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Earl Russell: My Lords, when Barry Goldwater stood for the presidency of the United States, a story went around that he was about to be signed up by 18th Century Fox. When I look at the attitude towards women in the 1973 Act which this amendment seeks to repeal, I cannot help feeling that it is just about as old fashioned as Barry Goldwater.
The 1973 Act attempts to provide, like a Tudor husband making his will, that the widow shall live sole, chaste and unmarried. That is, first, a gross impertinence, and secondly, it rests on the view of women as people who are to be kept by some man. That is grossly out of line with the facts of the present day.
The thinking of the 1973 Act appears to be that a woman needs compensation for her husband being killed in war if she has no other man to keep her, but as soon as she has another man to keep her, Well, that's all right, isn't it? We don't need to worry about it any more". That is not the way we think these days.
The compensation to a war widow must be occupational, as the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, said. However, that compensation must also be for the pain, the suffering and the loss, and not just be provided as a substitute income. If that kind of compensation for loss is not recognised, all armies in all periods will have to face up to the fact that it will be very hard indeed to get people to fight. There is here something that is urgently in need of attention. I hesitate to say that the Government need to be brought into the 20th century. It has been left a little late for that. But they might at least come into the 18th in time to catch up with the 21st.
Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, on her speech in moving this important amendment. She is held in the highest regard by war widows and rightly so. No parliamentarian in either House has striven, or strives now, harder to enhance the well-being of war
Jenny Green, in a statement for the association in support of the amendment, describes the iniquity" of treating war widows who remarry less favourably than they would be treated in other schemes. As Jenny knows, I have given it as my view that, of all the duties that it falls to Parliament to discharge, none is of more compelling priority than our bounden duty to act justly to men and women who were prepared to lay down their lives for this country and to the dependants of those who did so. That is the case for making provision for Britain's war widows at least as good as that in any other scheme.
I am sure that my noble friend Lady Hollis, who in Opposition campaigned long and hard for war widows, will want to reply as helpfully as she can to this debate for I know that her commitment is as genuine now as it was then. In particular, I hope that my noble friend will give due weight to the fact that significantly less than 1 per cent of the war widows affected by this amendment remarry; and to the clearly expressed insistence, both of Sir Michael Bett's independent review team and the Goode report, that all service widows' pensions should be for life regardless of any change in marital status.
Lord Freyberg: My Lords, I, too, support the amendment put forward by my noble friend Lady Strange. As the Government have recognised on many previous occasions, the Armed Forces are unique in that members are called upon to put their lives at risk because of the nature of their work. As the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, said, at the moment there are British forces in Kosovo, East Timor and other high-risk locations around the world. Their pensions are occupational and contributory. If they are killed in the line of duty, their widows quite rightly become recipients of this pension, but only so long as they remain single and do not cohabit, in which case they lose all their pension. It seems quite wrong that should a widow wish to remarry a few years after her serviceman husband has died, she loses any right to the pension, regardless of how many years he may have paid into it and regardless of the children who may have been left fatherless and without their father's potential income.
In addition, the nature of service life ensures that the majority of service widows are unable to pursue their own careers or accrue the occupational benefits of their own profession. That they should further be denied the security of the spouse's pension seems doubly wrong.
It should be noted that, while only 21 per cent of all public pension schemes in the UK are for life, 84 per cent of all private pension schemes in the UK are. What happens in the private sector is of relevance, as the principle of comparability is the basis of the Armed Forces salary rate and pension benefit, as pensions are really deferred pay.
Furthermore, the Bett independent review recommended that all service widows should receive a pension for life, regardless of any change in marital status. At present, the Treasury pays both the DSS and the MoD pension to post-1973 war widows. Through this amendment we ask only that the attributable forces family pension be paid for life. The DSS pension would be relinquished on remarriage.
It is wrong that young widows with young children should be denied the opportunity to bring up their children in the family units of their choice. As has been mentioned, there are currently 2,650 post-1973 war widows. The current policy on their husbands' pensions ensures that 99 per cent do not remarry or even cohabit. If the Government were to institute pensions for life for post-1973 war widows, there would therefore be no substantial cost to the Government, and they would enable these widows to form relationships and live in a manner which most people would consider a basic human right.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I, too, strongly support the amendment for reasons which have already been stated, but which perhaps bear restating. First, I believe it is right that if a young widow wishes to give her children the opportunity to have a father again and a man in the family, that is extremely important to family life. Secondly, I need hardly say that I believe that members of the forces and their wives, given the life that service wives have to lead, are particularly deserving of support. Thirdly, and not least, I note that the Ulster Regiment is covered by this provision, and I am sorry to say that there have been grave dangers to life and limb and there may well continue to be. I therefore hope very much that, for reasons of humanity and common sense, the amendment will be supported.
Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, I, too, support the principles behind the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange. This is not the first time that the issue has been debated. I well remember debating it, when we were on the other side of House, alongside my noble friend the Minister.
We are discussing a welfare Bill, and I accept that this is an issue for the MoD. But one equally has to accept that, when dealing with a major piece of legislation relating to pensions, one cannot avoid the opportunity of bringing out this issue. The present situation is grossly unfair and it is wrong.
I must declare an interest as chairman of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. However, I have no conflict as we do not deal with pensions. What we do deal with within our remit is comparability. The pension referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, is not the DSS pension. It is what I as a lay person would call an occupational pension scheme, for which there is an abatement from the salary of those Armed Forces
Nor is it any use employing the argument that this does not happen totally in the public sector. There is no other part of the public sector that is like the services. Wives in the services are told that they must move their home. They do not have a job, they cannot build up a career and pension; if they do not go their husbands do not get promotion.
The issue should be considered with joined up" government thinking. I am delighted to see my noble friend the Minister with the MoD portfolio on the Front Bench tonight. This pension is paid for. It involves a small number of people. But that is not the real argument for saying that it should be paid. It is perhaps a factor in weighting. I congratulate the noble Baroness on bringing the matter forward. If it is not dealt with under this Bill there will be no opportunity to consider it. I know that a review of pension schemes in the services is taking place at the moment, but there is no guarantee that it will deal with the matter. Nor is it highly likely that it will deal with retrospection. It will deal with widows in the future but not the group of women many of whom were widowed at a young age. One would think that because they were widowed at a young age they would remarry; 1 per cent remarry because they do not have the confidence to do without the pension in the future. I gather that percentage is lower than in civilian life.
I know that the Minister has understanding and compassion on the subject, particularly the divorce point mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange. My noble friend on the Front Bench was instrumental in getting the law changed in that regard. I suggest there will be an anomaly if we have the pensions of divorced servicemen's wives treated as an asset. They receive half of that under the general legislation on divorce and pensions, yet if the husband dies the wife receives nothing. I ask my noble friend to consider the matter. I know it will be difficult for her to concede the point this evening because it is not covered by the Bill. However, is she prepared to have discussions with her colleagues in the MoD? The two departments are separate but it is one issue.
Perhaps we may hope that in the current pensions review the matter will be considered seriously. The noble Baroness put forward the argument in a compassionate way. But it is not a matter of compassion; it is a matter of right and wrong. What is going on at the moment is wrong.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I have not taken part in any social security debates since the election. I decided on that course for two reasons: I thought it was unfair on my noble friends on the Front Bench who had taken over the responsibilities that I should look over their shoulders. It was also a tinge unfair to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, to have her predecessor always breathing down her
I return to the subject tonight because I remember your Lordships bruising and battering me on it and defeating me when we put through the pensions Bill. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that the MoD is absolutely wrong in the attitude it has taken. I agree with whatever the noble Baroness will say about the DSS war widow's pension. I do not resile from a word I said from the Government Dispatch Box on the subject. I have no doubt the same words will be used by the noble Baroness later about the DSS war widows' pension. I believe she agreed with me when she was the Opposition spokesman on that pension. There is no doubt that, like the other DSS pensions, they are related to the status of the applicant. If someone is no longer a widow, they can no longer have a widow's pension. Whether it is the DSS widow's pension in general or the war widow's DSS pension in particular, the principle does not change.
However, when we come to the Armed Forces pension scheme, the matter is entirely different. Arguments have moved on from where they were four or five years ago because of pension splitting on divorce. If I may describe it in general terms, the Armed Forces pension scheme, as the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, said, is a normal occupational pension scheme. In a good number of occupational pension schemes the widow keeps her pension regardless of whether her status changes. I fully accept that there are differences. I understand that about 84 per cent of the private schemes in the UK pay a widow's benefit regardless of whether she remarries. The public position is different. About 20 per cent of schemes continue to pay regardless of a change in status.
I understand the argument of the Government about read-over. I was aware of that argument when I was inside government. I only say that, as I thought at the time, the read-over is without foundation. The Armed Forces are completely different. One could perhaps argue about the police and fire services but not to the same degree as the Armed Forces, in which men, and now women, are expected to put their lives on the line at a very early age, whether in earnest or in training, and can be killed. The widow, and now widower, is left dependent on the Armed Forces attributable pension scheme and the DSS scheme.
Many of these people are young. I recall going to Belfast to meet the widows of members of the Ulster Defence Regiment. I said to your Lordships on an earlier occasion that a more sobering event could not be imagined. Many of these young women with young children were told that if they remarried they would lose the pension that their husbands thought would be for their wives' benefit if they were killed. When I was Minister I wrote a number of letters to my ministerial colleagues in the MoD to suggest that they look at the position on pensions. The Bett review helped me a bit. I had little confidence then, as now, that the MoD would change its position. I believe that it should do so.
It is the MoD which should be targeted tonight. I feel sorry for the noble Baroness. Perhaps she will, like me, have to defend an MoD position with which she is not entirely happy. I was not entirely happy with it. I went from your Lordships' House and wrote some very blunt letters to my colleagues in the MoD. I am not sure that I am supposed to say that, but I am not too bothered about it. I am absolutely certain that the MoD should look again at its position on pensions.
I believe that the position has been made much worse because of another part of the Bill; namely, that which deals with pension sharing on divorce. I have not spoken about that. I am pleased to see that the Government have taken on board most of what was contained in the Green and White Papers which I was instrumental in producing. But we end up with the following situation. For simplicity, I take the case of two married men who are both employed in the military. One couple decides to divorce. In future the wife will be able to take a portion of the pension pot and keep it whether she remains a widow, remarries or even cohabits. However, in the case of the other couple, if the husband is killed in active service, in practice or in any other attributable way his widow will lose the pension the moment she remarries. I do not believe for a moment that that is fair.
I do not know whether this amendment is properly worded, addresses the issue or whatever. I am aware of all the things that Ministers say. I never liked to hide under the protection of a badly drafted amendment. I can see that the Government may not like the fact that there is a fallback in the sense that the DSS pension should continue to be paid. I fully agree--if the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, says it--that the DSS pension must be lost on remarriage or cohabitation, but the MoD must face up to its responsibilities. I am pleased to see that the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, is on the Front Bench listening to the debate. The MoD has a responsibility for the men and women it employs, for whom it has a pension scheme, and to be fair to attributable war widows thanks to the service. That is why I have come today to support the noble Baroness, Lady Strange. I was about to call her my noble friend; I hope that she is still my noble friend despite where she sits in the Chamber. I hope that the Government will listen to the plea from around your Lordships' House that the MoD should now change its pension scheme so that it is paid to war widows for their lifetimes regardless of whether they remarry or cohabit.
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