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Baroness Fookes: This amendment stands also in my name. I am very anxious indeed to see justice done to this small group of ladies about whom the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, speaks so eloquently, as she has done for many years. Like her, I appreciate that this is not strictly a matter for the noble Baroness; none the less it is an opportunity to state the case once again and also, through the medium of this Chamber, to urge upon the Ministry of Defence the absolute necessity of coming to a decision on their behalf quickly. I am increasingly concerned about the length of time reviews take. It seems to be becoming a substitute for action. I hope therefore that, at the very least, we can urge upon those who represent the Ministry of Defence the necessity for coming to a decision quickly and in favour of these war widows.

Perhaps I should explain that I have no financial interest but I am a vice-president of SSAFA, which has urgently called for action to be taken. I am also newly appointed as a vice-president of the War Widows Association, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, is president. Slightly strange, you may think, since I am neither wife nor widow; but it is a very important post which I take seriously. I do urge upon the House the importance of looking with sympathy and concern upon the plight of these very few war widows who, in my view, have such a strong case.

Lord Astor of Hever: I strongly support this amendment, so eloquently and clearly moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange. The noble Baroness told the House last year that she would return to fight another day, and I am delighted that she has. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, and my noble friend Lady Fookes, I have considerable sympathy for the

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position in which the Minister finds herself. I know that in opposition and in government she has campaigned long and hard for war widows.

It is a tragic fact that death can come to very young service personnel. These are not just faceless people. The soldier who drove me throughout my tour of duty in Northern Ireland, Trooper Durber, was subsequently killed there, aged only 26. He left a widow and two young children. Death can also come from the most unexpected quarter. In 1982 a bomb killed an officer, a warrant officer, two soldiers and seven horses in Hyde Park. I had served with the warrant officer, Corporal Major Bright. He left a widow and two children.

Over the last year this country has had troops--unarguably the best in the world--on active duty in high-risk locations such as Iraq, East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, and now Sierra Leone. The Government are responsible for their safety while they are there but also, in the event of any of them being killed, for their widows.

The question therefore arises of how we as a country look after the widows in a compassionate and responsible way. The answer is quite well, so long as they remain single for the rest of their lives. As soon as they remarry or cohabit, they lose every penny of their pension. We make it financial suicide for them to rebuild their lives and provide stable family units. Their children will not have the chance to belong to a loving family unit again. This really cannot be right.

Every independent review has recommended a pension for life. Hopefully, the Armed Forces pension review will report soon. Were the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, here today, she might have been able to tell the House the date. Even Mr Jeffrey Rooker, the Minister in the other place, has now accepted that there would be minimal cost implications in accepting this amendment. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness will do so.

Lord Craig of Radley: After what has just been said by the noble Lord and by the two noble Baronesses, it does not rest with me to try to make the case further. However, I should like it on record that I have strongly supported this particular proposition for a long time. The situation has seemed to me quite inequitable and I very much hope that, even if it cannot be found a place in this Bill, action will be taken to put right a longstanding and iniquitous wrong.

Earl Russell: I express my regrets to the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, that neither my name nor that of my noble friend Lord Goodhart is on her amendment. Our problem was that we both wished to put our names on the amendment. It took us the immense length of time of 24 hours after Second Reading to resolve that. By the end of those 24 hours there were no spaces left on the amendment. I ask the noble Baroness to accept both our names as being there in spirit.

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We on these Benches are firmly committed to this amendment and have been so committed for a long time. I say "for a long time". We have been debating the issue for a very long time. An overwhelming case has been made out for it many times over. We have been given assurances that it is under review many times over. It is proverbial that hope deferred maketh the heart grow sick. If the noble Baroness is feeling more than a little impatient for the conclusion of these reviews, I would not be surprised.

I take her points about the flexibility of summer and, in the light of the present state of our climate, one begins to wonder whether summer will in fact ever arrive. I hope that something will happen about this quickly, therefore.

The position taken hitherto by the Ministry of Defence is completely out of date with modern views about the status of women. As I understand the ministry's thinking, it is that if a woman is being kept by one man she need not be kept by another man. That is completely out of date. The pension should not be seen simply as the substitute for a man. It should be seen as a compensation for a loss, for suffering, and for a loss incurred in the Crown's service.

Whenever this matter is debated, we hear a great deal about the problem of ring-fencing. I do not believe that to be nearly as difficult as it is made out to be. If officials make out that it is too difficult to cope with, I cannot help thinking that they underrate their own ingenuity. The category of those who are in the Crown's service, in jobs that necessarily incur danger, is limited. However, service in the Armed Forces does incur some danger even in peacetime. Many things have to be done on manoeuvres where some risk is necessarily inherent; indeed, very sadly, some deaths may happen even in carefully and properly planned manoeuvres. So these are deaths in the service of the Crown. If the Crown wants to be loyally served, it must recognise that fact.

There are problems in the Armed Forces now, with recruitment and, even more so, with retention. The armed services have a considerable struggle in adapting to a world in which women have independent careers. They cannot follow their husbands around the globe because they have interests, bases and prospects of their own. That is just one sub-set of the need of the MoD to come to terms with such social change. If it does not do so, all our Armed Forces will be in danger. I conclude by quoting from a letter written by Lord Howard of Effingham to Lord Treasurer Burghley on the day that the Spanish Armada was sighted off the Lizard:


    "God send Her Majesty not now to stay for charges".

4.30 p.m.

Lord Alli: I rise to express my support for this amendment. I should like to associate myself with all the previous speakers in this respect. I believe that a pension should be for life and that these widows are being treated badly. However, I should like to turn to the question of co-habiting partners and to those who

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lose a partner in service. In the debate last October, the noble Baroness raised the case of a pilot who lost his life in service. He left a fiancee who was expecting their first child but who was not entitled to a pension.

I believe that we should review the arrangements for co-habiting partners. Indeed, this seems to be an ideal opportunity to do so. There is much to be learnt from the private sector where the rules as regards co-habitation are much better than those which apply to the public sector; for example, some 75 per cent of pension schemes in the private sector recognise the rights of co-habiting couples. I urge my noble friend the Minister to look at this area in more detail to see what can be done for co-habiting partners.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: For the benefit of noble Lords who are fairly new to this place, I should explain that I have a special interest in these matters because I preceded the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, in her job at the Department of Social Security and was the Minister with responsibility for war pensions. I am pretty certain that I could give the Committee a preview of the Minister's speech, having made it myself on a number of occasions. I suspect that the noble Baroness will be as unhappy in delivering that speech as I was on the occasions that I had to deliver it. I was successful on all those occasions in persuading this Chamber not to take the matter to a vote, although, as noble Lords may recall, I was less successful on one or two war pensions issues and was defeated by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, and her large army of supporters. I shall return to that point presently.

Before the commencement of this debate I checked my file and came across an important letter from the MoD. It was written by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, a certain Dr John Reid and thus noble Lords will realise that the letter is not exactly of yesterday's vintage. In the letter, Dr Reid says that the,


    "Government has commissioned a comprehensive review of the arrangements for the payment of compensation to Service personnel or their dependants, for injury, illness, or death as a result of their military service ... Experience from the Gulf conflict and operations in Bosnia underlines the need for arrangements which properly reflect the special nature of the commitment which Service men and women make to the defence of our country".

I should have been quite happy with that and, indeed, with the advice that the noble Baroness will undoubtedly give noble Lords--namely, to await the outcome of that review--but then I noticed that the letter was dated 8th December 1997. That review has been a long time in coming.

I must repeat the important point that I have made in this Chamber on a number of occasions. Thanks to pension splitting on divorce, which was taken through this place by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and which followed a White Paper that I presented to the House before the 1997 election, we have the following anomalous position. Let us take, for example, two service families who live side by side. One of those couples may divorce and the wife will be able to claim a portion of the pension pot of her former husband. The husband in the other family may be killed, leaving his

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wife with a widow's pension which I, and war widows, accept is a generous one. So both women would, so to speak, be alone without husbands.

However, if both women decided to remarry, the divorced woman would keep her share of the pension pot and be able to translate it into a pension when she reached retirement, but the widow would lose hers. That cannot be fair. In my view, the way that we have treated war widows on remarriage has never been fair. It is particularly unfair when both the Government and the Opposition agree that we have made the situation regarding widows' pensions in the military even more ludicrous by way of the pension splitting on divorce.

On the last occasion that we debated this issue, much was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, of the read-across factor. Indeed, so much was made of it that I actually wondered whether the scale of read-across was pretty well equal; in other words, that as many people in the other services of the Crown and of the community are likely to be killed in the line of duty as applies to military personnel. Therefore, I have tabled some Questions on this, relating to "service-attributable deaths" in each of the past five years. In November 1999, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, replied, and informed me that the total number of "attributable deaths" in the Armed Forces was 138. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, replied regarding the fire service where, of course, dangers are encountered daily. The total number of deaths in that service during those years was 13. The noble Lord also informed me that the total number of deaths in the police service was 28, of whom, rather worryingly, 21 were killed in road accidents.

It appears from that information that the scale of attributable deaths in the military is quite markedly different from the scale applying to the other services, so I do not want to hear about the read-across. I have a second argument against the latter. I have in mind the fact that this Chamber defeated the then government on the question of restoration of the war widows' pension on second widowhood. As far as I know, no effort has been made to extend the read-across argument to the police, the fire service or anyone else regarding the concession that the Conservative government were forced to make in this respect. Therefore, I hope that the Minister does not have mention of the read-across in her speech and that any such mention has been removed.

Those are the main arguments that I wish to put before the Committee, but I have just one further point to make. When we discussed this issue last year, I suggested to the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, that she should withdraw her amendment so as to allow the MoD to move quicker. However, we are a year on and nothing much has happened. Indeed, this matter has been debated since 1994. The arguments that I put before noble Lords during the years before the election were, "Just wait! The MoD is reviewing the situation. All will be well; it will come up with a conclusion". The only thing that will force the MoD to come forward

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with a conclusion is for noble Lords to defeat the Government and insist on this new clause being inserted into the Bill--


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