Clause 4 - Existing naval and marine pensions

Armed Forces(Pensions and Compensation) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:00 pm on 10th February 2004.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

I have worked out a system to ensure that I can introduce the clause.

The clause amends the Naval and Marine Pay and Pensions Act 1865, to which the hon. Member for Aldershot referred in his opening remarks last Tuesday. It will allow the payment of benefits due to unmarried partners in the event of death in service of naval personnel under the current armed forces pension scheme. It is important to emphasise that the Acts covering the other two services do not need similar amendment. The clause relates specifically to the Navy.

The new pension scheme treats unmarried partners in a substantial relationship in the same way as married couples are treated. That relationship is judged according to a clear set of criteria that I gave to the Select Committee in December in an annexe to a memorandum that I sent to it. The extension of benefits to unmarried partners was introduced on an

ex gratia basis for conflict-related deaths at the start of the most recent Gulf conflict. When work was started on amending the prerogative instruments to formalise this provision in the scheme rules, we found that the primary legislation underpinning the payments of naval pensions did not allow payments to unmarried partners. The clause amends the relevant Act to allow for such payments.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

I oppose the clause on three grounds. I suspect that I will not have much support from Government Members, but I do have the support of the Prime Minister, the previous Home Secretary and the current Home Secretary, who all believe that the institution of marriage is special and needs to be safeguarded. The clause does not safeguard the institution of marriage. I happen to think that if people wish to make provision for their unmarried partners they marry them, but I do not expect to have a lot of support from the other side of the Committee in these politically correct days. When I served in the armed forces, people were entirely clear as to what would happen if they did or did not get married, and if they did not that was up to them.

The second point may have greater resonance both with people in this Committee Room and with those who are serving. This Bill is a cost-neutral measure. No extra money is being made available, but we are talking about spending money on people who would not otherwise have it, so current would-be beneficiaries of the scheme will suffer. Perhaps the Minister will address that.

The third point has resonance with the Select Committee, which identified that there were serious legal problems. I have read the Ministry of Defence's criteria, and I can say with almost absolute certainty that there will be legal challenges to them in future—whether from ex-girlfriends or ex-wives, or whomever—because money is involved, and people always want money. This is a legal nightmare and a minefield. There is talk of nominations, but the rules need to be absolutely clear before we pass this; otherwise, defending these actions will be an enormous cost to the Ministry of Defence, and I would rather see that money spent on the pensions and the pay of serving members of the armed forces than on making extremely rich lawyers richer.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

I support the views expressed by my hon. Friend, who has put his view in a thoroughly modest and quiet way. I recognise of course that the Government face difficulties here. The Minister knows my views, because he repeated them on the Floor of the House and saved me doing it for myself, for which I am most grateful. He referred earlier to rocks and hard places, and I understand the significance of the metaphor.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Defence

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will remember my exchange with the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) in the Second Reading debate when I asked him a straightforward question, and I ask the hon. Gentleman the same question now. Is he saying that the official policy of the Conservative party is not to extend to unmarried partners of the armed forces the same benefits as married partners? If so, he is effectively saying that when Bombadier Brad

Tinnion was killed in Sierra Leone while his unmarried partner Anna Homsi was carrying their child, Georgia, she would not have got the compensation awarded by this Government.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman puts that in a fairly emotionally laden fashion, although of course he is entitled to draw attention to that particular tragedy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby said, the benefits are clearly available to those who choose to marry, and if one does not then it is perfectly clear that one forgoes the benefits. If benefits are then given to those who do not marry, quite clearly, the basis of marriage is being undermined. As my hon. Friend rightly said, in the document ''Supporting Families'', the Prime Minister, the former Home Secretary and current Foreign Secretary are all absolutely clear that marriage is important. I accept that this is a contentious area, and I know that passions run high.

In the case of that lady, I refer to what the Minister said about ex gratia payments. Such a system could indeed work. My party's view was set out admirably by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex in the debate. We shall have to see how the land lies when we come into government, and review the position at that point. No, we are not going to enter into a coalition with the Liberals, so he cannot use that as a bargaining point.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Defence

There is a problem here for the Conservative party. Its leader, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), said yesterday that he would support the legislation on civil partnerships that the Government might bring forward. He made it clear that he supports what are commonly called gay marriages and would support that legislation should the Government bring it forward.

If the leader of the Conservative party says that he supports the principle of civil marriages, why, in this Committee, is the party opposing the extension of compensation to those members of the armed forces who lay down their lives but are effectively in civil partnerships? It seems to me that that is a practical measure that the Conservative party could support.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby

As my hon. Friend knows, I served in the regiment of the unfortunate young corporal who was killed in Sierra Leone. One point is that while, of course, his child and, indeed, the unfortunate girlfriend deserve support, from whatever direction, nobody asked the late corporal what he wanted. There is an assumption that he wanted a pension to be paid to his girlfriend, but who knows what that relationship was about? It is difficult for us to say. We cannot ask him because he is dead. Surely that is of great importance. If there had been a civil partnership, he could have signed up to it, but he did not and he had not had a civil marriage.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Member for Hereford will not be surprised to know that I will oppose the Civil Partnerships Bill. That has been my view all along. I did not come into Parliament to be two-faced. My

right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has taken his own view. I understand that we are having a free vote on the issue. In our party, that means a free vote. We are not going to be overruled like, I suspect, some Liberal Democrats. The hon. Member for Hereford has hon. Friends who share my view and who have told me that they share my view. He can make as much of the issue as he likes, but he faces the same passionately held views in his party. To pretend otherwise is misleading.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby also mentioned the cost-neutrality of the overall measure. The cost of the extension of the privileges and benefits to unmarried partners would be about £16 million. That £16 million must be found elsewhere. There are widows who are not and will not be entitled to enhanced benefits as the result of a new scheme. The Minister knows—I am not telling him anything that he does not know—that many widows feel aggrieved that money can be found to benefit those who could perfectly easily go to the registry office and get married, but is not available to them.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman has been very enthusiastic and I cannot deny him his moment.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow Anniesland 5:15 pm, 10th February 2004

Will the hon. Gentleman not accept that times have moved on since the rules were initially put in place? Marriage is no longer the be-all and end-all of partnership life. Different partnerships have been accepted not just in society and in the Church, but by members of his party. Is it not time that we put aside the prejudices that seemed to be expressed in his contribution and that of the hon. Member for Blaby? We have to move on. Fewer and fewer people are getting married, so less and less money will be spent on married couples. The hon. Gentleman's fear about extra money being spent is a red herring, reflecting his beliefs.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman seeks to label my hon. Friend and me as prejudiced. I said that there were deeply held views on both sides of the argument. I happen to think that the hon. Gentleman is wrong, but I do not say that he is prejudiced; he simply has a different point of view.

In my capacity as the chairman of the Family Matters Institute, I commissioned a report on the cost of family breakdown. I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy if he would be kind enough to take a look at it. The report illustrates the considerable damage that is done to family life by family breakdown. The Office for National Statistics, hardly the Evangelical Alliance's branch office, has shown in a study of children with behavioural disorders that children from single-parent or co-habiting homes were up to four times more likely to suffer behavioural disorder than those from married homes.

We say to people who smoke, ''You know there are dangers in smoking, so why should society put up with the consequences of your addiction?'' We make value judgments as politicians; we legislate for society as a

whole. My report illustrated that there is pretty conclusive evidence that children from married homes were likely to be better off.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) takes the view that it does not matter and that, in his words, ''We have to move on.'' I do not regard it as moving on; I think it is moving back. He is entitled to say that he thinks it is moving on. I do not want to detain the Committee with the matter.

The Government are in a dilemma, and I accept that the Minister has to deal with the situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby is also right, and I hear from the armed forces that they will find it very difficult to implement some of the measures, such as the allocation of housing. It will not be straightforward and the Minister knows that. I happen to take a different point of view although we both share the same symbol of our own relationships. I hope that he will be charitable enough to recognise that there is a profoundly held view with which he may differ.

I say to the hon. Member for Hereford that we do not have to make a judgment on the matter because we are not in government. When we come into government, we will have to see how we deal with the issue. My right hon. and hon. Friends who were previously in government had to deal with those issues, such as women serving at sea, so we have been there before and it is not an easy subject.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk West

The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that service personnel who are not married would not have access to those benefits. So service personnel who are gay and could not be married to their partners would not have access to those benefits either. He could do only one of two things: prejudice the position of gay service personnel or turn the clock back—look back, as he has just said—and remove gay service personnel from the services altogether. Which would it be—prejudice their position or turn the clock back and remove service personnel if they were gay?

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

I do not regard those matters as turning the clock back or forward; I regard them as matters of principle and I simply take a different view from the hon. Gentleman. I recognise that the Government have to deal with the here and now and that they have made their decision, but I tend to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby for the reasons that I gave on Second Reading and today.

I accept that ex gratia payments should be considered. We have operated that way and I think that it was going to work very well. We shall have to see how the arrangements in the Minister's Defence Council instruction work out.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

I shall be brief. I want to ask the Minister about the practicalities of determining what is a relationship. I have had the benefit of reading annexe B of the Defence Committee's first report of the previous Session. Under the heading ''Substantial/Established Relationship'' it states:

''Whether or not a relationship was substantial will be assessed on a case-by-case basis against a range of criteria''.

At what stage will that assessment be made? Will it be the ghastly, grizzly business, after someone has died on active service, of putting the partner through the mill of having to justify that they were indeed the partner of that person and dependent on them? The alternative—a much better system—would be to register a partnership in advance. I may have read it wrongly, but the implication is that it will happen after the event.

As to the range of criteria that establish whether it is a genuine or significant relationship, the Minister should give some thought to some of the things that were included. I pick out one,

''for instance a shared bank account''

Were I to operate a shared bank account with my wife, I should have taken leave of my senses. It would not enter my head to enter any such financial dealings with my wife. I cannot believe that it should be expected of people to do that sort of thing simply because they were in a partnership, when married couples would not consider doing anything quite so stupid; they would have no idea what money was in the account as a consequence of giving control of the account or access to it to someone else. Those criteria need to be thoroughly reviewed.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

I am grateful, after a long day, that the hon. Gentleman should entertain us so royally. We are talking about the Naval and Marine Pay and Pensions Act 1865. I stress that the provision has no impact on the Army or the Royal Air Force; we do not need to make changes to their procedures.

The best description that I can give the hon. Gentleman on ex gratia payments is that, at the moment, we make them almost through the back door. We are trying to formalise the position and ensure that everyone knows that it is above board and that payments are made at the appropriate time. That must be the right way forward.

I accept that there are different personal views on the extension of the provision to unmarried partners. Equality is an important agenda for the Government and the Labour party, because it reflects our core values.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

I understand that, but it is one of the things that rankles. We are concerned with getting the best deal for the armed forces. It is needlessly partisan of the Minister to refer to an equality agenda. It sends out the wrong signal to the armed forces. If he thinks that that arrangement is the best thing for the armed forces, fine, but to say that it is part of an overall equality agenda makes it sound like social engineering and political correctness. That does a lot of damage, and the Minister knows that that is very unpopular at senior levels in the services for which he is responsible.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

I do not accept that. If the hon. Gentleman had waited, I would have said that that extension to unmarried partners had been tested throughout the consultation process with members of the armed forces at all levels. There is considerable support for the change. We have had a lot of discussion today about recruitment and retention. If we are to recruit and retain people for our armed forces, we have to accept that armed forces broadly—

not exactly, but broadly—reflect the rest of society. That means that we should take an open and transparent approach to those who have a different sexuality or who do not wish to get married.

I should like to answer three questions. First, let me reassure the hon. Member for Blaby. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister fully supports the provisions of the Bill, including the extension to unmarried partners. Secondly, he hon. Gentleman needs to be aware that only 50 per cent. of our armed forces are married. The figures are freely available—I gave them to the Select Committee on 5 November. He also said that there had been legal challenges to the criteria. We have already made six payments under the criteria that I set out in the memorandum—the Defence Council instructions to which the hon. Gentleman referred. There have been no challenges yet, but we are aware that there could be.

I was asked what would happen in the event that somebody wanted to register his or her partner. It would be done in the same way as for any pension scheme and clarified on death or whenever the benefit

became due; then the payment would be made. The procedure is the same as it is for us in the parliamentary scheme, and we have followed it in the six cases since March 2003 to which I have referred.

Finally, before we vote—if we do; there has been so much disagreement that we might have to—I come to the hon. Member for Aldershot, who asked me about other groups. This is not retrospective; it is about making benefits available through the new scheme. Most importantly, it is about changing the Naval and Marine Pay and Pensions Act 1865 so that we can bring the payments for Royal Navy personnel up to date and reflect the scheme that they are in. That is dealt with by this clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Vernon Coaker.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Five o'clock till Tuesday 24 February at five minutes to Nine o'clock.