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War Pensions

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

10 pm

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): We have listened to an exceptionally good maiden speech by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who spoke with great clarity and concern for her constituency. She will find that, in the House, those who speak on behalf of their constituents with knowledge and concern will always win an audience.

In my mere 23 years in the House, I have twice followed maiden speakers. They were both men, and I have followed their future careers with keen interest. The hon. Lady is my first "parliamentary god-daughter", and similarly, I shall follow her career with interest--until the Conservatives can sweep her out of Pontefract and Castleford, which I hope will be as soon as possible.

I am also delighted to see my comparatively near parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), as the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security on the Government Front Bench. If we have to have Labour Ministers, I suppose that I am as happy to see him there as anyone else, and I hope that he will listen to my plea on behalf of my constituents. Perhaps he will decide that there is merit in the case.

I welcome the chance to speak on behalf of two ofmy constituents who, I believe, have been treated inappropriately by Government, which has resulted in profoundly serious damage to them. The issue is connected with an allowance called the allowance for lowered standard of occupation. The acronym for that is ALSO, but I shall refer to it as "the allowance".

I shall quote copiously from a guide to war pensions policy produced by the Department of Social Security. It says:

The injury or disablement

    "must be such as to 'render him incapable, and likely to remain permanently incapable, of following his regular occupation and incapable of following any other occupation which is of an equivalent standard and is suitable in his case".

Of course, those terms need careful definition. "Regular occupation" means

    "(i) the occupation which was his regular (service) occupation on the date the injury was sustained, or

    (ii) the occupation which was his regular (service) occupation on the date he was first removed from duty because of the disease on which his award is based, or

    (iii) if there were no such occurrences, the occupation which was his regular (service) occupation on the date he was discharged."

I would interpret that guidance as meaning that one should apply first test (i), then test (ii), and failing those,

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test (iii). "Regular occupation" for service after 31 July 1973 means

    "the regular service job that the claimant was doing at the appropriate date . . . It is important therefore that the precise service job is identified eg infantryman: electrician: weapons mechanic: cook: clerk: driver: pilot: navigator etc. before consideration is given as to whether the war pensioned disablement renders the ex-serviceman 'incapable, and likely to remain permanently incapable, of following [that] regular occupation".

The note continues:

    "Where the regular occupation is the service occupation, and the claimant was invalided because of the accepted disablement, it can normally be accepted that he is incapable of following his regular occupation. That will also be the case if, because of the accepted disablement, the claimant was moved from his regular occupation to another job, albeit still in the armed forces."

That is exactly the case in one of my constituency cases. The note concludes:

    "Occasionally a claimant might argue that although his pensioned disablement did not prevent him carrying on in his regular occupation, he should be entitled to ALSO because he was excused because of his disablement from involvement in certain activities which would normally be expected of all servicemen eg training, exercises/sport. Clearly a marine commando who could not cope with training exercises would be eligible on discharge to ALSO (peak physical fitness being an essential prerequisite for such a job); in that case, it would be very unlikely that he would have retained his job."

The allowance was paid to about 13,500 ex-service men and women until 1996. The maximum amount was £38.12 and those in receipt of it made all their financial plans on the basis that the allowance would continue. Who would contemplate--even in one's worst nightmares--that an allowance granted by the British Government would be withdrawn? Surely such an allowance should be as solid as the Bank of England.

Those receiving the allowance made housing and other long-term plans on the basis of it, and took it into account when taking on mortgages or other debts. To take an extreme example, a recipient of the allowance faced with separation or divorce would make a settlement on the basis of the allowance continuing. The loss of the allowance in those circumstances could lead to real hardship.

For about 1,300 people in receipt of the allowance, their worst nightmare came true. In January 1996, the Department of Social Security informed 1,300 ex-service men that they were to lose their allowance. I have one such letter here, addressed to my constituent Mr. Ken Harding. The letter states:

That disablement allowance was for deafness. Mr. Harding became a chief petty officer in the Navy and worked as a supervisor with special responsibility for deck operations on aircraft carriers. He served on a range of ships, and worked on deck with Gannet aircraft, Sea Vixen and Phantom jets and Sea King helicopters.

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I wonder whether the person who decided that Mr. Harding was not permanently incapable of following his occupation has ever been at sea during fleet operations. It is noisy and hazardous, with tons of heavy metal catapulting off the heaving deck and back on again. Accuracy and reliability are crucial. To describe him simply as an engineering aircraft mechanic is simplistic and inadequate. Mr. Harding later went on to work at the Royal Navy's aircraft yard in my constituency, working on land on helicopter servicing and repairs. I suspect that the Department of Social Security regarded this as an extension of his service work when they disqualified him from the allowance.

My other constituency case is more bizarre. Mr. Mike Tungate served in the Royal Marine Commandos and reached the rank of sergeant. He was supremely fit and took pleasure and pride in physical activity. In July 1985, he was injured when he was thrown from his motor cycle in an accident that was not his fault. He has since suffered permanent injuries to his shoulder and elsewhere. I have a medical report here from a Doctor Grayson, dated May 1997, which states:

Another medical report--also issued in 1987--from Mr. Neville Seymour, in Plymouth, states:

    "His general activities have been severely restricted: he has been unable to undertake battle fitness tests; he cannot lift and hold weapons. He tells me that his service contract has three years to run, but he had hoped to spend another five years in the forces."

The contents of those medical reports are reflected in the armed forces reports on Mr. Tungate. A letter from Major Binnie of the Royal Marines in Plymouth, dated May 1987, says that Mr. Tungate

    "was medically downgraded to P2 (Modified Commando) on 9 March 1987 as a result of his accident. This means that he must henceforth work in the rear echelons of units and in office jobs. Additionally he cannot undergo Mountain and Arctic Warfare Training nor can he attempt the normally mandatory Basic Fitness Test and the Annual Personal Weapons Test.

    Whilst this does not directly affect his fitness for promotion it inevitably damages his prospects. Being ineligible to hold field posts in a Commando Unit denies him the full range of job experience that is an essential part of a man's promotion. Nor is he able to compete effectively with his contemporaries who have the opportunity to gain a balanced career.

    Whilst it is difficult to quantify his damage, he has been disadvantaged by his accident and the subsequent medical downgrading. I do not believe he will now gain the width of experience necessary for further promotion."

In the official report on Sergeant Tungate for 1987-88, his reporting officer said--after praising Sergeant Tungate's qualities, his enthusiasm and his excellence generally--

    "Regrettably, Sgt Tungate's medical condition puts certain restrictions upon him and his career . . . Sgt Tungate has now been a Sergeant almost 9 years. I am of the opinion that his medical condition and somewhat limited experience in the clerical branch would debar him from being employed as a CSgt (C1)"--

that is, a colour sergeant.

    "It is with sincere regret that I have to suggest that Sgt Tungate has reached his final rung on the ladder of promotion."

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    His colonel said:

    "Sgt Tungate is doing a good job . . . and I am very happy to have him here but in all honesty for the reasons stated above he has reached his ceiling."

Sergeant Tungate received a letter telling him that he would not be eligible for the allowance for lowered standard of occupation. It said:

    "We have reviewed your case and have concluded that your pensioned disablement assessed at 40 per cent., does not make you permanently incapable of following your regular (service) occupation of"--

wait for it--


Later, the war pensions policy unit wrote to me as follows:

    "Examination of Mr. Tungate's Service documents shows that at the time of his shoulder injury in 1985 his listed trade was that of Clerk, and that he had not been removed from duty on account of his shoulder or other injuries. The WPA therefore determined that his injuries had not prevented him from following his 'regular occupation' up to the time of his discharge"

in 1990, and that he was not eligible for the allowance.

A Royal Marines commando was described as a clerk! I suppose that clerking duties are involved; I suppose that a Royal Marines commando must keep an inventory of hand grenades, and make sure that the men have weapons, food and everything else that they need in order to fight--and, of course, he will be carrying his own weapon just in case it becomes necessary for him to fight back. To call him a clerk, however, is completely wrong. The person who arrived at that classification cannot have known about Royal Marines mountain and Arctic training, cannot have know what it is like to patrol the streets of Northern Ireland and cannot have seen the areas in the Falklands across which it was necessary for Royal Marines and others to yomp.

How can Mike Tungate be deprived of his allowance? I repeat that the Department's briefing notes say:

Sergeant Tungate was so highly regarded that he was kept on, in a slightly different role, in the rear echelon. It may be that that act of kindness to him, because of his great quality, deprived him of his allowance. If that is the case, it is quite wrong.

I am absolutely sure that I know the answer in this case. A mistake was made when 13,500 cases were reviewed. The fact that Mr. Tungate continued to be defined as a clerk up to the end of his service led officials to believe that he had not suffered lowered standard of occupation. I am convinced that he had, and that there was a mistake.

The Minister has been provided with a brief, no doubt by the same team of civil servants who prepared the brief from which answers were given to me previously, but I say to the hon. Gentleman--whom I could almost, as a neighbour, call an hon. Friend--that there are cases in which Ministers need to read the brief and form their own decision. That is why we have Ministers and why he and not a civil servant is sitting there.

There has been an error, to the great loss of my constituents. They are fine men who have given devoted service. I plead with the Minister to reconsider and to restore to them the allowance for lowered standard of occupation.

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