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War Widows’ Pension

Volume 802: debated on Tuesday 25 February 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the announcement by the then Prime Minister on 8 November 2014, what plans they have to reinstate the war widows’ pension for those widows who were required to surrender that pension due to marriage or cohabitation.

My Lords, in 2014 the then Prime Minister announced that changes would be made to the rules of the war pensions scheme and armed forces pensions scheme from April 2015 onwards. The amendments allow survivors’ pensions to be paid for life—known as pensions for life—for widows who remarried or cohabited on or after 1 April 2015. These changes were applied on a prospective basis.

My Lords, I thank the Minister. As a vice-president of the War Widows’ Association I am extremely disappointed that after five years, the Government are still dragging their feet on reinstating these widows’ pensions. We are talking about 200 to 300 war widows whose former partners served in the Falklands, Northern Ireland and the first Gulf War, among other theatres and whose only course of action today, if they want their pension reinstated, is to divorce and remarry their present partners. How bonkers is that? Will the Minister, despite what she has said, take back to her department our call that this has to be resolved once and for all?

I thank the noble Baroness and pay tribute to and thank the War Widows’ Association for its excellent work. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her role within the association. I realise that this is an emotive issue that provokes many passions and I sympathise with and understand that. The noble Baroness will be aware that the difficulty with applying retrospective treatment to the provisions is that the policy of successive Governments—not just this one but previous ones—and across departments has been that such benefits cannot be applied retrospectively. I make it clear that in no way do the Government seek to diminish or disregard the support provided and contribution made by the ladies to whom the noble Baroness refers. My problem is that I have a very hard nut and I do not have a hammer to crack it.

My Lords, as president of the War Widows’ Association, I say to my noble friend that the Answer she has given will not wash with those ladies who naturally feel aggrieved by this decision. Will my noble friend at least agree to a meeting where this could be discussed more thoroughly with the officers of the association and honorary members, such as myself¸ who are able to be present?

I thank my noble friend for her question—I am beginning to feel a formidable array of onslaught opening up before me. I also thank her for her invaluable role as president of the War Widows’ Association. The department is very anxious to continue a dialogue and to continue to hear what war widows are experiencing. The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, referred to data, which is notoriously difficult to quantify. No one has the data but the association might now be able to pinpoint more accurate information. Anything that adds to our aggregate knowledge will be welcome. I say to my noble friend Lady Fookes that the Central Advisory Committee on Compensation, chaired by the Minister for DPV—which covers service charities, including the War Widows’ Association—is meeting tomorrow. I very much hope that the association will use that forum to make plain the strength of views that I am detecting clearly in the Chamber today.

My Lords, the Minister is relying on the usual excuse of no retrospection. I remind her that in the 1980s an award was given to widows. It was deemed to be an award and therefore did not get caught by retrospection. Perhaps she could see whether such an approach could be used on this occasion.

I thank the noble and gallant Lord for that helpful contribution. I am unaware of that situation but I undertake to look carefully at what he has said and to have it explored.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the scandal of this situation is that it applies only in cases where the incident that caused death occurred between April 1973 and April 2005? Those widowed because of an incident before 1973 or after 2005 do not lose their benefit if they remarry. That is complete nonsense and shameful. Should it not be put right? Furthermore, the noble Baroness has described this payment as a benefit. Can we not describe it instead as compensation? Should not war widows’ pensions be called war widows’ compensation so that widows are not subject to this sort of withdrawal?

The right reverend Prelate’s latter point is an interesting one. I understand that technically, the payment is a pension. As I said earlier, the difficulty confronting my department is not imaginary; it has confronted many Governments and has reached across all government departments. To be fair, the difficulty at the time of the change, which was welcomed in 2015, was reflected by the War Widows’ Association. At the time, it said that it understood the principle that legislation cannot have a retrospective effect. It realised that that was not unique to the association and its campaign, and that trying to change it would have been very difficult. I detect the strength of sentiment in the Chamber and reassure your Lordships that I undertake to relay that to the department.

My Lords, I declare an interest both as a military widow and as another vice-president of the War Widows’ Association. Service life means that families follow the flag and are regularly relocated. We ourselves moved 24 times in 30 years. As such, it is well-nigh impossible for wives—now widows—to have a career that earns them a pension, so they are entirely dependent on their husband’s pension entitlement. Therefore, was it not an act of real meanness that they lost that pension if they found happiness in a new relationship? Surely the Government cannot keep hiding behind the pretence of not being prepared to consider retrospection. It must be time to remedy this. The sum of money involved would be a pittance in the MoD budget.

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her role in this and her connection with the War Widows’ Association. I hear clearly what she says and I agree. She is absolutely right that the women to whom we are referring have made sacrifices: they were frequently required to be posted abroad and may have put their own careers on hold. I understand all that. I think the noble Baroness will be familiar with the difficulty because she was a government Minister at the time of the change. It is a difficulty over which I personally have no control. However, her voice is added to the chorus that I hear very clearly this afternoon.