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Lord Bach: My Lords, when we make a concessionfor example, the concession we made on pre-1973 widows last weekwhat we have to do is done outside the Bill. I am not sure what the answer is. Or perhaps I do know the answerby magic! We do not need primary legislation to make such a change. But we will look again at that matter if we are asked to by the House. However, I cannot say that there will be any change in the position I am taking now.
As regards the retrospection issue, noble Lords have heard meand, if they have been in this House long enough, those from the previous governmentsay exactly the same about retrospection. I do not apologise for that. Serving personnel are entitled to the pension benefits earned while in service under the terms of the scheme in place at the time. They are not entitled to any later improvements to the scheme made after they have left. To do so would place an undue financial burden on the taxpayer and might prevent us making worthwhile improvements.
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I am sorry that I cannot give a more positive response to what has been a very eloquent presentation of the case on the other side, but I hope that noble Lords will at least understand the reasons for the Government's resistance.
Lord Astor: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I am not convinced by it at all. I accept the commitment he has made to look at this problem. The Government do not need primary legislation and I hope that Her Majesty's Government will do something about this issue.
I accept the strength of feeling throughout the House, not least from the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Craig and Lord Guthrie, the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, my noble friend Lady Park, and the noble Lords, Lord Morris and Lord Molyneaux. The Minister failed to answer my question about why £8 million per annum went shooting up to £14 million per annum. The noble Lord and I must disagree on the definition of retrospection. I do not think that the Minister has satisfactorily clarified the mysteries of the accruing superannuation liability charge.
As of 6th April 2005 widows, widowers and surviving registered unmarried partners of all service personnel shall receive a full widows' forces family pension based on their spouses or partners length of service and final salary, provided that their marriage took place before the service personnel's 60th birthday."
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in speaking to Amendment No. 4, I am returning to a subject on which I spoke during Grand Committee and on Report. It is a matter the Government must resolve in order to bring justice to an unfairly disadvantaged group of elderly widows whose husbands served for many years in the Armed Services, yet who now have no widow's pension.
The armed services have a unique retirement structure. An astonishing 70 per cent of those eligible for a pension are obliged to retire at around the age of 40, most having already served for two decades, while a smaller number, around 5 per cent, serve until the age of 55. Those who have served the requisite number of years22 for other ranks, 16 for officershave traditionally been entitled to a pension, as have their widows.
Since 1978, those who married after they retired have also been able to leave their widows a pro rata pension, as has been the case throughout the public services. However, those who left up to 1978 and subsequently married or remarried are unable to pass on any pension at their death, however many years they served.
As the Minister is aware, the Armed Forces differ utterly from other public services in having such an early compulsory retirement, making the chance of a post-retirement marriage so much greater than would otherwise be the case. By comparison, the retirement age for the vast majority of the rest of the public services is 60, and was 65 in the 1970s, enabling even those who retired pre-1978 to pass on a widow's pension to anyone they married or remarried before the age of 60. Is it reasonable that the forces should be at such a disadvantage in what they can offer their widows? I do not think so.
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Although the pension change for public services in 1975 was a significant improvement, it is unlikely that anyone intended that there should be a 20-year disparity between post-retirement marriage terms in the Armed Forces and the rest of the public services. In other words, any other member of the public services can marry between the ages of 40 and 60 and pass on a pension to that spouse. Only the Armed Forces are unable to provide for wives married during those years.
The purpose of this amendment is to put those in the armed services on an equal footing with civilians in this respect. They may have a shorter career from which to draw a pension, but why should they be financially penalised for marrying later in life? They are denied the financial benefit enjoyed by those who served at the same time but happened to marry earlier. Although a forces career ends at a comparatively young age, it none the less uses the best years of people's lives in building up a pension, so most pre-1978 forces personnel would not have been able to create a second one in another profession. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that forces personnel are obliged to serve for long periods overseas, and in stressful conditions, making finding a partner harder than in civvy street. Punishing people for electing to marry in a more settled period of their lives seems particularly harsh.
This amendment aims to give widows of post-retirement marriages the same status as public servants' widows. I therefore propose that pensions should be paid to post-retirement marriage widows, provided the marriage took place before an individual's 60th birthday. That is the age of recall liability, when a former member of the armed services can be summoned out of retirement to serve again.
The Minister has repeatedly claimed that accepting this amendment would open the floodgates to claims from others in the public services. However, I cannot understand how that would happen, as we are asking for no more than what is already available for others in public service, bar the small numbers of registered partners added in 2002, whose cost will be insignificant and will also be covered by the new scheme in 2005. The amendment also complements government policy. Such a measure would, therefore, keep read-across to a minimum. Only the police and fire services have an earlier retirement age, and even that is 55.
The Minister has repeatedly argued that it is not possible to treat the Armed Forces as different from other public service workers. That seems an odd and ungenerous comment when the Government are repeatedly singling out the forces for praise in Iraq, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia, to name but a few countries where they are working under uniquely hazardous circumstances, as did their counterparts in the 20th century.
The Minister is missing the point, however. I am not asking for special, but rather equal, treatment. The rough estimate cost of £50 million is galling to those affected. The Government have saved a considerable amount of money over several decades by not paying post-retirement widows' pensionspensions that
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service people believed they had earnedyet they use an alarming-sounding figure to continue to avoid paying anything at all.
The Minister announced last week on Report that he would attempt to give me a breakdown of the alleged £50 million cost. While I am grateful for the letter I received from him yesterday in which he explained what kind of data the Government used to support their figure, once again no figures were attached. It is, therefore, impossible to know how the estimate has come about. What is clear is that the sum required is diminishing and contained, as well as being in a just cause.
As I mentioned on Report, and would like to reiterate, the Labour Party recognised the injustice suffered by such PRM widows in 1995, when, led by the esteemed noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, they supported a similar amendment during the Pensions Bill of that year. Nine years on, nothing has changed, except that the widows have become older and more vulnerable.
I shall give an example. Mrs "W" from Devon was married to a regular officer in the Royal Engineers, who served in both world wars. His first wife died of cancer in the 1950s; he had retired from the Army to look after her. He married again, three years after her death, not knowing at the time that his widow would receive no pension. Since his death in 1984 she has been obliged to work, only retiring last year, and then unwillingly, at the age of 78.
I understand the Minister's need to hold a strong line on retrospection. However, can it be right that it is considered more important to stick to an arbitrary cut-off point than to deal with a situation that was unfair at the time and has become increasingly punitive 26 years on? Is the Minister really saying that, where injustices are acknowledged, there should be no recourse to correcting them? Elderly men and women are not simply statistics. If they are forced to live in straitened circumstances because of the Government's inflexibility when it comes to correcting a clear injustice, we have created a situation of which we should be ashamed. I beg to move.
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