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Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I apologise to the House and to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I have to the Secretary of State by letter, for the fact that, since the business managers moved this debate to today, an obligation prevents me from staying for the winding-up speeches; indeed, I have to leave very soon after I sit down. I thank the Secretary of State for being gracious in that respect.
The starting point of any armed forces pension scheme must of course be the unique nature of the armed forces themselves. I quote from an excellent letter in The Daily Telegraph yesterday from a gentleman in Scotland, which I thought was very well written:
That is the litmus test that we shall apply when assessing the adequacy of the Government's proposals to change the arrangements for the payment of service pensions and compensation to those injured as a result of their military service. Regrettably, the Government have failed to make a good start. Although they instigated a review following the publication of the strategic defence review, it was not until 2001 that a consultation document appeared. It was roundly condemned in a tour de force by the Defence Committee, to which the House is greatly indebted for its thorough, painstaking and professional work in a highly complex area, and whose deliberations I make no apology for quoting liberally. It took the Government another two years, until last September, before further proposals were published, and they, too, received a thorough going-over by the Select Committee.
Our first objection to the Bill, and one of the Select Committee's principal indictments, is that it is an enabling measure, with much of the essential detail missing. As the Committee concluded, it is unreasonable to expect Parliament to agree enabling primary legislation without those details being available. In their response, the Government rather feebly pleaded that their September proposals provided a suitable basis for discussion, but they admitted that their plans to replace the immediate pension with a new statutory early departure scheme had not been finalised. The early departure scheme is not only a major change in armed forces pension schemes but is the principal source of the savings that the Government hope to make to fund improvements elsewhere. As the timetable for introducing the Bill was exclusively the Government's responsibility, there is no excuse whatever for bringing before Parliament a measure whose principal controversial ingredient is still the subject of negotiation with other Government Departments.
The armed forces pension scheme, uniquely among pension schemes, has no independent governance, and its members do not have trade union representation. Instead, it is constructed and protected by primary legislation, or Act of Parliament. However, the
Mr. Wilkinson: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and has just made a telling point. Is not a great deficiency of secondary legislation the fact that it cannot be amended? Measures as complicated and as important to servicemen and their families as the early departure scheme require detailed scrutiny and the provision for amendment that primary legislation alone provides.
Mr. Soames: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, particularly because, as the Secretary of State rightly acknowledged, this is a delicate and profoundly important matter for members of the armed forces.
Mr. Hoon: Can the hon. Gentleman answer two questions? First, if he believes that there is a principle missing from the Bill or, indeed, the detailed arrangements, does he acknowledge that it could be added by means of an amendment if he and his supporters feel strongly about the issue? Secondly, is he saying that if a beneficial change in the detailed provisions of pension arrangements is to be introducedthat regularly happens, as I have told the Housemembers of the armed forces should wait for primary legislation?
Mr. Soames: The right hon. Gentleman is leading with his chin. Members of the armed forces are used to waiting for almost everything[Interruption.] I am going to answer the question. The Bill is an important measure. Given the time that we have had to wait for it, the missing details should have been included in a detailed appendix.
We do not intend to divide the House tonight, but we reserve our position and will judge the Government on any progress made in Committee. The Government have declared that the changes should be cost-neutral, so increased benefits can be paid to someone only if someone else has theirs reduced. We recognise the constraints on public expenditure, but the Government cannot proclaim that their motivation for introducing change is to produce a scheme commensurate with best practice elsewhere while at the same time cutting some existing benefits. The Defence Committee said of the initial consultation paper, in its first report published in May 2002:
Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful if the Government could give figures for the saving that they would make by quantifying the precise saving made by deferring the pension from 60 to 65?