On 7 November the Government announced that it would change the rules which require some Armed Forces widows to forfeit their pensions on remarriage or cohabitation. From 1 April 2015 the rules of the various Armed Forces pension schemes will be harmonised so that all widows will be able to keep their pensions regardless of whether they remarry or not.
This announcement is excellent news. It effectively meets all the objectives of the Forces Pension Society Justice for Widows Campaign. It means that all widows currently in receipt of a families pension under the Armed Forces Pension Scheme 75 (AFPS 75) and all war widows receiving a pension under the War Pensions Scheme, and all those who may yet become widows will henceforth have the freedom of action which they all deserve, unfettered by artificial constraints which belong to another age. They will all be able to retain their Armed Forces pension for life
The Government has also acknowledged that the Armed Forces Covenant lay at the heart of this issue and in solving the problem has fulfilled its pledge to honour the Covenant.
Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary said:
“It’s vital that we do right by those who put their lives on the line for their country – that’s why this Government enshrined the Armed Forces Covenant in law.
“These changes reflect the huge commitment which service families make to our country. We recognise that the unique nature of service life has left widows, widowers and surviving civil partners of members of the Armed Forces at a disadvantage.
“I’m delighted as Defence Secretary to be able to put right an issue that has caused upset and disappointment for many years.”
The Society has in response issued a statement from the General Secretary Major General John Moore-Bick:
“We thank the Government for recognising the merits of our Justice for Forces Widows campaign and for putting right the unfair rules that were disadvantaging spouses and partners.”
This change will come into force in conjunction with the launch of the new Armed Forces Pension Scheme 15.
The change will not however lead to the reinstatement of pensions for those who have already forfeited them. This is because this would have required retrospective action, the cost of which would have been both additional and difficult to quantify. Such action would also have breached a principle held dear by governments of all persuasions and one which has been a consistent sticking point over many years. The Forces Pension Society has accepted this limitation and indeed campaigned transparently on the basis of harmonisation, rather than retrospection. There is however some good news which will benefit many who have already lost their pensions:
- From 1 April 15 the means test used to decide whether AFPS ’75 pensions will be restored will be abolished. So, if a second or subsequent relationship ends for a member who has given up his or her pension on remarriage or cohabitation, restoration will be made without means test. Over half of current applications are refused.
- For those members who have previously applied for restoration of their AFPS ’75 pension and were refused under the means test (effectively going back to the commencement of the scheme), and who are not in a marriage or cohabiting on 1 April 15, if they reapply, Veterans UK will restore their pension on 1 April15. This will probably benefit between 300 to 600 individuals.
What has been achieved is significant, with the potential to affect many thousands of people. Precisely how many is difficult to quantify, because the beneficiary population is subject to constant change. Currently there are some 65,000 Armed Forces widows who stand to benefit, but there are also thousands of “widows in waiting” who will also benefit in due course. The Government Actuary’s department has stated that the “old” rules affected the “vast majority of Armed Forces widows”. The old rules also affected about half of those personnel still serving in the Armed Forces and would have continued to bite for the next 40 or so years until the affected population died out. In all some 400,000 people stand to benefit from this change. Of course, not all widows or widowers find another permanent partner; available statistics suggests that only some 0.1% of the affected widows’ population have done so annually, but the great change is that they all now have the freedom to seek happiness afresh with someone else, rather than shunning relationships for fear of the consequences.
However – a word of warning if you are affected by the change in rules; the rule change only becomes effective on 1 April 2015. Whilst the authorities may be unlikely to enforce the rules vigorously in the interim, an unequivocal breach such as a marriage might be hard to ignore. So don’t take a chance. The lifeboat has picked you up – don’t throw yourself overboard before it has docked.
The Forces Pensions Society thanks all those who have assisted our campaign for change over many years. We also thank the government and Prime Minister for being prepared to examine the matter against the Covenant in the light of the logic and fairness of the case and to decide accordingly.