War Widows’ and Widowers’ Pensions - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:05 am on 18 May 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Labour 11:05, 18 May 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in resolving the issues faced by those who surrendered their War Widow(er)’s Pensions because of remarriage or cohabitation.

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I declare my interest as a serving Army reservist. I am pleased to confirm that the war widows’ ex gratia payments scheme was announced yesterday for this group. The scheme will make one-off payments of £87,500 to members of this group, in recognition of their sacrifice. It addresses the inequitable situation for a cohort who, under the Armed Forces covenant, deserve special consideration. I take this opportunity to thank those who have tirelessly campaigned on the issue for many years for bringing this into sharp focus for us.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Labour

I thank the noble Lord very much for his Answer and his very welcome news for so many war widows, after so many years. He will know that the War Widows’ Association, senior members of which are below the Bar today, have given the Government’s announcement a welcome—a cautious welcome. They have asked that his department work with them into the future on matters of tax, terms and conditions, and the 13-page form that each of these quite elderly war widows will have to fill out. Can he also confirm the timeline for the new scheme as starting within this calendar year, as time is not on these ladies’ side?

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for all her work on this issue, as well as that of my noble friend Lady Fookes. The Ministry of Defence consulted the War Widows’ Association on this proposal, and I pay tribute to the association and its members for their candidness in discussions with Ministers and officials on this. I can confirm that the scheme will go live in winter 2023—this calendar year—and that we will absolutely work with the association, and with Veterans UK, to signpost to all those eligible how to apply for the scheme.

Photo of Baroness Fookes Baroness Fookes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the War Widows’ Association.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Baroness Fookes Baroness Fookes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

While the ex gratia payment falls short of the full restitution of a war widow’s pension, which they would ideally like, it would be churlish indeed not to welcome most warmly this long-overdue and most welcome payment. Will my noble friend take into account the great age of many of these ladies and their frail condition? The government machine needs to get more of a move on than it usually does in these matters. Will my noble friend take as his motto a cry often heard in the streets: “When do we want it? We want it now”?

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I greatly appreciate the comments from my noble friend. She is absolutely right; this issue has taken a long time to consider. I accept that it has taken too long but, in light of this week’s announcement, the important thing is that everybody works together to make sure that those who have missed out and those who are entitled to the scheme get it as soon as possible.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, I strongly welcome this long- awaited decision—and bully for the military covenant, which has been shown at last to have some teeth. For the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister confirm that widows in this class are those whose spouse died as a direct result of their service before 6 April 2005, and not just those whose spouse died on an operation for which a campaign medal was awarded?

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I can confirm to the noble and gallant Lord that this scheme applies to all those who surrendered their war widow’s pension before the change was made to eligibility pre April 2015. Those eligible will be those whose spouse suffered death or injury on operational deployment or in a training exercise. If it was in service, they will be eligible.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I too declare an interest as a vice-president of the War Widows’ Association. I was an RAF wife for 30 years and 24 moves. Like most wives of my generation, I was quite unable to have a career and contribute to my own pension pot. I was totally reliant on my husband’s contributions, so how cruel it was to cancel those contributions if widows, many of them very young, had the temerity to remarry. We are very grateful to the Treasury for this move, but can the Minister say how simple it will be and what advice and guidance will be offered to this dwindling band of ageing widows to enable them to access this money for the future?

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her campaigning on this issue. I agree that, looking at this issue through the prism of today, how it was administered seems a cruel decision. However, that was not a choice specific to this cohort of people; it was across all public service pensions. Through the Armed Forces covenant, the tireless campaigning of the association and Ministers such as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence, we have sought to grip this issue and have taken the action that we have this week.

Photo of The Earl of Kinnoull The Earl of Kinnoull Chair, European Union Committee, Chair, European Union Committee, Deputy Chairman of Committees, Chair, European Affairs Committee, Chair, European Affairs Committee, Convenor of the Crossbench Peers

My Lords, these Benches also have a very long association with the War Widows’ Association. My kinsman the late Baroness Strange was the president of the War Widows’ Association for 15 years from 1990. The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, raised a very interesting point about tax. I wonder whether the Minister and the Government are going to take away with one hand what they have given with the other. Will these ex gratia payments be tax free?

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Earl is right to raise this. This payment has been the subject of extensive negotiations with the Treasury. Tax considerations have been taken into account when arriving at the sum, so this payment will not be tax free.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, I join with others in very much welcoming the Government’s decision, which was announced yesterday and which the Minister has confirmed today. I also join with others in congratulating my noble friend Lady Crawley, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and the War Widows’ Association on the work they have done. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, in saying that the speed of implementation is really important. Can the Minister push the department and other parts of government to implement this as soon as possible? The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, frightened me, so I am sure she would have frightened the Minister to get on with it as well.

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I totally agree with everything that the noble Lord has said. I can only reconfirm what I have said: it is essential that those who believe they are eligible to apply for the scheme make contact as soon as possible with Veterans UK, which can guide them step by step through the process to ensure the minimal delay. The money is there now, and we want to get it out to the people who deserve it.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, I thank and congratulate my noble friend the Minister. I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Fookes and the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. Would it not be a good idea if the Minister and his colleagues had a word with some other Ministers about another smaller but very deserving group of people: those who suffered from the Post Office scandal?

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

May I start by wishing my noble friend a happy birthday? I shall certainly take his comments back. He raises an important point about the Post Office situation and I shall take it back to my colleagues in another department.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour

What is the Government’s estimate of the total number of beneficiaries of this welcome change? What will happen to those who, alas, are deceased before this comes into operation?

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Lord makes two important points. First, we estimate that around 380 people will be eligible for this scheme. Secondly, for those who do not apply and would be eligible but subsequently pass away, their descendants would not be entitled to it. However, if a potential beneficiary made an application and then sadly passed away during the process, the money would be paid out to their estate.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, the Government have worked out that 380 people might be eligible. The Minister suggested that those people should contact the War Widows’ Association or Veterans UK for information. Could the Government not do the decent thing and write to all those they believe to be eligible?

Photo of Lord Harlech Lord Harlech Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I think the point of Veterans UK is to provide advice and help to all those affected, both the bereaved and veterans. But I take the noble Baroness’s point that a two-pronged approach may be the most sensible in this situation.