HL Deb 30 June 1977 vol 384 cc1276-94

6.1 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. A Bill with all-Party support was introduced in another place earlier this year. Following that, two Members of the House, Mr. Peter Viggers and Mr. Philip Goodhart, wrote to the Prime Minister and received a reply in the following terms: My concern and sympathy for these widows comes directly, as you will recognise, from my personal experience I mentioned in the Censure debate". He added: I am certainly not prepared to defend the distinction based on rank which existed before the 1952 scheme". However, after that nice opening, he turned down a proposal stating: If pre-1950 Service widows were to be awarded pensions retrospectively, there would be equally valid claims from other groups". He then mentioned some of them.

In a debate in the other House in 1972 on the Consolidated Fund, I quoted from a reply from Mr. A. V. Alexander, who had been a Minister in his day, who stated in May 1949 that a review was being made. While having made several attempts since then to get some change, I was rather affronted when I wrote again to the Ministry a little later. I received a reply from a civil servant which, I am afraid, was in these terms: I am afraid there is nothing I can usefully add to my letter of 19th June and, in these circumstances, I can see no value in any further correspondence". I considered then, and I do so today, that it was an unfortunate attitude to have been taken, and this is really what has happened ever since 1948.

There have been exceptions; there have been payments in special circumstances. For example, following the sinking of HMS "Saumarez", and HMS "Volage" off Corfu, pensions were awarded to widows and orphans of the officers and men who lost their lives. I want to emphasise "officers and men". Pensions were paid in accordance with the rates laid down in an Order in Council of 4th June 1948. It was considered and then called "compensation", but actually they were pensions paid over a number of years.

The noble Earl, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, stated at a Royal British Legion Conference, commemorating 50 years of work: It is painful to sit here and realise we are behind every Commonwealth country in the treatment of war widows. Why is it that year after year Governments are so hardhearted about it? There has just been another conference of Commonwealth Parliamentarians and I took the opportunity of checking with some of them regarding pensions in their countries, and they are considerably better than ours.

While I acknowledge that since 1972 some welcome changes have been made, it still remains the fact that widows of the men in the Armed Forces who fortunately have never heard a shot fired in anger, and who were often able to accompany their husbands, should —quite rightly—receive good pensions. But the others, especially the elderly who are in what are known as Service towns, who live in close proximity to younger Service widows, drawing, in comparison, large pensions with no strings attached, have to shop in the same area and have to pay the same rents. These widows are very proud individuals who rightly feel aggrieved.

Year after year Ministers of both Parties have wept crocodile tears. I have read most of the documents through again and they have said that nothing can be done. I regret to say that a Conservative Minister for the Royal Navy also turned this matter down. We had a final reply from the Minister in this Government on 3rd May 1976. He said: …to do nothing, taken only with the greatest regret and for the very strongest reasons". That is why I say that they have wept crocodile tears. Surely if they really wished to do something they could do so.

I was interested to read in today's paper—and I do not mean this in any rude manner—that Members of Parliament are to receive another £4 a week. I suppose that this is for very strong reasons. I think there are very strong reasons for these elderly widows to be considered. It is stated that between 3,000 and 6,000 war widows die each year, and so there must be a saving of at least between £7 million and £8 million a year. In both 1973 and 1974 3,000 widows died. In 1975 6,000 died, so the Government are saving between £7 million and £8 million a year.

I realise that the probable cost would be about £100 million to bring these war widows in line with those whose husbands have been killed in Northern Ireland. However, this sum does not take into account the tax position because it is the gross figure to be paid out. In my view, it is unfair to discriminate against those whose husbands retired before 1950 or were killed in one of the two World Wars, by giving them £22 a week less than those whose husbands were killed in Service since 1966.

In the other House I was pleased to receive the backing and support of the present Foreign Secretary, who stated fairly that he had been Navy Minister and it was a severe disappointment to him that he had been unable to make the change. Later we had another Minister, Mr. Frank Judd, who also supported me. But he could not make the change. It has been stated that it would be necessary to consider other categories in the other Services; but there are already many anomalies in the situation in that officers and warrant officer Class 1 widows are eligible for a pension and have been for nearly 100 years. It is wrong that there should be discrimination between officers and other ranks. The matter should be looked into regarding its merits. I should like to draw that to the attention of noble Lords.

In the Plymouth edition of the Evening Herald of 21st June 1972, there was the headline: "No mite for the widow". In the article it was stated that in the terms of the Government's yearly budget, £1½ million to £3 million was a paltry sum and should be awarded. In recent years successive Governments have insisted on making comparisons outside the Service rather than in the Service. This pension that we are asking for is essentially a non-contributory pension scheme; in other words, a reward for service for the individual concerned. Nobody can say in this House that we do not get well served by the men and women of our Services.

It is worth remembering that the Prime Minister receives a pension, even if he is a Prime Minister for only one day. Judges, top civil servants, senior Service officers get substantial increases. No one is against—certainly I am not—people getting increases if they are merited; but it is only fair to look into the case of these war widows again to see whether there is a way of dealing with this situation. Surely with all the brains in the Government and behind them, with their advisers, there should be some way of getting over this difficult situation which has been going on since 1948.

Regarding the Bill, the first subsection of Clause 1 is clear. In subsection (2), in regard to payment, it is stated: Such pension shall be paid from the National Insurance Fund". That is so for two reasons. The noble Lord who is going to answer me will know that first, because an individual Member of Parliament today may not introduce a Bill the main purpose of which is a money Bill. Should the Government wish to provide pensions from the Consolidated Fund or any other fund, so long as the pensions are paid it is immaterial from my point of view from which source they come. Also, because the defence budget is always being cut it might be easier to take it from some other fund.

Clause 2(1) sets out the category of widows; Clause 3 gives the power to the Secretary of State. Clause 5 gives the Secretary of State power to act by Statutory Instrument on any date he may choose—and I say, the sooner the better. The reason for Clause 5 is that one realises that this may not be the moment when the Government feel they can undertake this extra expenditure; but surely when we have been told day by day that the Government are getting over difficulties and that we are in for a millennium in the future, these people might have their share. This is why the date is left open and I hope that when the noble Lord comes to reply he will be able to give me not just a sympathetic answer but a positive answer "yes", not a positive answer "no", and that we will be able to help some of these people who are really in need. My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a—(Baroness Vickers.)

6.12 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing this Bill. I have listened with interest and sympathy to all that she had to say. In the debate on the subject of war widows which was initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, on the 14th April last year, I said that I supported the principle of parity for war widows' pensions and would continue to press for its establishment at the earliest possible date, bearing in mind the present economic situation; so I welcome this Bill, which has precisely that aim in view.

Of course, I am aware that the Government have raised the war widows' pension paid by the Department of Health and Social Security in order that it may keep pace with inflation. They have maintained it at approximately 30 per cent. above the National Insurance social security level, and today for a private soldier's widow it stands at £19.80 per week, with additional allowances at age 65 and age 70. I am also equally aware of the anomalies in this field of war widows' pensions. We know that many thousands of the pre-1950 war widows, and of the 1950–73 war widows as well, need to have recourse to supplementary benefit. We know of the differences and anomalies as between the pre-1950 widows, the 1950/73 widows and the post-1973 widows.

I think there would be little opposition in this House to two propositions: first that the level—30 per cent. above the social security level—of the war widows' pension paid by the Department of Health and Social Security, and which is the only pension which many receive, is not enough. This is not a criticism particularly of this Government but of success ive Governments, of Parliament and of society generally. The second proposition is this: that it is not acceptable that war widows should receive in total Government funds pensions of widely differing amounts according to when they were widowed.

The forces family pension scheme introduced in 1972 and at that time made retrospective to 1950, and the revised and improved 1973 scheme, are paid and administered by the Ministry of Defence. It may not be reasonable to expect that those schemes should be made retrospective, but the Bill provides for the equivalent or supplementary pension required for pre-1950 and pre-1973 widows respectively to be paid from the National Insurance fund by the Department of Health and Social Security, presumably along with the basic war widows' pension available to all. Thus, a pre-1973 war widow would receive from the Department of Health and Social Security to add to the basic war widows' pension paid by that Department and to the pension under the family pension scheme, if she were entitled to a pension from that scheme, an amount to ensure that her total pension equalled that currently being received by the widow of a Serviceman of equal rank who retired on 1st April 1973. Such a person has her Ministry of Defence pension increased in line with the cost of living, so that it is more or less the same as the pension received by all those subsequently widowed whose husbands were of similar rank.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, has already said, in the debate on 14th April last year it was stated that the cost of giving parity to war widows would amount to £100 million, although, as she also indicated, the cost must get less as each year passes. It was pointed out that it would be necessary to include war disablement pensioners as well. It would be difficult to have different rates of pension for them if you got rid of different rates of pension for war widows. It was stated that that would bring the cost to £250 million. The Bill does not include the war disablement pensioners, and perhaps if it were passed the Government would feel obliged to introduce further legislation to do the same for them. One hundred million pounds or £250 million are not enormous sums these days, but we all know that in present circumstances the Govern ment would understandably argue against any further expenditure; but the provisions in the Bill would not come into force until the Secretary of State so decided. If the Bill were passed into law, there would not necessarily be any immediate expense, but the principle of priority would have been established, and for that reason I hope the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

6.18 p.m.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I, too, should like to congratulate my noble friend Lady Vickers on introducing this evening this short but important Bill and to support it. I do so not only after listening to her speech but to the very constructive one from the noble Lord, Lord Banks. I come relatively new to this subject, but of course I have read with great interest what the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, said in another place in 1972 and reread the debate which took place in another place in May of this year. Looking at the situation as a whole, it seems to be quite extraordinary that widows of Servicemen should fall into these three distinct categories, their pension depending entirely on the date on which their husband either retired or died. It must be something quite different from any other form of pension scheme anywhere, and I think it must be unintelligible and unkind to the widows involved.

I do not wish to repeat the arguments for supporting this short Bill which have been so well set out, except to endorse very warmly the last point made by the noble Lord, Lord Banks, which seems to me to commend this Bill to the House. It does not commit any immediate expenditure of money, but it establishes a principle of parity. On rereading all the debates, it seems to me that there is no difference between the political Parties on this matter, in the sense that everybody wishes to do something for the widow. Everybody seems to have been unable to do anything for her and of course, the real sufferers are the widows, particularly the most elderly, whose plight is referred to at regular intervals but for whom nothing is done. I should like to look at the arguments which have been adduced from time to time against doing anything, leaving aside the economic argument which I think is quite a different one.

So far as I can ascertain on rereading the arguments put out by Government Ministers of both Parties, we are never sure of the total number of widows of those Servicemen who retired below the rank of warrant officer before 1950. So far as I can see the latest figures were given by the late Sir Peter Kirk on 2nd August 1972 when he estimated that there were 30,000 widows involved. This figure was again quoted on 3rd May 1976 by the Minister, the present Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Duffy, who said it was not a reliable figure.

I find it quite extraordinary that although we collect information on so many subjects—even collecting information from a census, apart from anything else—that we cannot get accurate figures for the numbers of widows who fall into this category. I find it a very depressing sidelight on the whole of our Welfare State that we should be unable to get accurate figures on the matter so that we are unable to have an accurate costing. I should think that this would be a matter which should be looked at urgently. I can quite understand that the total number of widows of Servicemen who retired before 1950 could well be rising, because that particular group would be getting older and therefore there would be more widows; but ultimately it must be a diminishing number and therefore it should be possible to calculate the final cost.

The second reason which is always put forward for not doing anything at all for war widows is that it would create a precedent and that if we looked at these groups of widows, particularly the pre-1950 group, we should have to look immediately at the widows of teachers and local government officers and of many other groups. I think we can make out a very good case for looking at the widows of all those groups, but we are not concerned with them at the moment. The inequity arises also because widows above a certain rank get something and widows below it do not. Whether or not that is right for widows of teachers or local government officers, by no stretch of imagination can it be right for widows of Service people; and I find it quite wrong to go on quoting other examples to show why this cannot be done. We were always told that nothing could be done for the over-80s, but eventually it was possible to bring in a special pension for them. I believe that if there was a will to do so, it would be possible to find a solution in this case. That is why I hope this Bill will get a Second Reading, because its principle will then have been established.

The last reason which is always given, so far as I can see, as a sop to everybody's conscience is that widows of Servicemen, post-1973, are vastly better off. Of course, we are delighted that they are better off; so they should be. Nobody is going to detract in any way from anything that has been done for widows of recently serving men but, if I may say so, that is, in a sense, irrelevant to the argument. We are not trying to establish that they should be better off still; we are simply trying to establish that other widows who are not well off should be as well off as those widows are today. That is the argument, so I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, replies he will not tell us that we should all be very pleased with ourselves and give ourselves a pat on the back because post-1973 widows are all right. We know that and we are pleased about it, but we are not concerned about them for the moment: we are concerned about the others. I sensed, in a way, when my noble friend Lady Vickers read out the correspondence between my honourable friend Mr. Goodhart and the Prime Minister, if I understood her correctly, that he, too, was using the argument, not that we need not concern ourselves with the others, but that we should be pleased that things are better for present-day widows.

I believe that argument to be quite irrelevant to the case and one which simply confuses the issue, because if it is going to be used as an argument we might just as well say to those elderly widows —many of them now living in very uncomfortable and unhappy circumstances "We are not going to do anything for you at all; you might as well make up your minds to the fact that until the day you die nothing is going to happen, because the three arguments that are constantly used can be argued about into the indefinite future. There is not a definite date on it. The only argument by which there could be a change is the economic one, if things get better".

I believe this to be a very serious matter, and I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Vickers raised it today. It has my warmest support, and I hope we can establish the principle that elderly people who have been, I believe, unjustly treated in the past should know that Parliament has determined that at a given date in the future they will get a better deal.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down—she is in such an important position in our Party—may I ask whether she will then argue for this to be put into the Conservative Manifesto for the next General Election? I am sure she will agree with me—and I have myself done quite a lot over the years in matters of this kind—that it takes very many years, as we know from the problem with the over-80s, before the battle is won. Therefore, can we have an assurance that she will ensure that the matters that require attention are embodied in the Conservative Manifesto for the next General Election?

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I am always enormously flattered that my noble friend should think that I have only to say the word and anything would get into the Conservative Party's Manifesto. Alas! that is not the case, my Lords, much as I should like it to be. What I can say is that, as a matter of principle from all that I have said, we should establish that there ought to be equality of treatment. Having established that, when the economic circumstances are right, we could fulfil our pledge. I think that would be an important step forward.

6.27 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Vickers for the opportunity given to us in this Bill to debate Service widow's pensions today. Service pensions of all sorts have grown up piecemeal over the years and there are now very many different groups and varying schemes. These schemes need our constant attention in order to try to reduce the many anomalies and inequalities caused by this situation. That is exactly what this Bill sets out do do. The time has come to tidy up Service widows' pension schemes by levelling the whole scheme step by step until eventually parity or equality is reached.

For the most part, Service pensions arc governed by two principles: the first is based on service and not on contributions—that is to say, seniority, age and length of service of the individual when he retires. That principle is well understood and conforms with normal pension practice, whereby an individual's pension corresponds in proportion to his final rates of pay before he retires. The second principle of Service pensions consists of a series of artificial date barriers or cut-off dates, when the improved conditions and pay and pensions are announced—but only those serving on or after the selected date are eligible. That, of course, also applies to the widows' pensions. That not only causes misunderstanding and anxiety, but the older and earlier pensioners tend to fall behind, although in their day they and their husbands have given identical service.

As I have said, Service pensions are given for service and as increases are made to other pensions to cope with the rising cost of living, these pensioners fall behind. I think these cut-off dates are totally wrong, because prices in the supermarkets are high, and whether or not your husband retires after a certain date is immaterial. For those reasons I strongly support the principle of parity, as indeed do other speakers in this debate. I realise this has been debated many times and that many problems are involved. My noble friend Lady Young has outlined some of them. Nevertheless, these problems and difficulties must be overcome and we can no longer go on accepting excuses for doing nothing.

For these reasons, I prefer to see parity achieved not in one step, as this Bill proposes, but by a levelling forward process, step by step, until full pension parity is achieved. Also for this reason, I should prefer to see the Bill gain the Statute Book and then see results step by step, as we can afford to level forward. If parity was achieved and the jungle of varying scales, regulations and cut-off dates, which affect Service pensions, was finally ironed out of the system altogether, I cannot help wondering what would be the saving in civilian staff who deal with pensions. I believe that it would be enormous.

In my opinion, the most important proposal in this Bill is that pre-1950 service should count towards widows' pension, regardless of rank. At this point, I must say that I am probably the only person taking part in this debate who has a Service pension. But I am lucky, because I retired after 1st September 1973, and therefore am not personally affected by any arguments that I am putting forward—and I should like to discuss the husband's pension as well as the widow's pension—so that my motives, as your Lordships will appreciate, are not affected by that.

I did not think that I should find it necessary to remind noble Lords on the Front Bench opposite of the importance of social justice, but that is exactly what I intend to try to do now. How can you justify a pension scheme which allows pre-1950 service to count towards the pension of a widow whose husband was an officer or warrant officer class I, when the same service is not allowed to count at all if that husband was a warrant officer class II or below? The niceties of these regulations, and perhaps even the principles of these regulations, may be understood in the dusty corridors of the Treasury. But how can any responsible person or official explain such a crazy regulation to the unlucky widow, in any satisfactory manner or with any conviction?

To take the very worst case—and it is a hypothetical one—what can be the thoughts of two widows, one the widow of a warrant officer class I, the other the widow of a warrant officer class II, whose husbands both served in the same regiment and retired before 1st September 1950? What are their thoughts when they go shopping together in the supermarket, or buy clothes, because the disparity between their pensions is quite enormous and yet the disparity in their ranks is marginal.

This has often been debated over the years in another place; in particular, in the House of Commons on 2nd August 1972, the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, initiated an interesting debate on this very point. It is, in my view, a matter of urgency to put right this stupid and unkind anomaly, and if this Bill achieves nothing else I hope it will achieve that. But I think that it is illogical to allow pre-1950 service to count towards a widow's pension, and not allow the same thing to happen to the husband who is living and has, after all, earned it. I realise that if that principle is accepted, the process of levelling forward may become more expensive and slower. But, nevertheless, I think that it is logical and we have to accept that fact. I hope, therefore, that this Bill will be given a Second Reading, and that the Minister who is to reply to this debate will assure us that the Government's aim and policy are to achieve equality of pensions, and that this will be done by levelling pension forward step by step, until parity is reached. I further hope that, as a first step in this levelling process, pre-1950 service will count towards the pensions of all ranks and not only those of the more senior ranks in the Services.

6.35 p.m.


My Lords, may I say at once to the noble Baroness. Lady Vickers, and to those Members of your Lordships' House who have spoken in support of this Bill. that the Government fully recognise the strength of feeling in this House, and indeed in another place, about the pre-1950 widows who are clearly at the heart of what is proposed to be done. The noble Baroness, however, spoke about crocodile tears from Ministers. She will get no crocodile tears from me, but I hope that she will get a reasoned argument which will help her to understand the problems that face any Government of whatever political complexion.

This Government—and, indeed, the previous Government —share the very widespread sympathy which has been expressed over many years for these ladies. We accept that an inequity of treatment resulted from the rules which existed up to a quarter of a century ago. If, today, we were constructing an occupational pension scheme for any group of employees, it would be quite unthinkable to include a rule that no one below a certain rank or grade could possess a contingent entitlement to a pension for his widow.

At this point, I should like to clarify a small semantic point in our discussion. This Bill relates to Service widows. and the definition of a Service widow is a widow of a Regular officer or Serviceman who is eligible for pension from the Armed Forces Pension Scheme. which is, in fact, an occupational pension scheme. The war widows, about whom the noble Lord, Lord Banks, talked, are those ladies whose husbands, whether Regular Servicemen or not, have been killed in the course of duty. They receive pensions from the Department of Health and Social Security, regardless of the length of their husbands' service. I hope that noble Lords will keep in mind this distinction between the occupational scheme and the scheme which covers the needs of war widows.

In the case of the Services, this disparity in provision was amended when, with effect from 1st September 1950, the new Armed Forces Pension Scheme prescribed—among several other improvements—that all ranks could earn a widow's pension if they gave long enough service. That is clearly an occupational pension scheme. Even then, there was something of rank distinction among non-commissioned officers and men: for corporals and below, the minimum period for qualification was 32 years; for sergeants it was 27 years. That was put right a few years later, when all non-commissioned ranks became pensionable at 22 years.

To put this development in perspective, it might be worth remembering that the widows of officers first received pensions in 1707, and the widows of warrant officers Class I received pension in 1881. That explains the situation described by the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, of the WO1's widow and the WO2's widow shopping side by side. We are talking about the historical development of pensions for the Armed Forces. It may not be just, but it is fact.

So the year 1950 marked, in this respect, a significant improvement, but—as this Bill reminds us yet again—there are many Servicemen's widows still alive, whose husbands died or were discharged before the new pension scheme came into operation. We do not know how many there are now, or how many more there will be. Our records do not show how many men in 1950 had died or had been discharged without this contingent entitlement. Nor do we know how many of them have since passed away and how many remain, and whether they had been married while still serving.

Some years ago, an assumption was made—and it was no more than that—on the best information available, that there were about 30,000 such widows. In subsequently looking at the problem, we have assumed, in the absence of any more realistic figure, that there are still about 30,000; not that this takes us a great deal further, because the basic Armed Forces Pension Scheme, like most occupational pension schemes, relates to the husband's rank and length of service.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but before lie leaves the point about figures can he tell the House whether or not his Department is taking any steps to get a more realistic figure, so that we may all know precisely the number of widows that we are talking about? Perhaps the noble Lord could write to me.


My Lords, I was coming on to that point. This figure does not take us a great deal further, because the basic Armed Forces pension scheme, like most occupational pension schemes, relates to the husband's rank and length of service, but the numbers clearly are likely to prove considerable and the cost of now paying pensions on the basis proposed would therefore be significant.

May I now try to answer the question asked by the noble Baroness. If something were to be done for these widows, it would be a matter of advertising and inviting them to make themselves known. So the answer is that the number could be found out, if such a decision were made. It is not a mystery. The number could be found out by advertising, although that would in no way ensure that all widows had been reached. Some, no doubt, are now resident abroad. Nevertheless, despite the administrative difficulties which could be foreseen, various possibilities have been examined from time to time, and in great depth, to see whether anything at all could be done towards amending the inequity which so obviously exists without creating further anomalies —this is an important point—and without creating a sense of unfairness among other groups of former public servants and their widows. Reluctantly but inevitably, the conclusion has been reached with every investigation that the obstacles have been insuperable.

It must be recognised that in the pre-1950 years the concept of pensions for the widows of officers and certain warrant officers was in advance of its time. There were no such arrangements for the widows of civil servants, local government officials, teachers and other public servants. Junior ranks of the Armed Forces were on a par with all these in this respect and all, at about the same time, began to qualify under the new provision being made for widows' pensions. Thus, the previously existing inequity was not solely between Service officers and Servicemen; it was also between Service officers on the one hand and, on the other hand, Servicemen and all grades from the top to the bottom of the civilian public services. Therefore, any move now to give pre-1950 Servicemen's widows some form of pension would logically—and I am certain that both noble Baronesses are logical people—have to be accompanied by similar concessions to all public service widows. This in turn would make the whole proposition very much more expensive.

But I have yet to refer to the fact that the terms of the Bill we are speaking about go a long way beyond giving to these pre-1950 non-commissioned ranks' widows pensions on the same basis as those received by pre-1950 officers' widows. It seeks to give parity for these widows with the widows of a much more recent period and linked to the very significant effective date of 1st April 1973. This is a very different thing from remedying an inequity; it proposes to give these widows an advantage which it makes no attempt to extend to pre-1950 officers' widows. We are now speaking in this Bill purely of NCOs and other ranks, not of officers.

In its second clause, the Bill goes still further and offers to non-commissioned ranks' widows of the period between 1950 and 1973 the same degree of parity. This is a group on whose behalf there can be no justifiable complaint about their having been treated in principle less favourably than officers' widows of the same period. It is true, as I have already said, that there were certain improvements after 1950 which brought periods of qualifying service more closely into line, but one is forced to the conclusion that this second clause is a consequential of the overgenerous provision proposed to be made in the previous clause and could not in any way stand on its own merits. Again it propounds a degree of additional benefit for non-commissioned ranks' widows without indicating a correspond ing supplement for the widows of officers.

I referred to the date for which parity is sought—1st April 1973—as being very significant. On that date was introduced a package of improvements to the Armed Forces Pensions Scheme. Among the improvements was something quite new: the provision of greatly enhanced benefits when the disablement or death of a member of the Armed Forces is attributable to service. It is therefore the intention of the noble Baroness's Bill to extend these more generous arrangements to all non-commissioned ranks' widows, but not to those of officers, if their husbands were killed while on duty at any time in the past.

This brings me to yet another consequential of any change in the long-established principle, of which your Lordships are well aware, that improvements in occupational pension schemes are not applied to those, or to the widows of those, whose service has already terminated. It would be manifestly impossible to accord the kind of parity which the Bill proposes to Servicemen's widows without giving similar parity in disablement pensions. It would no doubt be argued that this would be a good thing, save for the prohibitive cost, and I think it has been argued today. I am bound to add that once the principle of non-retrospection has been breached in any respect—and the intention of the Bill is to breach it subsubstantially—there is virtually no defence against further inroads by other groups from the public sector. An obvious target would be to extend the parity of the arrangements now proposed to a current date; this is, in fact, what most of the many suggestions which are made aim at from the start, for there is little logic in settling upon 1st April 1973 other than to embrace the pensions improvements which then came in. If I correctly understood the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, he was trying to avoid this problem. He was trying to avoid the principle of non-retrospection by jogging forward rather than by jogging backward. May I ask the noble Earl whether I am right about that?


My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right.


My Lords, this is an important point which I think could well be considered. Now I turn to the suggestion that the proposed benefits should be paid out of the National Insurance Fund. I should like first to remind noble Lords of the origin and purpose of that Fund. It was set up under the National Insurance Act 1946 to receive the contributions payable by employers and insured persons, and to meet the costs of paying National Insurance benefits. There have been many changes since then and the Fund now operates under the Social Security Act 1975; but the purpose is still essentially the same. It really would be altogether inappropriate to finance Servicemen's occupational pensions out of it.

All benefits under the 1946 Act were payable out of the Fund, but some benefits under the 1975 Act are not. Those which are not payable from the Fund are the non-contributory benefits, such as attendance allowance and mobility allowance. Parliament generally, as well as noble Lords, I believe, on both sides of the House, have long recognised that the National Insurance Fund exists to provide insurance benefit to the whole working population.

This Bill is designed to benefit certain widows of Servicemen. All benefits presently payable out of the National Insurance Fund are available to contributors, or their dependants, when the appropriate contingency occurs, if they are part of the insured population, and distinctions are not drawn between differing occupations. It would be unfair to contributors as a whole to use the National Insurance Fund for the benefit of one particular occupational group. National insurance widows' benefits are already available to the widows of retired Servicemen on the same terms as to widows of other contributors.

The widows of men who died during or as a result of service in the 1914–18 war and during or as a result of service since 1939 may receive war pensions. These recognise the unusual risks of active service, and also the fact that the industrial injuries benefits are not available to Servicemen and their dependants. In keeping with the principles I have outlined, these war pensions are not paid from the National Insurance Fund but from funds voted by Parliament. So I have explained why, on grounds both of principle and of cost, we are regrettably unable to put right what has been recognised as an anomaly, affecting not only the widows of certain Servicemen but also the widows of former public servants.

I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, will feel that her purpose will have been served by drawing the Government's attention to these widows and that no further purpose would be served by proceeding with her Bill. However, I can assure her that we shall not vote against her Bill on Second Reading.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for his reply. So far as I can make out, it is a rather Alice in Wonderland situation. Obviously I cannot be very satisfied with the noble Lord's reply, but I am grateful to him for saying that the Government do not intend to vote against the Bill on Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.