Inside Parliament : Ministers to act on divorce pension rights

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The Government is considering amending the law to allow pension rights to be taken into account in divorce settlements in England and Wales.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, Minister of State for Social Security, told peers of the pending change as they debated the compendious Pensions Bill in Committee.

Scotland already enjoys this equitable arrangement, and Lord Mackay suggested the law south of the border could be brought into line by an amendment to the 1973 Matrimonial Causes Act.

Leading cross-party demands for the change, Baroness Young, a former Conservative Cabinet minister, said she hoped to put right an injustice which left some people living in penury.

"There can be little doubt that a pension can be the largest financial asset a couple can have at a time of divorce, particularly if they do not own the house in which they are living," she said.

Lord Mackay cautioned against legislating before the issue had been properly considered. "We would run the very high risk of getting it wrong and creating new inequities." But he added: "It is always quite difficult to try to be the voice of calm reason when we all know of cases where we rightly feel a degree of indignation on the part of a wife who is left pensionless."

The Government was later defeated as peers backed a move to base the State Earnings-Related Pension on the best 44 years' earnings, rather than Government's proposed 49 years. The amendment was carried by 105 votes to 61.

The Bill equalises the state pension age at 65. But Baroness Hollis of Heigham, for Labour, said women's employment was almost always interrupted by family responsibilities.

"The Government is trying to deny a full State Earnings- Related Pension to most women and to vulnerable men by its insistence that after equalisation at 65, women and men will both have to make contributions over 49 years to qualify."

But Lord Mackay maintained the amendment "would raise expenditure in the long term in a poorly targeted way - high- earning men would benefit as well as low-earning women".

The Ministry of Defence took an early opportunity to pour cold water on a report that it is under pressure from the US to slim down the Trident nuclear-missile fleet.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, revealed what he described as the "harsh reality" of Washington's view before leaving for there. "This is America the protector about to become the whipcracker," he told the Independent on Sunday. The article was seized on by Lord Jenkins of Putney, a vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, as he challenged ministers about the real independence of the British deterrent during questions in the Upper House.

Lord Henley, Under-Secretary of State for Defence, said he was aware of the article, but went on: "If Lord Jenkins is suggesting by that article that the United States is putting pressure on us to reduce our deterrent, I can only say we have received no representations whatsoever from the US to reduce the size of our deterrent, which will remain the minimum deterrent necessary for the defence of this country."

In fact, neither Lord Jenkins, a Labour peer, nor Mr Ashdown had suggested there had been a formal approach for a cut. Britain is to have four Trident submarines carrying up to 96 warheads each.

But the view expressed to Mr Ashdown in briefings with American officials and politicians, as he prepared for a meeting with Vice-President Al Gore tomorrow, was that reductions could be sought in both British and French nuclear weapons as part of a new disarmament round.

An extra £85m for GP practices and other primary health care in London was announced by Virginia Bottomley, to spike a Labour-initiated debate on the "crisis" in the NHS in London. It is a standard ploy of ministers to include good news to try to steal the thunder of Opposition debates. Whether the money would have been found anyway, or whether departments have a stock of goodies that, eventually, would have been announced regardless, is a matter for conjecture.

Defending her planned rationalisation of London hospitals into four world- class complexes clustered around multi-faculty universities and colleges, Mrs Bottomley rejected Labour's call for a moratorium on closures as irresponsible populism.

But the Secretary of State's "big is beautiful" approach was also challenged by Tory members concerned about the fate of local hospitals. John Gorst, MP for Hendon North, walked from the chamber after telling Mrs Bottomley her logic could not be reconciled "with the illogical feelings of my constituents", who are unanimously against her proposals.

Moving the Labour motion - rejected by 282 votes to 229 - Margaret Beckett, the party's heath spokeswoman, said Londoners awaited the internal market in health care with the same level of anticipation as they once awaited Boadicea.