which the War Widows Association has shown in its will to change an outdated and iniquitous rule.
The amendment, so eloquently moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, seeks to maximise the pressure that can be placed upon the Government to require at least one of its departments to respect the position of war widows who may wish to form a stable relationship, or remarry, without financial penalty.
In considering the implications of the amendment, it is important to make clear the distinction, as others have done this evening, between the DSS pension and the forces family pension. As we understand it, the DSS pension specifically compensates the widows for loss of financial maintenance by a husband who has died as a result of service. It is not an occupational pension. In contrast, the forces family pension is an occupational pension: a contributory scheme that is currently under review by the Ministry of Defence.
With regard to occupational pension schemes, the lot of widows who subsequently cohabit or remarry varies from scheme to scheme, some allowing an individual to retain that occupational pension once she ceases to be a widow and some not. Indeed, at Committee stage the Minister gave specific examples in the public sector, including the police service, the National Health Service, the fire service and Members of Parliament whereby an individual loses her right to an occupational pension once she ceases to be a widow.
In local government the position has recently changed and I sensed from the Minister at Committee stage that, as she said, the world is changing and others may follow suit. The question now is whether the Ministry of Defence will follow suit. The many reasons why the Ministry of Defence should follow suit have been fully rehearsed both at Committee stage and this evening. It is now indefensible to support a position which is in effect a deterrent to marriage.
The challenge now is how to force the hand of the Ministry of Defence to change its position. I wonder whether the Minister is able this evening to give an inkling as to the current thinking of those at the Ministry of Defence who are undertaking this review, given, we understand, that recommendations as a result of the review will be forthcoming shortly.
Further, given the wording of the amendment and the reference to the DSS pension, I believe that it is also appropriate to ask whether the Minister can confirm whether there are any other cases whereby the DSS continues to pay a pension as a result of widowhood in the event that the individual ceases to be a widow. I ask that question given the drafting of the amendment. It could mean that if in the event of the review the Ministry of Defence does not change its position, a war widow who has a DSS pension would hold an advantage over others with DSS pensions who remarry. As we understand it, war widows would be the only recipients of a DSS pension who would continue to receive that pension upon remarriage.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I too want first to pay tribute to the work carried out by the War Widows Association of Great Britain and its president, my noble friend Lady Strange. I know from meeting its members regularly how vigorously and unselfishly they work to help those service widows who suffer the pain of widowhood and the difficulties that can follow.
The occasion which comes home to me most was the war widows' march to the Cenotaph and the lunch afterwards on the Saturday before Remembrance Sunday. Last year, the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, and myself led that group and it was a day of both pride and sadness for what they and their former husbands had achieved on behalf of this country. We also know how tenacious the association is in fighting for improvements in the various pension schemes which provide for servicemen's widows.
In Committee, we debated a similar amendment. It sought payment of the DSS war widow's pension for life, regardless of whether she remarried or was living with a man as his wife. It would be paid regardless of income. As the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, suspected, there is no situation in DSS in which someone who acquires a widow's pension continues to keep it when she is no longer a widow. I am sure that your Lordships are well aware of the situation, but in case there are any difficulties, I should point out that we are talking about two separate pensions. War widows are currently entitled to the war widow's pension, which is the war widows' equivalent of the civilian benefit. It is also the case that certain war widows are eligible for the equivalent in civilian terms of an occupational pension which is run by the MoD.
Of those two pensions, as the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, suspected and as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, it would be without precedence and the implications would be enormous if one were to suggest that someone who received a state pension by virtue of being a widow should continue to keep that when the state of widowhood no longer applied. It would be as though my noble friend Lady Turner--she will forgive me for being personal--or myself in receipt of widow's benefit were to keep that in remarrying. It would be regarded as inappropriate because the state of widowhood at which it became no longer existed.
However, that is very different from the occupational pension which increasingly applies not just to widows but to unmarried partners and, in some cases, same-sex partners. That is a totally different pension.
In Committee, the amendment was withdrawn by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, on the grounds that the noble Baroness had intended an amendment to seek continuous payment not of the DSS pension--because everyone here accepts that you could not do that--but of the equivalent to the occupational pension, the attributable widow's pension paid under the Armed Forces Pensions Scheme. But, unfortunately, today's amendment seeks to retain the DSS pension when the widow is living with another man, unless the MoD attributable widow's pension is paid for such times.
We simply cannot have a war widow's pension--that would be unreasonable--the equivalent to the war widow's benefit paid when someone remarries. The problem is that the widow's attributable pension ends also when the widow remarries or lives with another man as his wife.
I would emphasise that should a war widow be unfortunate enough to become widowed again, or the second marriage ends in divorce, she is eligible to have her war widow's pension reinstated. The point is that rather than have the civilian equivalent, she receives the much more generous war widow's pension. That amendment was moved in 1995 by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, with our enthusiastic support. We knew even then that the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, was not fully in the words which he was uttering on behalf of the then government's position.
It is clear that the DSS situation is not of concern to Members of your Lordships' House, but it is the situation of the MoD attributable pension. Like many other public service occupational schemes, the armed forces scheme ceases to be paid of the widow remarries or cohabits. That policy is increasingly out of line with private sector schemes, but not out of line with most public sector schemes.
I should add--this was referred to by the noble Lady, Baroness Buscombe--that although the local government pension scheme has introduced provisions to award spouses pensions for life, that is being paid for out of local authority pension funds, and therefore by members' contributions.
As I mentioned in Committee, the armed forces pension scheme, which is the occupational pension scheme, is currently the subject of a major review announced by my honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces on 23rd September last year. That review is primarily the responsibility of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. It would be wrong for me to try to predict the outcome of that review, although I assure your Lordships that he has been made aware of the concerns raised tonight.
However, we are keeping in close touch with the work. Many noble Lords have said tonight that they appreciate the fact that my noble friend Lady Symons, the Minister in this House responsible for defence, is attending the debate tonight and listening to the views expressed. She has made it clear to me--and I am authorised to say it--that she would welcome a meeting with the War Widows Association and with representatives from the DSS, which would probably be myself, to pursue the matter further and to make sure that the review currently being undertaken pays full weight to the concerns being expressed tonight. The amendment was a device, not to change matters in relation to the DSS, but to get at the MoD occupational pension. I hope that in the light of what I have said, my noble friend--I insist on using those words--Lady Strange will feel able to withdraw her amendment, and that she will join me in seeking and taking further those talks.
Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister warmly for what she has said. Before she sits down, I ask whether she will consider how much of the resistance to the amendment would collapse if one were to take the word pension" out of the attributable forces family pension, and to describe it as an industrial injuries compensation"?
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