HC Deb 05 May 1954 vol 527 cc541-50

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Vosper.]

12.17 a.m.

Mr. A. S. Moody (Gateshead, East)

Despite the lateness of the hour and the number of occasions on which the case of police widows' pensions has been placed before the House, I make no apology for raising the matter once again, because the correspondence that I have received convinces me that these widows have a real grievance, especially in respect of differential rates of payment. It is to that particular question that I wish to direct the attention of the House tonight.

First, I should like the House to consider the type of women with whom we are dealing. These women had been married to police officers for almost a lifetime and in that capacity they had become bound by the force of their environment to recognise a code of discipline and to place an appreciation upon rank in a way which does not generally apply to the majority of British housewives. They have developed a pride in the police force, and whatever success policemen have had, the chief contributory factor to that success has been the loyal support and assistance given to them by their wives.

In rural areas, for instance, when the policeman is out pounding his beat, and the inevitable accident happens, people immediately rush off to the police constable's house. On numerous occasions policemen's wives have given invaluable advice and assistance in critical times. Because of their public service they have been looked up to, and they are held in great respect throughout rural areas. The older women, who were widows before the 1948 line was drawn, have an idea that they did the job a little better than those who became widows after that date.

The widows of British policemen are divided into two distinct grades, in much the same way as we sort eggs into grades A and B. A woman who became a widow before 1948 receives a lower pension than the post-1948 widow. The women who earn the lesser rate, with their training in discipline and their pride in the force, feel that they have been degraded by being placed on a lower scale of pension, and they very much resent it. For that human reason alone I would ask the Under-Secretary to reconsider this problem.

We are often told by hon. Members opposite that the country is being pulled round and is getting back on its feet. I do not know many workers' wives who yet realise that, but we are told so. If there is anything in that claim, surely a case like this, which cries out for justice to be done, should be reconsidered? It was assumed in February, 1952, that it would cost £65,000 a year, but through the wastage of death it is now estimated that it would cost only £56,000. We are experiencing difficulty in recruiting men into the police force, and spend vast sums on advertising and in telling people how good the force is. I suggest that it might be worth while spending this £56,000 in bringing equality in rates of pension to police widows. The abolition of this cheeseparing saving of money would be an aid to recruitment.

I would further remind the hon. Gentleman that when National Insurance pensions, family allowances and industrial injuries benefits are increased everybody is treated alike. There is no datum line. For 20 years between the wars, widows' pensions for equivalent ranks have been exactly the same. Yet, in the case of police officers, one day may make a difference of £50 a year in pension. The widow's basic pension of 11s. 6d. per week was increased to 16s. 1d. by the Acts of 1944 and 1947, and again to 21s. 6d. by the Act of 1952.

In 1946, when the National Insurance Bill was before the House, the deplorable state of police widows' pensions was discussed, and they were increased in 1948, and the Secretary of State said police widows should be as well off as widows under the National Insurance scheme. The policeman who died before 1948 was debarred from joining the National Insurance scheme because it was stated that his pension scheme was better than that of National Insurance. For his benefit he paid 5 per cent. of his salary to the superannuation fund, or an average of 4s. a week. The average worker and contributor to State Insurance paid between 1936 and 1948 an average of 1s. 5d. per week. How, then, can it be said that the policeman's pension scheme was more favourable, when his 4s. a week earned only the same widow's pension as the other man's 1s. 5d. a week?

The Home Secretary has in the past referred to the train of events that might follow if he made any alteration in police pensions, but surely the strength of that argument has gone, in as much as the National Insurance Act and recent Acts relating to pensions and superannuation have made any repercussions on a broad scale very unlikely. Even if he has not sufficient ground for raising the level of pensions generally, common sense and justice make it plain that he has no ground for stating that because someone died before 1948 his widow should receive less pension than the widow of a man who died after 1948.

These women resent this treatment. How does it work, in practice? In Gateshead, part of which I have the honour to represent, we have 40 police widows on pension. Of those, 27 are pre-1948 widows. It would take a lot to convince them that it was just that they should be paid at a lesser rate— more than half of them altogether— than the widows of men who survived until after 1948. The argument of the Home Secretary about the train of events that would follow the raising of these pensions does not apply with the same force today. Neither is it enough for him to say that he has regret for the position.

Here is an opportunity for him to remove the cause of that regret, not only for himself but for future Home Secretaries. In deference to the lateness of the hour I conclude by asking the Undersecretary of State to have another look at this matter. Here is an opportunity to do the big thing and to bring happiness and justice to a group of women whose services to the general public for no pay or reward the Secretary of State has been pleased to acknowledge in public on more than one occasion. I trust that the hon. Gentleman will be able to hold out some hope that this anomaly will be removed.

12.29 a.m.

Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I should take this opportunity of thanking the Home Secretary for the great attention he has given to this matter in lengthy correspondence I have had with him about it during the past two years. The case the hon. Gentleman the Member for Gateshead, East (Mr. Moody) has made is one that obviously arouses sympathy. It is one that, I know, the National Association of Retired Police Officers has been putting forward for some time.

I have been in communication with the Secretary of the Association over a period of some months and I feel that the real issue is whether one can always, on every occasion, back-date increases so that every person is covered regardless of what the rates were at the time when the contributions were being paid. It is an extremely difficult problem; I suppose it is an actuarial problem, and it is one which affects all forms of superannuation and it is, I think, this aspect which is very much in the mind of the Home Secretary.

One of the difficulties is the order of priority of pensions in general; and while I am extremely sympathetic to the cause of police widows, I doubt whether it could be claimed that it is right to be more sympathetic to them than, say, to the widows of disabled ex-Service men. It is a very difficult problem for any Government. The predecessors of the present Government had to face it, and I am certain that hon. Gentlemen opposite will agree that it is extremely difficult to work out the priorities.

As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said when introducing his Budget last month, when the time comes to see all the details of the working of the National Insurance Act, he may be able to review the disablement and war pensions. I hope that he will not overlook police pensions.

12.32 a.m.

Mr. L. M. Lever (Manchester, Ardwick)

My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Mr. Moody) has stated very ably his plea for attention to be given to what are termed the "pre-Oaksey" widows. The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) has also displayed sympathy for this very deserving section of our community, and for this I am sure that the National Association of Retired Police Officers will be very grateful.

The issue is perfectly simple. There were three classes of police widows: first, the "post-Oaksey; secondly, what are termed the "transitional widows"; and, lastly, the "pre-Oaksey" widows. We have had attention given by the learned Home Secretary to the "transitional" widows; they are the widows of policemen who died between certain dates in 1948 and 1949, but whose husbands did not contribute to the National Insurance Scheme because they were not eligible to do so. That is also the precise position of the "pre-Oaksey" widows, because their husbands were, likewise, not eligible to contribute. The Home Secretary would appear to be estopped from denying that the "pre-Oaksey" widow should have the same benefits as the "post-Oaksey" ones because he has admitted the principle of parity in so far as the "transitional" widows, whose husbands did not contribute, are concerned.

I should like to say at this point that we owe the Home Secretary our warmest thanks for the ready way in which he has received us in the last 18 months. On behalf of the Association to which I have referred, I can say that he has received a deputation on no fewer than three occasions in the past 18 months; which shows that he is sympathetic and anxious to explore every avenue in trying to help this fast diminishing section, the "pre-Oaksey" widows.

We saw him as recently as last Thursday, when he received a deputation sympathetically, and promised to go further into the matter. We then advanced the case that the process of time will reduce the numbers of these women and that as the Chancellor of the Exchequer had done little, through the Budget, to improve the social services there was an opportunity for him to do something for this small section of widows who deserve well of the nation. The Home Secretary did promise to go into the matter. From our point of view, I regard the matter as sub judice. I am sure the Home Secretary will look at the matter sympathetically and I hope he will be able to persuade the Chancellor to unloose the purse strings for this very-deserving section of the community in order to assist them to establish a life of parity with their sisters, the transitional and the "post-Oaksey" widows.

12.36 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

I certainly have no complaint of the way in which this question has been raised tonight. Police widows' pensions have been discussed in the House a number of times recently, and particularly the case of widows whose husbands died before 5th July, 1948. Concern for the elderly always calls forth warm feelings in all parts of the House, as it has this evening.

We are not now concerned with the proper level of pensions generally, having regard to the national income, the number of pensioners, and so on. Such broad issues are mainly for other Ministers. The question raised this evening is whether a particular class of widows is being treated fairly, having regard to the level of pensions of police widows.

I should say right at the beginning, as has been acknowledged on both sides of the House, that my right hon. and learned Friend is always anxious to make advances where a case for an advance is made out. I think I can say in proof of that that there was an example last December when a special pension was provided for the widows of police officers killed in exceptional circumstances. My right hon. and learned Friend has examined the present problem many times. He has done so with care and sympathy, as did his predecessor when he came to the same conclusion as the present Home Secretary. Obviously, the House would wish care and sympathy to be bestowed in the case of the widows of men who have done duty for the country and in the case of widows who have done so much to help their husbands to perform those duties. I need hardly say that my right hon. and learned Friend has felt sincere regret in having to turn down this request.

As the hon. Member for Ardwick (Mr. L. M. Lever) said, he came with a deputation of hon. Members and members of the National Association of Retired Police Officers to see my right hon. and learned Friend only last week and arguments of the kind advanced this evening were put forward with the force and clarity with which they have always been put forward in this connection. My right hon. and learned Friend has re-examined the position in the light of what was said and he regrets that he does not think the arguments justify a change being made. I will try to explain the reasons for that decision as best I can in the time available.

The issues look formidably complex. They are somewhat obscured by being linked with the question of the relation of the police scheme to the National Insurance scheme and to the Pensions (Increase) Acts. But the essential facts are fairly simple.

The widow of a policeman who died before 5th July, 1948, gets the basic police pension then in force, 11s. 6d., plus an increase which may bring the total to 32s. 6d. a week, if she satisfies the conditions on which a 10s. pension under the old Contributory Pensions Act would have been raised to the same amount. That is to say the pre-1948 police widow has been put in at least as favourable a position as the pre-1948 National Insurance widow.

Where the policeman husband died after 5th July, 1948, he had come into National Insurance and his widow is eligible for two elements of pension, which together may bring the amount up to as much as 51s. 8d. a week. That is comprised of the basic police pension, plus what she may be entitled to under the National Insurance conditions. The suggestion is that the pre-1948 widows should receive this higher rate, but there are two fundamental objections.

First, in all occupational pensions schemes, the rate of pension is determined by the scheme as it stood at the time when the pension started. Subsequent changes are not projected backwards. The case of the retired officers was quite different. The object there was not to bring the retired officers' pensions up to the level for officers retiring now. The Pensions (Increase) Acts do not bring old rates of pension up-to-date. The principle of those Acts is to relieve financial hardship. They allow certain pension increases to be made subject to certain tests, and it would be contrary to all accepted principles to apply to existing pensioners later rates of pension which have been introduced after there have been changes in conditions of service, pay, and pension contributions.

The second objection also involves a question of principle. As I have explained, post-1948 widows in effect receive two pensions because their husbands contributed to two pension schemes. I know there are some complicated transitional cases which have been given the benefit of the doubt, but I hope it will not be argued that everyone should be given that advantage. It would not be a wise argument to put forward. The pre-1948 widows' husbands contributed to only one scheme. That is the fundamental difference. It has been said that they suffered a 5 per cent. deduction from their pay, and I think the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Mr. Moody) said that that amounted to 4s. weekly.

I would remind the hon. Member that the whole of that deduction was not a contribution to widow's pension; the amount of the deduction which went towards providing for widow's pension was about 4d. weekly; so that, actuarially, there is no substance in the case which he advances.

Mr. Moody


Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I am sorry; I cannot give way. Of course, it is hard lines on these widows; but so it is on other classes of widow, and on other pensioners who have been adversely affected by what has happened in our times. There is no valid ground for making a special exception for this class of widow. That is why it has not been possible for my right hon. and learned Friend to give way. There is a genuine misconception on the part of the pensioners and the Association. It is said that the pre-1948 widows have been penalised because their husbands were excluded from the old contributory pensions scheme. That is not so. If the police had been under the old contributory scheme instead of having a scheme of their own their widows would have been no better off then they are today. Indeed, there are those who would have been slightly worse off.

Neither my right hon. and learned Friend nor I is lacking in sympathy for these widows. They deserve well of the community. Fortune has been against them. It is, however, impossible to grant the request which has been made without violating the principles on which the public pensions schemes of this country generally are based.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Thirteen Minutes to One o'clock a.m.