Dr Julian Lewis: In view of the unexpected extra performance by the Prime Minister this afternoon, I shall endeavour to confine my contribution to this debate to one specific area, but let me begin by putting on the record the delight of members of the Defence Committee at the success of one of our members, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), in being elected president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. That is not only a feather in the United Kingdom’s cap, but a well-deserved recognition of the hon. Lady’s many years of dedicated support for the cause of defence in general and NATO in particular. We are absolutely delighted for her.
I wish also to record my thanks to another member of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), who is not here this afternoon but who was here last Thursday, deputising for me. He made an admirably comprehensive speech, in which he touched on the issue I will speak to today: the plight of 200 to 300 war widows who lost their war widow’s pension on remarriage or cohabitation and who have not had it restored. I had not imagined that, only seven days after having to miss that debate, I would have the opportunity in this debate on the armed forces covenant report to make amends. Clearly, there is a high degree of interest in the armed forces in the Government, or perhaps their attention is somewhat distracted by Brexit concerns; either way, we must make the most of the opportunities.
I mentioned how fortunate I am in the calibre of members of the Defence Committee; it is worth pointing out also that we as a country are fortunate in the calibre of our defence ministerial team. They are a strong team. We have a Secretary of State who, although new to the subject, has shown himself not only willing and ready to listen to those who have been acquainted with it for many years, but also determined – if one can persuade him of the rightness of an issue – to go out there and fight to put a new policy into practice. That is especially true in relation to the inadequate defence budget. I hope he will redouble his efforts to rectify that woeful situation.
We are also fortunate in our two Ministers in the Commons and our representation in the House of Lords, but I do not envy – I suspect no one would – the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for the sheer range and complexity of the matters with which he has to deal, although there is no doubt that he has mastered his brief. When we compare the distribution of ministerial office in the Ministry of Defence with other Departments of similar prestige, I do not understand why we have only one Minister of State. Personally, I think it would be good if the Veterans Minister were to be redesignated to Minister of State level, not only because of the obvious ability of the present occupant, but because of the strong message it would send to the veterans community about the importance and the status of their concerns.
Bob Stewart: May I wholeheartedly endorse that comment? The Minister currently on the Treasury Bench, who opened the debate, would make a superb Minister of State.
Dr Lewis: And so say all of us. I hope the Whips are listening and act accordingly – [Interruption.] Even at this moment, I see messages being passed urgently. Could this be some good news? I would happily give way if it is.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Lindsay Hoyle): Another resignation?
Dr Lewis: Heaven forbid.
Other matters deserved equal attention today. We have heard about the legal hounding of Northern Ireland veterans and other veterans of different campaigns; that is an ongoing matter. Also, at some point it would be right for the House to consider the Home Office’s failure to allocate sufficient British passports to veterans of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps and the Royal Navy. That injustice needs to be rectified. However, as I said, in the time available to me today I will concentrate on war widows, and I will do so slightly unusually – in their own words.
First, I remind the House of the terms of the covenant itself, which the Minister read out. The words relevant to my remarks are the following:
“the whole nation has a moral obligation to the members of the Naval Service, the Army and the Royal Air Force, together with their families… Special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most, such as the injured and the bereaved.”
Back in May, I had the pleasure of meeting Judith Thompson, the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors. We discussed the plight of 200 to 300 war widows who lost their war widow’s pension and did not have it reinstated when others were more fortunate.
I see the hon. Member for Bridgend has just taken her place. Sadly, she missed the tribute paid to her achievement in becoming president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, but she is here to hear me reiterate it. I hope she will contribute to the debate.
Mrs Madeleine Moon indicated assent.
Dr Lewis: I am glad to see that she will – very good. We look forward to that.
Very recently – it arrived a few days before last week’s debate, which is why I was so anxious that the matter be flagged up – Judith sent me something I had asked for in the course of our conversation: a concise summary of the situation and some personal recollections and reflections by individual war widows. I intend to put those on the record today.
First, the summary. This is how the commissioner spells out the situation:
“If your spouse died or left Military or War Service before 31 March 1973 and you also receive the War Pension Scheme Supplementary Pension you keep your War Widow’s Pension for life. If you were widowed after 5 April 2005 and receive Survivors Guaranteed Income Payment from the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme you keep your War Widow’s Pension for life.
From 1st April 2015 if your spouse died, left Military or War Service after 31 March 1973 and before 5 April 2005 and you were in receipt of a War Widow’s Pension on that 1st April 2015, you keep your War Widow’s Pension for life. However, if your spouse died or left Military or War Service after 31 March 1973 and before 5 April 2005, and you remarried or co-habited you were required to surrender your War Pension or Compensation; to date this group do not receive their War Pension or compensation.”
There is an anomaly, which is that if a person who was unlucky enough to fall outside the appropriate date range were now to divorce their other half, their husband or wife, the pension would be reinstated, and if they were then to remarry the very same person, the pension would not be taken away. That is, frankly, bonkers. It is basically creating a perverse incentive on people who, by definition, have already suffered trauma and tragedy to part from the person with whom they have found renewed happiness and go through a charade of this sort if they wish to have the pension permanently reinstated.
Gavin Robinson: The Chair of the Select Committee is right not only to highlight that anomaly but to press the point that the moral case has been won – we just need to see the corresponding action. There is a further perverse anomaly. In Northern Ireland, under Operation Banner, members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary served and died alongside members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and other regiments. Widows of RUC men who were killed, of whom there are 302, have had this issue resolved, yet the bereaved widows of service members who may have died alongside RUC service personnel have not, to date, had a resolution.
Dr Lewis: My excellent friend, for that is what he is – he is another pillar of strength to me on the Defence Committee – will be glad to know that among the examples I intend to quote are several widows who lost a husband serving in the Ulster Defence Regiment and who are in precisely that anomalous position.
This is what happened in the case of Linda, whose husband John was murdered by the IRA in May 1973:
“He died instantly as a boobytrap bomb exploded underneath him. We were stationed in Germany at the time of John’s deployment. Within two days of his death my three month old son and I were put on a flight back to England, leaving behind our life, home and friends to face an uncertain future. With my mum’s help and support I was eventually able to move into a small home of my own and begin to rebuild my life. This is where I received my first ‘inspection’.
In the early 70s War Widows were visited by inspectors to ensure they were not living with another man whilst in receipt of their compensation pension. I felt degraded by this. Life was lonely as a young women with a baby and over time I missed the family life I so tragically had taken from me. I missed my son having a father, I missed the closeness and friendship of a husband.
After years alone I was blessed with a second chance of happiness but felt saddened that my pension would be withdrawn on remarriage as this was a tangible link to John and our previous life together. I also felt this action demeaned John’s sacrifice and that somehow I was no longer a War Widow. However, I had a choice to make and I chose to be part of a loving family again with the security and warmth that it would bring my son and I.
When going through the process of having my pension revoked I spoke to many officials and was insulted when one of them told me ‘not to worry, another man will now look after you.’ Once more I felt let down as I would have to start my new relationship not as an equal but financially dependent on my new husband.
As was stated in 2015 this was a choice that should not have been forced on War Widows. I was personally heartbroken when I was told that pension changes in 2015 had left me behind. The utter disbelief that the government didn’t really mean ALL War Widows would now have their pensions for life was unbearable. These changes made me feel like a second class War Widow and I have now been made to relive the pain and grief of 1973 every day. I cannot and will not accept that John’s sacrifice is less worthy than others.”
Bob Stewart: My right hon. Friend has just read out a very touching story. John would expect his country to look after his widow for life. It is a very simple matter. Let us correct it now.
Dr Lewis: I entirely agree with my hon. and gallant Friend. Of all 650 Members of this House, he knows better than anyone, in personal terms, the devastation these killings left behind. That is why I intend to read out several more extracts before concluding. Mr Deputy Speaker, please indicate if you feel I am going on too long.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Lindsay Hoyle): The Whip is there.
Dr Lewis: Okay, I will do my best. I do not intend to elaborate over and above the words, which speak for themselves.
Muriel, the widow of Jimmy, writes:
“My husband was 40 years old when he was murdered and I was left a widow at 37 with 5 children. Jimmy gave his life in defence of this country and I believe I should have the recognition that I am a war widow. It should make no difference that he died in 1977 and not on another date that the government has decided qualifies widows for pensions.
My husband was murdered because he put on a uniform and tried to uphold law and order. He died in his own home when gunmen shot him at our front door. I have had to live with the horror of this and our family has suffered terribly but instead of feeling that the government recognises our sacrifice we feel betrayed and that we are a nuisance asking for money the government says it can’t afford. I felt I had done something wrong when I remarried and tried to rebuild my life, as if everything that I went through meant nothing.
I don’t even get a full state pension because I paid married woman’s national insurance and I often think I should have been better advised by the MoD who should have given more priority to my welfare. I am a war widow and should be acknowledged as such and the government must do the decent thing and reinstate the pension for those of us whose lives were destroyed so that democracy could flourish.”
Now I come to a daughter, Elizabeth, who says:
“I am disappointed and saddened that I am even writing this… My Father” –
“was a member of the UDR and he was shot dead when aged 40 years in 1981 doing his civilian job.”
I will not go through the events that happened, but Elizabeth continues:
“Each Remembrance Day and on my Dad’s anniversary, we remember him with pride. The impact of my Dad’s murder was severe, my Mum was left to bring up 3 children, I was aged 11 years. This was very difficult for my Mum both financially and emotionally. We all as a family still struggle today.
When she remarried her war pension was taken away from her. This is an absolute disgrace. We as children were still orphaned. It is a struggle for my Mum. She has no financial security in her later years and she can’t help her family the way she would like to. My Dad would be extremely saddened at the way the MoD have treated us.”
That is the very point made a few moments ago by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). Elizabeth continues:
“I would also like to add that the aftercare is a disgrace as there actually isn’t any aftercare. When I enquired at the MoD about the pension being reinstated I was told no but if my Mum divorced her husband and then remarried him again she would get it back. How morally wrong is this? It is ridiculous that she is being penalised because of when my Father was murdered and for when she remarried. The pension should be reinstated and a full apology given for the way my Mum and other widows have been treated.”
Bob Stewart: And backdated.
Dr Lewis: And backdated.
Mrs Madeleine Moon: I wish to thank the Chairman of the Select Committee, particularly for the leadership he gives those of us who serve on that Committee. The more he reads out, the more it becomes absolutely clear that Governments are happy to write names on memorials and to make soundbites in this Chamber, but they are not willing to allow the country to maintain its financial commitment and promises to war widows and their children to mitigate for their lost life. As parliamentarians, should we not take that into our hands, perhaps as the Committee, by putting forward a private Members’ Bill?
Dr Lewis: That is a wonderful idea, and it is exactly the sort of constructive suggestion I would expect from the hon. Lady. I suspect that at the root of this situation is probably not a flaw in the Ministry of Defence, but a problem being raised by people from the Treasury saying, “If we do something for this group, we’ll have to do something for another group. We will be opening some sort of Pandora’s box.” And so on and so on. I say, frankly: if that is the argument, they should hang their heads in shame.
Although I think I have already made the point quite forcefully, I intend, if I may, to read out two or three more of these extracts, so that the point cannot be escaped, because every one of these stories has a different dimension. I hope that is acceptable. If I start to see urgent signals from those on the Front Bench when I really need to get a move on – [Interruption.] I am getting a few of them now, so I shall do this as concisely as possible.
I come to the case of Margaret, whose first husband, William, was a part-time member of the Ulster Defence Regiment. He was murdered – blown up – in 1986. She says:
“At the time we didn’t know if we would even be able to have William’s coffin open due the extent of injuries…in the end all we could see was his face, with a wee cut just above his right eye. No one has ever been convicted of William’s murder.”
She talks about the “rituals” that they always had to go through for their own security, and the circumstances in which what happened took place. She continues:
“I am now happily remarried to my second husband, John and we have two sons. When I married my second husband John in 1993 I automatically lost my pension. To me this was highly unfair, as older widows and now younger widows have got to keep their pensions, what is the difference, between widows like them and me? I have endured the same trials and tribulations as them.
I detest writing this letter and find it extremely difficult, to me it’s like a begging letter, yes I have endured financial hardships in the past and if my pension was reinstated it would mean a lot to me financially, it would be extremely useful for my two sons’ further education and for repairs to our home. But, to me, it would be some acknowledgement from the Government that they realise and appreciate that William laid down his life for his country and for our people, and that although I have remarried I still bear the scars of the past.”
The final extract I will read, given the unexpected time pressure – I hope the other ladies will forgive me – is from Eileen, whose husband David served part-time in the UDR and was murdered in 1977. She says:
“I was so proud of my husband and how he sacrificed his life to try to keep to his community safe at nights and weekends. When he was on duty I waited at home in bed until he arrived safely back home. Those were worrying times for me.
I felt the need to serve my country with pride and also allowed my family to make a positive contribution to maintaining peace and I became a member of the UDR in 1984.”
So this lady, seven years after losing her husband in the defence of her country, joined the same regiment herself. Does that not make us feel proud of her and does it not make us all feel ashamed of the way that she and the other women whose stories I have related today have been treated?
[For further developments, click here.]