Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I wish to speak in support of the amendment. In doing so, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, on her persistence on this point.

There are three strands to the Government's rejection of the earlier attempt. Those three strands--cost, precedents and unfairness to widows of others in the public service--may be prayed in aid again, so I should like to spend a moment talking about them.

It is said that there will be an additional cost to the public purse. The sums involved must be minuscule, particularly if the surrender of the DSS pension on remarriage is taken into account. It has been argued that the net cost cannot be quantified because there is no way of telling how many who do not remarry under the present scheme might marry again if the rules were changed as proposed in the amendment. Are we really to take that as an overriding reason for refusal? Often in similar cases of uncertainty about how people will react, there are sound statistical and actuarial methods for gauging costs. If the Government were willing, surely that would not be a reason for refusal.

What then must be the reasons? A resort of all governments is to pray in aid the creation of precedents as a reason for refusing. In this case, that strikes me as bizarre. Several very cogent arguments have been made already during the passage of the Bill which make it clear that, if the will were there, the rationale for giving these widows what they deserve could be found.

Let me offer another suggestion for the Government to think about. The Armed Forces are the only group of people who are excluded from the maximum working hours legislation. Why not make use of that? Let us face it: no uniform standard of provision applies across the public service schemes, in this case or in any other. Even when the much-heralded and too long-awaited MoD review is complete I would bet as a near certainty that it will not prove to conform with all

8 Nov 1999 : Column 1171

other public sector schemes. There will always be significant differences. I do not believe that any MoD review can change that. For that reason, the argument does not stand that there will be differences if the widows are treated in this way.

When replying to the previous debate on this matter, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, said:

    "While we have an enormous amount of sympathy for the women whom the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, has drawn to our attention ... there are many widows whose husbands have died pursuing their duty and public service in dangerous circumstances who will feel embittered, upset and angry if this amendment is passed".--[Official Report, 27/10/99; col. 312.]

Surely the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, who is so genuinely sympathetic to the war widows, is not suggesting that bitterness and envy among others are reasons for refusing to accept this amendment. I believe that many of those other groups would feel pleasure and gratitude that the Government had seen fit to help war widows in this way. I support the amendment.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, for reasons that I have explained in previous debates on this important issue, I rise simply to assure the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, that if she takes her amendment to a Division, she will have my support.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, because I spoke very strongly in favour of the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, when we discussed the matter on two previous occasions, I should say why I do not think that I will be able to support her today if she presses her amendment to a Division to send it back to the Commons. First, I could not reasonably justify the further tightening of the screw. The noble Baroness's original amendment was the correct one and that is the one that the Government should have accepted. I understand why the noble Baroness needed to ring-fence her new amendment in such a way that certain war widows would not be able to keep their pension if they remarry. However, it would be wrong to allow the Government off the principal hook, which is that they should address the whole question of the Armed Forces pension scheme and how it treats war widows who remarry.

When we discussed this matter on the previous occasion, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, mentioned the problem of read-across. If the Government had accepted the amendment of the noble Baroness, all other pension schemes in the public sector would rise up to say, "Me too, please". The noble Earl, Lord Russell, dispensed with that argument in his usual amusing and elegant way. However, I would say that that argument did not seem to hold water for the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and the Labour Opposition when they voted in favour of the restoration of war widows' pensions on second widowhood. The question of read-across did not occur to the Opposition on that occasion. I may have prayed it in aid as the government Minister, but it did not seem to matter to them at the time. It is a little rich that the Government think it matters in this case.

8 Nov 1999 : Column 1172

I shall repeat what I said on the last occasion that we discussed this matter: I know what a difficult brick wall the MoD is in this regard. Without being rude to the noble Baronesses, I described the matter as one of the lassies trying to do better than the laddies; namely, trying to do better than my noble friend Lord Howe and I had done when we were in office. I wish them well. However, we shall not aid the issue by sending back the amendment before us today. All those noble Lords who heard the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, had the distinct impression that she understood and sympathised with the problem. Certainly, poor Mr Rooker--I say that advisedly--found himself in the position of having to eat his own words five minutes after having spoken them. He had been fed the figure of £15 million by the MoD, but he quickly realised that that was not the figure at all. He had to backtrack quite considerably.

Noble Lords have pressed this matter as much as is possible at this stage. We must hope that Mr Rooker can be held to his closing statement, which I shall quote:

    "The Government have got the message both from this debate and from the one in the other place. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to trust to the review to put the maximum pressure on the MoD ... I give my commitment to this as a DSS Minister--that I make urgent representations to my right hon. Friend as a result of what has been said tonight".--[Official Report, Commons, 3/11/99; col. 392.]

I am prepared to accept that statement, but with a little warning to the Government. They will have noticed that the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, will stay with us in the next Session of Parliament. I am sure all noble Lords will join me in congratulating the noble Baroness on that. If the noble Baroness finds a way to come forward with an amendment on this issue in the next Session--and I am sure that she will be able to do so--and if the Government are still difficult, then I shall urge everyone to vote against them. However, they should now be given the benefit of the doubt.

Earl Bathurst: My Lords, I support the right reverend Prelate in what he said on this matter. In 1942 I, too, lost my father. It seems a long time ago now. He was a Member of another place. My mother--his widow--took on his seat at Bristol Central and sat in another place for nearly two-and-a-half years representing that constituency. I remember only too well the hard work, trouble and care taken by my mother on behalf of war widows. She was president of the women's section of the Royal British Legion for a long time after hostilities had ceased. I support the noble Baroness, and if she does press her amendment to a Division, I shall certainly be in her camp.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, last week the other place voted to overturn Amendment No. 20 which would allow forces widows whose husbands' death was attributable to service to keep their occupational pension for life. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, pressed me on what was the meaning of returning the amendment on financial grounds, as opposed to addressing the merits of the argument. I shall draw the noble Baroness's attention to the Companion to the Standing Orders:

8 Nov 1999 : Column 1173

    "If the Commons disagree to a Lords amendment which infringes their financial privileges, the disagreement is made on the ground of privilege alone, and not on the merits of the amendment, even though the Commons may have debated the merits of the amendment".

That illustrates that this complies with the procedures of the House rather than the substantive issue. I hope that will reassure the noble Baroness.

This new amendment also seeks to allow these widows to keep their services attributable pension on remarriage, but excludes those in receipt of a Category A state retirement pension--that is, those who have earned a state pension in their own right.

The Government recognise the sacrifices made by those who die as a result of their service and the need to compensate their dependants adequately, fairly and properly. They greatly value the contributions service wives make in supporting their husbands. That is why the war widows' attributable pension is rightly more generous than the other service widows' pension. The annual attributable pension for widows is 400 per cent higher than normal service widows' pension precisely to reflect that degree of compensation, respect and recognition for the loss of a husband in service.

I understand that the Government's decision to oppose this amendment may seem unsympathetic. I hope that that is not the case, because paying widows' pensions for life is an issue that does not only affect the attributable pension widows and it does not only affect other service widows; it affects all public service widows. Service widows are not uniquely affected, even though while they remain widowed, they are uniquely--and rightly--compensated.

The position of widows of servicemen is, I believe, similar to that of many public service widows. Many noble Lords have said that it is possible to ring-fence, or even if that is not possible, then that is neither here nor there. However, noble Lords, particularly those who have been in government, know perfectly well that, for the sake of equity and fairness the Government have to consider the read-across implications of any amendment, however sympathetic noble Lords may be to a particular group.

I know that I seem to be arguing the thin edge of the wedge; but that indeed is what it is. The Government could not in all equity accept an amendment which ring-fenced those war widows with pensions already 400 per cent more generous than those of other service widows and not extend those rights there. Such an important matter must be considered coherently and in the proper context, which is not, if I may suggest to your Lordships, an amendment to the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill.

The MoD has given an assurance that the issue is being given serious consideration as part of its comprehensive review of the Armed Forces pension scheme. In response to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, my noble friend Lady Symons tells me that the MoD expects the review to be completed and the findings published and ready for consultation next summer. We are not talking about a very long period of time. This is not a delaying or

8 Nov 1999 : Column 1174

kicking into the long grass tactic, as your Lordships might fear. There is a review; it is expected to be concluded shortly. In that context the MoD will be reviewing all the pensions, including pensions due to illness and to death in service for men and for their widows alike. It is in that context that I ask the noble Baroness not to press her amendment today.

A further concern, identified by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, is that the amendment would restrict the application of the right to retain a pension on remarriage to those who had acquired a Category A state pension. That means that those who had saved and invested in their own pension would be penalised while those who had not and were dependent on their husband's pension would be protected. That would be a further very unfortunate and unfair anomaly which I am sure your Lordships would not wish to pursue.

We are not talking about cost. We are talking about timing, context, ring-fencing and fairness. The review expects to report next summer, but in fairness to all service widows the matter needs to be considered in its full context. An amendment to a DSS welfare reform Bill is not the right vehicle. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, will accept that the Government and the MoD especially--my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean has been present for the debate and spoke to these matters at Third Reading--have very much taken on board the concerns expressed by your Lordships. The views of this House have been heard and the issue has been well aired and will be addressed in the review, which will proceed fairly shortly and will then be out for public consultation. It is proper to consider the matter in its full context and it is equitable to do so because of the very real issues of ring-fencing and the extra anomalies that would be introduced by the amendment, which is defective.

The noble Baroness, Lady Strange, has fought a good fight. I am confident that in her hands this issue will not go away. But when it comes back--if it comes back--let it come back in a proper context, properly reviewed and assessed and properly subjected to consultation. In the light of that, your Lordships can make a considered judgment. I hope that the noble Baroness will not now press her amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page