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Pensions (Commutation)

Volume 932: debated on Tuesday 24 May 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he is satisfied with current conditions and arrangements assisting former warrant officers and other ranks to commute part of their Service pension for business purposes; and if he will make a statement.

Will the Minister explain why, in 1977, former warrant officers and other ranks are being discriminated against in this manner compared with former serving officers who are able to commute up to 50 per cent. of their pension without too much difficulty? Is his Department totally indifferent to its former personnel, or is the Treasury being obstructive?

The hon. Gentleman will know from his previous questions on this subject—I shall not go through the list—as well as from the Adjournment debate that took place just over a year ago that my predecessor and I have acknowledged the difference in treatment. We have not defended it. Neither has any of my predecessors in previous Tory or Labour Governments. In this day and age it becomes impossible to defend such treatment. In the long term we would like to move to a situation in which Service men are given the same terms as officers. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are real difficulties, particularly of cost, in improving the arrangements for Service men, especially in the short term.

But—if I may support my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks)—that does not stop the Minister making special cases where deserving cases exist. Is he aware that I have the same feeling as my hon. Friend, namely, that there is a blanket refusal to consider any cases? I wrote to the Minister about a constituent of mine and had the same blanket refusal. The desire to commute more pension in that case was irrefutable. Will the hon. Gentleman be a little more flexible?

My predecessors as well as myself have been flexible on this matter. We are disposed to be more flexible in the early stages—for example, where an ex-Service man wants to start a business rather than where he wants to raise capital later to strengthen an existing business. We are conscious, in the first place, that commutation is a privilege and not a right and, secondly, from my experience, we are equally conscious that ex-Service men often entertain regrets about the step that they have taken and sometimes ask the Department whether it is possible to restore the position. I am sensitive to the representations made by both hon. Gentlemen, but our experience must dispose us to a slightly different view.