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War Widows Pensions

Volume 808: debated on Thursday 10 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in resolving the issues faced by those war widows who were required to surrender their War Widows Pension due to marriage or cohabitation.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the War Widows’ Association.

My Lords, the Government continue to examine alternative methods to see whether we can mitigate the impact on those survivors who remarried or cohabited before the introduction of the pensions-for-life changes in 2015. Much progress has been made and the issue remains a priority for the Ministry of Defence, but it is very complex.

I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer, but I am very disappointed. I am sure that she herself is tired of having to repeat it. It is shameful that 200 war widows are still waiting for their pensions to be reinstated. In the last five years, 100 widows have, sadly, died while waiting. What has happened to the plan that was meant to have gone from the Secretary of State for Defence to the Treasury, and when will we see a timetable for meaningful action in this matter?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I pay tribute to her commitment and passion on this issue and I understand her frustration. It might help her if I explain the nature of the complexity. Quite simply, it has been the policy of successive Governments not to make retrospective payments by government to individuals. That has been an established position and I think that many Members of your Lordships’ Chamber who have been Ministers will understand that. It means that, although I, the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff all personally want to try to find a solution to this, we are not able to act unilaterally. We are investigating a number of options, but as yet none of these has been confirmed as avoiding the challenges to which I have referred.

My Lords, what bearing does the Minister think the Armed Forces covenant has on this issue? The covenant, quite rightly, says:

“Families … play a vital role in supporting the operational effectiveness of our Armed Forces.”

So our moral obligation is not just to members of the Armed Forces; it is also to their families. Times and attitudes change. Rules from the past are no longer regarded as acceptable. We should not let concern about retrospection be a barrier to what we all now regard as the right thing to do.

Of course, I reaffirm that the Government recognise the unique commitment that service families make to our country and we remain sympathetic to the circumstances of those who remarried and cohabited before 1 April 2015. But the Ministry of Defence is not able to act unilaterally because, in doing that, it could well compromise the position of other government departments and it might unintentionally interfere with or prejudice active litigation in which other departments are involved. That is why I thought it important to explain to the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, the nature of the complexity. This is not something that the current Government have dreamed up and it is not an artificial obstruction that the Ministry of Defence has created; it is, I am afraid, the consequence of established policy covering such matters as payments when a request is made to make these retrospectively.

But does the Minister understand the contrast between the actions of a Government, who, up till yesterday, were willing to break the law but today will not modify slightly a policy to benefit 200 citizens whose spouses gave their service on behalf of this nation?

It is not a question of whether the MoD chooses to break the law, which it would never wish to do; it is a question of established government policy. The noble Lord has been a Minister in government and I think he will understand why that policy exists. That is why the MoD cannot act unilaterally on this. It has been investigating a range of options. I have discussed this matter personally with the Secretary of State, the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Permanent Secretary to try to find a way round the obstacles. That means exploring a range of options, including hardship payments and ex gratia and statutory schemes. That is what we are currently engaged in doing, but these are complex, challenging issues and they have to be dealt with carefully.

My Lords, as president of the War Widows’ Association, I am enraged by the failure of government to find a solution. Is it the Government’s intention to procrastinate for so long that these few elderly widows will all be dead?

No. I say to my noble friend that of course it is not. I have no wish to be evasive. That is why, at the risk of incurring the displeasure of the Deputy Speaker, I thought it important to give the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, as full an explanation as I could of the complexities. I am being very frank with the Chamber. This is not about a lack of will on the part of the MoD to find a solution; it is about recognising the challenges of getting a route towards a solution. That is the difficulty. These are not manufactured complexities; they affect the whole of government.

My Lords, I salute the noble Baronesses, Lady Crawley and Lady Fookes, and it is an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Baroness Fookes, who has given so much to the cause. I share her disappointment that the Government have not found a solution to this problem, which has been on the table for so long.

I merely seek to reassure the noble Lord that active investigations are taking place, options are being explored and indeed, the President of the War Widows’ Association met with the Secretary of State on 30 November. Therefore, very recently he was able to explain to her personally that this is nothing to do with lack of political will or of a personal determination to find a solution. It is a question of trying to navigate a way through the reefs and shoals of the complexities.

My Lords, in an interview in The Yorkshire Post on 8 May, the Veterans Minister, Mr Mercer, said:

“You’ve got to remember that the military is as much about families as anything else … which is why we take families welfare so seriously.”

The whole House will applaud him for that. Therefore, can I ask the Minister if she will go back to her Department and remind the Veterans Minister of his words, and together park their tanks on the Treasury lawn and insist that the Chancellor of the Exchequer do as my noble friend Lady Crawley and others have asked and resolve this problem once and for all?

I echo the sentiments of the noble Lord and share the sentiments of my colleague Johnny Mercer. The noble Lord is realistic in recognising that the difficulties to which I have referred are not of the MoD’s making. He gives a powerful message. I am sure it will be relayed, and I shall play my part in promoting its relaying.

My Lords, I too am a vice-president of the War Widows’ Association. As a military wife I moved 24 times, so I had no chance of a career. Military wives were totally dependent on their husbands’ incomes and pensions. It was particularly distressing when the pension the husband had built up for his widow was cancelled if she remarried. With so few widows still in the frame of this cruel policy, how can the Government use retrospection as an excuse for inaction when the 2019 Northern Ireland victims’ payments Act allows payments to be made in respect of past periods?

I understand the noble Baroness’s frustration and anger and I have no wish to seek to diffuse that. All I can say is that the difficulty to which I have referred real: it is not of the MoD’s making, and the MoD is trying to find a way round it. I am not familiar with the scheme to which she refers, but I shall make inquiries about that.

My Lords, David Cameron, under whose premiership the new rules came in, has admitted that the current situation is a mistake and was not intended. It is manifestly unjust and betrays those who have served our country. The ridiculous rule that people could rectify the situation by divorcing and then remarrying undermines the institution of marriage. Does this not make it entirely justifiable to overturn, or at least suspend, the policy to which the Minister refers?

I thank the right reverend Prelate; he too delivers a powerful message. I totally uphold the institution of marriage. He refers to an anomaly that many of us find completely unacceptable, and I can only reiterate what I have said. I undertake to ensure that his sentiments are conveyed to the department, and they will form part of our endeavour to find a solution.