Armed forces pensions 'must be protected'

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War widows and injured soldiers must be protected against the "worst excesses" of the coalition's cuts to pensions, the head of Britain's armed forces warned today.

General Sir David Richards said he was "concerned" at proposals which will leave widows and the injured losing hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The Chief of the Defence Staff said while he thought the change was a "done deal", he was working on making sure the "worst excesses are properly catered for".

Gen Richards was speaking after Downing Street rejected calls for a change in the policy which will see controversial changes to pensions across the public sector.

The row follows the announcement in Chancellor George Osborne's first Budget that all pensions increases would be linked to the consumer price index (CPI) rather than the historically more generous retail price index (RPI).

The Forces Pensions Society calculates that the change, which affects forces pensions and annual Guaranteed Income Payments, means a 34-year-old wife of a staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan, for example, would be almost £750,000 worse off over the course of her lifetime.

A corporal who lost both legs in a bomb blast would miss out on about £500,000 in pension and benefit-related payments.

Today Labour called on the Government to change its mind, labelling the proposals a "breach of faith" to the armed forces and their families.

Asked about the changes on BBC1's Andrew Marr Show, Gen Richards said: "We are concerned because the most important thing that the armed forces need to retain and keep happy are our people - we have got outstanding people - otherwise, if you like, our version of punching above our weight just wouldn't happen - so it is really important for all sorts of operational (reasons).

"I think this is a done deal. What we have got to do is make sure the worst excesses are properly catered for and that is what I am now working on."

Asked if there was a way he could "reopen parts of that", he said: "I think widows and the injured in particular.

"I haven't talked to anyone senior in Government about it and we are just starting. Now we know more about it to do that, how can we the armed forces be separated from nurses, for example?

"So it is a much bigger issue than just the armed forces. I think what we can do - and there is a huge amount of sympathy among ministers in the MoD for us in this respect - is now look where the excesses are unacceptable and we will have to mitigate them."

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy told the programme: "I honestly thought the Government would find a solution to this and they wouldn't have this great row with war widows and the armed forces.

"But it seems that the Government have dug themselves in and been pretty dogmatic about this.

"This isn't about deficit reduction, it is a breach of faith with the armed forces and their families. This is a permanent change, it is not a temporary measure to cut the deficit, it is an entirely different way of doing pensions - it is about cutting armed forces pensions and war widows' pensions.

"We are going to have nothing to do with that - we don't think it is the right thing to do.

"The Government should, at this last moment, change its mind."

Jenny Green, president of the RAF Widows' Association, told Sky News: "Everybody is very concerned when they hear about this... particularly some of the young Army widows, they are absolutely horrified.

"They are horrified at the thought that the Government believes that what their husbands do is the same as what other public sector workers do. We only have to see at the moment in Afghanistan and it is very hard to equate that to what most civil servants do."

On Friday, the chairman of the Forces Pension Society, Vice Admiral Sir Michael Moore, called on David Cameron to change his mind, saying that his declarations of support for the armed forces would have a "hollow ring" unless he acted.

He said: "It is so easy for Mr Cameron to extol the forces at every opportunity and he will probably do so on Remembrance Sunday, but his words have a hollow ring unless he addresses these issues personally.

"His ministers do not understand, show no inclination of wanting to do so and appear to be rendered impotent and mesmerised by the Treasury."

But Downing Street insisted that the military could not be exempt from changes affecting the entire public sector.

"A policy decision has been made," a No 10 spokeswoman said. "The Prime Minister has the highest regard for the armed forces and their families but tough decisions had to be made in this particular respect."