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Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, this is an important group of amendments and the House is grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, for raising the important issue covered by his Amendment No. 7. Our Amendment No. 9 deals with the issue of another disadvantaged group—widows and widowers—who will be left out in the cold should the Bill go forward unamended. I refer to the existing non-attributable widows and those who will inevitably be created between now and the introduction of the new scheme.

Should those widows attempt to build a new life by marrying or cohabiting at some time in the future, they will have to forfeit their widows' pensions. All other widows—existing, attributable or non-attributable and survivors of registered partnerships in the new scheme—will keep their pensions for life. Widows whose husbands died for service reasons are quite properly compensated for the loss of their spouses through the compensation arrangements and they also retain their pensions for life. But a widow whose husband's death was not caused by service reasons receives no compensation. Such widows are additionally penalised by having to surrender their pensions should they remarry.

In Grand Committee, I expressed my doubts about the validity of some of the costs being quoted to implement this amendment. The Minister quoted a figure of £500 million for past service. Since this amendment only proposes paying widows' pensions for life from 6 April 2005, there can be no past service costs. The amendment does not seek retrospective action, nor does it seek to restore the pensions of those widows who have already re-married. In addition, the Minister quoted annual costs of £14 million. However, the MoD quoted £8 million—almost half the Grand Committee figure—in a memorandum to the Defence Select Committee on legacy issues for the Armed Forces pension scheme on 18 December 2002. Which figure is correct—£14 million or £8 million?

On average, only about 300 widows are created each year. Who is to know what proportion of that small number will remarry? All existing widows already have pensions in issue. There can therefore be no
 
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upfront additional costs. What we are talking about is a speculative guess. If the Minister's figure of £14 million is correct, it represents a tiny proportion—0.005 per cent of the £2.5 billion annual expenditure on the Armed Forces pension scheme.

How can these costs be found from within the scheme? This House has yet to see details of the transition arrangements for those wishing to transfer from the old to the new scheme, but it has already been stated in the House of Commons Defence Committee hearings that the Treasury is keen to prevent individuals from making windfall gains. That could mean that limitations are placed on the options available to servicemen—a clear breach of the principle of cost neutrality—and would result in savings for the Crown. That money could easily pay for this amendment while preserving cost neutrality. It would also right a demonstrable injustice.

In Grand Committee, the Minister told the House that,

but there is every justification for doing just that. The Armed Forces pension scheme is the only one in the public sector that draws a distinction between attributable and non-attributable widows. That makes the scheme different from all the others. There is therefore no justification for suggesting that this amendment would result in a requirement for read-across. Indeed historically, whenever improvements have been made in other public sector schemes, read-across has not been deemed necessary in the Armed Forces pension scheme.

This amendment seeks to resolve a long-standing injustice. The costs could be met from within the scheme, it is not retrospective and there need not be any read-across to the rest of the public sector. It is an issue on which the Government could easily concede.

Finally, I am also pleased to support Amendment No. 14 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Strange. We have reason to be proud of our servicemen. We acknowledge the demands that we place on them and the sacrifices that they are called to make, including laying down their lives for this country. When that happens, they leave widows—war widows who are also unique. I will leave the rest of the case to be made in an eloquent way by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange.

Lord Boyce: My Lords, I apologise to the House for not being here to support the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, on Amendment No. 1, which is also in my name. I was unavoidably detained in an engagement with the Armed Forces. I was pleased to see that my eloquence was not actually required in the event.

I now wish to talk about Amendment No. 9 and this small and tightly defined group of people who are already in receipt of a pension. It is worth repeating what the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, said. They
 
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are already in receipt of a pension and the point about no upfront costs is an important one to register. As to what future costs might be, it is impossible to define. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says in response to the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, about where the costs will come from. It is not certain that all the widows will remarry anyway, which makes the group smaller still.

The new scheme recognises the injustice of not allowing non-attributable widows and indeed partners to receive for life the pension that their spouses earned— and rightly so. The principle was recognised in 2000 with attributable widows and widowers being allowed to keep their pensions for life, including with retrospection. I seriously believe that if this amendment is not accepted, we will create a new group of disadvantaged and aggrieved people for relatively little saving. Surely the Minister can agree to this small amendment by being magnanimous, not to mention taking this moral step.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend the Minister for writing to me about this amendment, and also for the helpful meetings with him. We all agree that there is much to be welcomed in this Bill for the new generation of war widows—and how we all wish there need never be one. But there does seem to be some uncertainty about detail and that concerns me, and my association. Given the lack of detail, the Ministry of Defence should give assurances that no widow or child under the new regulations will be worse off than under the old scheme. We have not seen detailed worked-out examples.

Turning to my amendment, in the year 2000 the War Widows' Association was extremely pleased to secure for its younger members—the post-1973 widows—the right to remarry or cohabit without prejudice to their attributable Armed Forces family pension. That has meant a great deal to those post-1973 war widows who have now had some freedom to rebuild secure family units with some financial stability, although in fact comparatively few of them have actually done so. However, the older ladies—the pre-1973 war widows—do not have an attributable Armed Forces pension, and so do not have this freedom. And some of them do want to remarry. I had a letter from a lady of 86 who has remarried and consequently lost her pension. Age is no barrier to love.

Those lucky enough to have the opportunity of sharing their old age with someone else must choose between loneliness with a pension or happiness without a pension. It is true that on relinquishing their pension, some will qualify for other state benefits, which will cost the Government almost as much, but they will have to apply for these themselves, and people of this older generation do not like losing their dignity by applying for state handouts. This is a strong deterrent to sharing your life with someone else; but if there were someone else at home, it might prevent some unnecessary and expensive hospital admissions. This would therefore be a benefit to society in general.
 
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I believe that the Government think that it would be divisive to allow these ladies to keep their war widows pension. Why? As my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester and my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig of Radley said, the services are a very special case. These war widows are tightly ring-fenced and clearly defined, and they are the only group in receipt of this award, so there would be no need to make a read-across. From April 2005, with the introduction of the new Armed Forces pension scheme, there would be no new war widows paid the war widows pension that we are talking about.

I also understand the principle of cost neutrality. Well, Minister, I have good news for you here: all these ladies are already in receipt of their pension, so no new money needs to be found. The only possible saving would be if a few old ladies sacrificed their pensions for marriage. Is it the Government's policy to claw back money from the most vulnerable groups in society, or indeed to penalise people for marrying? Surely not. Can the Minister tell us how many widows he estimates would be involved? We have tried, but we have been unable to get exact figures which distinguish whether the lady has remarried or whether the pension has ceased because she has died.

The Minister could also of course find further assurance for the future against charges of divisiveness and ageism were he to extend his generosity to the finite group of all pre-2005 widows. Beautiful though those ladies are, not many will have the chance of meeting another Mr Right, so even if some did remarry the saving would be minimal. There would of course be no cost. As we remember with such pride the dead of 60 years ago and those who have been killed in more recent conflicts, it is surely time also to remember their widows and all war widows whose husbands sacrificed their lives for us, and extend a loving, caring hand of friendship to them.


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