To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received about the level of pre-1973 war widows' pensions.
War widows' pensions are a matter for the Department of Social Security. My Department has, however, received a substantial number of letters and other representations suggesting that eligibility for improvements made to the armed forces occupational pension scheme in 1973 should be extended retrospectively to include all war widows.
The Minister must be aware that the Government spend £25 million less today on war widows than they did in 1979 simply because the number of war widows has decreased through death. Why can that money not be applied to the benefit of war widows alive today? How many years must pass and how many more war widows must die in poverty before the Government realise their duty to the House and to the nation to ensure that those women who lost their husbands for us lead a decent life?
The war widow's pension, which is received by all war widows, is 30 per cent. higher than the standard widow's pension. It is increased by age allowances at ages 65, 70 and 80, and both the pension and the age allowances are tax free. In addition, a war widow is able to earn a separate state retirement pension in her own right, and three quarters of them have done so. In all those different ways, the Government have recognised the special sacrifice that war widows, especially those whose husbands died in action, have made for their country.
Does my hon. Friend agree that wives whose husbands made the ultimate sacrifice for democracy and freedom deserve more justice from the Government of the United Kingdom? Does my hon. Friend agree also that, if we can pay off a large part of our national debt, we have a debt of honour to those ladies and their families?
From next April there will be significant increases for war widows. About 85 per cent. of them receive age allowances, and 75 per cent. of them have a state retirement pension in their own right, giving ranges of income up to nearly £128 per week. We recognise the sacrifice made by war widows, and on the record of this Government I am confident that there will be further significant increases for them in the future.
Last Thursday, when replying to the Adjournment debate, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces made accusations of hypocrisy against some of those who support the cause of war widows. Will the Under-Secretary take the opportunity to withdraw that charge? Does he agree that, on purely humanitarian grounds, reform is entirely justified? How does he think that hon. Members would resolve the issue if there were a free vote in the House?
Does my hon. Friend accept that while the Government have argued that such a change in entitlement for pre-1973 widows would have implications for pensions elsewhere in the public sector, many hon. Members of all parties feel that he and we can defend a special case for the war widows and that some justice is now overdue?
War widows are a special case, but so are the war disabled. My hon. Friend should not so quickly set aside the interests of the war disabled, who also made their contribution and who make their sacrifice to this day. There would be a knock-on effect on other public sector pension schemes. The amount of £200 million for war widows would be increased by £400 million for the war disabled every year from now into the next century.
Does the Under-Secretary of State not appreciate that the House and the rest of the country feel that when he is cast in the role of a heartless actuary he is failing to meet the requirements and what the country wants? Will he undertake a review both of the war widows and of the war disabled to see whether their plight can be met and their dignity restored in the autumn of their years?
We must first analyse the facts of the war widows' circumstances. As I have explained, 85 per cent. of them receive age allowances. At age 70 that will give a pension 58 per cent. higher than the standard widow's pension, and at age 80 it will give a pension 72 per cent. higher. If they have a state retirement pension on top of that, they have a very considerable income each week. We are concerned, however, that there might be some cases of hardship and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security offered in Committee earlier this year to consider evidence of that hardship. That offer remains open.