ARMED FORCES PERSONNEL DEBATE – 1 July 1999

Dr Julian Lewis: The novelist and statesman John Buchan referred in his autobiography, which was published shortly after his death in 1940, to his youngest brother Alastair, who fell at the head of his company of Royal Scots Fusiliers on the first morning of the battle of Arras in the first world war. He said of him:

"I remember that when I occasionally ran across him during the last stages of the battle of the Somme I thought him the only cheerful thing in a grey world ... I wonder if the future historian will realise how much of the strength of the British army was due to the boys of twenty who brought the kindly ardour of youth into the business of war and died before they could lose their freshness."

One of the other young men who died – a little later in his career than young Alastair Buchan – was Flight Lieutenant Samuel Kinkead, who is buried in my constituency. He was killed in 1928 at the age of 31, having previously – in the space of two short years, between the ages of 20 and 22 – won the Distinguished Service Cross twice with the Royal Naval Air Service, then the Distinguished Flying Cross twice with the Royal Air Force and finally, fighting the Bolsheviks in 1919 in Russia, the Distinguished Service Order when he and another pilot, in Sopwith Camels, drove from the field of battle 4,000 Bolshevik cavalrymen. Such stories inspire us. They still inspire people in this cynical day and age – so much so that when the Reverend Gary Philbrick, Mr Brian Lamb of the Calshot Activities Centre in my constituency, where Flight Lieutenant Kinkead was based when he was killed trying to break the world air speed record in 1928, Councillor Alan Rice of Hampshire county council and I decided to commemorate the 70th anniversary of his death, and when we invited the family and told them not to be disappointed if only 40 or 50 people turned up, we should not have worried. Between 300 and 400 people came to celebrate and commemorate the life of this hero – a man who had died 70 years ago. Even as I tell that story, I feel a bit of a thrill of excitement that such a person could have lived and died in such an outstandingly brave fashion.

Both of those two young men died unmarried. But what would have happened to them if they had been more fortunate – if they had lived to complete their military careers and had postponed any question of getting married until after the end of their term of service? Today, that situation confronts many people who fought in the war and who gave great service to this country after the war.

I refer – very briefly, because of lack of time – to a letter published in the Daily Telegraph on 5 April 1999. It was written by a gentleman by the name of I.G. Aubrey-Rees, who stated:

"As a terminally ill recipient of an Armed Forces pension, after serving for 34 years, I believe I am very well cared for by the RAF, but when I die in the next few weeks, my widow and family will not be so fortunate."

That was brought to my attention by Major Tom Spring-Smyth, president of New Forest East Conservative Association, my local association, who wrote:

"since I married after retiring from the army, my pension will die with me and Jennifer" – 

his wife – 

"will get nothing, yet I was fully paid up".

The Officers' Pensions Society has been campaigning on the issue of post-retirement marriages for many years. It got nowhere under Conservative Governments and it is getting nowhere under the Labour Government. Major General Bonnet, general secretary of the Officers' Pensions Society, has written to me and explained that post-retirement marriages occur much more frequently in the armed forces because officers are discouraged from marrying before the age of 25. The age used to be 30. They must retire at 55 – indeed, many are forced to leave earlier – and opportunities for marriage in service are invariably limited by military service abroad.

On 6 April 1978, it was first accepted that the widow of a serviceman who married or remarried after retirement should receive a forces family pension, which is the formal title of a service widow's pension. However, that change of the rules was not applied retrospectively to those who had retired before 1978, and who had subsequently married after retirement. The absurdity of the situation is that those whose plight prompted the change in the armed forces pension scheme are the very widows who are now left permanently disadvantaged. Many of them are the widows of men who served a full military career and fought for the nation during the second world war.

The Government – the previous Government as well as the present one – argue against change because they say that alteration in the rules of the armed forces pension scheme would be bound to read across to the whole of the public service. There will certainly be pressure from other public service groups, but that can easily and legitimately be resisted. The Government recently argued that the armed forces were unique and excluded them, and only them, from the national minimum wage legislation. If the armed forces can be dealt with separately on the minimum wage, they can certainly be dealt with separately on pensions.

For many years, the Officers' Pensions Society has been seeking a full pension for service widows of post-retirement marriages. In late 1997, the society co-ordinated an application on behalf of 22 representative applicants to the European Court of Human Rights on this issue. The Government believe that that application will fail, while the society hopes that it will succeed. Whichever is right, it is a shame that the widows of officers who served this country gallantly and paid into pension schemes should have to resort to the ECHR to try to secure the recompense, reward and right that they should have in respect of their husbands' service, the pension contributions they made and the sacrifices that they also often had to make by delaying their marriages until after their military careers were over.