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Baroness Faithfull: I support the amendments, and, in particular, Amendment No. 191B. The Children Act 1989 lays down that the welfare of the child is paramount. I want to speak on behalf of the children of the widows and of their fathers who were killed in war. If a war widow wants to remarry, she realises that she will have her war widow's pension taken away. If the man is single, she realises that he has to take responsibility not just for her but for the children. If he is wealthy, all well and good, but supposing he is not wealthy, supposing he is taken ill, supposing he has a job or does not have a jobthese days many men are losing their jobsthen the mother will realise that financially the children will suffer. If the man she seeks to marry is a widower with children, his financial burden will be heavy. There will be his children and her children. Just let us remember what happened over the Child Support Bill, now an Act, perhaps unhappily.
Lord Bramall: I am in an awkward position as regards the amendment because I am a member of the steering group which, under the leadership of the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal, is planning on behalf of Her Majesty's Government all the official events marking the 50th anniversary of VE Day and VJ, end of war, Day. Of course the steering group has no responsibilities for war widows' pensions as such. But it is charged with ensuring that any commemorative events and the expenditure on them are appropriate and in keeping with the sentiments and the mood of the country, in particular the veterans. With that mood rightly placing considerable emphasis on the gratitude felt for the service and sacrifice that made victory possible, the plight of some war widows cannot be completely divorced from the significant sums of money being spent on commemoration and, this time, on celebration. While on the one hand I have some representational responsibilities to the veterans, I do not wish to be too critical of any government action in relation to this anniversary, for which I and my colleagues on the steering group are prepared to take full collective responsibility. At the same time, fairness compels me to say that I agree so much with what was said by my noble friend Lord Freyberg in putting forward his important amendment to the Pensions Bill.
The whole subject is immensely complex because there are many different categories and degrees of hardship in a system which in principle and in practice is full of the most appalling and absurd anomalies. At this stage I need only remind the Committee that, because of the way in which war and service widows' pensions are paid in practice, a large number of elderly widows, many over the age of 75, are in severe financial difficulties. Surely in this 50th anniversary year of all years there is a golden and perhaps unique opportunity to improve the discreditable situation. After all, one of the main themes of the end-of-war commemoration, which is fully endorsed by the Prime Minister, is that of tribute and promise. There will be a tribute to those who served and suffered and a promise that those who did so and their families will be supported while that is necessary and encouraged to live out their lives in dignity. That pledge is essentially one made by the veterans, the associated voluntary organisations and, it is to be hoped, the younger generation. It involves no commitment on the part of the Government.
However, this year would provide a wonderful opportunity to make some gesture towards saying that at least war widows and those whose husbands' deaths were attributable to active service would never have their pensions removed from them and that an entitled service widow whose husband retired or died before March 1973, as many of the World War II generation did, should in future have the same half-rate pension as is currently available.
Surely, this is an occasion for Ministers to show some imaginative spark of compassion and common sense which will capture the spirit of the moment and reflect the pulse of the veterans, rather than meekly harkening to Scrooge-like counselling ever reminding them of the dangers of precedent, the impossibility of retrospectionwhich governments are prepared to break when it suits themor our inability to afford such gestures. No doubt that claim is insisted upon by the Treasury, whose policies between 1926 and 1938 we should never forget all but lost us that war. Now, thanks to so much sacrifice, we are able to remember its successful outcome with pride and gratitude.
I urge the Government to take heed of the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Freyberg. I urge them fittingly to mark this unique occasion by a significant gesture in the pension field, in particular as regards war widows. That would probably be more appreciated by the veterans than anything else that is being done to mark the 50th anniversary. I suspect that it will also be appreciated by the rest of the country, which will not be too enamoured by the thought of significant sums of money being spent, however sensibly, on commemoration and celebration when the widows of those who made the victory possible are still seen to be suffering.
Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: I am glad that I gave way to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and was able to hear his speech before speaking myself. I, too, support the three amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, but I wish to comment in particular on Amendment No. 191B.
A widow on remarriage, or if it is proved to the satisfaction of the DSS or MoD that she is cohabiting, will lose her pension. Few widows remarry because they are afraid of losing their pension and finding themselves in financial straits later on in life. That can happen, however well-off the proposed partner may be. Therefore, the Government would find their expenditure very little higher if they did the decent thing and allowed such widows to keep their pensions on remarriage. That would enable those women to find renewed happiness without the fear of financial stringency. In any event, having equalised the retirement age for men and women at 65, the Government will in a few years be making considerable savings and will be perfectly well able to afford to do that.
I do not know how much the Government are proposing to spend on the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. But as I am not involved in those arrangements I can say what I like. I do not know what the Government propose to spend on feasting and fireworks, but to spend money on such things while maintaining that they cannot afford to abolish this wicked rule is utterly wrong.
Whatever the cost, this is a wrong which should be righted, however late in the day. And as for the weasely argument which I fear I may hear that it would be retrospective, perhaps I may say that the Government have never hesitated to legislate retrospectively when it suited them. To impose a burden retrospectively must be wrong but to right a wrong retrospectively must be right.
War widows are not in the same category as other widows. They are the widows of men who lost their lives as a result of service in the Armed Forces. It is thanks to such men that we are able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Their widows cannot be in the same category as the widows of people who died in an industrial accident.
The treatment of war widows in this country since the Second World War by all governments, regardless of party, has, I am sorry to say, been one of the meanest, shabbiest, most shameful pieces of ingratitude ever perpetrated in a civilised country. I call upon the Government to take this unique opportunity, as was said by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and to accept these amendments, rectify a grievous wrong and give the war widows of this country something to celebrate at last.
Lord Carver: I strongly support all three amendments proposed by my noble friend Lord Freyberg. He has explained clearly the reasoning behind the amendments, and the emotion provoked by them has been expressed forcefully by my noble and gallant friend Lord Bramall.
Whether it is looked at from the point of view of need or equitythat is, equity between one widow and another, equity within the Armed Forces or equity between the Armed Forces and other professionsor whether it is looked at from the point of view of comparison with other nations, there can be no doubt whatever that the amendments should be accepted by the Government.
When these matters have been discussed on previous occasions, the only reason ever given for not taking the course proposed is that it would cost a lot of money. It has always been impossible for the Government, whichever department is concerned, to argue against the need. This time, for heaven's sake, let the Government put their hand in their pocket, which they do for other things. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, said, on this occasion we are remembering the men who died and the women who were left behind. Let the Government be generous for once.
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