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Earl Russell: My Lords, I am happy to support the amendment, to which I have added my name. In doing so, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, on being present to listen to the debate both on Report and today; I am also pleased to welcome the arrival of the first woman to hold office at the Ministry of Defence. It is appropriate and constructive that the appointment comes at the same time as that of the first man to speak in Parliament on women's issues. I have always said that when those two things happened together we should be making progress.
It is precisely that progress which means that we need to re-examine very carefully the attributable forces family pension. The arrangements made by the Ministry of Defence in times past relate to a view of women which is now not merely contrary to experience but positively indefensible. They rest on the view that the function of a woman is to be kept by a man. So, as soon as another man begins either to cohabit or marries the woman, any MoD responsibility to her is assumed to cease.
That is not, as I understand it, what the attributable forces family pension is for. For any spouse it is a very considerable sacrifice to consent to a partner going off to war with a risk of being killed. It has always been a difficult thing for anyone to do. It has always been recognised by governments of all parties that people simply do not do that unless their sacrifice is recognised and some appreciation is shown by those in authority.
We are suggesting that in the present climate that appreciation cannot be properly shown unless it is understood to be for the suffering and the sacrifice, and not merely for the lack of a man to keep the woman. It seems to me also a little curious to insist on imposing permanent celibacy on widows in their 20s. It is not easily done, and not kindly received. The Government will have a much better reputation, not only within the forces but within many different circles, if they understand the force of the argument behind the amendment, and if they welcome it. I end my remarks in that hope.
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I, too, support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange. I do not know a great deal about pension provision in the forces, but I understand that the pension referred to stands in as a kind of occupational pension. I have some experience of negotiating private occupational pensions in industry. It has become increasingly common over the past 10 or 15 years for such schemes to make arrangements for a widow's pension to be continued even after remarriage. I really do not see why a similar provision cannot be applied in these circumstances. I support the excellent case made by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell.
Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I, too, should like to associate myself with the amendment. The case has been strongly put. I wonder whether in the case of two people who had been married but who had divorced, it would have been possible for the wife to inherit part of her divorce settlement, to which she would have had access for the rest of her life.
This is a pension to which the husband makes contributions throughout his service career. There is every expectation that if the two people continue together, the wife will be well supported on the basis of her husband's pay. As a widow, the woman may well have children to support. There is no great financial difference between what is proposed and the current situation. It therefore seems iniquitous that the present arrangement should be allowed to stand. I strongly support the amendment.
Lord Freyberg: My Lords, I too strongly support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Strange. Like her, I was shocked and distressed to hear about the fast jet crashes of the past few weeks which have resulted in the deaths of four servicemen under the age of 40. Sadly, there will always be accidents involving high-tech equipment. Many of our servicemen are involved in perilous activities, often on a daily basis. This kind of risk is expected of them. It is part of the job. But although the possibility of death is ever present, we fail to make adequate provision should the worst happen.
The conditions under which the current war widow's pension is paid out fall short of what a serviceman has a right to expect. We fail to face up to the likely future circumstances of a war widow and her family. By
We provide strong financial reasons for war widows not to remarry or even cohabit. This is all the harder as, given the nature of military service, many are young when they lose their husbands. As the noble Baroness said, currently there are 394 war widows under the age of 40, many of whom are likely to have young children. It seems cruel to expect them not to build up a new family unit; if they do, they risk losing all financial security. The amendment is therefore an opportunity to benefit a comparatively small number of very deserving widows and children. They should not be ignored. Their husbands, and the men currently serving in our Armed Forces, deserve this kind of security. We expect our servicemen literally to put their lives on the line. In return, we must provide their families with a pension scheme that matches their unique circumstances, thus honouring their commitment.
I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, will take this excellent opportunity to impress upon the MoD that it is the will of this House to provide our servicemen with a just pension for their potential widows.
Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I wish to add one further argument in support of the amendment. Recent research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that children in happy step-families do as well as children in natural families. However, the evidence indicates that children without fathers can be, and often are, severely disadvantaged. I do not believe that we should do anything to discourage a mother from finding a new father for her children if she is able to do so.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, there are some practical issues which should be considered in support of this excellent amendment. Particularly in the Army, accompanied service is the rule. It is difficult enough for an army wife to have a career while her husband is in the UK. When abroad, she becomes non-resident, or not habitually resident, once one tax year has elapsed. If, as in Cyprus, she manages to get one of the very few jobs available in the defence complex and can pay national insurance contributions, that is not recognised on her return until she has secured a job and paid those contributions in the UK for a year. She cannot, incidentally, claim jobseeker's allowance. When the appropriate form about her proposed employment is sent by her employer to the Inland Revenue, that eminent body has no way of recognising her as an army wife who has been making a contribution to service life abroad. Therefore, it sends her a form devised for aliens and visitors which inquires why she wants to work and how long she proposes to stay in the UK.
I give an example of the difficulty faced by service wives. Mrs A, who is in her 50s, has spent 17 out of her 26 years of married life abroad. She has only begun to establish a career in the UK in the past three years. She will have to work for at least 10 years to qualify for the state pension in her own right; otherwise, she is excluded from it. I add the important point that the stakeholder pension will go far to help such wives in the future, but it comes too late for those already in their late 40s. Thus, army wives who play a vital part in the work of the services both at home and overseas, and who make a major contribution to it, are disqualified by residence abroad from building up ISAs. Because of constant moves they are unlikely to build a career which allows them to save for a private pension, and at the end of the day often they do not qualify for a state pension. Those seem irrational and unjust situations.
I raise these issues because I believe it is essential that the House and, perhaps more importantly, the Government should recognise that army widows are already heavily handicapped, with little prospect of a career structure that gives them the chance either to build a private pension or, in many cases, to qualify for a state pension. It has been assumed that if a widow has the temerity to marry again another man will support her and she has no claim to anything more, even though her first husband earned the right to leave her at least part of his pension and that, in partnership with him, she played a key part in contributing to the work of the services and, in so doing, had to forgo any possibility of a lucrative career of her own. She cannot, thus, establish her independence.
Many widows will remarry if they have children, at least partly for the children's sake. I made reference to that in the previous debate, and I warmly support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, who repeated it. They will want to give their children fathers. It seems to me that the dice are loaded against them. They cannot have ISAs or non-contributory pensions and the Revenue treats them as aliens. The country, nevertheless, owes them a great debt. Surely everything possible should be done to enable them to retain a degree of financial independence by keeping the pension which their husbands, rightly, believed they would have. If they had not been service wives, they could have saved for themselves.
I strongly support the noble Baroness's amendment and hope that the debate will lead to serious consideration by the Government of the issues I have raised. I am aware that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, is concerned about all these issues, and I honour her for that. But it is vital to recognise that these women are, in a thousand different ways, severely disadvantaged.
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