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.