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Police Widows’ Pensions

Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered police widows’ pensions.

This important issue was brought to my attention by a constituent of mine, Diane, who sadly lost her husband in the line of duty when he was serving as a police officer. Years down the line, Diane met another man and fell in love. The couple decided they wanted to be together. They found that the position was that Diane had to choose between their future happiness and maintaining her eligibility for her late husband’s pension. She is not alone in her predicament; hundreds of other widows and widowers are left to make the same decision.

Fortunately, in 2014 Cathryn Hall, who is here today, started a petition entitled “Grant Police Widows Pensions for Life—Don’t Make Them Choose Between Future Happiness and Pensions”, which says it all. Cathryn has bravely shared her story so I am not breaching any confidentiality in recounting it. She became a widow at 24 years old following the death of her husband Colin, who served in the West Midlands police force for 21 years. Some years later, Cathryn was left with a difficult decision: should she maintain her eligibility for the pension, into which her late husband had contributed 11% of his salary, or move in with a new partner and lose it?

The petition gathered more than 115,000 signatures, so I am here to ask yet again why so many women such as Diane and Cathryn are forced to choose. The reason is that individuals widowed between 1980 and the early 2000s are covered by the Police Pensions Regulations 1987 and lose access to their spouse’s pension if they remarry or cohabit.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I, too, have constituents who feel strongly about the matter. Does she agree that campaigners also feel that there is injustice in the lack of parity of approach across the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman is moving me forward in my speech, but yes, that is a major issue. The people who serve in United Kingdom police forces expect that should they lose their lives in the line of duty, all their families will be cared for in exactly the same way. The hon. Gentleman has pointed out a major cause of injustice, which we have come here today to rectify.

There was a welcome breakthrough in 2015, when reforms were introduced. I acknowledge that. The widows, widowers and civil partners of police killed in the line of duty and covered by the 1987 regulations now receive a pension for life if they were in receipt of a special augmented pension, remained unmarried and were not living with a new partner by 1 April 2015. That is a large number of caveats: what of those not covered? The inequality comes over loud and clear.

The recommendation of the 2011 Hutton report—the report of the independent public service pensions commission—related to all armed services. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is a matter of implementing equality across generations, in all the armed services, as the report recommended?

I can say only that the Welsh think alike no matter their political party, because that is another thing that I intend to cover in my speech.

When we ask individuals to put their lives on the line, we should expect that exactly the same care and responsibility will be shown towards all their families, should they make the ultimate sacrifice. Why, then, should a widow or widower lose the financial support from their late husband or wife when they decide to remarry or cohabit?

I should like the Minister to explain where the money is going. If the widow or widower is ineligible to receive it, who has it? What of their children? No father or mother wants their children to be impoverished; nor do they want the money that they set aside to protect their children in the event of their death, and to prepare for their future, to go somewhere else. So what are the Government doing with the money? Why are the widows, widowers and children penalised? Campaigners rightly argue that no Government should seek to profit from the withdrawal of a small and immaterial number of police widows’ pensions, and the condemning, in the process, of 22,000 widows to a life of loneliness and isolation. That is what is happening at the moment.

We are not asking for extra money. The Treasury is not being asked to find new money. The families just want what they are entitled to. I shall set out the figures. The police officers pay 11% of their wages into the pensions. Generally speaking, the widows or widowers receive 50% of the pension. In 2012 there were 22,000 widows in receipt of a police pension. Between 2008 and 2012 in England and Wales, there were a mere 131 cessations because of remarriage or cohabitation. That is a large number of people who are being forced to face a life of isolation and loneliness to maintain their financial security.

On the figures, approximately 0.5% of police widows are being unfairly denied financial support that would have been available to them from the pensions. It is hard to put an exact figure on how much individuals are losing, because that is personal and depends on the husband’s or wife’s age at death. My constituent estimates that she has lost about £135,000—a not inconsiderable sum. The numbers are small: to grant all police widows a pension for life, regardless of their status, would, according to the response to a freedom of information request, cost £50 million. As I have said, that is not new money; it is money already in the system.

I want to tell the Minister about a couple, aged 75 and 80, whom I will not name as they want to remain anonymous. One is the widow of a police officer. They are forced to live 100 miles apart because the loss of the widow’s income should they cohabit would be impossible to bear. That means that they are not there to support each other every day through the inevitable illness that old age brings. They want to spend their twilight years together without financial penalty. Why are they denied that right?

Announcing the changes in 2015, the then Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, told the House:

“We will reform the scheme to ensure that the widows, widowers and civil partners of police officers who have died on duty do not have to choose between solitude and financial security.—[Official Report, 12 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 18.]

However, that is happening. The average age of a police widow is 74. The petty injustice that I am describing could cost the taxpayer more: as the group gets older without the income from their deceased spouses’ pensions they are more likely to have recourse to the state. Does the Minister think that a sensible use of public money?

This injustice forces widows and widowers to choose between love and money. Many feel that the financial cost is too great, particularly when their children are affected. If they choose personal happiness, they face financial insecurity through no fault of their own. They will also be asking their new partner to take on full financial responsibility for their children, who will lose the money that their father or mother had put aside for them. I cannot understand that.

Just over two years ago, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) raised this issue, and he and I debated it in this Chamber. We are no further forward now; the situation has been made more baffling. I am particularly pleased to see hon. Members here from Northern Ireland and Scotland.

That was set up, Mr Chope; you probably realised that. I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the debate. It is not only the Welsh who think alike; it is the people of Northern Ireland as well.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary faced a very different kind of day-to-day work from that of colleagues on the mainland. The grief of loss is the same for families no matter where they live, and the pension rules must therefore also be the same. Does the hon. Lady agree with the widows in my constituency who feel aggrieved and demand and expect this injustice to be rectified—their pension rights to be secured? I look forward to the Minister’s response; I hope it is a good one.

Everyone expects to be treated the same. People might face different stresses and strains within the police force, but the risk, ultimately, is that every day someone will be determined to take the life of a police officer. If an officer is lost to their family, and if they have made appropriate plans to protect their family, it is right that the state honours that commitment. We pay great tribute to families when they take on these roles and responsibilities, and we should maintain that commitment.

Changes have been made in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I commend those Administrations. In Scotland, the Government announced the same amendment to the pensions paid to the survivors of police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty. I think those pensions have been reinstated and backdated to 1 October 2015.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. One of my constituents was affected by this issue, but the Scottish Government’s decision to reinstate the pensions has resolved that injustice for him. This is one area on which we are happy to express solidarity across the UK. Governments across the United Kingdom should be aiming for the highest possible standards, to pay respect to our officers killed in the line of duty.

As I have said, police officers face the same risks every day. They deserve the same pension rights, and their families deserve the same financial protection. Comparisons have already been made between police officers’ widows and widowers and their armed forces counterparts, with Ministers often seeking to differentiate between the two as a way of justifying the cessation of pension rights for police officers. However, as has already been commented on, the 2011 Hutton Report made it clear that

“there is a need to recognise the unique nature of the work the uniformed services (the armed forces, police and firefighters) undertake.”

They put themselves in harm’s way to protect us. Is it not now time for England and Wales to join the rest of the United Kingdom in ending this injustice? Will the Minister undertake to meet the campaign group? Many of them are here today and will be happy to discuss a way forward with the Minister.

I ask the Minister to end this incomprehensible, unfair and, quite honestly, blatant inequality. Let us give the families back the money they are due. All these men and women are asking for is a level playing field instead of a harsh financial penalty. For me, this boils down to a simple issue: we have to stop putting a price on love. The Government have to make sure that widows, widowers and their children have access to the pension rights that were put there to protect them in the future. By right and by legitimacy, they should have them.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing the debate. As she rightly outlined, it is an issue that has been discussed and raised on the Floor of the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). He came to see me quite recently and made a passionate case.

I want to make it clear that I have huge sympathy—as we all should—and admiration for those who have faced the loss of a loved one through their work and as a result of their being on police duty. It is unfortunate, and as the hon. Lady rightly outlined, it is a tragic reality—thankfully rare—that some police officers pay the ultimate sacrifice when fighting crime and keeping us safe. They deserve our huge respect and thanks, so it is right that, whenever we have the opportunity to do so in this place, we are able to pay our respects to those officers and the families they leave behind, and to all police officers and staff, who run towards danger—pretty much every day in one form or another, as the hon. Lady said—in the name of public service.

The Government continue to recognise the risks faced by officers as part of their everyday job. As the hon. Lady outlined, that is why the previous Home Secretary changed police pension provisions to allow widows, widowers and surviving civil partners of police officers who die on duty in England and Wales to receive a survivor pension for life; the definition of “on duty” includes when death occurs during a journey to or from work. The changes also include circumstances in which an officer died from injuries resulting from their being targeted as a member of the police, including circumstances in which the relevant police pension authority believes that the death should be considered a result of the execution of duty.

Those changes were brought by the Police Pensions and Police (Injury Benefit) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, which came into force on 18 January last year. Those amendments were backdated to 1 April 2015, which aligned with the timing for changes made to armed forces survivors’ pensions. In keeping with the policy applied to the armed forces’ pensions, any pensions already surrendered before April 2015 were not reinstated as a result of the change; that was the same across both schemes. However, it is important to note that the regulations will continue to allow the police pension authority the discretion to reinstate adult survivor benefits if a remarriage, civil partnership, or cohabitation subsequently ends.

The hon. Lady referenced the fact that the changes would not require new money, as the money is already in the scheme. If I may correct her, it would require new money. The scheme is not structured to cover those funds; it is an employee and employer contributory scheme, but anything that tops that up or goes beyond what is already covered by the scheme will be new money funded by the taxpayer, so she is wrong.

The hon. Lady also touched on the difference between this and changes to armed forces widows’ pensions. The Government believe that there is difference, and that there are particular factors that apply to the armed forces. Not only do the families of armed forces personnel have to cope with long and uncertain separations while their spouse or civil partner has deployed on operations directly, the mobile nature of service life often prevents those partners from earning their own occupational pension. We recognise that that puts them in a difficult position when trying to provide for their own financial future.

The same combination of risk to life and disruption to family life cannot be said to apply to other public service workforces. The Government do not believe that it would be justifiable to make the same changes for all survivors of police officers. Nevertheless, we believe it is right to recognise the risks faced by police officers every day as part of their job. I believe that, when police officers, and also firefighters, die on duty, their surviving spouses and civil partners should not face a decision between a new relationship and retaining their entitlement to their survivor benefits.

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s reference to other parts of the United Kingdom. However, policing in Scotland, for example, is a devolved matter. Those other Administrations are entitled to make their own decisions, but that does not, in itself, create a precedent that will necessarily be followed in the whole of the United Kingdom.

We have made clear our commitment to ensure that public service pensions are affordable, sustainable and fair. We keep these things under review at all times. As I promised my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, we will continue to review all these matters. These pension schemes need to be fair and affordable for members, but also fair and affordable for the taxpayer who subsidises them through contributions.

The situation at the moment, as I understand it, is that the Ministry of Defence is reviewing what the provisions are retrospectively for armed forces widows. Does the Minister accept that were the Ministry of Defence to make changes, it would be very hard for the Government to maintain a difference in what those widows are granted and what police widows are granted?

My hon. Friend makes, as always, a very good point. As I have just outlined, there is no current plan for us to change the scheme beyond the changes made only last year. However, we always keep these things under review. As I said to him when we met, I will continue to keep this under review, as the Treasury does on all these matters, to ensure that we have a scheme that is not only fair for the taxpayer but ultimately, as he rightly says, fair to the families of those people who go out every day and put themselves at risk. We will continue to do that.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.