This piece first appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 27 January  2001
The text here may not be identical to the published text

Widows win a battle but the war isn't over

The injustices in the Armed Forces Pension Scheme, which have been highlighted in the last week by The Daily Telegraph, do not stop with the men themselves. After their death, their widows also face discrimination and tough choices.

The Officers’ Pensions Society, which despite its name campaigns for better service pensions for everyone who has been in the armed forces, has identified three areas where the widows of armed forces personnel are treated unfairly.

The main concern is the fate of women who are widowed and then want to form a new relationship. In most cases, they face the loss of their forces pension if they remarry. That leads, the Society says, to the cruel dilemma of living clandestinely to try to keep the money, or following their heart and losing it.

Proposals for change have been mired in delays and committees for years.

One Telegraph reader, who has to remain anonymous or risk losing £14,000 a year, married in her twenties, had four children, and went with her husband on tours of duty all over the world. A year after he was made redundant in 1994, he died of cancer, leaving Mary with four children, three of them at boarding school – a necessity not a luxury for many service families to keep a continuity of education while parents are serving abroad. To keep them there Mary, of course, had to work. Two years later, now in her late 40s, she fell in love again – with another serviceman, himself a widower with children of his own. If they marry – or even live together – Mary faces the loss of her ex-husband’s service pension and between them they will find it impossible to keep her children at fee-paying schools. So she faces the cruel dilemma – go with her heart and lose her pension and probably remove her sons from their school, or stay a single widow coping by herself, and forgo the new love and opportunity she may have.

The Government has recognised the dilemma faced by women in this position and changed the law to help some of them. Since last October some women in Mary’s position could marry and keep their pension – but only if their first husband’s death was due to his service. If he died through natural causes – as Mary’s did – then her pension still only lasts as long as her celibacy.

This discrimination between two classes of widow is found in other parts of the scheme. Not only is the husband’s cause of death important so is the date he joined the forces. Here there are three categories of service widows. A man who joined up after March 31 1973 automatically paid into a scheme that gave his widow one half of the pension he claimed, or could have claimed. A man who joined and retired before that date paid into an inferior scheme which gave his widow one third of his pension. Men who joined before March 31 1973 but retired later had the option of paying higher contributions into the new scheme. Not all men took this option, continuing to earn a one-third widow’s pension. The result is that thousands of widows of ex-servicemen who joined before 1973 have a much smaller pension than those whose husband joined or retired from the forces later.

Widows also suffer from the pensions ‘trough’ which condemns service pensioners who retire at a particular time to a much lower pension than those of identical rank who reach the forces pension age of 55 on a different date. The trough is caused simply by the difference between the rate of inflation and the rate of increase of forces pay. In 1976 the rate of inflation was 17pc – and that was the automatic rate of increase in a forces pension. But forces pay rose by a paltry 5pc. The result is that a squadron leader who retired in 1975 will get a pension now of £17,186 a year – benefiting from the big rise in prices in 1976 which kept his pension up with inflation. A man of the same rank who retired two years later will get a pension now of £12,913 a year. The lower pension is a legacy of the rise in service pay well below inflation, in effect cutting that high inflation period out of his pension for life. And after his death, his widow will suffer from the same effect, getting a third of his lower pension for the rest of her life. Potentially, this problem affects all public service pensions. But many other schemes ameliorate it by allowing the pension to be based on the average or the best of the last three years before retirement – a system also common in the better private sector, company schemes.

The Officers’ Pensions Society is hoping for improvements in the armed forces pension scheme when the Ministry of Defence finally publishes its proposals for change. They have been mired in committees and delays for years and General James Gordon, the Society’s General Secretary, fears that any change will be relatively small and will certainly not be applied retrospectively to existing pensioners and widows who are suffering discrimination now.

27 January 2001

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