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Lord Renton: My Lords, although every citizen of the United Kingdom is obliged to obey every word of the law, is the noble and learned Lord aware that many details of the law do not come to the notice of those who must obey them? What steps will the Government take to alert the people who must obey this provision?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it is not about a change in the law; it is about giving effect to existing law. What is being said is that people must still apply for a licence, but the question is how the information is recorded. If there are administrative changes to the application process, no doubt a means of telling people about them will have to found. This does not involve a change in the law; it involves a change in the management of the process.

Lord Elton: My Lords, given that Parliament laid on the Home Office the responsibility for bringing the system into force in 1997, why will the instruction not be carried out until 2004?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I acknowledge entirely the obligation in Section 39. On previous occasions in the House, my noble friend Lord Bassam and I have given detailed explanations of what happened and why it has not been brought into force before August 2004. The basic answer is that steps were taken to work up a proposal to bring the provisions into force, but then other priorities relating to the police national computer superseded them.

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Those were entirely legitimate priorities, such as linking to a DNA database. A scheme was worked up that, it was discovered, could not work. All those steps were legitimate attempts to deliver on the obligation imposed by Parliament. We now have a date on which the system will become operational.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord give some idea of the total cost of the register to the Government and, more importantly, to the individual licence holder?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I cannot give a precise figure at present because the tenders have not yet been accepted. But, subject to commerciality and confidence, I will notify the noble Lord of the figures. Applicants must already pay for a licence, and, so far as I am aware, the price will not increase.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, further to the question by the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, is it really the case that the Minister cannot tell us the percentage of those convicted of gun crime who were in lawful possession of a gun? Would it be reasonable to assume that practically none, if any, was in lawful possession of a gun? I should have thought that that information would be readily available.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, is to be congratulated on pressing his amendment in 1997. One of the purposes of a national licensing management system, which is what he sought, was to provide precisely that sort of information. I can provide no information at this precise moment, but I shall ask if I can provide more information.

Lord Vinson: My Lords, would the noble and learned Lord agree that we are possibly tackling this problem from the wrong end? Can he give any indication of how many unlicensed guns will remain unlicensed when this system is in place?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, no, I do not know. It is to be hoped, as few as possible. That is what the amnesty which finished at the end of last month was trying to deal with.

Armed Forces Pension Scheme

2.50 p.m.

Lord Vincent of Coleshill My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as vice president (unremunerated) of the Forces Pension Society.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take to improve the Armed Forces pension scheme with respect to the death in service benefit paid to the spouses of those killed in action.

Lord Bach: My Lords, the Ministry of Defence's two reviews of the Armed Forces pension and compensation

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schemes have included consideration of the level of death in service benefits. We expect to finalise proposals for the new Armed Forces pension and compensation scheme and to make a public announcement of the key proposals before the summer Recess. The new schemes will not be introduced before 2005–06. We have no plans to enhance the current death in service benefit ahead of implementing the findings of the reviews.

Lord Vincent of Coleshill: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Given that members of the Armed Forces accept a unique commitment by putting their lives at risk whenever and wherever they are sent on operational duty—as was demonstrated this year with 35 of them dying in operations associated with Iraq—does not the Minister agree that the death in service benefit paid in respect of those killed serving their country in this exceptional way, which is currently set at no more than twice their annual salary, should at least be as good as the related benefits paid, for example, to firemen, Members of Parliament and policemen, where the present rates vary between three and five times their salaries?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I agree with what the noble and gallant Lord said about the bravery, courage and dedication to duty shown by all our Armed Forces. We think particularly of those who died in the service of this country. As far as our obligations are concerned, of course we all owe them much more than, frankly, we can ever pay. But I have to say that while the death in service benefit for the Armed Forces is, as the noble and gallant Lord said, below that of, for example, the police and fire service schemes, it does need to be seen in the context of the other benefits available under our compensation arrangements.

For example, although the police and fire service pension schemes pay a short-term widow's pension equal to the officer's pensionable pay for a period of three months, the Armed Forces scheme pays a short-term pension for six months. That means that the serviceman's widow sees no reduction in the household income for a further three months. The police and fire services long-term widow's pension is comparable to an Armed Forces widow's pension. However, the Armed Forces widow's pension is paid for life and, of course, this is increased annually with inflation, unlike the police and fire schemes which cease on remarriage or cohabitation. A pension for life is, of course, extremely valuable for young widows with children.

A serviceman's widow receives a tax-free war widow's pension under the War Pension Scheme. However, this ceases, as the noble and gallant Lord will know, on remarriage or cohabitation. The widow may be also eligible for rent allowance under the War Pension Scheme. Children's pensions are comparable but there is an additional tax-free children's allowance payable under the War Pension Scheme. I am sorry that I have taken so long to answer the noble and gallant Lord's question, but he raises a very important point.

Lord Vivian: My Lords, prior to the recent conflict in Iraq, the MoD introduced emergency affected

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pension rights for single partners of servicemen and women who are killed in combat. Will the Minister explain why, at the same time, the Ministry of Defence neglected to raise death in service lump sum benefits commensurate with modern standard practice, whether single or married?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the reason that we did not raise that benefit at this particular time is because we think it best to wait until the new scheme, which it is hoped will be announced before the Recess, comes into effect. Once one starts tampering with one side of the benefits that make up this compensation, one has to start tampering with the others. Although it is hard, we consider it best to stay where we are until we can produce a comprehensive new scheme. That is the reason why we behaved in the way that we have.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, can the Minister give the House an indication as to whether this long and protracted MoD pension review is required to be cost neutral, bearing in mind, for example, that when the death in service benefit for Members of Parliament was raised in July 2001 from three to four times basic salary, it was stated that,

    "The cost of this was to be met by the Exchequer"?

In other words, can the Minister confirm that where it is necessary to follow modern practice on pensions there is no bar on the additional cost which that would require to meet?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot confirm that for the noble and gallant Lord. Our intention is that the changes in this particular field will be cost neutral.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, can the Minister say when the Government will actually start the reviewing process for unmarried partners? Obviously, the issue affects quite a few service personnel. Will it take place in the next year or so?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord will know that on 20th March this year the Minister for Veterans, Dr Lewis Moonie, announced that ex gratia awards, equivalent to benefits paid to a surviving spouse under the Armed Forces pension scheme, may be awarded to their unmarried partner where the service person's death is as a result of conflict and the relationship is deemed to have been substantial.

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