The Times leader – 24 August 2012

The Unpensionables

Redundancy months shy of a pension is no way to uphold the military covenant

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Nobody joins the Army to get rich, although pension provision for service personnel has traditionally been among the most generous in the public sector. Yet those in the Armed Forces are not quite like any other in the public sector. Too often the Ministry of Defence appears to treat with callous indifference those who offer their lives in service. Through tactlessness and inertia, this appears to be happening once again.

Under current rules, soon to change for new entrants, officers become eligible for an immediate pension after 16 years of service.The Times reports today that numerous officers and lower ranks — about 80 this year and more next year — are being made redundant mere months or weeks away from this date.

This means that families who may have planned lives around a future with a guaranteed income, albeit a modest one, must re-plan their lives without. Any employee who saw goalposts moving thus would have a legitimate grievance. For officers, this occurs after a 16-year period during which more British soldiers have seen more action than at any point since the Second World War. Lower ranks facing redundancy must have served for 18 years to qualify for a pension.

Protesting against this decision, a group of army families have dubbed themselves “The Unpensionables”. They include wives who have followed their husbands around the world, with their own careers on hold. In the words of one: “The expectation from us has been that the significant financial disadvantages of being a military family would be recompensed by the pension my husband would receive when he left.”

Some of those affected believe themselves to have been singled out for redundancy specifically because of their proximity to pensionable age. The MoD denies this, but it cannot be denied that Whitehall has displayed a startling lack of tact.

Giving evidence to the Defence Select Committee last year, Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, reported that the time served before officers became eligible for a pension had been cut to 15 years. Last week, he is understood to have written to the chairman of that committee, explaining that this was the case only for officers who had joined up at the age of 18. These do not sound like the careful deliberations of a department putting troops first.

At a time of universal cuts, it is hard to dispute that the Armed Forces must bear their share. But Britain has a covenant towards the military dating back to the time of Elizabeth I. Earlier this yearThe Times reported that the MoD was considering making draconian cuts to army housing for married couples. From the crash of an RAF Nimrod in 2006 to numerous deaths and injuries in Snatch Land Rovers in Afghanistan, too often MoD cost savings have run wholly to the detriment of the wellbeing of people who lay down their lives for the country.

These eleventh-hour redundancies affect a relatively small number of people and will save a relatively small amount of money. But the effect on a few lives will be enormous. As veterans, they and their families deserve better. If the MoD cannot allow them to work until they become eligible for an immediate pension, a meaningful compensation scheme must be established. When people are prepared to offer their lives for Britain, Britain should treat those lives with more respect.

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