Skip to main content

Armed Forces: Widows’ Pensions

Volume 751: debated on Tuesday 21 January 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the estimated annual cost of allowing all armed forces widows, who choose to re-marry or co-habit, to retain and not forfeit their existing service widow’s pension in line with the provisions in the Armed Forces Pension Scheme 2015.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Captain Richard Holloway of the Royal Engineers, who was killed while on operations in Afghanistan on 23 December, last month. My thoughts are also with the wounded, and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude with which they face their rehabilitation.

The cost of not suspending pensions on remarriage or cohabitation to spouses who survive members of the 1975 Armed Forces Pension Scheme, whose deaths were not attributable to service, is estimated to be in the region of £250,000 per annum; the cost is estimated to be £70,000 per annum in relation to the War Pensions Scheme. Survivors of those enrolled in the current 2005 pension scheme and the new 2015 scheme, when implemented, will retain pensions for life regardless of personal circumstance.

My Lords, I associate myself with the Minister’s remarks about Captain Holloway. I also declare an interest as a vice-president of the Forces Pension Society and a member of the Armed Forces Pension Scheme 1975.

Is the Minister in favour of justice for widows—those widows who are trapped or locked into a scheme which is unfair and discriminatory compared with later schemes, which allow the survivor pension awards to be retained for life? Is this not totally counter to the Armed Forces covenant, which is so strongly supported by the Prime Minister and all in the Government? Will Her Majesty’s Government move quickly to remove the discrimination in the Armed Forces Pension Scheme 1975 and the War Pensions Scheme, bearing in mind that there would be no significant cost to the taxpayer, given the Minister’s figures and making allowance for the policing, both intrusive and insensitive, and the complex administration of these schemes?

My Lords, there are 10 categories of widow or widower under the Ministry of Defence pension and compensation schemes. I have discussed this very complex issue with the noble and gallant Lord. We both agreed that I should place a letter of explanation in the Library setting this all out, which I have done this afternoon.

Defence Ministers have enormous respect for the Forces Pension Society and for the War Widows Association of Great Britain and will continue to work very closely with both of them. Successive Governments have reviewed pensions for life, but changes cannot be taken in isolation from other public sector schemes, including those for the NHS, teachers, police and the fire service, which have similar rules in place for their older schemes.

My Lords, we associate ourselves with the condolences expressed by the Minister to the family and friends of Captain Holloway. His death on active service in Afghanistan is another reminder of the enormity of the sacrifices that continue to be made on our behalf by members of our Armed Forces.

We have had questions before on service pension issues, including the impact of redundancy just prior to the relevant pension qualifying date. If the money is unavailable to ensure that what some would regard as the basic principles of fairness are not overlooked in some cases over service pensions, why is the money readily available to bail out the Secretary of State over misjudgments on, for example, the Joint Strike Fighter and the IT system for Armed Forces recruitment?

My Lords, I remind the noble Lord that it is a fundamental principle, which has been applied by successive Governments, including that of the noble Lord, that public service occupational pension terms should not be improved retrospectively for those who are no longer active members of these pension schemes or for their dependants.

My Lords, from these Benches, may I associate us with the condolences expressed by the Minister?

I agree with the Minister that this is a most complicated area of legislation. When you research it, you realise how mixed up, complicated and confused it is, particularly for those people trying to work their way through it. What is the cost in terms of staffing an administration to police the relationship status of service widows? Given this, and given the fact that the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme does not depend on widows remaining single, is it not time to look again at extending the service widows pension to cover all service widows, whatever their subsequent relationships?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that this really is a very complicated issue, which is why I am placing a letter in the Library, a copy of which I will send to some noble and gallant Lords. The Service Personnel and Veterans Agency checks the relationship status of war widows. This is conducted every two years, looking at a random sample of about 5% of recipients. In 2010, this exercise cost some £50,000. It is a complicated matter for the Government to consider whether to look again at extending the terms of various schemes to cover all bereaved spouses for life regardless of subsequent relationships. Nevertheless, Ministers will continue to work closely with the Forces Pension Society and the War Widows Association of Great Britain.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the parliamentary pension fund. In light of the fact that Her Majesty’s Government have totally turned that upside down through the use of IPSA et cetera, why on earth cannot Her Majesty’s Government listen to the noble and gallant Lord opposite about what is, yes, a complicated scheme—as was the parliamentary scheme—and take some action?

I am afraid that I am not sighted on the parliamentary pension fund. However, we are sympathetic to the concerns of the Forces Pension Society and the War Widows Association of Great Britain. The NHS, teachers, police and fire services’ scheme administrators were consulted last year and highlighted their concerns. Should the MoD accede to the retrospective change, the Government Actuary’s Department confirmed that, if all public sector schemes were to change their rules to accommodate this, the cost would be in the region of £3 billion over a 40-year period—the NHS cost alone would amount to about £1 billion.

My Lords, I believe that the armed services are different and it is shameful that we cannot look at this. When Governments look at something like this and decide to do something, as the noble Lord says, they can do it. It is appalling that we have people policing these women—and they are generally women—who are now wanting to remarry to live with someone and who will probably have to have a worse standard of living. Certainly, if I died, I would want my wife to have a happy second life. It is appalling and we should do something about it. Can that not be done?