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Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I wish briefly to support the amendment which has been so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. There is a proposition that all widows are more or less to be placed together and treated similarly. I dissent very strongly from that notion. I believe, if I can use for a moment some rather old-fashioned language, that there is a special obligation of honour to those who lose their lives in war. It is simply no good our saying year after year, parrot fashion, "We will remember them", if we do not remember the obligations which we undertook, not just to their dependants, but to them before they died.
I believe that there are two questions which should be asked here. I have a great deal of sympathy with my noble friend, who has a difficult problem here, but I believe there are two questions which he has to answer. One is: is it possible for a widow by her action to extinguish an obligation which has been undertaken to someone else by the state? My second question is really just a reflection of the first one. Is the state excused from further observation of an undertaking which it itself undertook to someone who has been killed in this country's cause? I do not think I have any more to say, but I think those questions, and our attitude to what I regardI repeat the phraseas an obligation of honour, ought not to be dodged.
Lord Dean of Harptree: My Lords, although we are debating Amendment No. 185 I suggest to your Lordships that the four amendments hang together and that the same principles are involved. Were your Lordships to accept the first amendment, it would follow logically that the others should be accepted too. We have been here before, and not only during the Committee stage. I had some responsibility for these matters over 20 years ago. The arguments are exactly the same as they were then. Why is it then that successive governments, both Conservative and Labour, have found it impossible to accept amendments of this character? Is it the case that when they become Ministers, whatever their political colour, they suddenly become hard hearted and iron enters into their soul, or is it perhaps that when they become Ministers they recognise that they have a responsibility to use their heads as well as their hearts?
The point is retrospection. If all improvements led to retrospection there would be very few improvements in occupational pension schemes or public service schemes because of the anomalies that would be created and the cost involved. In my judgment, it is no accident that it is the general rule that improvements count only for service after their introduction. On occasion there are buy-in provisions, but they apply only to those who are serving at the time and they have to be paid for. In my view, the amendment is contrary to the fundamental principle of non-retrospection. If conceded it would lead to irresistible pressure for the following amendments to be accepted.
My second point concerns equity and fairness as between pensioners. We very rightly give preference to war widows. I believe that everybody accepts that that should be so. As a consequence of that preference, war widows receive more than double the national insurance widows' pension and they receive it tax free. The preference has been increased by governments of both political colours over the years, and quite rightly so.
But I believe that different arguments apply when we consider the amendment. What about merchant seamen and lifeboatmen? Many of them gave their lives during the war to ensure that essential supplies got through to this country so that we could eventually win the war. There is no mention of them in the amendment. What about air raid wardens, police and firemen? They were very much in the front rank during those war years. There is no mention of their widows in the amendment. What about those who gave their lives through industrial injury or industrial disease while keeping weapons coming forward satisfactorily? I represented a constituency in another place which included the North Somerset coalfield. I have vivid memories of men gasping for breath, suffering from emphysema and ghastly diseases of that kind. Their wives went through agonies, and when eventually those men died their widows went through equal agonies. There is no mention of them in the amendment. I suggest to your Lordships that in this case it is neither equitable nor fair to single out war widows for further preferential treatment.
My final point relates to the cost. No doubt my noble friend will be able to enlighten the House about the cost of the amendments, but there is no doubt in my mind from my previous experience that the cost will be substantial. There would be a knock-on effect on all public service pension schemes and on the amendments which are to be considered soon. That additional cost would be on top of the uprating of pensions and benefits which is to come into operation next month at an additional cost to the taxpayer of approximately £1.5 billion. Are we really justified in sending to another place an additional bill on top of that, particularly bearing in mind our constitutional restraints with regard to finance?
Those obligations attached to the men of the armed services who had to go to action stations when attacked by the enemy and who had to attack the enemy. Therefore, there are no relativities attaching to civilian or industrial casualties. These were different. These were the men of our Armed Forces who had no choice, who made no other choice than to give of themselves for King and country, believing that, if they were lost, King and country would look after those who were left behind.
I do not intend to speak at length. Had the chaps who were worked, starved and beaten to death on the Burma railway asked, "What's going to happen to the missus?", they would not have thought that this great House of Lords would have hesitated and been parsimonious with the widow's mite. Nor would the men of the Battle of Britain, of Bomber Command and Transport Command or of the Navy, who fed us by escorting convoys, all those great men of 50 years or so ago. Today their elderly widows need the dignity of a few years of old age. Tonight this House has the power to set that right. I believe that we have the will, because this is not a matter of politics or a matter of purse; it is a matter of conscience.
Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Dean appeared to criticise the idea of giving preference to war widows. But that preference has been accepted ever since the war. Like him, I was responsible for administration of the war pensions scheme for a number of years. I openly provided a considerably larger pension for war widows and for the war disabled than other people obtained, and I was supported fully in both Houses. Therefore, it is a false point, and a bad point, to argue that, because this proposal involves a considerable preference for the war widow, it should be rejected.
There is also the question of timing. When we discussed this matter on the previous occasion, several of us indicated that the 50th anniversary of VE Day was a particularly appropriate time to commemorate in this way and express gratitude to the widows of those who died in the defence of their country. Here I very much reject what my noble friend said. It has always been accepted that there should be a substantial preference for those who died fighting for their country. That has always been the policy. It is therefore now a question only of whether in the circumstances of today we should make some further improvement for this particular category of person.
We discussed the matter at considerable length at an earlier stage. There was a great body of opinion in this House that we should make an improvement and that there could not be a more appropriate moment for so doing than as part of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of our victory. Therefore I hope that the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, will be accepted. I believe that it is the right
I very much hope that your Lordships' Houseit is very much a matter for your Lordships' Housewill support the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg. I agree with every word he said. Some of us remember with great admiration the maiden speech that he made not very long ago during which he touched upon this subject. It would be a good decision of this House to carry these amendments.
Lord Ennals: My Lords, I have not taken part in the debate; nor had I intended so to do. Like the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, when I was Secretary of State for Social Services I had responsibility for pensions which covered widows' pensions. I was inspired by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, and a little horrified by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree. One can always say that many other people deserve what we suggest in the amendment. We are not talking about those other people. Perhaps another time will come for those people. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said, the time for war widows has come; it is now. If we do not make this provision this year, I doubt whether we shall ever do so. The spirit conveyed by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, seemed to me to be well above party politics. He was speaking from his heart. I, having been one of those who fought in the Second World War as so many people in this House did, would feel that the House was not standing by its great traditions if we did not support this amendment. I urge us so to do.
Baroness Seear: My Lords, we on these Benches made it quite clear at Committee stage that we support the amendments. I do not wish to prolong the debate tonight. As the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said, the crux of the matter is whether or not one draws a distinction in favour of ex-service people. Quite clearly they are a different category and therefore we give them wholehearted support. We support the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg.
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