Question for Short Debate
My Lords, this morning I attended a most moving and uplifting service in the Guards Chapel to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the War Widows' Association. Quite understandably, and quite rightly, much time is given in this country, in the way we do best, to remembering all those who we have served in the forces, those who have died and those who have been wounded—some very seriously. The service on this memorable day allowed time to reflect on a group no less important: those who are left bereft and devastated by the loss of loved ones serving in the Army, Navy and Air Force—the widows and widowers, of whom there are over 30,000 in the UK. It is therefore a great privilege for me to open this debate this afternoon on the association, which by happy coincidence—or by design, I am not sure which—falls on the same day as the service. It is the first debate in the House of Lords on this important subject, and it provides a good opportunity for me and for all speakers to help to raise the profile of the association, to assess its achievements and to set the stage for its future, looking forward to the next 40 years.
The term “war widows” is an evocative catchphrase and is a broad description, carrying considerable meaning, for an association that represents not just those women who have lost husbands in conflict but husbands who have lost wives. A loss can be the result not just of war in the Armed Forces but of general service, whether by accident, illness, of wounds suffered many years ago or indeed of friendly fire.
The War Widows' Association, which gained charitable status in 1991 and has a strong regional network supported by a dedicated team of volunteers, has come to be recognised as the arms of embrace in waiting, after the immediate family, for comfort, support, understanding and camaraderie. The main event of the year is the AGM, staged over four days, when there are excursions, a dinner and some entertainment.
The War Widows' Association was formally recognised in 1972 under the formidable leadership of Mrs Jill Gee from Liverpool. This followed a high profile stand-off between another lady, a Mrs Laura Connolly, and the tax authorities, over her refusal to pay tax on her widows’ pension. She had arrived from Australia, where there is 100 per cent exemption. Prison was threatened, but she succeeded in receiving important media coverage for the widows’ cause. However, it was not until 1976 that the Labour Government cut the tax on widows’ pensions by 50 per cent, and Mrs Thatcher in 1979 abolished the tax altogether.
In 1982, war widows were included for the first time in the remembrance service march past at the Cenotaph. This tradition is now a proud and important annual event for the association, and 2010 was no exception when the march was led by the president, my noble friend Lady Fookes. In 1989, another milestone was reached when the war widows were represented for the first time at the Royal British Legion remembrance service in the Royal Albert Hall. Further achievements included equal rights afforded to war widowers in 2003. Such national recognition has been hard fought. Most people would argue that the care, understanding and provision, material and financially, for war widows should be top of any national list and should be unconditional and total. This is surely true, but the reality is that improvements for war widows have often been halting over the years.
I welcome the work undertaken by this Government. On 16 May, the Armed Forces covenant was announced, and the sentiments are encouraging. I quote:
“The Government have no higher duty than the defence of the realm, and the nation has no greater obligation than to look after those who have served it”.
The Statement said that the,
“families and those who have lost a loved one in service, all deserve our support and respect”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/5/11; col. 25.]
The covenant is a result of ideas drawn up by Professor Strachan, who reported last December and highlighted the need, inter alia, to introduce a community covenant for forging new links with and between the Armed Forces, local authorities and communities. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence said:
“The armed forces covenant is not just about words; it is about actions”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/5/11; col. 26.]
An external reference group has been established to monitor progress. We should expect such progress and actions to include the needs of those represented by the War Widows’ Association. References in the paper are not obvious, but I welcome the introduction of scholarships for children of the bereaved service families. I ask my noble friend the Minister what specific plans there are for supporting war widows in the covenant.
There are several further issues to raise. Following a bereavement, a widow is likely to experience extreme emotion from a broad range—shock, trauma, grief, denial, anger, loneliness and depression, to name a few. The Ministry of Defence and the three services handle with great sensitivity the immediate aftermath of loss. However, it can take much more time—if they wish it at all—for the bereaved to accept an invitation to join the War Widows’ Association. Not least, many do not wish to be labelled a widow. Many do not even wish to venture out.
It is partly this challenge of engagement and a technical firewall created by the Data Protection Act that may explain why only 3,000 members are registered with the association out of a total of 30,600. It is therefore a circuitous process to transfer contact details of those recently widowed to the War Widows’ Association, despite the fact that it represents a vital link in offering help from those who are best placed to help. Surely data protection laws can be bypassed to allow a near-seamless link to be made from the bereaved, via the Ministry of Defence bereavement services, to the association.
The opportunity for a widow to visit the grave of a spouse—a so-called pilgrimage—is vital. The Government have provided a one-off subsidy for those who wish to visit a grave. I ask my noble friend if it is the Government’s intention to continue or to extend this provision.
The Government’s announcement last year that pensions and benefits would in future be pegged to the consumer prices index, not to the retail prices index, has had a negative impact on vulnerable groups. To what extent are the Government considering exempting certain groups in the UK from this change, including widows of policemen, firemen and Armed Forces servicemen?
However, the overriding issue for war widows remains the receipt of a fair pension. This is as relevant now as it has been in the past in the light of the number of young widows arising from the prolonged and challenging war in Iraq and, of course, now in Afghanistan. There are two specific issues to address. From 2005, war widows whose bereavements occurred prior to April 1973 are eligible to continue to receive a pension if they remarry or cohabit. It was in 2005 that the Armed Forces compensation scheme was set up, with widows receiving a pension for life. However, payments are not retrospective. Thus, there is a group of widows, currently numbering 4,100, whose bereavements fall post-1973 and pre-2005 and who still lose their pension if they remarry or cohabit.
Finally, a government consultation paper proposes changes to the pension age-related increments awarded to war widows. This would include abolishing the increment at age 65, retaining those at age 70 and 80, but providing a final lump sum of £1,000 at age 90. The War Widows’ Association rejects this proposal on the grounds that the award at age 90—more than 8,000 widows are nearing this milestone—is minimal and is more likely to be given away to grandchildren than to be used for necessity, such as funding future care needs. I trust that under the auspices of the covenant these specific issues will be given due attention and acted upon.
The War Widows’ Association has worked tirelessly to develop a strong national voice. It is clearly heard. Its objectives now should include recognition within the covenant, ensuring ease of contact with new widows and increasing membership from the current 10 per cent of total. This will help create more impact in seeking further government help for this determined, proud and resilient group. I wish the association every success.
My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, for bringing this important issue forward for debate today, the 40th anniversary of the founding of the War Widows’ Association. I declare an interest as the vice-president of the War Widows’ Association, about which I feel extremely privileged and humble.
Debates are the bread and butter of what we are about in this House. Having been a Member for just under 20 years, I could never feel as privileged as I do today to be standing up and taking part in this debate. This morning, we had a very moving service at the Guards Chapel. It brought home to everyone there what amazing women are part of the War Widows’ Association and how they have stuck together like glue. The saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” really applies to those ladies and, as the chaplain said, they know how to enjoy themselves as well. One of their great assets is that they have never portrayed themselves as victims—the majority were widowed during the Second World War—but they include among their ranks many younger widows because of recent operations. They portray themselves and act as proud individuals—proud of their spouses and what they did for their nation, and indeed for their paying the ultimate price. They are prepared to stand up and be counted and do what they can do to help each other. They have done that for many years, which is an enormous credit to them.
The widows have many ways of expressing that support for one another. This morning was one of them; the annual remembrance activities in London are another. They also have their annual get-together. I have been privileged to go to one or two—it is not just a day but several days. They all meet up, look after each other and catch up on news, too—that is very important. And then on the Saturday evening, when the hair comes down, the frocks go on and the band starts up, you really start to ask, “Are they really that old?”. There is also the arboretum. The previous Government strongly supported the role of the War Widows’ Association, and I am delighted to say that the current Government are building on that. We are privileged to have with us today the noble Lord, Lord Astor—without sparing his blushes. Along with his fellow Minister in the MoD who is responsible for veterans’ issues, he is very committed to supporting what the war widows are doing.
The magazine Courage—a great title; it has been going for years—provides another way for them to keep in touch with each other. I was reading earlier today a newsletter dating back to 1987. It talked about how you could win a Marks & Spencer’s voucher for the ladies. Last year, the association was able to give one to each of its members.
The War Widows’ Association is also a democratic organisation, having office and committee elections. It does that because it wants to try to make sure that it makes progress on behalf of the people whom it represents. That includes lobbying Parliament. This House has always given good support to the work that the War Widows’ Association has done. We all remember Baroness Strange, who was a wonderful advocate of the association. In fact, it was through her that I got involved with speaking in the Chamber on issues affecting war widows. She was ably followed by the current president, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, who was at the service this morning and who is present everywhere whenever there is an event. She gives marvellous representation for, and support to, this amazing organisation.
However, the work goes on and there is still a lot to achieve. The noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, mentioned the covenant. The legislation will be coming to the House of Lords in the coming months and I can assure the Minister—he would be disappointed if I did not—that we will be on our feet talking about issues affecting the war widows and making sure that they get their fair share of both representation and adjustments in the covenant where needed.
There is one area—the noble Viscount touched on it—that I would ask the Minister to address, if he can. It is a difficult area because of the legislation. The Data Protection Act is a barrier to reaching the newly widowed wives and husbands of serving personnel. We have to find a way around that because the law is being an ass in this case and bureaucracy is preventing us from giving the comfort and support that those women and men may well need.
As has been mentioned, the organisation started in 1971 and came out of the case of a war widow, Laura Connelly, who came back from Australia. At the service this morning the association prayer was sung—I do not intend to sing it, your Lordships will be relieved to know. It was written by a war widow, Mrs Kay Todd, and even today, 40 years later, it encompasses what the organisation is all about. It goes like this:
“We will recall
Our yearly tribute placing
The hopes and dreams that slowly had to fade
We will go on
The lonely future facing
Knowing too well the sacrifice you made.
We will forget
The loneliness and worry
The pain of parting and the tears we shed
Forget as well
The aching and the longing
Keeping our memories of the times we shared.
We will remember
Head held high with pride
We will keep vigil
With our men who died”.
The war widows have kept faith with that commitment.
My Lords, in introducing the debate, the noble Viscount has given us an opportunity to learn more about the development of the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain since its inception in 1971 and to make some comments on the current situation.
Of course, 1971 was the year Laura Connelly returned from Australia, where the war widows’ pension was tax free, only to find that her war widows’ pension was taxed in the UK. She refused to pay the tax on her pension and was supported by 14 women who battled successfully to remove the burden of paying taxes on their pensions. A letter from Joyce Maxwell, one of the founder members of the association, allows us to see more of the story. She tells us of her anger at the removal of tax from her pension, which she characterises as,
“never enough to support a family, except in the meagrest of fashions”—
which I think is a wonderful phrase.
Campaigning by the association has resulted in significant improvements in the situation: the removal of income tax from the war widows’ pension; reinstatement of the pension to war widows on cessation of second or subsequent marriage; and retention of the MoD occupational pension on remarriage. However, it took many years of sustained campaigning to achieve this position. I do not think that the results that were achieved in those days reflected very well on society’s attitude to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. We hear a great deal about sacrifice at this and other times of the year—and it is a true sacrifice—but to make a kind of flowerpot out of it does not suit me very well.
Today, however, there are still financial problems to be faced by wives and families when husbands are killed or disabled—and, of course, large numbers of heavily disabled young men are now being returned from Afghanistan and other places. The widow may see a marked loss of income—this is quite common for women pensioners. SAGA evidence clearly demonstrates unfairness between men and women in general. In particular, SAGA has highlighted the fact that pensions are to be uplifted more rapidly for male than for female pensioners. This is despite the fact that women rely more heavily on the basic state pension as a result of having to do most of the childcare in the family.
Meanwhile, the armed services are being warned that they cannot be spared from government cuts leading to changes in military expenditure that could cost families thousands of pounds. Lobby groups and MPs are working to achieve a rethink. The Royal British Legion and the Forces Pension Society have given evidence to the effect that some forces families should be exempt from the payment of pensions. The expected change from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index will hit the military pensions hardest. That is especially true for widows and invalids.
Despite the splendid efforts of the War Widows’ Association, we may still need to press for improved pensions for members of the armed services and their wives and partners. Therefore, while I pay tribute to the tenacity of the association, it seems to me that this did not reflect well on society’s attitudes to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Many people—the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, spoke about them—have put tremendous effort into supporting armed services personnel and their wives in trying to achieve the appropriate recompense for tragic circumstances, which they so thoroughly deserve.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, on obtaining this debate. I was going to congratulate him on happily achieving it on the day of the service, but he modestly told me this morning that that was not necessarily so. However, I am extremely glad that we have this opportunity to pay tribute to the War Widows’ Association on the very day that it held the moving service I was fortunate enough to attend.
I want to mention two things about that service. First, perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, the indefatigable president of the association, that she read Sir William Tyndall’s timeless translation of “Corinthians” about charity quite beautifully. It is something that I shall never forget. Secondly, I was sitting alongside a window whose inauguration I shall also never forget. It is in commemoration of a young grenadier who was killed in Belfast in 1980 when he was commanding my SAS troop. I remember its unveiling and the dignity of his young wife widowed in the first year of marriage. It was moving to be sitting alongside that particular window.
Those of us who have had the privilege of serving in the Armed Forces have come across colleagues and friends who early in their career have left widows. I am extremely grateful that the noble Viscount mentioned the problems of those who risk losing their pension because of marrying and cohabiting. I remember two colleagues in particular. One was killed in Aden three weeks after leaving the staff college, where for a year we had lived opposite each other. He left a wife and two young children, who had the most terrible problems trying to look after them. Another was the widow of a colleague who died on Bloody Sunday, after being shot in Londonderry six months before. In order to be able to bring up her children, she could not afford to give up her widow’s pension. It is timely to bring these things out.
I also warmly support the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, about the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act. It seems quite wrong that the charities and others which are trying to help people are having difficulty obtaining information that will enable them to contact the people who need help. Something is wrong here and it needs to be put right.
I want to say a few words about the context of the Armed Forces covenant, which is totally new to me, because in all my service it did not exist; there was no such thing. Indeed, “Armed Forces covenant” is a very new phrase. A military covenant has been talked about in the Army for the past three or four years, but is unknown to and unrecognised by the Navy and the Royal Air Force. I do not wish to appear to carp, but I must admit that one word makes me slightly cross when I read the introduction to the thing. It talks about rebuilding the Armed Forces covenant, but we are not rebuilding anything; it has never been there before. “Rebuilding” defines something that has been bust and requires repair. What we actually require is a covenant to be built—to be made. It would be much more dignified if we dropped the word “rebuilding” and set about trying to develop the covenant as it ought to be.
I draw attention to one aspect of each of the three parts that illustrates what I mean. The Armed Forces covenant itself describes the levels of support on page 5. The greatest level of support is due to those who are “bereaved due to Service”. That implies that the most should happen for them. However, the second document, The Armed Forces Covenant: Today and Tomorrow, far from listing all the support to bereaved families has two pages that are very largely given over to discussing what help they might need from the inquest advice service when they go to an inquest. I suggest that there is a disconnect here. I seriously believe that any support that needs to be given to bereaved families, who are listed right at the heart of the covenant, needs to be spelled out much more clearly.
Recommendation 4.3.2.d in the third document, The Government’s Response to the Report of the Task Force on the Military Covenant, refers to,
“a ‘shopping list’ of areas of greatest need”.
I ask the Government whether, in close contact with the War Widows’ Association, they could draw up a shopping list of what the association recognises to be the areas of greatest need, insert them into the covenant and then set out in the covenant that the Secretary of State should be required to report every year to Parliament on how that shopping list is being met. It seems to me that that would be the best way in which to repay the debt that we owe to these remarkable people, whose bravery and fortitude, frankly, I admire and am humbled by every day.
My Lords, my first duty is to declare an interest as the president of the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain. However, it is not only my duty but my pleasure so to do, because I have found this one of the most rewarding tasks I have ever undertaken, and my admiration for these ladies and a few gentlemen knows no bounds.
Indeed, I am amazed when I look at the strength of the association now and remember the humble beginnings 40 years ago which other speakers today have already touched on. Sadly, most of those pioneering ladies have now gone, but I am delighted to name one, Mrs Kathy Woodside, who is alive and very much aware of the work of the association. She is a real pleasure. I spoke to her only today; she was at the service, at the reception and at the luncheon afterwards.
It has been a very hard road that they have had to travel. We have had some indications of their achievements so I will not rehearse them in a short speech. I stress that none of those various achievements over the years was brought about without a great deal of effort, work, disappointment or various authorities’ obstinate refusal to listen. None of this has come easily—it has come very hard indeed. I hope that in more enlightened times it will be easier to get done the things that need to be done. Like the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in principle I very much welcome the building of the covenant, of which he reminded us, but I am also aware of that old phrase, “Fine words butter no parsnips”, and we shall want to see whether the fine words and aspirations actually come to anything in terms of deeds. I shall therefore look to my noble friend the Minister to see whether these fine words are actually translated into action. The War Widows’ Association will be anxious to help in this regard and I hope it will be consulted.
The association operates at two distinct levels. One level that is important to this debate is what I call the campaigning arm, which tries to make things better and redress wrongs. In the course of doing so, it has also been very wise in making sure they have representation on all the various bodies that advise Governments or make their points. That is very important, and I hope that if ever a new body is created or some consultation has to take place, the War Widows’ Association will always be at the forefront of those who are consulted. I make that as a general point since we do not quite know what the future may hold.
The other arm, which was already touched upon by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, is the highly valuable social networking that goes on, including at the AGM which over the years has developed into a mini-holiday, which is absolutely splendid. I go each year for the full four days and I join in with everything. It is extremely worthwhile and enables anyone on the outside, as it were, to really get to know people, hear their stories—some of them almost unbearably moving—and to see how they can enjoy themselves. To see them dancing is quite something, and those who cannot dance sit there and tap their feet. It is a remarkable way of bringing people together who have suffered such losses.
I want to deal now with several issues of concern that have been touched upon this afternoon, and one that has not. One of these, of course, is the Data Protection Act. I make no apology for saying again that if ever the law of unintended consequences were working with an Act, it is this one. It is ludicrous beyond belief that the Act should stand in the way of the War Widows’ Association making contact with women—or in some cases men—who have just had the most appalling experience of their lives and everything they hold dear being turned upside-down, or offering the comfort of those who have gone through exactly the same process. None of us who has not been through such a trauma and come out the other side is ever able to do that as well as someone who has. I am not sure what the way around this is, but I do believe that if there is a will there is a way. I strongly urge my noble friend the Minister to look at this again and to overcome any objections from those who think it is more important to have data protection than it is to help people.
I also want to touch upon the issue of the chief coroner. My noble friend the Minister will recall that in the dying days of the previous Administration we asked, and got it put into a Bill, that there should be a chief coroner with a responsibility and a duty to make sure that those coroners looking at military inquests were fully prepared and trained, so that they understood the ethos and the particular circumstances in which people die in war and conflict. That office has been put on ice—that is probably the right expression—but I want to see that those duties are not forgotten while the office is not in existence. I end with that plea to my noble friend.
Finally, we are very fortunate in the association in having such an enthusiastic patron as His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who was present at the service today and took an immense amount of time to meet, I think, practically every war widow at the reception. We are indeed fortunate in that royal patronage. Who would have thought it when it started, 40 years ago?
I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Leckie, for securing this debate. The issue of widows is very close to my heart. Before I start, let me declare my interest: I grew up as a widow’s son. I set up a widows’ charity in 1997 in this country in honour of my mother. It has now become a global charity, which was accredited by the United Nations in 2008. The issue of widows is global and the war widows are suffering so much that we should pay attention to their problems. My mother was not a war widow, as my father actually died of disease, but no matter how a woman loses her husband—through poverty, disease or conflict—her plight is exactly the same. She has to deal with the bereavement and financial insecurity in her life.
The emotional turmoil faced by widows after the loss of a spouse is not a sentiment which can be altered. However, financial provision for those widows and widowers who have lost spouses in the Armed Forces is a step towards helping them rebuild their lives and provide a positive future for their children. Members of the Armed Forces past and present placed their trust in the Government as they previously declared a commitment to preserve the military covenant, as we have heard earlier. Yet to state now that members of the Armed Forces need to understand they cannot be exempt from the big picture is degrading to those risking their lives every day, serving our country in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is understandable that temporary cuts need to be made in relation to the deficit. However, the long-term effect of losing hundreds of thousands of pounds will be felt by many widows for generations to come. It is unfair to make a decision hastily, especially in the case of widows. Treating people who work in the Armed Forces in the same way as those who work in the public sector is simply unacceptable and quite frankly it is an unfair proposal—not to mention the impact this decision will have upon the credibility of the Government.
The other issue is whether widows’ pensions should be linked to the retail prices index or the consumer prices index. The Government are well within their rights to use either the CPI or RPI. However, we are all aware that CPI inflation is significantly lower in comparison with that of the RPI; and that will result in hundreds of thousands of pounds being taken away from deserving widows. Furthermore, the proposal to discontinue a widow’s pension if her partner died before 2005 and she wishes to remarry or cohabit with a new partner also cannot be dismissed. It is unjust to force a widow to choose between living alone with a pension or cohabiting with or marrying a new partner without the financial aid that they are accustomed to receive.
My charity, the Loomba Foundation, which works to raise awareness of the plight of widows around the world, gained support from the United Nations which, about six months ago, declared 23 June as International Widows Day. Perhaps I may add that on 23 June this year, the United Nations is hosting a conference at the UN to raise awareness of the plight of widows all around the world. There are war widows in every country. The number of widows who have lost their husbands through conflict is incredible. Recent research has shown that there are 245 million widows in the world. That is why the UN is taking up their case, and the British Government should also do so seriously.
We are aware that financial aid is not something that can erase the emotional and internal turmoil faced by widows, yet it permits widows to regain some independence and allows them to live out their lives with the dignity and respect they deserve. The War Widows’ Association is supporting the unfortunate women whose husbands have fallen while fighting for our country. The association not only helps the bereaved to overcome loss and to resume a normal life, but works with the Government to ensure that the war widows receive the benefits and pensions to which they are entitled.
Widows suffer their own sorrows. We must do everything not to add to their suffering.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Viscount for securing this timely debate. It was a real honour to attend the service at the Guards Chapel this morning to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain. This remarkable association, now under the chairmanship of Mrs Rosalind Campbell, has achieved much since it was established and it is right that it now has proper recognition and a voice in all of the appropriate fora.
The aim of the association, to improve conditions for all war widows, is a noble aim and, sadly for a civilised nation in the 21st century, still they have to do battle. However, the members of the association are passionate and resilient; they inspire and give hope to one another and to tomorrow’s war widows. When their brave and patriotic husbands were alive, before they had given their precious lives for our country, life was already challenging for these women. I used the term “husbands”, but I am aware and delighted that in 2002, war widowers were officially recognised by the Government and are entitled to be full members of the association. The widows and widowers were the ones who had to care for the children as single parents for great stretches of time. They had to manage the household and juggle finances and commitments—all the time worried about the safety of their loved one. The death of a partner is always painful, but the death of a partner on active service must increase the pain. We, as individuals and as a society, owe these widows and widowers a great deal. Their partners paid the ultimate sacrifice.
While saluting the work of the association and the courage and tenacity of the widows, I, too, have some questions to put to the Minister. First, I associate myself with the concerns already expressed about the retention of pensions for those war widows or widowers who remarry. It is wonderful that some whose spouses have died find a new loving relationship and, as someone who values the institution of marriage, I can understand why they would wish to remarry. It is wrong if this decision is coloured by the consideration of the loss of a pension.
Secondly, while acknowledging the need for restraint in public as well as private sector pay and pensions, I simply do not understand why the decision was taken to reduce the value of pensions for soldiers and war widows. By linking forces’ pension rises to CPI rather than RPI, members of the Armed Forces and their loved ones will see their pensions reduced for the rest of their lives. It cannot be right that the men and women who give their limbs and their lives for our country, and the families that they leave behind, should suffer in such a way. We are told that these measures are necessary in order to reduce the deficit, but the deficit is temporary while the impact on war widows will be felt for the rest of their lives.
Finally, I come to the issue of the Government’s plans to abolish the post of the chief coroner, already raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes. As noble Lords will be aware, we had major debates on this issue during the passage of the Public Bodies Bill. With the strong support of the Royal British Legion, we secured an amendment to the Bill which reversed the decision of the Government. This was an important step for many in our society who had made the argument for years in favour of a chief coroner’s office and who were devastated to learn of the Government’s plan to abolish it. It was especially important for bereaved Armed Forces families who have first-hand knowledge of the difficulties currently faced through the Independent Inquest Advice Service. The Government's arguments in favour of abolition were based on cost and accountability, but these were comprehensively rebutted in the House of Lords by many noble Lords who are in this Room today.
I have heard from various sources that during the passage of the Public Bodies Bill in the Commons the Government intend to introduce an amendment securing the abolition of the office of the chief coroner, precisely overturning what was decided in the Lords. This would not only fly in the face of the very substantial vote in this House, where the amendment was agreed by 277 votes to 165, to preserve the office of the chief coroner, but also be a huge disservice to the Royal British Legion and to the War Widows’ Association, which rightly believe that the role of chief coroner is vital to ensuring that bereaved service families receive the help they deserve when the deaths of their loved ones are investigated. I ask for an assurance from the Minister that the Government will not seek to counter their wishes. I also warmly support the suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in respect of the covenant and reports to Parliament.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of meeting the partners of many who are bravely serving our country. It is possible that some of them will now be widows or widowers. I owe it to them, to my Aunt Jean who has been a war widow for many years and to the thousands of others whom I have not met to do everything possible to support the association. It is a privilege and an honour to do so, and I wish it continued success.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to those already offered to my noble friend on securing this debate on the very important work of the War Widows’ Association. It is clear that the whole House recognises the importance which we as a nation must continue to attach to supporting grieving families. The pain of losing a loved one is lifelong, and many take great comfort from others who have had similar experiences. I pay tribute to them all, and I am very honoured to take part in this debate today.
Like the Government of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, I and my fellow Ministers will do all we can to support the very important work of the War Widows’ Association. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Fookes, who spoke with the authority that one would expect of a president of the War Widows’ Association. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, as a vice-president, spoke in an equally informed manner. With their combined knowledge and support, the association is very well represented in this House.
Like many organisations, the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain was founded out of conflict. When Laura Connelly read an article in a newspaper in 1971 highlighting the plight of Britain’s war widows and decided that action must be taken, she could not have foreseen the impact that her stand would have on the future policies of all Governments of this country. Her endeavours have been carried on by the association’s 13 chairmen. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them all for their tireless work on behalf of their members, and to welcome Mrs Rosalind Campbell as the association’s newest chairman. I am sure that she will continue the great work of her predecessors.
Only those who have suffered the sudden loss of a loved one can truly appreciate the hole that this leaves and the unexpected problems that can arise as they try to rebuild their lives. Today’s war widows are no longer the stereotypes that we remember from the war—though their numbers are still significant—but are much younger and often with young children. Of course, this is extended to include widowers and civil partners who must not be forgotten. They have very specific needs of their own, and we have an obligation to do all we can to meet them.
Our Armed Forces are currently deployed to the most demanding areas of conflict in Afghanistan. They are performing magnificently. Together with our allies, they are reversing the momentum of the Taleban. But, sadly, tragedy does occur. We will do all we can to support a family and help them through these difficult times. But we recognise that we cannot do everything, which is why we partner with charities and other organisations to deliver a full range of support. For example, the willingness of the War Widows’ Association to adapt to the different challenges facing our war widows must be applauded. I know that its role in shaping recent Ministry of Defence policy, its work with the previous Government on the Service Personnel and Command Paper, and its input into the review of the Armed Forces compensation scheme by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, was valued and appreciated. It can be rightly proud of its achievements. Its contribution to the review has ensured that the partners and dependants of those tragically killed received payments of hundreds of thousands of pounds over their lifetime in the shape of the survivors guaranteed income payment. While we understand that this will never replace a loved one, it does help to ensure that life can be made more comfortable and the future more secure.
This Government are rightly proud of the work we are doing to build the Armed Forces covenant, mentioned by several noble Lords. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, about “rebuild”. On 16 May, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced the publication of a covenant and outlined how, with the passing of the Armed Forces Bill—due to be debated in your Lordships' House soon—he will be required to report annually on how the Government are performing against the measures we are committed to put in place. In doing so, he will be able to call on members of the external reference group, on which the War Widows’ Association is represented. I am particularly pleased that it is at the heart of holding the Government to account. I will take back to my department the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, about the association’s shopping list as it is an excellent suggestion.
I know that an area in which the War Widows’ Association shows great interest is coroners’ inquests and ensuring that improvements to the system continue to be made. That was raised by several noble Lords.
A Ministry of Defence familiarisation event was held last May to provide coroners with awareness of the equipment and procedures used in theatre. We intend to repeat this event annually. Induction and continuation training for coroners and their deputies—this relates to the question asked by my noble friend Lady Fookes—will also continue and the Ministry of Justice Coroners Training Group is planning training for the future.
The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked whether the chief coroner’s position would be abolished. I have no brief on this today but I undertake to write to the noble Baroness and to put a copy in the Library.
Support is made available to bereaved families before, during and after an inquest, and families are kept fully informed of preparations through dedicated single service teams. We also make funding available for the attendance by three family members at inquests into deaths deemed attributable to service. We have produced a DVD to try to improve the understanding of what to expect from and at an inquest and to make the whole process less daunting and stressful. I would like to assure all service widows that the interests of bereaved families will remain at the heart of any legislative changes.
The Government are aware of the need to ensure that families receive appropriate support, especially during the most difficult times. Each of the services offers ongoing practical support for the next of kin of the deceased. However, while each service provides its own support networks, sometimes the best and most valuable support can come from those who have endured a similar situation and a tragic loss. That is why the Government and the House recognise and appreciate the invaluable support of the War Widows’ Association over the past 40 years and the vital role it will play for many years to come.
I have answered one or two noble Lords’ questions and I shall do my best to answer the others. If I do not, I undertake to write.
My noble friends Lord Younger and Lord Loomba asked what we were going to do about the widows who lose their pension because they fall into the gap between 1973 and 2005. I know that the area of pension provision for widows is one of the association’s top priorities. However, it must be remembered that it is a general principle of public service pension policy—one that has been upheld by successive Governments—that improvements to pension schemes should not be made retrospective. The issues raised by service widows are not limited only to the Armed Forces but are common to other public service schemes which have similar provisions.
Resolving legacy issues across the wider public sector would be extremely costly, with estimates running into hundreds of millions of pounds. However, in some specific circumstances—often at the behest of the War Widows’ Association—we have been able to make changes, and where it is possible we will of course continue to do so.
My noble friends Lord Younger and Lady Fookes, the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, raised issues about data protection. I can confirm that my department would welcome any suggestions on this issue from the War Widows’ Association. On the data protection issue, a dedicated visiting officer will work very closely with the bereaved family and will assist in making pension and compensation claims. As part of that process, a widow will be invited to give her permission for her details to be released to the War Widows’ Association. In addition, the association is brought to the attention of a bereaved family through a variety of means. We believe that these steps give the association visibility to those who most require its help.
I have run out of time. My noble friend asked about visits to graves and I can confirm that visits to graves will be continued.