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Police Widows Pensions

Volume 593: debated on Wednesday 25 February 2015

On a point of order, Mr Williams. Would it be in order to allow the police widows and widowers who are attending today to come into the room before we start?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, and a real pleasure to be able to speak on an issue that is important to Members from all parts of the House. The happiness of the many individuals involved and the reputation of the Government and the House for ensuring that, as far as possible, justice is done for those who for no reasons of their own find themselves in a difficult situation hinge to some extent on the decisions made on this matter by Ministers and, in due course, the Government.

I will sketch the background to how I came to bring this debate to the House, run through some of the examples I hope the Minister will consider, and summarise by making the argument that the Government should reconsider how police widows’ and widowers’ pre-1987 pensions are treated. Just before Christmas last year, I received an e-mail from the Police Federation outlining a situation of which I had until then been unaware. It pointed out that the Police Pensions Regulations 1987 did not allow a number of police widows and widowers to marry or cohabit without losing their right to a police widow’s or widower’s pension for life. The e-mail highlighted the case being made by PC Colin Hall’s widow, Cathryn Hall, who was widowed at the age of 24 in 1987 and left to bring up her four-year-old daughter alone.

Cathryn, who is with us today—as are some 15 other widows and widowers—was faced with a difficult decision: to keep her police widow’s pension or to move in with her partner, which would mean that she was no longer eligible to receive the pension. She set up a petition, which has more than 71,000 signatures. The campaign, which I was unaware of until Christmas last year, is one I would like the police Minister to consider. In the petition, Cathryn describes how her husband Colin died and life after his death, and she makes the case as to why she and other widows should be treated in the same way as those whose pensions are covered by the change in the 1987 regulations. She makes the point that the Minister is in a difficult position in balancing the sacrifices of police officers and their widows or widowers against those of members of the armed forces, for whom significant changes were made on Remembrance Sunday last year.

Since I have been in contact with Cathryn Hall, she has kindly introduced me to a number of other widows and widowers, including two from my county of Gloucestershire: Sharon Jones and Julie Shadwick, both of whom have sad stories to tell. Many others have been in contact with their MPs, but there is not time, alas, to read out all their stories. I will mention Sharon’s story. She was married to Ian Jones, a chief inspector in the Gloucestershire police force, who was killed in an accident in June 2005. She survived on the pension that the service provided and brought up three children on her own. She recently met another man and married him at the end of October 2014, which, as she writes,

“brings me a wonderful opportunity to start a new life. However, as a result of this, I have lost my pension entitlement which I object to most strongly. I am being penalised for finding new love after 10 years alone.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Because we ask police officers to put their lives on the line to keep us safe, does he agree that it is only fair that we do what the Government have done for the armed forces widows and retrospectively amend the rules to make them fair for such people as my constituent, Eileen Britton, and many more like her?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which was precisely the trigger that made me find the campaign so compelling. The changes made last November for the armed forces should apply in the same way, retrospectively. Despite the fact that Governments do not like retrospective legislation, the precedent has been set—he is absolutely right.

I will run through the technical issue to which my hon. Friend just referred. The campaign that Cathryn Hall is leading is to some extent about fairness. Before 2006, police widows, widowers or surviving civil partners automatically lost their pension if they remarried or lived with a new partner. That effectively compelled them and their dependents to choose between future financial security but loneliness at home, and the opportunity for happiness, but with the financial loss of the pension.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is not just the widows, but the children who are impacted by these decisions? As a Parliament, we talk a great deal about the importance of children being brought up within a loving family. If we are condemning widows and widowers to live alone and to have their children outside of a loving family, that is also wrong and something we should address and right.

As so often, the hon. Lady makes a good point. Children are often the people we do not mention when we discuss these issues, but they can suffer the most. I am grateful to her.

What changed in 2006 was society’s perception of fairness, and the new scheme in 2006 recognised that. All new recruits since 2006 and anyone who transferred to the new scheme—there were some who did not—now knows that should the worst happen, their loved ones will receive their pension for life, irrespective of whether the survivor remarries or forms a new partnership. That applies to unmarried but cohabiting partners, too. The new regulations did not apply retrospectively to those who had left the service before 2006 or had died before that date. For those who are penalised in that way, such as Cathryn Hall, the many who are here today and the other 800 to 900 widows and widowers—most of them are widows—it must be frustrating to have remarried and seen financial disadvantage relative to those who were widowed later. It is an issue of fairness.

Things have changed. The regulations on police pensions in Northern Ireland changed last year and, more significantly, a very similar rule was amended for the armed forces so that from April this year, all widows and widowers of our armed forces can remarry or live with a new partner without losing their pension. That change is retrospective, and it sets a precedent for further change. What is true for soldiers, sailors and airmen and women is also true for our police. Having to deal with the consequences of a husband or wife having died in the course of duty is no less ghastly if that happened on the streets of one of our cities, rather than a dusty path in Helmand province. I hope that the Minister, who has seen active service in uniform, will be sympathetic to the case being made. In an e-mail that he sent to Cathryn Hall fairly recently, he rightly highlighted that it is appropriate for Ministers to be able to make changes when a compelling case is made. I know that the Minister is a man who understands the duties of those who serve in uniform, and the responsibilities of Government to those who are left behind when they are either killed or die in accidents while on duty. I also know that his Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), is supportive of the case being made by the group of widows and widowers who care so passionately about the opportunity for happiness and to retain their pension.

I am sure we all appreciate very much the case my hon. Friend is making. I am grateful for the opportunity to make an intervention on behalf of an unnamed constituent of mine who is approaching his 70s and wants to change his position. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have a good record in seeking to put right the errors of the past? That is a further reason for looking at what now appears to be an anomaly in the regulations. The change he is seeking would be welcomed as being in the spirit of what the Government have sought to achieve in one or two other areas in order to correct past wrongs.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: the Government do have a good record of trying to right problems and issues inherited from the past—one could call them historical leftovers. It is to the benefit of many people when a Government are able to tackle such issues with the fairness and justice they deserve. That is why today’s debate is timely. It comes some three months after the Government rightly addressed what could be described as an injustice for the widows and widowers of members of the armed forces. Today’s debate gives the Minister for Policing an opportunity to spell out the challenges, in his view, in getting a similar injustice addressed for the widows and widowers of the constabularies of this country.

There are many such cases. This morning I have met widows from Scotland, Lancashire, Yorkshire and all parts of southern England, as well as two from my own county. I am wearing a badge on their behalf, and all the widows and widowers present are wearing it as well, as a symbol of their unity in trying to resolve the problems with the 1987 police pension scheme.

I just want to ensure that the House knows that Diane Burns is here from Wales as well. We have representation from throughout the UK.

Yes; the hon. Lady has spoken for Wales.

I hope the Minister will address the fundamental problem. I understand that his dilemma is one of trying to balance different issues, not least that of cost, which is always on the mind of any Government—perhaps this one in particular, bearing in mind the huge debts that were inherited—but I want the Minister to consider one particular point today. In his letter of 11 February, he wrote to me:

“You mentioned in your letter the changes made in respect of Armed Forces widows’ pensions. The special circumstances of military personnel and their families presented a compelling argument for that change, supported by the Armed Force covenant. Armed Forces personnel have often been moved with little notice around the world and have been encouraged to take their families with them.”

Although it was certainly the case historically that armed forces personnel were often posted around the world with their families, the situation has changed considerably.

Police officers have been posted all around the country and, indeed, as the Minister knows, in Northern Ireland, in situations of difficulty. There is at least one widow present today whose husband was on duty with the police force in Bosnia, and there will be others in Cyprus and other parts of the world. If the argument in favour of armed forces widows’ pensions is about their being moved and so not being able to create a normal working life and build up a pension of their own, the same argument can be made—to a considerable extent, at least—for the families of serving police officers. I hope that argument will not be used to prevent the widows and widowers who have signed Cathryn Hall’s petition from receiving justice.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Is there not also the issue of the sacrifice these people have made in the service of our country, whether in the armed forces or the police service? I have had the pleasure of working with Karen Winterburn, whose husband Andy was killed in 2003. She has gone through very difficult anniversaries as she tries to rebuild her life. Is it not a shame that that sacrifice also means that she now has to think about the issue of finance as she moves on and rebuilds her life?

My hon. Friend is right. We should all share the belief that someone should not have to consider whether to remarry or cohabit on the basis of wondering whether they are going to lose so much financially that their happiness is somehow not so worth while. The situation is extraordinary; I think we all feel that and hope that the Minister will address it. He is a fair, reasonable and compassionate man and I am optimistic that today, we will hear of an opportunity for the Home Office to reconsider the current situation.

I reiterate the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham)—it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams.

I want to indicate from the outset that, although the debate is short, if anyone has not had an opportunity to contribute so far, I am happy to take interventions. My hon. Friend was very generous in taking interventions, but it is absolutely right that colleagues who have been present from the start of the debate and want to contribute should be able to do so.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, I approach the issue of police widows’ pensions not only as a former uniformed guardsman but as a former firefighter. I served alongside the police on many occasions—some of those situations were very dangerous and the police put their lives in danger—as well as with the other emergency services. My hon. Friend touched on the fact that, through its devolved powers, Northern Ireland has already acceded to the widows’ requests. I was the Northern Ireland Minister at the time and, although that matter is devolved, I can assure Members that I was lobbied very heavily in Northern Ireland. I hope that I was part of that decision.

Before I took on ministerial responsibilities for policing fairly recently, I was at the Department for Work and Pensions. My Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who is sitting behind me but is not allowed to speak because of protocol, was already lobbying me. We were already discussing the matter before fate decided that I was going to be the Minister with responsibility for policing in England and Wales.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Gloucester and for Winchester for their campaigns on behalf of not only their constituents but the constituents of Members from both sides of the House. I thank colleagues for writing to me—some of them many times; some because they wanted to know the exact position—and I congratulate the campaigners on their online petition, which is growing daily.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this debate. Does the Minister accept that, in many cases, such as that of my constituent, Mrs Penn, who has taken the issue up with me at a surgery, people are supporting the campaign on behalf of others? The pension might not be hugely necessary for them financially, but they are supporting the campaign on behalf of their colleagues for whom it is. I very much commend the public-spirited nature of the petition. It is about not only those who need the pension—we fully respect their needs—but those who are doing it on behalf of others.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The compassion that has been shown in the correspondence is remarkable. If people who are campaigning on other issues could look at how this campaign has been conducted, they might find that their campaigns receive not dissimilar support from across the House.

On a negative point, I want to take issue slightly with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester on the similarity to military covenant decisions. Perhaps I would do, as a former guardsman, but I was also part and parcel of the drafting of the military covenant in opposition. In my correspondence to colleagues, I have said that there is a difference, including because of deployment. Thank goodness most of our troops are now home from Iraq and Afghanistan, although some brave people are still out there assisting in training, but British armed forces are still deployed around the world—indeed, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) has been with me on trips to those places. British servicemen and their families are in Cyprus, the Falklands and other parts of the world, and such deployment is not of their choice.

The police use mutual aid. In Northern Ireland, we had to run the G8 summit at Lough Erne. We could not have done it without other forces in Great Britain helping us, but all those personnel volunteered. I am not saying that everyone volunteers in every case, but there is a difference between deployment under the military covenant and police deployment. That does not take away from the argument—the “compelling” argument, to repeat the word that I have used in correspondence since I have been the Minister with responsibility for policing—in the cases that we are discussing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester mentioned that there was scepticism, to say the least, because no matter what colour of Government are in office, when people talk about “retrospective”, the Treasury has jitters galore. The important thing now, however, since we acknowledged that the case was compelling and the Home Secretary and I asked our officials to look into things, is that the Treasury as well as the Home Office is involved. Home Office and Treasury officials are working together, which is very important, because we must ensure that any decision we make is not only right, but one without a huge impact on other aspects that might lead, for example, to people claiming judicial review of other schemes.

I come to the subject in a personal way. In my constituency, PC Frank Mason, who was off duty, walking his dog and minding his own business, saw a bank robbery taking place. He intervened and was murdered. Frank, like all police officers, was a warranted officer. In other words, when he was off duty he was really still on duty—he could be called in and his warrant was with him all the time. That is where the difference is and why the Home Secretary and I describe the argument as so compelling.

A full-time police officer in a force in England and Wales—I acknowledge the point made by the hon. Member for Bridgend and am as proud of being responsible for the police in Wales as I am for those in England, while those responsible in the other two devolved Administrations are also surely paying attention to the debate and the campaign—has a warrant in the service of the Queen and so is still responsible when off duty. Different terminologies can be used, but that is what I feel—police officers are still serving their community even when off duty. That puts pressures and responsibilities on them.

Recently, I raised the issue with the people from the Police Federation—no slight to them, but I raised it when they came to see me and it was not on their agenda, although they had lots of other things to talk about. I specifically wanted to talk about this, however, and I said, “We need to narrow down what we are talking about here.” What does “an officer on duty” mean? Is an officer on duty only when they are on shift, or could it mean someone in a similar situation to Frank Mason, who was assisting the public when off duty? I am adamant that, if a scheme comes through and if we make the changes, there should be help in cases of the likes of Frank Mason’s—should his widow so wish. If off-duty police officers were driving to work and were involved in a road traffic collision, I am afraid that I do not think that that would be a similar case, because they are not on duty. There is a difference, which I think most people would accept—the federation, too, accepted that point.

We are now at an important stage. We are analysing the implications in cost terms and any impact on other schemes that might be affected. For example, three months ago we did the right thing for the armed forces and now that case is being used for the police, so we have to be careful about whether what we do has implications for other schemes. The compelling case that has been put forward by colleagues today, as well as by others, and the nature, tone and empathy of the campaign, have been enormously helpful to me as a Minister and to the Home Secretary, enabling us to acknowledge the “compelling” case—the first time such language has been used.

I simply wish to associate myself and those in Montgomeryshire who have contacted me—about six people are in that position—with what has been said, to strengthen the argument. A number of other MPs wanted to be in the debate this morning, but could not be. They told me how much they would have liked to have been here, because this is a major issue of fairness. The campaign has pretty widespread support throughout the House.

There is empathy throughout the House with what my hon. Friend says. There are always reasons why such anomalies, as they were described earlier, are out there, and sometimes there are reasons why they cannot be addressed. That is always the case. When I was discussing the issues privately with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, however, I suggested that he put in for the debate. It is important. Members should be able not only to write to Ministers, but to hear them say something that has been in correspondence, such as what I have said in mine: because of the compelling arguments put forward, we have asked officials in the Home Office and throughout Government, in particular the Treasury, to look at the implications and at how things might be progressed. Once we get a report back, matters might be slightly above my pay grade, as we get so close to the Budget and to a general election. At the end of the day, with the language that I am using today, I am going as far as I possibly can without announcing what the officials have found and what the implications are.

The Minister is saying encouraging things in an encouraging tone and paying tribute to the great campaign run by the widows and widowers. He is absolutely right about the tone of the debate and the campaign. Is this not a wonderful opportunity to do something that is fair, even if we cannot always do things to right the injustices of the past, as he rightly said? With the Budget so close and a general election after it, would it not be a wonderful thing for the Government to tackle the problem now?

My hon. Friend—who is just about still a friend—is drawing me into Budget speculation, but I have been about long enough not to be drawn into it. The Chancellor, however, is speaking at the 1922 committee this evening, so perhaps there will be an opportunity to put questions to the mechanic, rather than to the oily rag, as the saying goes.

I have been lucky to be part of a Government in which I have had opportunities to make changes to correct anomalies such as those my hon. Friend mentioned. For example, I was absolutely chuffed to take through changes to the mesothelioma legislation. People who through no fault of their own had caught a terrible, horrible disease were left out of compensation arrangements because we could not track their employer or their insurers, but I am pleased that the compensation is now up to 100%, even though we originally thought we would not be able to achieve that budget.

I completely agree that we need to do what is right for our constituents. For the first time the issue we are discussing has reached the level it is at now, with analysis being done by the Home Office and at the Treasury. I look forward to getting those reports on my desk as soon as possible, but perhaps there will also be an opportunity to have a word with Chancellor about what will be in the Budget, although I am sure there will be no direct answer until Budget day.

Sitting suspended.