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10.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Denham): I thank the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) for bringing this matter to the House and for his warm introductory words. He has a deep knowledge of service matters and represents a constituency with an unusually high proportion of service and ex-service personnel.

I pay tribute to those former members of the forces who have suffered disablement or death in the service of their country. I also acknowledge the invaluable work performed by the ex-service organisations in serving the interests of former service men and women. My Department keeps in close and regular touch with those organisations, as we recognise the importance of ensuring continuing awareness of feelings and concerns among the ex-service community. Indeed, my noble Friend Baroness Hollis, as the Minister with special responsibility for war pensions, met representatives of the ex-service organisations twice last month.

I would like to set this debate about one supplementary allowance into the context of the war pensions scheme as a whole. The scheme provides a number of allowances to supplement the basic war disablement pension, forming a wide range of financial provisions for disabled ex-service men and women.

Allowances are available in respect of age, unemployability and care and mobility needs arising as a result of war pensioned disablement. Most of the allowances are at preferential rates compared with social security counterparts and some are peculiar to the war pensions scheme. The scheme also provides pensions for the widows and other dependants of ex-service personnel whose death is linked to service.

The allowance for lowered standard of occupation is known in both the ex-service world and official circles by the abbreviation ALSO. I propose to refer to it as such during this debate.

The forerunner of ALSO, which is currently £40.44 maximum a week, was a special hardship allowance introduced in 1946. Its clear purpose was to compensate an ex-service man who, because of injury incurred as a result of service during the war, was unable to do the civilian job that he did before he joined up and had to settle for a job with less pay. The allowance was to help to bridge the gap between his current earnings and those that he had enjoyed in his pre-service occupation. In May 1948, the allowance was renamed the allowance for lowered standard of occupation.

The original allowance was to compensate world war two conscripts where pre-service careers had been adversely affected by their injury. From 1973, the law relating to ALSO was amended to provide for career service men. For those disabled due to service after 31 July 1973, the comparison is made with the pensioner's occupation in service, instead of his pre-service occupation. Under the change, it became necessary for the Secretary of State to determine what the ex-service man's "regular occupation" was while he was in service on whichever of three dates applies in the individual case. Those dates were the date his service wound or injury was sustained; or the day he was first removed from duty because of the disease on which the award is based; or if neither of the above occurred, the date he was discharged.

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Subsequently, from April 1978, the conditions were further amended to widen the scope to include war pensioners whose disablement was due to service before 1 August 1973 and who had entered the forces straight from school or higher education after 2 September 1939 and before 1 August 1973. Those pensioners had previously been excluded from consideration of ALSO because they had no regular pre-service occupation.

From April 1997, a new award of ALSO may not be made where the claimant has attained the age of 65; nor may an award be made where the degree of disablement is assessed at less than 40 per cent. With those exceptions, ALSO may be awarded to the war pensioner whose war pensioned disablement is such as to

The allowance is therefore designed to compensate the ex-service man who, because of his war pensioned disablement, is unable to follow his regular service trade or occupation and a civilian one of an equivalent standard. It is not intended to provide compensation solely on the ground that his earnings have reduced since leaving the forces. That is a situation often faced by ex-service men because service pay is based on the earnings of comparable civilian occupations, with the addition of what is generally referred to as the X factor in recognition of the special circumstances of service life.

I should explain at this stage that "regular occupation" is interpreted by the Secretary of State as the regular service job that the claimant was doing at the relevant time. It is important therefore that the precise service job is identified, in the same way as it is important for world war two conscripts to identify the precise job the ex-service man was doing as a civilian before he joined the armed forces. The "regular occupation" therefore is not simply "service man" but, for example, as the hon. Gentleman said, infantryman, electrician, weapons mechanic, cook, clerk, driver, pilot, navigator and so on.

Once the precise occupation is determined, consideration is given to whether the war pensioned disablement is such as to render the ex-service man incapable of following that regular occupation and one of an equivalent standard which is suitable for him.

The law does not define what is meant by the terms "equivalent standard" or "suitable", but the Secretary of State interprets that as meaning any other job with equivalent earnings and which is suitable for him taking into account his training, education, experience and physical and mental condition. I should stress that that is a generous interpretation. The earnings comparison is with the level of earnings in the regular service occupation, not with the level of earnings in a civilian equivalent job.

In 1994, it came to light that the legislative provisions for ALSO were being misinterpreted. Some awards had been incorrectly made. Consideration had been given only to whether the man's earnings in civilian life were less than his service wages and whether the man could now get back into service. That led to payments being made where relatively minor disablement had not had any effect on the pensioner's earnings potential or, in some cases, prevented continuation of the service career up to normal military retirement. No consideration had been given to

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whether the man's disablement itself actually made him incapable of following his service occupation. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is right that any payments are within the law.

In March 1995, the matter was brought to the attention of the Advisory Committee on War Pensions. It was explained that new awards would be made only where the pensioned disablement would prevent the war pensioner from following his regular service occupation and a suitable equivalent and that existing cases would be reviewed to ensure that existing awards were soundly based in accordance with the legislation. Some awards were eventually withdrawn from a common date of 3 April 1996. All those affected were given at least two months' notice of the withdrawal. None of the ex-service men affected had been discharged from the forces because of their service disablement. All had a full career or were made redundant. They were not asked to repay the money that they had received.

If a service man is invalided out of service on account of his disablement, it can normally be accepted that he is incapable of following his regular service occupation, and ALSO will be payable. That will also be the case if, because of the disablement, the pensioner was moved from his regular occupation to another job in the armed forces. On the other hand, if a service man completes his service engagement in the normal way despite some disablement, it is evident that it did not prevent him from following his regular service occupation and ALSO will not normally be payable. However, if there is subsequently a significant deterioration in the degree of disablement due to service, to the extent that it is judged that the disablement would then prevent him from following his regular service occupation, ALSO may be awarded.

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's previous interest in this allowance, and in particular of the parliamentary question he raised with his party's Administration in March last year asking what discretion Social Security Ministers have on the payment of ALSO. The answer then, which still reflects the legal position today, was that the Secretary of State would pay the allowance when satisfied that the requirements for it in war pensions law are met.

I am also aware of the previous ministerial correspondence which the hon. Gentleman has had and of his contact with officials from the War Pensions Agency and with departmental headquarters about the cases of his constituents, Mr. Harding and Mr. Tungate. I shall now turn to the cases of those ex-service men.

Neither man was invalided or otherwise removed from duty on account of their pensioned disablements. On the contrary, both continued in their regular service occupations until their discharge on the normal completion of their engagements. I am advised that their respective disablements did not therefore affect their ability to carry out their regular service occupations. Mr. Harding was an air engineering artificer (mechanical) and Mr. Tungate was a clerk. The judgment has therefore

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been made that the legal requirements for entitlement to ALSO have not been satisfied. I am aware that both men's awards of ALSO were withdrawn as a result of the review exercise begun in 1994 to which I referred earlier.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that because Mr. Tungate was medically downgraded to modified commando as a result of his shoulder injury incurred in 1985, his promotion prospects were adversely affected. That may or may not be so, but the facts appear to be that Mr. Tungate's regular service occupation when injured was that of a clerk and that his injury did not prevent his carrying on in that occupation for the next five years until normal discharge in 1990, when he made his claim for war pension. If that is the case in the circumstances of Mr. Tungate's claim, the law on ALSO provides that the allowance could be awarded only if he was incapable, because of his war pensioned disablement, of doing the job that he was doing when injured.

The hon. Gentleman made the case that the identification of the occupation of clerk is not appropriate in Mr. Tungate's case. I have no reason to believe that my predecessors were anything less than punctilious in the examination of Mr. Tungate's position. None the less, the case has been made by the hon. Gentleman and I therefore undertake to look once more at Mr. Tungate's case and at whether the identification of occupation was correct, though I would not wish to prejudge the case or hold out any particular prospect of what the hon. Gentleman seeks.

The hon. Member also suggested that Mr. Harding's award of ALSO should be reinstated on the grounds of his occupation and, perhaps, of hardship. Mr. Harding was discharged from the Navy in 1986 and claimed a war pension in respect of his hearing loss in 1991, when his disablement was assessed at 6 to 14 per cent. He received a lump sum gratuity of £3,129 in respect of that disablement and was awarded ALSO following a claim made in 1992. It seems clear that he was able to do his service job with his disablement and the award of ALSO was therefore withdrawn from April 1996.

Mr. Harding has been advised that the Secretary of State has the discretionary power to reinstate the allowance in whole or in part and that the normal policy is to do so where withdrawal of the allowance would result in a real risk to the health of the pensioner or a dependant, or to keeping the family home. The War Pensions Agency has invited Mr. Harding to complete a form detailing his income, capital and commitments and reasons why he believes that the Secretary of State's discretion should exceptionally be exercised in his case, but I understand that he has not done so. I am, of course, in no position to say that he will be successful in getting his allowance restored if he does so.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. I am not convinced of the need to reconsider the matter, but if there is any further evidence on conditions or employment records that he wishes to provide, I will give the matter my further consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

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