Orders of the Day — Service Widows (Pensions)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd May 1976.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Coleman.]

12.30 a.m.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers , Gosport

I am grateful for the opportunity of drawing the attention of the House to the pension position of Service widows.

It is with great pleasure that I see the new Under-Secretary on the Government Front Bench. I have equal pleasure in noting that his predecessor has been transferred to the Ministry of Overseas Development, where I wish him well.

The wives of currently serving officers and men in the Armed Forces have favourable pension arrangements. Since 31st March 1973, the widow of a retired Service man has received a pension of one-half of what her husband would have received, and since the Pensions (Increase) Act 1971, those pensions have been related to the cost of living, because it has been the policy of consecutive Governments to adopt the provisions of the Act for Service pensions. Service men and their wives can look forward to a secure retirement on completion of the period of Service engagement. That is right and proper.

However, some situations remain that cannot be regarded as satisfactory, including those involving the treatment of men injured and widows of men killed in Northern Ireland. However, the greatest sense of injustice is felt by war widows and those known as "the pre–1950 widows".

It is a disturbing fact that British war widows are treated less favourably than those of many other countries, including the Commonwealth and Europe—not excluding West Germany. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) has put down Early-Day Motion No. 14 on the subject of war widows, and it has been signed by more than 140 hon. Members. The treatment of our war widows is a subject deserving of sympathy and action.

My principal purpose tonight is to draw attention to the circumstances of the pre–1950 widows of Service men below the rank of warrant officer, first class who retired before 1st September 1950. These widows receive no pension. Historically, widows of officers and war-rant officers, class 1, received pensions, but widows of men below that rank received none. That situation was partially rectified by the Forces Family Pension Scheme of 1952, which gave eligibility for pensions to widows whose husbands left the Services on or after the qualifying date of 1st September 1950, but widows of men discharged before that date remained ineligible, regardless of the length of service of their husbands. A further change was introduced in 1973, when the pension received by a Service widow was increased from one-third to one-half of her husband's pension.

When the Forces Family Pension Scheme was introduced, it was regarded as an advance, and people looked forward to future advantage rather than back to retrospective unfairness. We are now in a situation in which we can consider the overall situation objectively and decide whether it is fair.

There are three groups of widows—those receiving one-half of their husband's pension, protected against inflation; those receiving one-third of their husband's pension, similarly protected against inflation; and those receiving nothing, which is what they have always received.

In 1970, it was estimated that there were 30,000 ineligible widows and that the cost of granting pensions would be about £3 million a year. In 1972 it was estimated that the cost would be£4 million, and it was said that the number of ineligible widows was increasing. A recent survey in the Portsmouth area, however, has indicated that the numbers may be diminishing, as most of the widows are elderly.

Many wives do not examine financial matters in detail, and when one widow receives a pension, it may be thought reasonable that another widow will receive a pension as well. I have been told that some widows are angry and distressed when they discover that they are not eligible for any pension from the Services. After all, Service men who retired before 1950 are more likely than their successors to have seen service in one or more world wars. They served at a time when domestic conditions and pay were poor. Pay in the Armed Services was such that there was no chance of making substantial savings, and, indeed, the expectation of life in war conditions was not good and would have made it difficult for an individual to implement private insurance arrangements. These are all good reasons why we should now grant pensions, or at least consider doing so.

When the issue of pensions for pre–1950 widows has been put forward in the past a number of arguments have been used to oppose it, and I hope that I shall be in order if I anticipate the arguments that may be put forward tonight and seek to destroy them.

It has been said that the granting of pensions to pre–1950 widows would create an anomaly. That is a weak argument, because nothing could be more anomalous than the situation that currently exists among Service widows—a situation in which some receive an inflation-protected half pension, some receive an inflation-protected one-third pension, and some receive nothing at all. Moreover, once a widow is in receipt of a pension she becomes established on the moving escalator of inflation protection and need have no future worries.

It has been said that the granting of a pension will create a precedent. That might be a good argument if it were true, but it is not. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), in the National Insurance (Old Persons' and Widows' Pensions and Attendance Allowance) Bill, felicitously broke new ground by giving help to very elderly non-pensioners, whom he called the "left outs". I quote from his speech on the Second Reading of the Bill: …we came to see that the strict logic of the case had in the past too narrow a foundation and must take second place to a broader understanding of the human realities of the situation. These 'left out' very elderly, mostly living on fixed incomes, have seen the pensions which they lacked through no fault of their own grow steadily in real value and importance."—[Official Report, 10th July 1970: Vol. 803, c. 1008.] I submit that the same spirit of compassion ought to be applied to the case of the pre–1950 widows.

I give a further example. When the Redundant Mine Workers (Payments Scheme) was established in 1968, mine workers who became redundant at the age of 55 or over had their income supplemented to the extent of 90 per cent. of their previous earnings for three years, to help them adjust to their new circumstances, and there was a qualifying date, which was their fifty-fifth birthday. It became apparent that a few men became redundant before their fifty-fifth birthday, and the Government took the view that it was unfair that a difference of a few days should bar these men from benefiting from the scheme. It was therefore decided that ex gratia payments should be made, and I have seen a Press report, which I am not able to corroborate, which gives an example of the operation of this discretionary payment, when a man was granted an ex gratia payment of£1,166 because he was made redundant three days before his fifty-fifth birthday. I underline the point by reminding the Under-Secretary of State that a widow whose husband retired a year, a month, or even one day before 1st September 1950 will receive absolutely no pension.

Another argument that has been put forward is that any pre–1950 widow suffering hardship should be able to rely on supplementary benefits, rate rebates and other provisions. Why should that be necessary? We are dealing with proud people—people who are rightly proud, in view of their husbands' past service. They prefer to rely on money that they feel has been earned rather than money that they feel is given to them by way of charity—and it is worth bearing in mind that any money that is given to pre–1950 widows by way of pension is money that will not need to be given by way of rate rebates and supplementary benefits.

The widows whose cause I am pleading are the very last people to cause disorder or difficulty. They have no economic sanctions or industrial pressure to bring to bear. They are, by definition, people who have helped to serve the country. Surely, in a fair, just and law-abiding society, they are the very people whose cause should be given some consideration.

The point I am making is not a political one in a way; in the past it has been pleaded with great eloquence by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I believe that the granting of pensions to pre–1950 widows should be accepted in principle, as something that the Government wish to do.

It then becomes a question of the priority that the Government should give to pensions. I believe it should be a high priority. Because of the country's economic position I do not expect the Minister to announce tonight that pensions are to be implemented for pre–1950 widows forthwith. However, I do urge him to accept the implementation of such pensions as a high priority and to take an interest and involve himself in the campaign by the pre–1950 widows, supported as they are by a wide range of associations, such as the Submarine Old Comrades Association and the Royal Marines Association.

A petition supporting the campaign for pensions for pre–1950 widows has been prepared, and has already been signed by thousands of people. It is proposed that this should be presented at 10 Downing Street on 9th June. I hope that the Prime Minister as an old sailor, will be able to accept the petition in person and give some message of hope to a group of worthy people whose cause has been overlooked for too long.

Photo of Sir Arthur Irvine Sir Arthur Irvine , Liverpool Edge Hill

I take it that the hon. Gentleman and the Minister have no objection to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) saying a few words?

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers , Gosport

I am quite happy that my hon. Friend should say a few words, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

12.41 a.m.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

I join in the congratulations to the Under-Secretary on his promotion and thank him for allowing me to say a few words in this debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he has moved his Adjournment debate. It was right to stress the case of the pre–1950 widows.

In view of the current economic stringency the Officers' Pensions Society has, as a compromise suggestion, put forward the idea that the entitlement date for the widows of non-commissioned Service men should be back-dated from September 1950 to 8th May 1945. That would bring Service widows into line with Civil Service widows and would go a considerable way towards removing some of the present hardships. I give strong support to that suggestion.

12.42 a.m.

Photo of Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles , Winchester

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) who has introduced this Adjournment debate, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart). I remind the House that this is a time when we frequently hear the Dunkirk spirit, and all sorts of war-time parallels, being called to mind to deal with our present problems. Let us put that into effect not only by word, but by deed, in respect of these widows.

12.43 a.m.

Photo of Mr Patrick Duffy Mr Patrick Duffy , Sheffield, Attercliffe

Since learning that I was to reply to this debate I have become increasingly and—I admit—uncomfortably aware that pensions for the Forces is a very large subject, with many ramifications—a subject that has attracted the support of many hon. Members. That is evident tonight from the contributions of hon. Gentlemen. I am much obliged for the remarks of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart). The question is, above all, well illustrated by the notice of subject for debate given by the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), which refers to war widows and widows of Service men who retired before 1950. The subject embraces two quite distinct categories of widows and the responsibilities of two separate Government Departments. I think the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that.

A war widow is the widow of anyone whose death resulted from service in the Armed Forces. The person concerned may have been a Regular Service man, a war-time volunteer, or a conscript. As I know the hon. Gentleman is aware, pensions for these are administered, and paid, by the Department of Health and Social Security. I should therefore be going beyond my remit if I were to attempt to deal with these matters here, but I have taken note of the hon. Gentleman's remarks and will ensure that they are passed on to the responsible Minister at the Department of Health and Social Security.

By contrast, the widows of Service men who retired before 1950—the "pre–1950 widows", as they are known—are the widows of Regular Service men. It is to the pension arrangements for this second group or, rather, the lack of arrangements—that the hon. Gentleman has devoted a significant part of his speech tonight. This, of course, is the departmental responsibility of the Ministry of Defence. I know that the hon. Gentleman will understand why I can concentrate only on this aspect in my reply.

The situation of the pre–1950 widows have been debated many times in the House, as the hon. Gentleman implied, and there must be few, if any, speakers in past debates who have not felt an instinctive sympathy for them. That doubtless explains the presence of other hon. Members tonight.

The position prior to 1950 was that if an officer or warrant officer, class I, or the equivalent in the other Services, were to die, whether in service or after retirement, provided he had given sufficient length of service his widow qualified for a pension. If the husband's rank was lower, however, there could be no pension for the widow, however long or meritorious her husband's service had been. The consequence is that many widows today receive no pension from the Ministry of Defence, solely because their husbands did not attain sufficient rank in the Service.

This kind of "Upstairs, Downstairs" distinction cannot, of course, be justified in equity and, indeed, is completely an-achronistic in modern eyes. If, today, we were constructing an occupational pension scheme for any group of workers, it would obviously be unthinkable to include a rule that no one below a certain rank or grade could earn a pension for his widow. Indeed, in the case of the Forces the inequity of this arrangement was recognised in 1950, a full quarter of a century ago, when the new Armed Forces Pension Scheme made provision for all ranks down to private to earn a widow's pension if they gave long enough service. Even here there was a rank distinction. For a corporal or a private, the qualifying period was 32 years, while for a sergeant it was 27 years—but at least no rank was debarred from earning a widow's pension.

That was an important step forward, but even today, in 1976, we are still living with the consequences of the pre–1950 rules, since there are many widows still alive whose husbands ceased to give service, either through death or retirement, before the change-over date of 1st September 1950. How many there are we do not know. Our records do not show how many men were involved, how many have subsequently died, what their marital circumstances were, or how many of the widows are still alive. In a written reply to a Question from the hon. Gentleman last October, my predecessor quoted a figure of about 30,000 widows, but made it clear that this was no more than a "guesstimate". However, the numbers are clearly considerable.

Coming entirely fresh to the problem, I am bound to say that my sympathies are very much with these widows. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that. If the problem could be viewed in isolation, and if the economy were not in a critical state, with public expenditure being pruned wherever possible, I should very much like to be able to give these ladies a pension of some kind, even at this late stage. I know that this was the view of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Judd). I should like to pay tribute tonight—I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman really anticipated the argument that I might deploy—to my hon. Friend's personal effort and the time that he devoted to the examination of this problem in the greatest depth. I also know of the diligence that he employed in his search for a solution. Similar comments apply to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army.

The hard fact is that this problem cannot be looked at in isolation; indeed, it must be viewed from quite a different perspective. In fact, in the years before 1950 the arrangement whereby officers and WOIs in the Forces could earn pensions for their widows was considerably in advance of its time. There were no such arrangements for the widows of civil servants, local government officers, teachers or other public servants until 1949. In this respect, therefore, Service officers were a favoured category, while junior ranks in the Services were on a par with the rest of the public service and, indeed, became eligible for widow's pensions at about the same time. If, therefore, we were to contemplate giving the pre–1950 widows a pension at this stage, we would be logically bound to consider making a similar concession to widows of civil servants, teachers, and so forth. This, of course, would immediately make the whole proposition very much more expensive.

So I come to my penultimate point. The argument goes wider. The years since the Second World War have seen very great improvements in occupational pension schemes in both the public and private sectors. Indeed, in the last four years the Armed Forces Pension Scheme itself has been strikingly improved. In 1972 a consistent relationship was established between Service pay and pensions for all ranks, and this resulted in increased pensions for Service men, in particular. The year 1973 saw improvements in invaliding pensions, pensions for injury and death attribute- able to service and, indeed, in widows' pensions—the subject that we are now debating. In 1975, preserved pensions were introduced for those giving relatively short service.

Due credit for these improvements must go to the hon. Gentleman's party as well as to my own. These changes were all made on the basis that they would benefit those giving service on or after the qualifying date, but not those who had already retired. Indeed, this a general and fundamental principle of pensions, in the public and private sectors alike. It would, in theory, be possible to adopt quite a different approach and to make it a general rule that any improvement in pensions that is introduced must work backwards to all those who have already retired. That, of course, would inevitably mean that, within any given sum of money available for improving pensions, the degree of improvement that could be achieved would be much less, because the jam would have to be spread more thinly.

I would go further, and say that the improvements for the Forces made in 1972 and 1973 by the hon. Gentleman's party, and in 1975 by my own, would not have been possible on anything like the same scale if they had been made retrospective. But there must be a consistent principle one way or the other; one cannot pick and choose, and for better or worse—I would say better—successive Governments have worked on the principle that improvements apply to the future only, and cannot be made retrospective.

It follows, I think, that if we were now to introduce a pension for the pre–1950 widows, we would be breaching this fundamental principle, which underlies our whole occupational pensions system, and we would have no logical answer to those who pressed for the recent improvements for the Forces, to which I have referred, to be applied retrospectively to those who had already retired, or, indeed, to other public service groups in like circumstances. The cost of doing so would be quite prohibitive.

I come to my last point. These were the conclusions reached by the Government, in the light of the study of the problem by my predecessor and my hon. Friend, during the last few months. To award even a small pension to the pre–1950 widows would have led to wide-spread feelings of unfairness among other groups, but to introduce improvements for all would also have been quite simply beyond the country's means.

Having studied the papers—and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have; it is the first task that I have had to undertake, with the utmost thoroughness—I can only say that I believe that this conclusion was right and, indeed, inevitable. I share the regret that my predecessor felt that no change was possible. I hope, however, that it may be of some limited consolation to the hon. Gentleman whose motion we are debating that this issue was explored in part because of his own interest, with the greatest possible care, and that the decision that nothing could be done was taken only with the greatest regret and for the very strongest reasons.

12.55 a.m.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

The Minister has said that this would be too expensive. Does he realise that 6,000 war widows die every year, and that that is a saving to the Government of over £7 million? Cannot that sum be spread amongst those who do not receive pensions now? The argument that it is too expensive is cheese-paring by the Government, because the unfortunate death of widows each year saves money, and the numbers involved will increase. In both 1973 and 1974, 3,000 war widows died. In 1975, 6,000 died, and this year the figure will be higher. That means a saving of between £7 million and £8 million a year. Why cannot that money be devoted to these war widows?

Why do the Government have to save here without meeting the demands of war widows whose husbands died in service in the First and Second World Wars, or before 1950? The Government are putting into the taxpayers' pockets money which should go to these widows. They must look again at the case and not argue that it is too expensive because it is not.

It would cost about £100 million to bring these war widows into line with those whose husbands have been killed in Northern Ireland. That sum does not take account of the tax position, because it is the gross figure to be paid out. The sum of £100 million is small compared with the sort of figures talked about in the Budget, and it is a small amount to pay to those whose husbands gave their lives in service. They are not recognised in the same way as war widows in almost every part of the world. All the European countries, the old Commonwealth countries, and nearly all the new Commonwealth countries give war widows better pensions than we do.

It is wrong to discriminate between those whose husbands retired before 1950 or were killed in the two world wars by giving them £22 a week less than those whose husbands were killed in service since 1966.

I wish that the Government would think again and not use the excuse that it would be too expensive. Nothing is too expensive for those who give their lives for their country. We have disgraced our country by not recognising them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to One o'clock.