HCDC INQUIRY – ARMED FORCES COVENANT: WAR WIDOWS & ARMED FORCES CENSUS QUESTION [EXTRACTS] – 19 March 2019
Witnesses: Tobias Elwood, Minister for Defence People and Veterans, and James Greenrod, Interim Head, Service Personnel Support, Ministry of Defence
Q125 Chairman [Dr Julian Lewis]: Tobias, you and the Committee share in common a view that Defence is insufficiently funded, and you indicated in your opening remarks that it should be the first priority of Government and is often so described. Obviously without revealing too much of your negotiating strategy, what funding are you planning to request for the Covenant during the next Spending Review negotiation process?
Tobias Ellwood: With the Spending Review in mind, I have written to the Secretary of State outlining a series of areas where I believe the Defence People portfolio – my portfolio – needs attention. Accommodation is one of them, and the Armed Forces Covenant is another. It would be wrong of me to go into too much detail, but I have made it very clear in the past and I reiterate now that, as I said at the beginning, Defence spending is not just about equipment and operations but about looking after the welfare of our people. I have underlined that we need to invest in better accommodation, better support and better mental health facilities, and in greater support for our veterans communities as well.
Q126 Dr Lewis: In the Armed Forces Covenant annual report, you had a section on priorities for the year ahead. I do not know whether they are in any particular order, but we have picked out about half a dozen of them. One of the bullet points is increased support for those who require special consideration, including war widows and widowers and the wider bereaved community. Can you tell us a bit about the progress on the stand-off with the Treasury, particularly over war widows’ pensions?
Mr Ellwood: This is something that you have raised on a regular basis, and something that the Secretary of State himself has taken on personally. I understand we are still in this waiting period after placing the request with the Treasury and looking forward for a reply. I know you raised this recently –
Dr Lewis: Regularly.
Mr Ellwood: Yes, regularly, but I remember you raised it on the Floor of the House again quite recently. It is good that you do so to keep this issue alive, but the request has gone across to the Treasury and we are in their hands.
Q127 Dr Lewis: What exactly do you think the problem is with the Treasury? Is it some aspect to do with retrospection?
Mr Ellwood: There is possibly that. There are also definitions that are being considered. I understand that if you honour this request – this commitment – other groups might then come forward requesting similar forms of compensation.
Dr Lewis: James, you look as if you want to add something.
James Greenrod: Thank you, Chair. It is really just to support what the Minister is saying. I think we all recognise that the current position is not ideal. The concern and the focus of the conversations that are still ongoing with the Treasury and the Cabinet Office is the issue of precedent. It is a complex issue, on which we need to get a very clear legal perspective.
Q128 Dr Lewis: For the sake of people watching who do not know the background, let me just set it out. Correct me if I say anything wrong. David Cameron thought he had solved this problem, which had arisen from the fact that people who lost their spouse would receive a widow’s pension, but on cohabitation or remarriage they would lose it permanently. David Cameron thought he had dealt with this matter, but there is a group of between 200 and 300 war widows who are in the position that their pensions have not been restored because they remarried. If they were now to get divorced from their second husbands – in nearly every case – the pension would be restored to them, and if they were then to remarry, either to someone else or to the husband they had just divorced, it would not be taken away. We are in this daft and perverse situation where it is worth several thousand pounds a year to someone who has already sacrificed so much to go through a mock, sham process – however you want to describe it – of divorce and remarriage to get that pension restored. That is not only outrageous but insulting. It is not even about the money; the war widows who have corresponded directly with members of this Committee have explained that it is much more to do with recognition for their sacrifice. Can we take it that, as far as the MoD is concerned, you are all 100% in favour of sorting out this anomaly for these 200 to 300 people?
Mr Ellwood: You summarise the daftness of the situation perfectly. The idea that we should prompt people to get divorced and then remarry in order to secure what is rightfully theirs is strange, but we have ended up in this situation. However, it is not in the MoD’s gift, much though we support this; it is for the Treasury to make that judgment, and we still await their reply.
Q129 Dr Lewis: Finally from me, although I know Mark wants to come in at this point, can you confirm whether there is anything behind the story that I believe was in the Daily Express newspaper, which said that the Prime Minister herself has told the Treasury that they need to sort this matter out? Are you aware of that at all?
Mr Ellwood: I am not aware of that, and I think it would be wrong to speculate. Much as you may approve of what has been written, we have to wait for the outcome from the Treasury.
Dr Lewis: That is all very helpful.
Q130 Mark Francois: What exactly did you as the Ministry of Defence ask the Treasury to do?
Mr Ellwood: If you like, we can give you copies of the letters I wrote myself. The Secretary of State has written to the Treasury, making out the case for war widows’ pensions. As I said, we are still waiting. I am sorry it has taken so long to get this resolved or even to get a reply.
Dr Lewis: We would love to have copies of those letters.
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Q142 Madeleine Moon: ... What are you planning to do to mitigate the security implications of the census question on veterans and self-identifying? At the local level, MPs certainly get quite a lot of questions and anxiety about that. How are we going to provide some protection there?
James Greenrod: We recognise completely the validity of the concern. The MoD has commissioned a review of the data collection process for the 2021 census, in order to understand whether there are any security risks, and if so what the appropriate mitigations for those would be. Again, it is a work in progress, but we recognise that there is a valid concern. We want to have the data, because we want to improve the service. It is hard to do that unless you have the data. We recognise that there is a balance to be struck in terms of security concerns.
Q143 Mrs Moon: When will you have resolved this?
James Greenrod: That is a very good question, which I will follow up later – but obviously before the 2021 census.
Q144 Mrs Moon: Right, so you are going to follow up by sending more information to the Committee or when you have more information to provide?
James Greenrod: If I do not have the information in the next hour, I will follow up in writing to the Committee.
Mrs Moon: That is a very generous offer.
Q145 Dr Lewis: Madeleine, I know that you have another question to follow, but I would just like to come in on this point. I have been worried for a long time about this campaign by the Royal British Legion – for the best of motives – to include a question on the census, which when people fill in their household details will indicate whether someone has served in the Armed Forces. In an era of terrorism, that sort of data could be a gift to people who mean harm to members of our Armed Forces. I have had conversations about this in private and there has been little progress, so I think it is time that we pressed it a little more in public. Let us assume that this goes through and there is a question on the census that effectively identifies the home addresses of present or former members of the Armed Forces. Suppose you are a present or former member of the Armed Forces, but you do not wish to reveal that, will you have to fill this question in on compulsory basis, or can you decide to do so on a voluntary basis?
James Greenrod: To respond partially, to be very clear, there will not be a question for currently serving personnel.
Q146 Dr Lewis: Right, so it is only about veterans.
James Greenrod: It is only about veterans, and my understanding, which we will confirm, is that they can elect not to confirm one way or the other.
Q147 Dr Lewis: I think that would be a bare minimum, because we have had all sorts of examples in the past of supposedly confidential information in digitised form ending up on disks that get lost.
Mr Ellwood: You raise an important point, but I want to speak rather passionately about this. We need to be proud of our veterans – of who we are and what we have done for this country. I do not want to put anybody in any danger, but when we start talking about a hesitance, so that we forget our heritage and past by avoiding ticking a box, because we are worried that saying that we are a veteran might get us into trouble, we need to stand up, be proud and collectively say,
“Absolutely, we are British, we have served in the Armed Forces and we are proud of it.”
We should not want anybody to hesitate to tick that box or to wear the badge that says, “I am a veteran.” Let us stand up, make a mark and be proud of our service.
Dr Lewis: Tobias, I am as proud as anybody of that, but when I go to the Ministry of Defence, I am checked, quite properly, before I enter the building, to ensure that I do not mean to do any harm to the people within it. The idea that there could be some shortcut that would enable terrorists to send noxious substances or even harmless white powder in envelopes to people’s home addresses, because they know that there are veterans of the Armed Forces living at those addresses, recalls the debate we had some nine or 10 years ago relating to the home addresses of Members of Parliament. Parliament decided, quite sensibly, that it was not a good idea to put home addresses of MPs in the public domain. I think that what is good enough for us should be good enough for them. I wholly endorse what you said about how proud we should be of having served in the Armed Forces. Anyway, I hope that the point has been sufficiently made and will be taken away and discussed with the people who are so keen to do this.