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Until the mid-2000s, most public service pension schemes provided for a surviving partner’s pension to be lost on remarriage. The rationale was that widow(er)’s pensions were intended to provide a measure of compensation for the loss of financial support the beneficiary had received from their late husband or wife. So, if the beneficiary remarried or cohabited, the expectation was that they would look to their new spouse or partner for financial support.

Reforms to public service pensions in the mid-2000s included changes to survivors’ partners to reflect changes in social patterns of behaviour. They included the introduction of pensions for civil partners and nominated unmarried partners and the removal of rules ending pensions on remarriage.  However, the new rules were not generally changed with retrospective effect. This reflected a long-standing policy applied by successive governments that improvements to public service schemes should be implemented from a current date for future service only because to do otherwise would make any worthwhile improvements unaffordable.

The Coalition Government announced two exceptions in 2014/15. The first related to survivors of members of the armed forces, in recognition of the particular challenges they face building up an occupational pension in their own right. This change was made in SI 2015/208.

The second related to survivors of police officers and firefighters who died on duty. The relevant change to the police pension scheme regulations was made in SI 2015/2057. In a Westminster Hall debate on 15 March 2017, Minister for Policing and the Fire Service Brandon Lewis said the Government had “no current plans […] to change the scheme beyond the changes made only last year” (HC Deb 15 March 2017 c135WH). The relevant change to the firefighters scheme was made in SI 2017/892.

The Executive in Northern Ireland has gone further, extending survivors’ pensions for life to all survivors of members of the RUC pension scheme from July 2014 (press release, 11 March 2014). In March 2016, it announced that lifetime survivors’ pensions would be extended to all members of the civil service scheme from April 2016 (EPN, 11 March 2016).

The Scottish Government has decided to extend lifetime survivors’ pensions to survivors of police officers and firefighters killed on duty from October 2015, including reinstating pensions previously withdrawn from those affected individuals (SPPA, 5 October 2015).

The position for war widows is discussed in Library Briefing Paper SN-00568 War Widows’ Pensions (November 2016).

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