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War Widows’ Pension Scheme

Volume 670: debated on Thursday 30 January 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)

After the knockabout of what was described as the last full debate while Britain is still a member of the European Union, we come to the last actual debate under those circumstances. The scandal—and it is a scandal—that I wish to discuss has absolutely nothing to do with the European Union whatsoever; it is entirely self-inflicted.

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate about the sickening mistreatment of a group of 200 to 300 of the people whom we in this place above all should hold in the highest honour—namely, widows of service personnel who died in combat defending this country or as a result of terrorist offences against them because they wore the Queen’s uniform.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) was elected my successor as Chairman of the Defence Committee. He won a worthy victory in a field of five very well qualified candidates, and I congratulate him once again. I take this opportunity to give my thanks to the conscientious Committee Clerks, the gifted Committee specialists and the indispensable Committee administrators, without whom, as he will find, no Committee Chairman could hope to function efficiently.

I should also like particularly to pay tribute to the four Labour members of the 11-person Committee that I last chaired in the previous Parliament who lost their seats: Madeleine Moon, Ruth Smeeth, Phil Wilson and Graham Jones. Like all the other members of the Committee, I never had to give a moment’s consideration to which party they belonged to. All they cared about was their belief in a strong defence for the United Kingdom. They should be very proud of their work on the Committee; I certainly am.

The early general election inevitably left a few inquiries unfinished, but time and again, during the dozens of hearings that we held on two Committees from 2015 right through to the end of 2019, we referred and returned to the atrocious treatment meted out to an estimated 265 war widows who lost their war widow’s pension on remarriage or cohabitation and who still await its restoration.

On 8 November 2014, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that from April 2015, war widows would be able to continue to claim their war widow’s pension when they remarried or cohabited. That commitment was repeated at Defence questions on 24 November 2014, when I asked the then Minister, Anna Soubry,

“whether it is the case that a war widow who lost her widow’s pension on remarriage but who has subsequently become single again is eligible to have it reinstated and never taken away under any circumstances thereafter?”—[Official Report, 24 November 2014; Vol. 588, c. 644.]

She replied that she thought the answer was yes, but that she might be wrong. I am sure that if Anna is watching this, she will smile when I record the fact that that was probably the only time in her prominent and distinguished parliamentary career that she admitted that she might be wrong about anything.

However, the following day it turned out that the Minister had in fact been right, because she replied in a written answer to two written questions I had tabled on 17 November 2014. She said:

“From 1 April 2015 the spouse or civil partner of all members of the Armed Forces Pension Scheme 75 and any War Pension Scheme widow will retain their pension for life if they have not already surrendered it due to remarriage or cohabitation.

From 1 April 2015 those who have already surrendered their pension due to remarriage or cohabitation can apply to have their pension restored for life, should the relationship end or they cease cohabiting.”

I sent this reply to a remarried war widow, the widow of someone who had been killed liberating the Falkland Islands in 1982, who lived in my constituency. I noted at the time that:

“It seems to me that this will lead to some rather odd situations, given that—once restored—the pension could never again be taken away. Therefore, there may be a perverse incentive for couples to break up in order to have the pension reinstated and then get together again now that it cannot be removed a second time.”

The remarks I am going to make from now on are a continuation of a speech that I made on 22 November 2018. That date in itself signifies how unsatisfactory the situation is. I really should not have to be still banging on in 2020 about the same problem that was fully explored a year ago and more. At that time, I paid tribute to the fact that the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, Judith Thompson, had—with the assistance of the chairman of the War Widows Association, Mary Moreland, who is present with colleagues today—compiled the testimony of a number of war widows in an attempt to enable me to convey to this House what it really meant to have had their sacrifice acknowledged by the award of a war widow’s pension, only then to have it snatched back on finding somebody with whom to spend the rest of their lives.

I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does he recognise that, as well as that terrible slight, many of these women will have made huge financial sacrifices personally so that their husband could serve, making them very fragile financially, and therefore to ask them to choose between their security and a new partner is not just a disservice to them but also, I would say, a breach of the contract we would have had with that fallen serviceman?

May I just say that it is typical of my right hon. Friend, a former Secretary of State for Defence, to make sure that she was present today, as she notified me she would be, to make that very point? Indeed, as I would have expected, she goes to the heart of the matter. As we will hear later, what really needs to be done is to stop looking at this award as the award of a pension or a benefit when in reality it is meant to be recognition of and compensation for a sacrifice, which should be untouchable under any circumstances.

In fact, however, that is not the case because, as Judith Thompson, the commissioner, spelled out at the time:

“If your spouse died or left Military or War Service before 31 March 1973 and you also receive the War Pension Scheme Supplementary Pension you keep your War Widow’s Pension for life.”

So if it is before 1973, they are okay. She went on:

“If you were widowed after 5 April 2005 and receive Survivors Guaranteed Income Payment from the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme you keep your War Widow’s Pension for life.”

In between, however, we have this cohort—now reduced to between 200 and 300—of war widows who lost the pension under a change in the rules and have not had it reinstated. I said in that earlier debate that that basically created a perverse incentive for people who, by definition, have already suffered the greatest trauma and tragedy, to part from the person with whom they have found renewed happiness, and go through a charade of this sort if they wish their pension to be permanently reinstated.

At that time, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), who sat on the Defence Committee on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party, pointed out an additional perversity, which was that widows of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who served and died alongside members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and other regiments, had had the issue resolved locally in Northern Ireland. Because members of the Ulster Defence Regiment were in the Army, which is covered by defence and not a devolved matter, their widows had not had that issue resolved, and were still being denied the reinstatement of their war widow’s pension.

I then read extracts from five of seven testimonies—that was all I had time for—from war widows who explained what this issue meant to them. I shall now abbreviate those testimonies, but I urge anyone who is interested in reading the full account of what those five widows had to say to look at the speech from, I believe, November 2018, which can easily be found in the appropriate section of my website—[Interruption.]

This situation is frankly iniquitous. It is unfair and wrong, but it could be put right very quickly if we just say that once someone receives a widow’s pension they keep it, end of.

That has been said. That is what David Cameron did, and that is now the situation. The argument arises because of the small cohort who between those years did not have their pension reinstated. Thanks to my gallant friend’s intervention, I now have the exact date of that previous debate. It was on 22 November 2018, and it is easily accessible in Hansard, or, even more easily, in the “Commons Speeches” section of my website.

I first quoted Linda, whose husband John was murdered by the IRA in May 1973 by a booby-trap bomb. She explained:

“In the early 70s War Widows were visited by inspectors to ensure they were not living with another man whilst in receipt of their compensation pension. I felt degraded by this. Life was lonely as a young women with a baby and over time I missed the family life I so tragically had taken from me. I missed my son having a father, I missed the closeness and friendship of a husband…As was stated in 2015 this was a choice—”

the fact that she had to give up her pension on remarriage—

“that should not have been forced on War Widows. I was personally heartbroken when I was told that pension changes in 2015 had left me behind. The utter disbelief that the Government didn’t really mean ALL War Widows would now have their pensions for life was unbearable. These changes made me feel like a second class War Widow and I have now been made to relive the pain and grief of 1973 every day. I cannot and will not accept that John’s sacrifice is less worthy than others.”

I read out four more testimonies on that occasion, but I do not have time to do that again. Instead, I shall refer to two testimonies that I did not previously have time to read out. One was from someone who was bereaved not during Operation Banner in Northern Ireland, but in Iraq in 2003.

Raqual lost her husband Matt there.

“If anything happens to me”,

he wrote immediately before deploying,

“I want you and our son and our baby to be happy. Meet someone else and give our children a loving home. You won’t need to worry about money as you will be financially independent”—

he thought—

“and able to give our children what they deserve!”

Eight weeks later, she was a widow. Eight years later, she remarried. Upon remarriage, she writes:

“I surrendered my War Widows’ Pension as I had to do and increased my hours of work to compensate for this loss of income.

Being able to support my children independently was and still is very important to me and to Matt’s memory. I would never expect my new husband to have to do this. And then came the decision to allow widows to retain their pensions on remarriage, but only if they remarried after April 2015.

I am so pleased for the widows who will benefit from this. But I hold the values of fairness and equality in high regard, and we are now in a situation which is neither fair nor equal. Even now, I simply can’t get my head around the fact that had I waited four more years to remarry I would have kept my pension for life. How can it be fair that someone who remarried on the 31 March 2015 lost their pension, and yet 24 hours later someone in the exact same position would keep theirs!!!???”

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Raqual is a constituent of mine. At the time of her husband’s tragic death in 2003, they already had one child and she was 12 weeks pregnant with her second child. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that children of fallen servicemen deserve the financial security of a pension, paid into by their father during his time of service, if for no other reason than the memory of the man who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country?

I agree totally. I thank the hon. Gentleman, a new Member from the opposite side of the House, for taking the time and the trouble to participate in this short debate.

My final extract from testimony is from Elizabeth, the widow of Ronnie, who was murdered in Northern Ireland. She says:

“I was devastated by his murder and went into deep shock…Due to my depression, I was on injections for months, but I just couldn’t get out of my feeling of hopelessness. The authorities threatened a number of times to put me into a secure hospital if I did not improve. I had a friend who stayed with me every night for almost eighteen months. The children didn’t want me to go anywhere as they thought that I might be murdered like their daddy. I just couldn’t believe he was gone, and for a long time, when I made the tea, I set a place out for him, almost believing he was coming home.”

She concludes:

“It makes me so angry and sad that the government took the pension away, it’s almost as if they stole it off me. My first husband Ronnie was a brave man, and he answered the call to join up, and I will always be proud of him.

As I get older, that pension would be such a help, and it would also be an acknowledgement by the government that taking it away was wrong and we deserve it for Ronnie laying down his life for his country.”

Time is defeating me and I want the Minister to have time to reply, so let me just move forward by saying that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), the new Chairman of the Defence Committee, appeared before the Committee on 19 March 2019 during the course of one of our annual inquiries into the armed forces covenant. At the time, I asked him how this matter was progressing. He explained that the then Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) who is now the Secretary of State for Education, had already written to the Treasury. They were awaiting a reply and were in the hands of the Treasury. I now have a copy of a letter that was sent on 12 February 2019 by the then Defence Secretary asking that the Treasury reinstate all war pension scheme widows’ pensions and armed forces pension scheme widows’ pensions for the people concerned. He explained that the Treasury had previously refused; but this was a letter that he had actually sent to the Prime Minister. I also have a report, which I do not have time to read, from the Daily Express on 9 March, which stated that the then Prime Minister had said that this needed to be got done. Since then, what? Nothing. The months have gone by, and nothing has been done.

What is the way forward? It is to do what the chairman of the War Widows’ Association—Mary, who lost her husband to the IRA during the troubles—and others have recommended all along, namely to reclassify this award as compensation for sacrifice, and not a benefit that should in any way be affected by a change in a person’s financial or other circumstances.

I mentioned former Prime Minister David Cameron, and said that he did his best to sort out this problem. I want to give him a pat on the back for how he sorted out a previous problem to do with a campaign in which I was involved to get belated recognition for the Arctic convoy veterans, who had not had a campaign star. All the same objections were raised as are raised by the Treasury now—about precedents, Pandora’s boxes and all the rest of it—and in the end Mr Cameron said, “Just do it.”

I know that successive Defence Secretaries have wanted this done. I know that the Minister, who was a member of the Select Committee when we were going over all this, wants it done. It has to be done. The situation is a disgrace. I hope that the change in Chancellor might conceivably have removed an irresistible force or an immoveable object, or whatever metaphor we want to use, that was disgracefully holding things up. This has to be dealt with now. We cannot wait for these ladies—those affected overwhelmingly are ladies—to die before we finally recognise that a shocking and indefensible injustice has been perpetrated.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who has been a source of strong counsel to me as I have worked my way through this House on the Select Committee. I congratulate him on securing this debate.

The subject of this debate was one of the first issues I looked at when I took over this role, and I have looked at it in detail. When I first came to this House, I did so with a clear mission. I mentioned at the time that I felt that the families of the bereaved had made the greatest sacrifice on the altar of this nation’s continuing freedom. I know that individuals in that position are here today, and I pay tribute to them for their sacrifice to this nation.

I think it is incumbent on Ministers to be honest about the challenges at hand. The situations that have been outlined in heart-rending detail today are clearly wrong. It was wrong to take that pension away, and in 2015 the Prime Minister reinstated it. It was corrected. This argument concerns a specific case of retrospection, and I will outline the challenges around that, fully conscious of the fact that the armed forces covenant speaks about special dispensations for the bereaved of those who have died in the service of their country.

I have a huge appreciation for our war widows. I am well aware that military partners do not have easy lives, and that they have to move around. Let me be clear about the issues at stake. War widows’ pension provision is a complex area, and it might be beneficial to the House if I clarified what we mean by some of the terms. For example, when we think of war widows, we tend to imagine we are referring to those whose husbands have died as a result of conflict. However, the term as used by the War Widows’ Association—members of which we are lucky to have joining us today—encompasses a much wider group of people who have lost their loved ones during service, and not necessarily in war. By the same token, I think it is also useful to be clear about what we mean by war widows’ pensions.

There are actually two schemes. The first is the war pension scheme, a legacy compensation scheme which is paid to a surviving partner where the service person’s death or injury was caused by their service in Her Majesty’s armed forces. While that death or injury must have been caused by service, it need not have been caused by combat. The second is the armed forces pensions scheme 1975, a traditional occupational pension scheme which pays out upon the death of the service person, regardless of whether his death was caused by service.

Under both schemes, in broad terms the original policy was that survivors’ benefits were permanently surrendered in the event of remarriage or cohabitation. This reflected social assumptions at the time, namely that a widow or widower’s pension provided for loss of financial support from the late husband or wife; and on remarriage, financial support would be provided by the new spouse. Over the decades, however, the rules on surrendering war pensions have changed—in my view, rightly.

First, in 1995 a change was made to allow widows who had surrendered their right to a war pension to apply for reinstatement if they became single again. However, upon a subsequent remarriage or cohabitation, it would again be surrendered. In other words, a war widow was entitled to a war pension only if she was single. However, in April 2005 a change was made to the war pensions schemes. This allowed those who became widows before 1973, or whose husbands had left service before then and who had not remarried and were therefore entitled to a war pension at the time of the change, or at any time in the future, to keep their war pension for life. Therefore, their entitlement was not affected by any future relationship. This was targeted at pre-1973 widows, because that cohort had not benefited from the significant improvements to occupational pensions that other groups had.

If I may, I wish to raise the case of Mrs Gillies of Harrogate, who was widowed in 1984. If I write to the Minister with the details of her case, will he please give it some consideration?

Of course. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will look at every single case. I am determined that we will get this right.

Ten years later, in April 2015, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, made the same pensions-for-life changes for all other widows or widowers who were, or who became, entitled to a pension from that date. We must be clear here: none of these changes reinstated war pensions that had already been foregone as a result of remarriage or cohabitation, which is what we are being urged to do today by the War Widows’ Association. These changes were forward looking, with no retrospective effect, meaning that if a widow was, or became, entitled to a pension in April 2015, it was a pension for life and we would never take it away.

The War Widows’ Association has argued that the changes created an anomaly, because a group of people —whose number, the War Widows’ Association claims, is in the hundreds—have not benefited from them. These are widows whose remarriage, civil partnership or cohabitation occurred before the rule changes and whose relationship remains intact. As that group of war widows have not had an entitlement to reinstate their war pensions, they have not benefited from the pensions-for-life changes.

I am certainly well aware of their concerns. One of the first things I did on becoming a Minister was meet the War Widows’ Association. The Ministry of Defence regularly receives representation from the War Widows’ Association, which is a member of the central advisory committee on compensation. Indeed, I have discussed these issues with war widow representatives recently.

I will end by referring to the statement released by the War Widows’ Association after David Cameron’s announcement in 2015. It specifically said and accepted at the time that new legislation never has a retrospective effect, and that the change would apply only to those who were receiving the pension when the new legislation came into force that April.

The Minister has not addressed their particular proposal, which is to say, “Reclassify this. It is not a pension. It is an award. It is something separate and special. It does not set a precedent.”

The Treasury has looked at reclassifying it in the way that my right hon. Friend asks, but that would be retrospective and the war widows themselves have accepted that those who have already given up the pension as a result of remarriage or cohabitation will not have it reinstated.

Let me be clear with the House, the War Widows’ Association and my right hon. Friend. No one, least of all me, underestimates the sacrifice of these individuals who have lost their spouses on operations. I am determined to continue these conversations so that we can fulfil the part of the armed forces covenant that talks about the special recognition we give to the bereaved. I am happy to continue meeting my right hon. Friend to find a way forward.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.