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Mr. Hain: On the subject of doing deals, I will happily approach The Times to suggest that the next time it takes a photograph it zeros the camera directly on the hon. Gentleman to make sure that he is well in the frame. It could also turn the lens the other way and see how many members of the press are present for debates. The Press Gallery is not at all full; in fact, it looks decidedly empty.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is lunchtime.

Mr. Hain: I would not be so churlish as to suggest such a motive.

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Point of Order

1.15 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, you will be aware that reports have emerged today that Scottish service personnel were sent into battle in Iraq without the necessary equipment to survive had Saddam Hussein decided to use chemical or biological weapons. He will also know that those reports are from not only observers but the regimental quartermaster of the Black Watch. Other senior military figures have gone further and have described the failure to supply soldiers with adequate nuclear, biological and chemical gear as "criminal". Surely those revelations warrant a statement, as it would be extraordinary for servicemen and women to be sent into conflict with an alleged high risk of nuclear, chemical or biological contamination. What options are open to Members to force the Government to make a full statement on those worrying reports?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman knows that I have the highest regard for the Black Watch, but the matter is not one for the Speaker. He knows that he can apply for an urgent question and can table written or oral questions at the appropriate time. I say to him and other Members that they have many options to pursue those matters, which are very important.

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Orders of the Day

Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill

[Relevant documents: The First Report from the Defence Committee of Session 2003–04, Armed Forces Pensions and Compensation, HC 96-I and II, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 6109.]

Order for Second Reading read.

1.17 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Before turning to the detail of this important Bill for the armed forces, I must set out the wider context. The Government take their responsibilities to past, present and future service personnel very seriously. For the first time, for example, all veterans issues from right across government were pulled together under a single Minister when the Prime Minister created the post of Minister for Veterans as part of the veterans initiative in March 2001. We also strive to ensure that our current servicemen and women receive due recognition and reward for their outstanding achievements both at home and abroad. For the future, we intend to ensure that our people will have opportunities to enhance their skills and qualifications through their careers, and that pension and compensation arrangements are robust and fair.

The Bill will allow the Ministry of Defence to modernise pension and compensation arrangements for the armed forces. In developing the new schemes, the Ministry of Defence has consulted extensively with serving personnel and ex-service organisations. The new pension scheme will be introduced for new entrants from 6 April 2005, with existing personnel being given the opportunity to transfer by April 2007. The new compensation scheme will cover all service personnel for deaths and injuries due to service after its introduction on 6 April 2005.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): Will provision be made to take account of members of the Ulster Defence Regiment who served in a part-time capacity but for whom there are no pension arrangements? Can arrangements be made retrospectively?

Mr. Hoon: I do not want to get into each and every particular implication of the proposals for every different kind of service personnel. Arrangements will largely depend on the number of hours served and whether those hours are sufficient to make an occupational pension worth while. If the hon. Gentleman wants to raise a specific issue about a defined group of service personnel who require attention, I will certainly discuss the matter with him and respond to any letter that he might send to me.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The Secretary of State referred to specific groups of personnel or retired personnel who may be affected by the Bill. He may be aware that there are only 27 surviving UK service personnel from the first world war. One of them is 107-

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year-old William Burnett, who hails originally from Aberdeen. I am certain that the Secretary of State will be unable to answer direct questions about the plight of Mr. Burnett—he and his family are currently in financial difficulty—but can he tell us whether the Bill will have an impact on veterans who served such a long time ago? If not, will he make a commitment that his staff will get into communication with Mr. Burnett's family to see what can be done in that case?

Mr. Hoon: If the hon. Gentleman contacts me about that case, I certainly undertake to look into it. Later in my speech I shall refer to a scheme that might be of assistance to that gentleman, but the substantive answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is no, the pension scheme will not be retrospective in the way that would be required to benefit that individual.

We have been able to respond positively to criticisms from the Defence Committee in its report on our original consultation proposals in May 2002. The Ministry of Defence published last week, in Command Paper 6109, a detailed response to the Committee's latest report, published just before Christmas.

I accept that it has taken a long time to develop the new arrangements, but we have used the time to ensure that the outcome better meets the needs of service personnel, as well as being consistent with the Government's wider agenda for pensions. We have worked closely with service and ex-service representatives in developing the schemes.

At a critical stage in the development of the new pension scheme, the Government published, in December 2002, two Green Papers—on longer working lives and pension tax simplification. The measures being developed by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Inland Revenue to simplify regulations and, more generally, to encourage individuals and employers to make adequate provision for retirement are obviously welcome. However, the Green Papers meant that the Ministry of Defence's original pension proposals had to be substantially reworked. As a result, the revised scheme is better focused on the needs of service personnel, offering a range of improved benefits, consistent with the way in which other key public servants are supported.

The new pension scheme, which will be introduced for new entrants to the armed forces from April 2005, embraces the Government's wider pensions agenda, in four important respects. First, the changes respond to the Government's general decision not to allow the payment of pension benefits before the age of 55, by replacing the immediate pension currently paid at about the age of 40 with a system of compensation payments. The early departure payments scheme will be of lower value than the immediate pension, with the savings generated used for major improvements to the benefits paid to widows and to cover the cost of pensioners living longer. The scheme will still be a valuable and unique benefit. I was pleased that the Select Committee broadly supported that approach.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that although the critical age of 55 that he has mentioned is indeed the critical age for the police and the fire brigade, under his new scheme—

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in contrast to the early departure payment scheme—most retiring armed forces members will not receive the pension until they are 65?

Mr. Hoon: I shall deal with that point in more detail, but the hon. Gentleman will know from his own experience that there are a great number of service careers, and they are so different in terms of longevity that it is difficult to design a single scheme to satisfy all of them. For example, there are those who serve 22 years and leave at about the age of 40, and there are others who serve until they are 55, whose only career, in effect, is in the services. It is thus necessary to adjust the scheme. I shall explain that in more detail in due course, and give way to the hon. Gentleman again if he is unhappy with that explanation.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): My right hon. Friend did not make it clear whether a serviceman who became sick would have a route to his pension. Is that intended under the scheme?

Mr. Hoon: Yes. I hope that in the course of my speech I shall satisfy my hon. Friend on that point.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con) rose—

Mr. Hoon: I thought that by setting out general principles as I developed my speech I should be asked to deal with the specifics before I could cover them in the context of my speech—but I shall risk giving way again.

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