John Moore-Bick: Services widows penalised by pension rules

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Over the next 40 years, the vast majority of armed forces widows in receipt of a pension will lose it on cohabitation – what a dirty word – or remarriage. How can this be in the 21st century? It comes about from rules of the 1950s and 60s when a woman was held to be the financial property and total responsibility of her husband.

The Forces Pension Society and the Royal British Legion believe that the introduction of a new armed forces pension scheme in April 2105 is the once-in-a-generation chance to get rid of this evil practice, which makes services widows choose between their often very small but vital pension and a new love.

It was hoped that amicable joint work under the guidance of ministers, but now thrown out, would find a solution. The costs are not great, especially in the light of the armed forces pension bill of £5 billion a year. The government last month released a self-congratulatory press release claiming the credit for putting £65 million into the armed forces community. But this is not new money, this is the result of fines levied on banks and trumpeted for political gain at Christmas time. A small part of this sum would settle the widows’ just claim.

The recent refusal to countenance such a change in the rules, on the basis that other public sectors exhibit this practice, flies in the face of the much vaunted armed forces covenant and the experience of services families.

They are generally subjected to frequent turbulence, family upheaval and house moves which prevent a wife from following her own career or taking a steady job. Widows of such marriages end up with no occupational pension, no private pension and at best an inadequate state pension through patchy national insurance payments.

This is not an old peoples’ problem. Over half of those currently in the services are, and will, be affected by these rules until 2050. What is intolerable now with “cohabiting” widows being arrested and charged with fraud, which we do not condone, must not go on until next year, let alone 2050.

We call upon the government to be serious in attending to this challenge, to lift it from the dead hand of officials in Whitehall and transfer it to the hands of politicians in Westminster, politicians under the leadership of a prime minster who has come into office promising the fairest government yet. We see no evidence of that, none whatsoever.

John Moore-Bick CBE DL is general secretary of the Forces Pension Society