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As a former service man, I want the office to be based in the Ministry of Defence, which can pass matters on to social services if it wants to. Tribute has rightly been paid to the MOD, and to 3 Division in particular, for organising the marvellous events in Normandy. No other Department has the same skills and organisational ability or the same care and concern for ex-service men. I therefore hope that the office will be based in the MOD.

Over the years, another matter has concerned me. I have never liked bilateral discussions, whereby one obtains a version of what has been said by one person to another but discussions are never drawn together as a whole.

I have suggested to the officers of the Royal British Legion that we have reached the stage where we should stop having bilateral discussions and that, in the next month, a meeting should be held with advisers--I do not suggest that we want to meet three or four Ministers--from the Department of Social Security, the MOD and the policy unit at No. 10. They should sit down with the Royal British Legion to hear its sensible views and the role that it wants to play. I have also suggested that the RBL should second someone to work within a sub-unit under a Minister. I hope that my hon. Friend will act on both those proposals.

None of us wants to threaten Ministers, because that is the wrong way in which to go about things. Early-day motion 60 has been signed by 210 hon. Members. In another few weeks, the number may rise to 250. This issue will not go away over the summer recess. On the first day of the new Session, we shall table the early-day motion again and then we shall have up to 300 signatures.

All I beg is that we should have a sensible discussion. No one wants the matter to be blown up into a Department. We want only a co-ordinator, an expediter with a title, who will reinforce the role of Departments already involved in these matters and who will give a helping hand as and when it is needed to all our ex-service men and ex-service women.

10.34 am

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) : I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer), respect for whom is as pronounced in the ex-service community, and rightly so, as it is on both sides of the House.

I want also warmly to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on his success in the ballot, and on the speech with which he opened this important debate. At the same time, I am most grateful to him for having conferred his good fortune in the ballot on the ex-service community by taking my early-day motion 60 as the text for his motion today.

The early-day motion, of which my hon. Friend was a principal signatory on the day it was tabled, is comprehensively all-party. As the hon. Member for Dorset, West has said, the motion has already been signed by more than 200 Members of Parliament from both sides of the House, and enjoys huge support in an ex-service community which today numbers 16 million people.

I have an interest to declare in this debate, and I do so with pride. In the past five years, I have been, together with the hon. Member for Shipley (Sir M. Fox), joint honorary parliamentary adviser to the Royal British Legion, but my association with the ex-service community goes much further back. I am an ex-service man myself, which included active service overseas, and my mother was a war

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widow from when I was only seven years old until she died 24 years later. So my interest in the ex-service community goes back almost for as long as I can remember.

Let me make it abundantly clear today that neither the motion nor the Royal British Legion calls for a new Department of State. We seek not to emulate other countries which have departments of veterans' affairs, but simply and deservedly to make life easier for the ex-service community here in the United Kingdom--not least the war disabled and war bereaved--by achieving a modest and common-sense change in the machinery of government that will relieve them and their organisations from having to deal, as the House has already heard, with no fewer than 17 different Ministries.

One of our problems in this debate, of course, is that it is the Prime Minister himself, not the Minister who will be replying, who has responsibility for the machinery of government, and for that reason I ask the Minister to undertake in his response that he will draw what is said today, more especially what is said on behalf of the ex-service organisations, very urgently to the personal attention of the Prime Minister.

I must also make it clear that the issue that we are debating today is one about which the ex-service community feels very strongly indeed. This year's Royal British Legion conference, which spoke for 800,000 Legion members, yet again voted unanimously to press the Government to establish a sub-Department of ex-service affairs in an existing Ministry.

The ex-service community wants someone in Whitehall to focus the Government's attention on all their concerns : a Minister who can provide full access to the Government as a whole through a single Whitehall door. As of now, not only is the left hand of Government often patently unaware of what the right hand is doing, but it frequently appears not to know whether there is any right hand at all.

The sub-Department we seek will have a co-ordinating function so that, where people have disabilities and need help in regard to a war pension or a mobility allowance, housing, employment or retraining, they will no longer have to deal with 17 different Ministries. For them now to have to do so is needlessly bureaucratic and inefficient, costly to the taxpayer, damaging to the reputations of Westminster and Whitehall and hurtful to the ex-service community.

I know from my own experience as Minister for Disabled People from 1974 to 1979, as some other Members of the House will know from their ministerial experience, that there will be more to the proposed new sub-Department than a co-ordinating role. Those who work in the sub-Department, more especially the Minister under whom it operates, will acquire a wide-ranging knowledge of the problems and needs of the ex-service community.

Who can doubt that all the recent tension between the Government and the ex -service community over the 50th anniversary of D-Day could have been avoided if there had been more sensitivity to and awareness of that community's wishes than proved possible under today's scheme of things ? The lesson we must learn from that debacle is that there was a disastrous lack of communication between Government Departments and the ex-service community until it was too late to avoid confrontation.

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What the motion proposes is without financial penalty, and involves no extra tier of administration. Fifty years after the second world war, when all who served are now pensioners, it is a clear duty of this House constantly to inquire how well we are looking after that generation. All of us owe them an especial debt. That we are not now honouring that debt is not difficult to prove. The revelations made by the media about the plight of many of the war widows whose husbands died on the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944, not least of those who have never been able independently to afford to visit their husbands' graves, is proof enough.

Take the case of Harry Furbear, aged 77, the veteran of the Normandy beaches who was left dying on a trolley at a London teaching hospital, until his family offered to pay for a private bed. He died at King's College hospital on 6 June 1994--the 50th anniversary of D-day--after waiting for five hours in the accident and emergency department there for an NHS bed. That case, like the financial difficulties of so many elderly war widows, shames us all.

Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East) : By using that example, which manifestly should not have happened--I do not know the full story behind it--the right hon. Gentleman is reawakening my worries about the proposal, which the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) dispelled. I congratulate him on tabling the motion. He talked about a Minister who would be a facilitator and who would, basically, bang heads together. What the right hon. Gentleman is implying is that there would be a substantial sub-Department which would take over the roles of other Departments that applied to ex-service men. There would then be a major dispute between the Department of Social Security, the Department of Health and other Departments.

We should all wish to dissociate ourselves from the example given. No one is suggesting that a Minister with responsibility for ex-service men could have stopped that happening. It was clearly a management issue within a particular hospital.

Mr. Morris : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice). That case was argued in the media, not only in the journals of ex-service organisations, as an instructive lesson about the need to make sure that there is a focal point to which families very quickly can refer. I shall be making it clear as I proceed that there are many avoidable cases of suffering that a co-ordinating Minister could avoid by prevention.

I entirely agree with the hon. Member--we agree from time to time on other issues--but I hope that he will agree with me that the distressing case I mentioned has many lessons to teach us. We are not talking about a new Department of State or about a single Minister acting executively in every case. We want to prevent any kind of preventable suffering by having institutional arrangements that make it impossible to happen.

Mr. Heald : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Morris : I heard the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald), who wants me now to give way, talk earlier about the national health service. It is too little known--I speak as a former co-ordinating Minister--that war pensioners have a special right to

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priority in the national health service. They have priority as of right. Now that is not known to thousands of GPs and other doctors in this country.

With the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer), I was with the principal officers of the Royal British Legion the day before yesterday. We were talking then about the extent of ignorance in the medical world of the priority that existing arrangements allow war pensioners. But we need--I put it most strongly to the

House--constantly to remind the community of the rights of the ex-service community, so that, as I said, the case at King's College hospital cannot happen again. I shall mention other points.

Mr. Heald : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Morris : Very briefly, because there are other people who want to speak in the debate.

Mr. Heald : I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I will keep it brief, because I would like to make a contribution myself. On the point about the hospital in London, how on earth would it have made a difference if there had been a Minister for ex-service men's affairs ? He would not have been managing that hospital or had any role within it, would he ?

Mr. Morris : I think I have already responded to a similar point. What I have said is that it is not appreciated by many GPs, among other people in the national health service, that war pensioners have special claims. That is not clearly enough known. The precise details of the case have been gone into at much greater length than I gave this morning. I think I was entitled to assume that the House would be familiar both with the particular case and with the concern expressed about it in the ex- service community.

I speak, as the House has heard, as joint honorary parliamentary adviser, with the hon. Member for Shipley, to the Royal British Legion. In that capacity, I have a close and continuing relationship, day by day, with those who administer the Royal British Legion and who look at cases like the one I have mentioned as legitimate grounds for concern.

Of course, the debt we owe to Britain's armed forces is not confined to those who served from l939 to 1945 . Indeed, against the background of "Options for Change" and statements on the next round of defence cuts, there is need now not only to protect the men and women about to leave the services and those who have already left, but also to maintain the confidence of those still serving from whom so much will be expected.

Some people ask why the ex-service community must be treated as a special case. Many serve for as long as 30 years. Their conditions of service are special and the problems they face on leaving the service are not understood by most civilians. While the disciplined and ordered life they lead provides security, their career demands obedience and the taking of special risks. But unless they are injured or killed, this does not grant them or their dependants special treatment.

The demands made of those on active service--most recently in the Falklands and the Gulf, in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, where another young British soldier gave his life this week--are more widely recognised than those of service men and women generally.

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How many of us in this House appreciate how difficult it can be for people now leaving the forces to readjust to civilian life, perhaps years earlier than they expected to be doing ? Unlike their civilian counterparts, they have no territorial rights and no place on local authority housing lists. The days have long gone when ex- service people, on demobilisation or discharge, had priority for local authority housing.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East) : In Northern Ireland, ex- service people still have a degree of priority with the Housing Executive.

Mr. Morris : I am aware that there are differences within the United Kingdom, which themselves point to the need for more co-ordination. I rather sense that, in Northern Ireland, there is a bit more co-ordination between Departments than there is on this side of the water.

Ex-service people, on demobilisation or discharge, used to have a priority- -indeed, a prescriptive right--to be considered urgently for local authority housing. That is not so today. Nor is retraining needed for employment in civilian life readily available. When civilians lose their jobs, most have a home and friends in their community to help them. Their wives or husbands have jobs to support the family and their children will be at the local school. This is not so in the case of a service man who, if not from overseas, will be coming from another part of the country. Often both partners will have to look for a job, to find a home and a school and to put down roots in a community. All these problems involve different Government Departments and local authorities. It is for that reason that a specialised and co-ordinating Minister, with a staff who understand the whole range of the ex-service community's problems, is now so essential.

All of us rejoice, of course, that we have had no major war for 50 years. One consequence of this is that civil servants and even senior members of the Government have no first-hand experience of service life. The knowledge required to deal with customers--if I may borrow a term from the citizen's charter--often is not there. It is not there in the way that it would be, for example, in a community in the Rhondda, where a DSS official who did not know all about problems of ex-miners would be a very unusual official indeed.

I say without hesitation, from much personal knowledge of its admirable work, that the War Pensions Agency at Norcross has a very high reputation with the ex-service community for the sympathetic way in which it handles their problems. They are handled at Norcross by people who, although not having served, have obvious sympathy with ex-service people from dealing exclusively and as specialists with their problems and needs. This could quite easily be achieved across the board, not just for war pensioners but for all ex-service people, by setting up the sub-Department of ex-service affairs called for by the motion.

Let me give the House an example of how what we are seeking in this motion could have helped a soldier whose injuries led to paralysis in the lower part of his body in addition to other severe disabilities. He spent a very long time in a military hospital, not because his disabilities made it necessary for him to receive further treatment there, but simply because there was nowhere else for him to go. Although the local council where he wished to settle had agreed in principle to accommodate him, it could not

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confirm this until he had left the Army. But the Army would not discharge him without proof that he had somewhere to live--a catch-22 situation par excellence.

In this case, a co-ordinating Minister and agency would clearly have been able either to prevent or at least quickly to resolve that unfortunate ex- service man's problems. Thanks to his Member of Parliament, social workers and painstakingly hard work by the Legion, his avoidable extra suffering is now at an end. He is comfortably housed in a specially adapted home and is planning to write a book about his experiences.

That disturbing case alone demonstrates the urgent need for a co-ordinating Minister and agency. But sadly, the case is by no means unusual. In fact, the legion has had to act as a sort of sub-department of ex-service affairs itself in helping thousands of other ex-service victims of the present "system"--I put the word in quotation marks--and is continuing to do so. That is not, of course, the legion's role. It should be acting to supplement Government assistance, not as a substitute for it. Yet every day, it finds service men and women who lack the help and advice they need simply because they do not know where to turn to get it.

This motion can stop that happening. It will also enable the Government of the day, through the Minister responsible, to establish a closer and more effective relationship and better lines of communication with the ex- service community and the organisations, like the Royal British Legion, that work with unceasing concern and distinction to defend and promote their interests. It will improve Government policy-making and make the community as a whole more aware of the needs of people than whom no one has a more compelling call on the attention and support of this House.

10.56 am

Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport) : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye in this very important debate. I know that a number of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members want to contribute, so I shall be brief.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) for the way in which he spoke. Although I do not entirely agree with the wording of his motion, I am sympathetic to the suggestion that we should set up a sub- department. I share the caution of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer), who spoke so eloquently.

I recall that, 11 years ago, after I left a military hospital, I came home on the night of the 1983 general election. I knew that I had little time left to serve in Her Majesty's forces and I wondered what I was going to do ; what the future held for me. When I was originally commissioned into the Gordon Highlanders I had hoped to remain in the service and make a contribution, at least up to the age of 55. Sadly, that was not to be because of injury.

On that night in 1983, with only a few weeks to go before I was discharged, I recall watching the election results coming in and making the decision there and then that I wished to become a Member of Parliament. Now, a decade or so later, I have the opportunity, provided by the hon. Member for Thurrock, to pay tribute to the staff and civil servants who now form part of the War Pensions

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Agency for their dedication, expertise and enthusiasm in looking after the interests of ex-service men and women, especially those who have been disabled in the service of their country.

A number of hon. Members have referred to the ages of ex-service men and women who have been disabled, and their dependants. It is not just a question of those in their 70s or older ; not of those in their 60s or 50s ; but of those in receipt of war pensions who require our help and support but who are very much younger than myself. They have served with distinction. There are those who were injured in Northern Ireland ; those who served in the Falkland Islands ; those who served in other conflicts in the middle east ; or, indeed, those about whom we do not necessarily know, and of whose activities we may all too often be only vaguely aware, but who nevertheless did sterling work and were injured looking after the interests of this country and Europe, and the peace of the world as a whole. They have had to give up their careers and in some instances were particularly badly injured.

I am fortunate ; officially, I am only 20 per cent. disabled. I receive some £86 per month tax-free from the Paymaster General. There are many people--the hon. Member for Thurrock and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) referred to other instances--who are at least 90 per cent. disabled. I do not know about the King's college case which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, but he was entirely right to draw attention to the priority treatment which those in receipt of war pensions should receive.

I pay tribute to the War Pensions Agency for publishing a new document entitled "War Pensions and Other Support--How To Claim : MPL153 April 1994". The document was published when the agency was created. Among other things, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, it draws attention to the priority that should be given in the national health service to those who require treatment for their war disability. It clearly says that ex- service men and women must make sure that their doctors and hospitals know that they are war pensioners, and if they have any difficulties, it lists the names, addresses and telephone numbers of people throughout the United Kingdom, on the mainland and in Northern Ireland, whom they can contact.

In the next few moments, I hope that it will be possible for me--following the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West--to suggest that it is entirely right that we should be cautious. We do not want to try to cut through the red tape and find, as I fear, that far from achieving what we want, we end up winding the whole thing in red tape. Certainly, at the end of this week, there will be at least 211 signatures on the early-day motion to which my hon. Friend referred. As he knows, I tend not to sign early-day motions because, frankly, their merits have been devalued somewhat recently. However, I think that it is an important one, and I hope that my hon. Friend is right and that the number of signatures will reach 250 or more shortly.

The issue will not go away but, I hope that, in drawing attention to some of the many positive things which the Government, the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Social Security have done, especially over the past 20 years, it will be possible to demonstrate that it is not necessary to have full-blown bureaucracy--a Department or, indeed, a Minister. To put the remarks of the hon.

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Member for Thurrock in context, I shall look back and see what has been done to look after war widows and those who are war disabled. The armed forces pension scheme has been significantly improved since 1973. Before then, war widows could receive only the Department of Social Security pension or a forces pension based on their husbands' service, whichever was the greater. Since 1973, war widows have been allowed to keep both pensions. At the time, there was criticism that a differential had been created between the two groups of widows.

I am satisfied that it has been addressed, because special Ministry of Defence payments to pre-1973 war widows were introduced in 1989 by the former Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). In April 1990, a tax-free payment of some £40 a week was introduced for all such women, and it now amounts to £47.84 per week. Also, since 1979, the Government have uprated war widows' pensions in line with inflation, and in 1979 the pension was made a tax- free payment, which is particularly significant.

In 1984, a new tier of age allowance was introduced to provide additional money for war widows aged over 80, and now there are age allowances for all widows over the age of 65. In 1987, extra help for funeral costs was made available to all war pensioners. The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe drew attention to that, and to the opportunities that are available for dependants to visit Commonwealth war graves throughout the world. Those are significant steps, and I know that the measures are warmly welcomed across the House. Improvements have been made to income disregards for the purposes of calculating social security benefits. The payment that I mentioned of £47.84 is disregarded completely in benefit calculations, and other awards are partially disregarded. I shall lay down one marker in that regard. It is right that the Department of the Environment, the Department of Social Security and the Ministry of Defence should actively seek to encourage more local authorities to allow a greater disregard of housing benefit, because all too often the war pension is added into the calculation of how much money disabled ex-service men and women can earn before a decision is taken on how much benefit they should receive.

War disablement pensions are rightly paid at different rates to disabled people, depending on the extent of their disability. A pension is paid in cases where disablement is assessed at 20 per cent. or more ; for those who are assessed at 19 per cent. or less, there is a range of one-off payments.

I particularly want to draw attention to two or three allowances. First, a treatment allowance is paid at the full rate of disablement pension where a person requires treatment for his condition and has reduced earnings as a result. When I left the Army, I received an allowance which brought my income to somewhere near the level that I might have enjoyed if I had remained an officer in Her Majesty's forces.

An unemployability supplement is available in cases of severe disability, together with additions for dependants. An invalidity allowance is paid to those in receipt of unemployability supplement, and a constant attendant allowance exists for pensioners in hospitals who require personal attendance because of their disability. That allowance is paid to people with a life expectancy of six months or less, whether or not he or she requires attendance.

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There are also allowances for severe disablement, which are paid to people who are in work. There are also allowances for those working in a lower standard of occupation because of their injuries. There are age allowances, clothing allowances, comfort allowances and temporary allowances for widows which can be paid when a war pensioner dies while not eligible for unemployability supplement or constant attendance allowance. There is a considerable number of allowances.

With the advent of the War Pensions Agency, I am especially pleased that the Department of Social Security is giving greater publicity to those allowances. In Southport, which has a higher than average proportion of ex- service men and women--and, I might add, a higher proportion of members of the Royal British Legion in our community--more of them are beginning to realise that they are able to take advantage of those allowances. I pay tribute to those who work in the War Pensions Agency, who have bent over backwards to assist people needing help in making claims.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock on allowing us the opportunity to debate this issue. I underline the comments that I made earlier in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West. It is entirely right that we should be cautious. I shall listen carefully to the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister when he replies to the debate. We should recognise today the enormous amount of good work that is being undertaken. I end where I started--by paying tribute to the commitment, expertise and enthusiasm of the staff of the War Pensions Agency.

11.10 am

Mrs. Diana Maddock (Christchurch) : I am delighted that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) has given us the opportunity to discuss today the welfare of ex-service men and women and to explore ways in which we can better co-ordinate the handling of ex-service men's affairs at a governmental level.

This time last year, the constituency that I now represent was portrayed across our television screens as perhaps a retirement paradise--a pretty place to retire. For many of the people who live there, life is not quite so pretty as that picture, so the subject of the debate today is of concern to me and to many of my constituents, many of whom are retired service personnel.

Before I discuss whether we should have a Department of ex-service affairs, I wish to highlight the experiences of one or two of my ex-service constituents who feel that they have not had a fair deal. Last year, a retired squadron leader wrote to me. He was worried about how he would pay VAT on his fuel bills. He went on to tell me that, when he retired from the Royal Air Force in 1958, under the terms and conditions of the Government's premature retirement axe, which was in force at the time, he became entitled to a full officer's retirement pension. All well and good, we might say. Many deserving cases fail to achieve that. However, ever since he was first awarded his pension, its value has been fading away. My constituent's entitlement now, up to and including last year's pension increase, is a little more than £8,500 a year. That is for a rank equivalent to Army major. By comparison, the annual pension of a squadron leader who retired last year would be closer to £16,000. Today, retired payment awards are almost double those made to officers who retired between 1956 and 1959. Indeed, their widows'

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pensions are about three times higher. It seems to me and to my constituent that, if it is considered right that officers who retire today need those rates of pay currently awarded in order to maintain a reasonable standard of living, the same reasoning should apply in the cases of officers who retired in earlier generations. My constituent had this to say :

"Most surviving RAF aircrew of my generation fought throughout the last war ; . . . we had naively thought that we would at least be treated in a comparable manner to those officers who followed us. We were wrong".

I know that the issue of the low levels of pension awarded has been raised in the House by other hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace).

Mr. Heald : Is what the hon. Lady is putting forward the Liberal viewpoint ? Does she know what the Labour viewpoint is? There is not one Labour Member in the Chamber for the debate on a major issue of this importance. Not even the proposer of the motion is present.

Mrs. Maddock : The view that I am giving is the view of my constituent, as relayed to me and which I promised to relay to the House. I have considerable sympathy with what that gentleman had to say.

One of the issues raised with me--this was mentioned by the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks)--by many of my constituents is the decline in the use of war pensions disregards by local councils when calculating certain benefits. Traditionally, local councils have been encouraged to disregard war pensions when calculating housing benefit and council tax benefit, but I fear that the great squeeze on local authority budgets implemented by the Government has meant that an increasing number of councils are having to look again at whether they can afford the disregard. I do not believe that that is necessarily because they lack compassion or are disrespectful to ex -service men. It is simply that the budgets are so tightly controlled by Whitehall that it is becoming more and more difficult to find that money.

Given that both housing benefit and council tax benefit are determined by central Government--even if they are administered by local government--it would not be wholly unreasonable to place a statutory duty on local councils to disregard at least some of every war pension when they calculate benefits. That would have to be accompanied by measures to allow local authorities to gather the funds necessary to do so.

I was also contacted earlier this year by an ex-service man who has had considerable difficulty obtaining a higher rate of war disablement pension. He has been trying to do so ever since he was discharged from the Army with rheumatic fever after the second world war. He was told when he was examined by an Army doctor when he joined in 1940, "You are an A1 chap. You will do all that an A1 chap is required to do. If you refuse to do it at home you will be court martialled and if you refuse to do it overseas you could be shot for cowardice."

After my constituent left the Army, he was told that he had never been fully fit and that his military service had aggravated a problem that was already there. Yet he has had the greatest difficulty convincing anyone else of that. He has been referred to the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Social Security and the Department of

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Health about his pension entitlement as well as to the chief executive of the Benefits Agency, and that is just in the past year. It does not really make any sense. So there is clear logic in having one Minister who can handle ex-service affairs as a whole, particularly when they go wrong.

Sir Jim Spicer : The hon. Lady outlines a sad category of disaster for that person. At what point has she written in indignation to the Minister on his behalf and said that she will not put up with treatment of that order for a constituent and that she wants something done ? Has she received no reply to the constant attempts that she has made ? If she has not, it is a disgraceful state of affairs and all of us should be disturbed by it.

Mrs. Maddock : Of course I have written on behalf of this gentleman, as my predecessor also did. We have failed to get satisfaction. I am still pursuing the matter. The gentleman had his case referred to an independent tribunal. It found in his favour, but I regret that the Government have not gone along with that. The matter is still being pursued.

The question is whether setting up a new sub-Department would help. I know that the Royal British Legion says that it would, and I have great respect for its views. It is attracted by the obvious benefits of having one focal point in the Government with which to deal. We could benefit from having a Minister with responsibility for ex-service affairs, without the disadvantages of the added bureaucracy of separating ex-service personnel benefits from those of other recipients and of dealing with their problems in a vacuum. There is a great danger that, if a separate Department of ex- service affairs were created, it could lead to marginalisation of those interests just as easily as the present system does.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) : I was reflecting on what the hon. Lady said a moment ago about the case of her constituent, who, she said, had gone to appeal and had won the appeal, but it had not been acted on. It would help the House, and certainly the Minister, if she could give individual details of the case, so that we can be sure that what she is saying is absolutely right, because she has levelled a severe charge.

Furthermore, she said earlier that she was speaking on behalf of her constituents. That is all well and good, but if she is speaking for her constituents and not for the Liberal Democratic party, of which she is a member, will she explain to the House why there is no spokesman for her party in the Chamber prepared to explain her party's policy on such an important matter ?

Mrs. Maddock : First, obviously, I have written to the Minister, I am writing again and I shall continue to pursue it. Secondly, yes, I am speaking as a member of my party, and I said earlier that the Liberal Democrats had some sympathy with the motion. I apologise if that was not clear.

Mr. Heald : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an allegation to be made that the Government are in contempt of an order of a court, without giving the name of the person concerned and the details of the case ?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : As far as the Chair is concerned, in this Chamber hon. Members are responsible for their own words.

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Mrs. Maddock : Perhaps I should clarify matters. I made the point that the decision was made not in a court but at an independent tribunal on ex-service affairs. It found in my constituent's favour and made a recommendation and it was not acted on, as I understand it.

Mr. Heald : Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Without trespassing on the good will of the Chair, it must be the case that, if it is a statutory tribunal, it has the powers of a court. If the allegation is that the Government are in contempt of court, it is about the gravest possible charge in our constitution. We must have the details.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the ruling that I have just given. Equally, the hon. Lady will have heard the views of the House and will wish to respond as she deems fit.

Mrs. Maddock : I am still pursuing the matter because we have not had an answer yet, so it is probably inappropriate to take it further today. I have written to the Minister. I merely want to point out that people have such problems.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken) : The hon. Lady is getting into quite deep water, and I wonder if shwould respond to my invitation to withdraw what appears to be quite a serious allegation against some unknown Minister about some unnamed constituent. She has left an impression with the House that a decision on an appeal has been reached by a statutory tribunal, but that the Government --or a Minister--have been refusing to implement the tribunal's decision. From everything that I know about the way in which Government and Ministers work, that is almost unthinkable. Therefore, she has made a serious allegation. I sense from some of her most recent answers that she is not quite sure of her facts. Would she care to reword her allegation, and at least leave us with the impression that perhaps there are more questions to be asked, before she makes such a serious allegation ?

Mrs. Maddock : I apologise if hon. Members think that I have been accusing a Minister of not responding. I was trying to point out that my constituent had problems in sorting out the matter and that I was in correspondence with the Minister to try to remedy it. If that does not clarify the situation, I am willing to give the Minister details after the debate.

Some of the problems identified by the Royal British Legion relate to the universal incomprehensibility of our benefits system. Many people have problems dealing with many of our Government processes, and such problems are not unique to ex-service personnel. However, ex-service personnel suffer more than most because of the different culture and different methods of dealing with their housing or their disability, for example, in the armed forces.

I hope that the Government will get the message from this debate that there is a fundamental problem in our tax and benefits system, which sends members of the public running from pillar to post between the Department of Social Security and its myriad agencies, the Department of Health, the Department of Employment and many other Departments. Sometimes tribunals go on for a number of years. Sometimes they are adjourned because relevant information is not available and we have to start all over

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again. Our entire social security system needs to become much more user-friendly, and particular attention should be paid to the problems faced by ex-service personnel.

The recent commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the D-day landings in Normandy has reminded any of us who needed a reminder that we owe a great debt to those who fought fascism half a century ago so that we could enjoy freedom and democracy in Britain and in many other parts of the world. We are all as rightly proud of our Royal Navy, the British Army and our Royal Air Force as we ever were. Our armed forces are facing cuts on a scale not seen since the end of the second world war, so we should be especially aware of the importance of helping ex-service personnel back into civilian life--encouraging them to retrain and to use their skills in industry, giving them the opportunity to resume their education if that is what they choose and assisting them, as other hon. Members have said, in obtaining decent housing.

The handling of ex-service affairs at a governmental level remains a problem, as we have all heard. The Government have so far shown a rather disappointing unwillingness to address that problem, so I hope that they will at least facilitate a proper meeting with ex-service men's representatives to consider how the matters should be addressed and to listen to what they have to say. Having a Minister for ex-service affairs, or perhaps giving a Minister in either or both of the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Social Security responsibility for dealing with and co-ordinating ex-service affairs would be a positive step forward and a much-needed sign that the Government recognise the problems highlighted in the debate and have a will to tackle the problems. I hope that they will take that step.

11.27 am

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