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Baroness Fookes: My Lords, many excellent points have been made, and I shall not rehearse them. I make only two points. First, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, on her ingenuity and persistence in bringing forward this matter again and again. Secondly, in another place I represented a constituency with strong service connections. I am well aware of the difficulties that can arise for the unfortunate minority of women who would benefit from a continuation of this occupational pension. However, I am aware that in this matter the Ministry of Defence is notably stubborn and unyielding. It will take all the persistence of the noble Baroness, who, as a Minister, now has a place at the Ministry of Defence, to get that department to depart from long-established practice. I look to her to carry the matter forward; I have every confidence that she will.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I declare an interest as patron of the Gulf Veterans' Association. In recent times perhaps the widows of Gulf veterans are the ones we hear about in any numbers. We hear about those who are widowed because their husbands are killed in aircraft crashes, and so on. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, put it much more succinctly than I ever could. To live in sin is no longer a sin. We must take into account cohabitation, as my noble friend Lady Strange said.
Perhaps I may pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, as the first person who has really taken an interest in the Gulf veterans' widows. They very much appreciate it and are thankful. I heartily support the noble Baroness.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, when I took the Pensions Bill through your Lordships' House the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, led a reasonably successful attack on my position. As a result of the defences I had to put up, I had to dig very deeply into the various details of those pension arrangements. As I made clear in the debate on Report, I have no problem with the position on the DSS war widows' pension; and neither does the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, whose amendment this is. The Government's position on this amendment and the last ones is perfectly sustainable: that in the DSS system the DSS war widows' pension should be treated in exactly the same way as the other DSS widows' pension; they are lost on remarriage.
However, when we come to the Armed Forces attributable pension, we are entitled to look at other pension schemes of a similar superannuated nature. The majority in the private sector would give a widow a pension for life. I accept that a minority in the public sector do so, but at least some do.
I think that the Armed Forces pension scheme should be considered entirely differently from schemes for other people working in the public sector. As the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, mentioned in her introduction, in the past two weeks two aircraft have crashed and young men have been killed--young men who left widows and children. That brings home the nature, whether it be in war or peace, of the dangers to which servicemen are always exposed.
I should find it easy to defend the position on the Armed Forces pension scheme against any other sector pension scheme. There are those who have been widowed in Northern Ireland, the Gulf, and the Falklands; and training creates many widows--fortunately not week after week, but it happens. I believe that we should put as much pressure as we can on the Government to make a change in the Armed Forces attributable pension scheme.
It is now even more important to do so because of another part of the Bill; namely, pension splitting on divorce. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, introduced the question of divorce. I underline the point. Two armed services families live side by side. In one case, the husband and wife divorce. The wife will receive a share of the pension pot and, frankly, can marry as many times as she likes--consecutively, not concurrently!--and keep the pension pot. Next door, unfortunately the husband crashes his aircraft in practice, and that lady receives her war widow's pension from the attributable pension scheme, but the moment she remarries she loses it. So she has been placed in a worse position than the lady who has divorced. I do not think that that is right.
Some noble Lords are saying, "Why didn't he do something about that when he was in a position to do so?". That is a perfectly fair point. I did try--it is my only defence--but obviously not very successfully. I sent letters to my noble friend Lord Howe. I chased my civil servants across to the MoD. My noble friend Lord Howe and I totally agreed. But the MoD has had a lot of practice at inertia and it is very good at it. I kept being told that it is all under review. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, told me on Report that it is all under review. I think that five years of reviewing are more than enough. I am depending on the two noble Baronesses to show (if I may use a Scots term) that the lasses are better than the lads and that they can make progress on this issue.
Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I speak with considerable sympathy on this amendment. I admire the tenacity of the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, in her continuing hard work to press the Government to support this very special group of people. The forces family pension is an occupational pension, a contributory scheme, and I think that we are all now very aware that it is currently under review by the Ministry of Defence. I am pleased to note the presence here today of the Minister of State, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean. It is our firm belief that payment of this pension should not depend on whether or not a widow chooses to remarry or live with
More than that, it is entirely wrong to assume that just because a widow remarries any loss of income incurred on the death of her husband is naturally restored. We have heard many of the arguments rehearsed, both today, in Committee and on Report. In short, it is our hope that the Government will now take action and support what I believe is a very strong case for the Ministry of Defence to change its policy with regard to war widows who wish to remarry or cohabit and so rebuild their lives.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, I have listened to this debate very carefully, and I have had the pleasure of meeting earlier this week with the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, and Mrs Jenny Green of the War Widows Association to discuss the issue as my noble friend Lady Hollis undertook on my behalf in answering Amendment No. 51 at Report stage. I thank the noble Baroness warmly for the way she moved the amendment. I also thank the noble Earl for his kind remarks to me.
Let me say at the outset that we all have sympathy with the case that the noble Baroness argued. At one level, it is of course straightforward. She has argued that in logic and in equity the widow or widower of someone whose death is directly related to their service in the Armed Forces should retain their benefit from their spouse's occupational pension on remarriage or cohabitation. But although that is a straightforward uncomplicated proposition to put to your Lordships, the issues which it raises are far more complex and difficult to resolve. If the House will allow me, I shall try to explain.
Currently, as we have heard, the widow or widower of someone who has died for a reason which is directly attributable to their service in the Armed Forces receives not only the DSS widows' pension but also an occupational pension from the MoD (the Armed Forces Pension Scheme) which is enhanced to take account of the fact that their spouse's death was directly related to his or her service. Currently, both the DSS pension and the enhanced occupational pension are withdrawn if the widow remarries or cohabits.
The proposed amendment does not affect the withdrawal of the DSS pension, which is withdrawn for all widows who remarry or cohabit. However, the amendment, if passed, would ring-fence a war widow's MoD occupational pension for life and make it payable irrespective of remarriage or cohabitation.
In that respect, the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, was right when she argued that the amendment's provisions would reflect a number of private sector occupational pension schemes. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, made the same point also, I
The schemes for other emergency services--services where men and women put their lives at risk in pursuit of their public duty, such as the police service and the fire service--also withdraw occupational pensions on remarriage or cohabitation. So, of course, does the Civil Service scheme.
I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, believes that this ring-fence for war widows is justified, but only in the short term. Naturally, she and the association want to see occupational pensions for life for all service widows. Of course they do. However, I am sure that many would immediately make what they perceive to be the entirely justifiable claim on behalf of their own members--their members in the police, their members in the fire service and their members across the public sector. Ring-fencing, while justifiable to some, is rarely justifiable to those on the edge of but outside the ring. Indeed, while doing a great deal of good to some, it may cause a very great deal of bitterness to others.
We cannot make the change that the noble Baroness seeks without taking into account the position of those others outside the immediate ring. We must do our best to treat everyone with equity and look at the needs of all those who are widowed as a result of the dedication to public duty of those they have lost.
We must also consider those other widows in the public services whose spouses have been lost through natural causes. We cannot set their position on one side; we cannot even do it temporarily. They, too, will find themselves outside the ring-fence. They will find themselves in an unfair and embittering position.
The highly persuasive point that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, made about children could equally be applicable to widows whose spouses have died through natural causes. However, they are not covered by this amendment. The noble Baroness has told us that 2,650 widows would be covered. There are over 68,000 widows covered by the Armed Forces pension scheme who may also have young children and who may also be in need but who would not be covered by this amendment.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, was quite right. My noble friend Lady Hollis and I turned to each other while he was speaking and said, "Why did he not do it when he had the chance?" He said that he tried but that the MoD was inert. I assure the noble Lord that, under New Labour, the MoD is not inert. The MoD has set a personnel strategy for the Armed Forces. It was published in 1997 under New Labour and it covered a wide range of issues for the Armed Forces. It stated that a review of the pension arrangements would be required. The then Minister for the Armed Forces announced a review of the scheme in September 1998. The review is currently under way. It is not going to happen in the future; it is happening now. I also remind the House that my honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces,
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