This piece first appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 24 February  2001
The text here may not be identical to the published text

What a way to treat a widow

service widow rules benefit the dishonest

About 100 women whose husbands died on active duty in the armed forces are threatening legal action to force the Ministry of Defence to restore their widow’s pension. They have been overlooked after the law was changed last October to allow some service widows to re-marry without losing their armed forces pension.

Widows of servicemen have been campaigning for many years for the right to keep the pension regardless of whether they married or not. But the change introduced on October 31 only applied to women who were actually in receipt of a widow’s pension. Those who had already given it up by remarrying or cohabiting did not get their pension restored.

The woman behind the campaign is 53 year old Polly Gardner. Her first husband Charles Wrighton was a wing commander in the Royal Air Force. He died nearly 11 years ago at the age of 42 on a training flight in the Isle of Harris.

"I had been a service wife for 23 years, devoting myself to that. I had two sons, the youngest five, but I was given six months to leave our married quarters and no counselling. There is no back-up and it is a big empty world out there. Within a year I had met Andrew and married him. He was divorced I was widowed. And of course as soon as that happened my widow’s pension stopped."

Under the rules which applied then, Polly lost her widow’s pension for life. The pension was not restored even if a second bereavement or a divorce followed, though some means-tested assistance on grounds of hardship could be requested. The tough rules led to many women trying to avoid them.

"All I want is justice, the pension Charlie earned. He paid for it with his life. He couldn’t have given any better to his country than that."

"A lot of the girls lived with men secretly. But they still took a risk. If you were discovered cohabiting then your pension was taken away. What they were saying was that you could have a boyfriend but not the stability of a relationship. You could sleep with a different man each week and keep the pension but if you stayed more than three nights they took it away."

In 1995 the rules were changed slightly, allowing the automatic restoration of a pension if a widow found herself alone again. It was a change that Polly herself had to take advantage of in 1997 when Andrew died of cancer, unrelated to his service. Her first pension was restored. But the central problem, of putting a price on living with someone and seeking stability for themselves and their children, continued. And shortly after she did meet someone else, Garth Gardner, also a pilot, and decided to marry him.

"Why did I bother to get married, and be honest? Why didn’t I live in sin and hide it? That’s just not me. I wanted to move on, you have to."

That honesty has cost her a pension which today would be worth around £19,000 a year. And Polly was devastated when the law changed again in October – but she was left out. The announcement was made by the Secretary of State for Defence Geoff Hoon on 31 October. From that date, any woman in receipt of a widow’s pension whose husband had died as a result of his service could marry without losing it. But the women who had already lost it did not get it back, unless they were alone again. The effect was dramatic. Polly knows of many women who were secretly cohabiting who then married, safe in the knowledge that their pensions would be retained. But it did not help those who had been honest.

"All I want is justice, the pension Charlie earned. He would have been disillusioned and very angry. I don’t think he even knew that this happened. Our guys earned their pensions. He paid for it with his life. He was doing his job. He couldn’t have given any better to his country than that."

There are 48 widows in Polly’s association and both she and the Ministry of Defence agree that is about half of all the women who are denied their pensions under these rules. Last month the MoD finally put a cost on restoring them. In a letter to Mrs Gardner, the Deputy Director of Pensions, Heather Smith – writing on MoD paper which proudly boasts the ‘Investor in People’ logo – said that "retrospective change to pension schemes is so expensive; the employer is obliged to buy back the liability that was not paid when the member was serving. The Government Actuary’s Department has calculated that the total cost of buying back the liability to restore the pensions of those who remarried before October 2000 would be somewhere between £22-26m…in essence the question in this case is of affordability."

But Polly Gardner dismisses that estimate as "Absolute rubbish. They have already bought them back. What happened to that money when I stopped getting it? They’ve had it. Now we want it back. The average pension is £12,000 to £15,000 a year and there are 100 of us. I try not to be a beleaguered widow. I am trying to get on with my life. With me it is not a question of hardship but of justice. But one of my members is married to someone who is now ill, they live hand to mouth, her pension could make all the difference to them."

Polly’s group has instructed a solicitor who believes they have a case. If she fails in her campaign, widows in these circumstances will have one way to beat the system. The MoD has confirmed that if they divorce or separate the pension will be restored and then will not be taken away again if they subsequently remarry or cohabit. Bilko would have been proud.

24 February 2001

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