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War pensions must reflect the uniqueness of military service

Submitted by on 17 Feb 2011 – 11:23

Marcus Papadopoulos talks to Forces Pension Society general secretary John Moore-Bick about his unease over the Coalition Government’s attempts to reverse the commitments made by the last government to reforming the Armed Forces Pension Scheme

Major General John Moore-Bick devoted forty years of his life to serving in the British armed forces, in peacekeeping and in war as well as in the Ministry of Defence, and abroad, carrying out roles such as GOC UK Support Command, Germany, adviser to the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia and adviser to the government of Serbia and Montenegro in Belgrade. He

understands, perhaps more than anyone in Parliament, the injustices experienced by many members of the armed forces and their families as a result of unjust rules concerning war pensions.

“Overall, the current pension schemes are fundamentally good and among the best in the public sector. But there are some antiquated rules and lingering unfairness which the Forces Pension Society is very concerned about and is consequently lobbying the Government over.”

What are these “concerns”?

“Lord Hutton’s interim report on his independent review of public sector pensions highlights our principal concern and campaign at the moment-namely, that the vast majority of widows will lose their pension rights if they re-marry. This is an outdated rule that will last until the 2050s or so. Fairness is at the core of our argument to dispense with that rule and the previous Labour government agreed with us.

“What is unfair is that some widows who re-marry will not lose their pensions while others will. For example, a wife can re-marry and keep her pension if her husband is killed in action or during a live-firing exercise, something known as an attributable death. But a wife whose husband dies of pneumonia cannot re-marry without losing her pension.

“We are urging the government to replace this unfair rule and confine it to history. However, our view is that the officials who have been dealing with our correspondence have used the transition to try and roll back the level of agreement that we reached with the last government on the issue.

“The coalition government has committed itself to sacrificing everything to curing the deficit, including limiting how much it pays out on pensions. I think the government doesn’t want to do anything that will look as if any part of any sector is being given special privileges. But our argument isn’t about special pleading. It is about fairness. Suffice to say we are not very pleased at the moment with the government.”

Major General Moore-Bick is also scathing about the government’s changes to pension indexation which will affect how deferred pensions are revalued.

“ “Government in a hurry with unintended consequences” is how I would describe the changes to indexation from Retail Price Index to Consumer Price Index. This will have a huge effect of reducing pension receipts for people who get a pension early in life. People in the armed forces get a pension early not because of their own choosing. For instance, I am dealing with the case of a 27 year old corporal who has lost both of his legs. He will lose half a million pounds over his life time.

“The majority of people in the armed forces don’t do a life career; they do a full career over 22 years, for instance, so they receive an immediate pension at the age of 40. They then leave the forces to start a new life. They need this pension and yet the devaluation of that pension will be well over £200,000.

“I don’t think this has been properly thought through for the armed forces because the forces are the one section of the public service allowed by law to pay pensions at a younger age.”

The Military Covenant, an informal understanding between the state and the armed forces in which the former recognises the unique nature of military service, is being reviewed by the

government. What are his thoughts on this?

“This is pure politics. Why is it necessary to repair the covenant when the previous government introduced Command 7424 (the nation’s commitment to the armed forces and their families recognising that there are a lot of areas where the armed forces need to be paid special attention to, such as school admissions)? Repairing or reviewing the covenant doesn’t pay respect to what we, in the third sector, have achieved with the previous government over the last three years.

“The government has set up a military covenant task force but it has not consulted widely. Professor Hew Strachan, who is heading the task force, has not been allowed any expenses to travel and fact find. I think Professor Strachan has been told by the government to produce quick wins at no cost. It would have been better to do nothing than treat the armed forces in such a hollow manner. The exercise is worthless unless some difficult issues like pensions are included with some full and broad consultation. The government is not aware of the problem areas and is not keen to find out.”

What are his hopes and aspirations for forces pensions?

“Firstly, to (satisfactorily) resolve widows’ pensions; and secondly, to ensure that Whitehall and Westminster realise that forces pension schemes are not just pension schemes but cover ill health, invaliding and life insurance; they bring you in, they get you out; they persuade you to stay and build a more senior career. In other words, they are very refined and should not be lumped in with others. Thankfully, and not due to any wisdom on the Government’s part, Lord Hutton understands this very well.”