Dr Julian Lewis: This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of contributing to a debate under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. It is nearly 25 years since we first encountered one another in the dark recesses of the London borough of Newham, and we may now be in the last few days of the present Parliament.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly) on securing the debate and on her thoughtful and compassionate speech. She touched on the serious problem of post-traumatic stress disorder, which afflicts people who are paying the price of their past war service. I want to discuss what happens to those people and their dependants once they have retired. The Officers Pensions Society campaigns not only for the pensions of retired officers, but for those of their widows after they have passed away. For many years, the society has drawn attention to several anomalies that affect situations relating to such pensions. I shall refer to three of those anomalies.
My first example concerns post-retirement marriages, whereby servicemen marry after they have retired from the fighting arm in which they served. Widows of servicemen who retired before 1978, but who married them subsequently, receive no pension whatsoever. If their late husband retired after 1978, but they married him only after that retirement, they receive a service widows pension only for the years since 1978. The serviceman will be considered to have made the same contribution throughout the period of his service as that of a fellow serviceman who happened to be married during that time, yet, whereas the widow of the latter will get the benefit of a service pension, the widow of the former will not. That is unjust.
The second concern raised by the society relates to servicemen who retired before 1973 and who were not given the option to buy in their earlier service for the half-rate widows pensions. That means that their eventual widows – widows who were married to their late husbands during the period of their service – get only the one- third rate. The widow of the man who retired in March 1973 is condemned to a third- rate widows pension for life, whereas the man who retired in April 1973 after making exactly the same contribution is given the option to buy in earlier service for the half-rate for his wife for the time she outlives him.
Thirdly, there has recently been a surge of publicity relating to the very different pensions that servicemen receive on an arbitrary basis according to the situation that obtained on the date on which they retired. It seems monumentally unjust that servicemen should have such differential pension entitlements according to an arbitrary date. To give an example cited by the Society, a major who retired in 1977 receives £4,269 per annum less than an exactly comparable major who retired two years earlier in 1975. In fact, he receives less than all those who retired right back to 1964.
When he sums up, I hope that the Minister will make every attempt to deal with my concerns and those of the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly) and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) who is about to speak. I hope that the Minister will urge his Department, during the current consultation phase of the pension and compensation reviews, to look closely at the shortcomings in the armed forces pension scheme, which affect everyone who served on pensionable terms. The Minister will be aware of how vigorously in recent months the Officers Pensions Society and many of its members have pressed for the consideration of injustices in the present scheme. The injustices bear most heavily on the widows of our servicemen – widows who followed the flag and showed as much loyalty as their husbands but now find that the arbitrary date of their husband's retirement may have a permanent and perpetually damaging effect on their own subsequent pension.
The recommendations of the pension and compensation reviews go some way to ensure that such anomalies do not occur in future, but that is of little comfort to those who are disadvantaged by the present scheme. Given the frequent declarations by Ministers that our service personnel are unique in their commitment to the nation, I urge the Minister to keep in mind that those who have served previously were unique in their era of service and should be looked after as well as those who are serving now and those who will do so in future.
I turn to the activities of some local authorities in relation to pensions for war veterans and war widows, and the (for once) beneficial work of the broadcast media – in particular, the BBC programme "Money Box". By chance, I heard that programme on Radio 4 on 7 April, when it reported that war pensioners in the Labour-controlled borough of Harrow were about to lose, on average, almost £1,700 a year each. That was owing to the fact that the council, which like the overwhelming majority of other councils in England and Wales takes no account of war pensions when working out entitlements to help with rent and council tax, was thinking of ceasing to disregard the two types of pensions that some of their residents received: the war widows pension and the war disablement pension. The grand total of 53 war widows and pensioners in the borough were affected.
The programme went into some detail on the matter and interviewed, as a typical example, a widow called Dorothy. She said that she felt angry because
"the people sitting behind the desks probably were not even born during the war"
and continued by saying that they had no conception of the struggle that she and her late husband had undergone. She pointed out that, when her husband was transferred from the Somerset Light Infantry to the Black Watch, and sent to Italy to be killed in action in 1944,
"I got just a little bit of paper saying we regret to inform you your husband was killed on 9 July."
She added that she had been on her own ever since. Her daughter had died the previous year and it was being proposed to add almost £1,700 to her personal expenses.
At the time, Harrow Council said that it had no choice. The deputy leader, Mr Keith Toms, was interviewed on the programme. He had twice voted to cut the benefits paid to Dorothy and the other 52 war widows and war disabled pensioners. He said:
"It's not an economy that we look at with a great deal of pleasure, but on the other hand when you come to consider that there are 53 people who are in receipt of £88,000, then, you know, this might mean that we can employ four school teachers or four social workers, so we really have had to look at the budget very hard this time."
As the presenter pointed out, the council was picking on one of the most deserving and poorest groups in the entire community. I am sure that it was as a result of the publicity generated by the programme that the council retreated on the matter a fortnight later. The Sunday Times had reported on 8 April that, although the council was proposing to save less than £90,000 by that dreadful, diabolical step, it had previously approved the spending of £226,000 on laptop computers to enable councillors to work from home and a further £30,000 had been earmarked to pay for a new employee to help to train the councillors in using those computers. That showed a strange sense of priorities. Although Labour-controlled Harrow Council was compelled to retreat on the eve of the election, thanks to media exposure and embarrassment, the danger remains that such practices could be reinstated.
For many years, the Royal British Legion has campaigned for war disablement and war widows pensions to be disregarded because they should be seen not as state benefits but as compensation for the loss of amenity or the death of a husband in the service of our country. Under a previous Conservative Government in 1986, the Secretary of State for Social Services decided, wrongly in my view, to maintain local authorities' discretionary powers on whether to disregard war disablement and war widows pensions. Keith Toms, deputy leader of Harrow Council, made a strange comment during the "Money Box" programme on 7 April:
"We need to get to the stage where I believe it shouldn't be left at the discretion of local authorities, however small that number"
– the number of beneficiaries –
"is. We need to have a national agreement on this."
It was strange that Keith Toms argued that he wished he did not have the power to take the disastrous step that he was about to take and from which he eventually drew back, and it is unfortunate, to put it mildly, that councillors are in a position to inflict suffering on such deserving people. I hope that the Minister will address the matter and consider whether that discretion should not be removed from local authorities so that war disabled people and war widows should not go through the anguish and worry unfairly suffered by those 53 deserving people in Harrow.
Finally, I turn to the distress that is being caused to war veterans by diving to wrecks, which hon. Members in my own party, as well as Liberal Democrats and Labour Members, have highlighted in early-day motions throughout this Session of Parliament. I applaud them for so doing. Friends of War Memorials has pointed out that, since August 1914, just under 300 shipwrecks have been designated as war graves. The Government have powers under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 to designate those wrecks as controlled sites or protected places, but they have not done so. Until the Government invest those wrecks with the necessary protection, which they could provide if they undertook the necessary paperwork, the wrecks will continue to be plundered for souvenirs, causing massive offence and distress to those who regard the wrecks as the graves of loved ones who never came back from fighting to preserve this country's freedom in the first and second world wars.
It seems strange that such an issue should have to be raised at all in such a debate, at the turn of the century. It only goes to show the monumental insensitivity of people who, while professing an interest in history, defile that history and distress veterans and survivors of terrible conflicts. Without those conflicts and sacrifices, today, we would not enjoy our freedoms, and people who engage in such sports would not enjoy the leisure time in which to amuse themselves. They do so carelessly, rather than respecting the graves of those to whom we owe so much.