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Ministers must not deny widows their right to a lifelong pension after losing their partners, Most Rev Justin Welby tells The Telegraph

By Danielle Sheridan, Political and Defence Correspondent

Sunday Telegraph – 19 September 2021

The Archbishop of Canterbury has warned Boris Johnson that he is doing a “very great wrong” to war widows who have missed out on pensions because they remarried after losing their husbands. In his first intervention on the issue, the Most Rev Justin Welby told The Telegraph that the Government must “put right’ the fact that widows who remarried between 1973 and 2015 are being denied their right to a lifelong pension. The Archbishop said:

“One of the Bible’s strongest, clearest, and most often repeated commands is to care for and honour the widow. The plight of the war widows who are not able to receive their military pensions is a very great wrong.”

He added that many of the widows, of which there are thought to be about 200, have stories that show

“profound Christian discipleship, as well as deep sadness and suffering. To find love and happiness again after such loss and heartbreak only to be denied their rightful pension, and for many their means of living, leaves many in a cruel and unjustifiable situation and facing unbearable decisions,”

he said.

“It must be put right.”

Campaign to reverse Government’s decision

Changes to the current pension scheme for war widows meant that from April 2015, all those who qualified for the pension would receive it for life. However, the changes were not applied retrospectively, which has resulted in a group of women who do not qualify for the scheme. Earlier this year, the Treasury sent a letter to the War Widows Association where it stated that compensation cannot be given to the women

“because it would set a precedent amongst all other pension schemes”.

The association has been campaigning for years to reverse the Government’s decision which denies any form of monetary recompense for those war widows who were forced to relinquish their pension on remarriage or cohabitation. Moira Kane, the chairman of the association, said:

“All other war widows have a pension for life since 2015. Just because of dates they are being treated differently to all other war widows.”

Ms Kane added that

“these ladies should never have had their pension removed in the first place”,

as she called on the Prime Minister to show the Government cares

“about our military families. Once you become part of a military family, you remain part of a military family even if the worst happens and your partner is deceased,”

she said.

“We do not seek back payment for years of lost income, simply reinstatement. This would allow these approximately 200 ladies to be on a par with all other war widows who since 2015 retain their pension for life.”

Over the past few months, The Telegraph has spoken to more than 30 widows from this cohort, who say they feel “discriminated” and “penalised” against. Some have questioned whether, given their collective ages, the Government is simply “waiting for us all to die”. Many of the women have spoken of how they had to choose between love and financial hardship when deciding whether or not to marry again after the death of their military husbands. Others have considered divorce in order to have their pensions reinstated.

'A kick in the teeth'

Another war widow, whose husband committed suicide in 2007 as a result of PTSD, said the Government’s decision was a “kick in the teeth”. Speaking of her decision to eventually remarry, she said:

“It felt like I had a gun to my head. Do you want the money or do you want happiness? I’ve struggled financially ever since.”

Mary Moreland, the former chairman of the association, said:

“It’s wrong and immoral that a Conservative government that espouses the values of family life are forcing individuals to divorce to receive the compensation that they rightly deserve.”

The average War Widow pension is £250 a week. Ms Moreland said she has been previously told by serving Cabinet ministers that the

“finance isn’t the problem. It’s not stacking up, the money isn’t the argument,”

she added, while pointing out the irony that

“if the war widow’s second partner dies then the pension is reinstated. The soldier doesn’t make the war, the Government has to, and they have to do the Government’s bidding knowing full well they won’t return. The Government has made the promise to look after the families left behind.”

She added that the reasoning was “patriarchal”, saying:

“It’s a Dickensian law and it should be changed. You’re entitled to life’

Julian Lewis, the former chairman of the Commons defence select committee, said:

“I believe that it ought to be possible for a clever legal brain to come up with an ex gratia scheme for a clearly identified small number of these widows who have suffered great indignity as a result of this.”

Mr Lewis added that some of the women’s stories are “heart rending” and said if the “will” is there by the Government, then

“they should be able to do it”.

However, he cautioned that it is

“a classic case of Treasury caution that they would be opening up some Pandora’s box of precedent”.

Ms Kane, however, said:

“People think of widows as being elderly ladies, and in fact a lot of people were very young. You’re entitled to life. That you’re not entitled to happiness or changing your circumstances for the better is unfair.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said:

“We recognise the significant commitment that service families make to our country and continue to consider ways to support those who are affected by the 2015 pension changes.”