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Mr. Keetch: I am grateful to the shadow Defence Secretary for giving way during his entertaining speech. Given what he said about unmarried partners, can he specify the Conservative party's policy on the matter? If they can be properly defined, does the Conservative party support the payment of benefits to unmarried partners of either sexsame sex or not same sexin accordance with the general principle outlined in the Bill?
Mr. Soames: First, we would wish to see the definitions made clearer. Secondly, I am not prepared to engage in wider social policy outside my brief, but, as I said when I began this passage, we believe that the very exceptional nature of service life and the demands and ethos of service life may require that these matters are not as they may be elsewhere. I am not making a hard and fast judgement on that. We should very much like to see the definitions drawn up by the Government. I hope that that is clear.
Mr. Soames: I hope that it is completely clear. As it is, I am walking a tightrope between my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot, to whom I defer on all these matters, and a number of others in my party.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point. To be serious, there needs to be clarity on this matter on all sides. Until the Government lay down how they intend to handle this matter on a much wider scale, including in relation to housing, I shall reserve judgement.
In order to comply with the Government's new wider pension policy, under the new scheme the age from which the preserved pension will become payable will be raised from 60 to 65. This change will also be applied to those in the current scheme. What that will mean is that today's servicemen will be paid their preserved pension at age 60 for that part of their service which precedes the date of the introduction of the new scheme, but will have to wait until they are 65 before drawing that part of their pension attributable to their service after the changeover date.
Those serving today will not be able to mix and match. They will have the simple choice of remaining within the existing scheme or switching to the new one. There is little doubt that any serviceman deciding to switch will enjoy reduced pension benefits but enhanced death-in-service and dependants' benefits. Where is a serviceman or woman to find advice about reaching this decision, which is very important both for them and for their spouse? Is the Ministry going to provide a new battalion of khaki independent financial advisers to be on hand to help? If not, will it provide an allowance to enable people to seek advice from the high street? Or will all those people just turn up at our surgeries?
The changes to the compensation arrangements that the Government propose have caused particular controversy among the veterans community. We accept that the compensation scheme is in need of reform, and we welcome the opportunity to re-examine the arrangements.
Since the Government came to power in 1997 the amounts paid by the Ministry of Defence in compensation claims have risen by a staggering 50 per cent.£34 millionto £104 million. The war pensions and compensation schemes for the armed forces have always been generous and favourable towards the claimant, but the increases in the last three years alone suggest that even the armed forces are no longer immune from the compensation culture.
Any new arrangements for armed forces compensation need to strike a balance between accepting the special nature of military serviceand the unique exposure to risk which goes with the territoryand avoiding further concessions towards the very insidious compensation culture that is beginning to do our country such harm.
Because of the heightened risks arising from military service and the high levels of physical fitness required, the compensation arrangements through the war pensions scheme have always been similarly generous. The standard of reasonable doubt that has traditionally been applied, and the absence of a time limit on claiming, reflected the exceptional nature of military
Mr. Wilkinson : My hon. Friend is making a very important point. But is it not the case that certain categories of military injury by their very nature will not emerge within five years? I am thinking of radiological accidents, for example. The pernicious effects of radiation overdoses often become apparent only after 10, 15 or 20 years. That is a very serious matter.
The unique generosity of the scheme has always been explicit. Changes to the scheme in the past through secondary legislation have always been in line with this acceptance. However, the Government stated in their consultation document:
In its conclusions on the new compensation arrangements, the Select Committee suggested applying to compensation claims a test that might more fairly reflect the needs of the claimant, while achieving greater efficiency in dealing with these claims. The Committee said, at page 47 of its first report:
The setting of arbitrary tariffs for disabilities fails to take account of how injuries can affect different personnel in different ways. A minor eye injury may not have such an adverse effect on an infantry soldier as seriously to impede his career, but an airman suffering the same injury will certainly have his flying career ended. What assurances can the Secretary of State give the House that any system of tariffs in the new scheme will be flexible enough to take account of the differential nature of such injuries?
I apologise for keeping the House for so long. We believe that the Government have failed to provide a Bill whose proposals are clearly laid out. Some of the essential detail remains to be worked out, with much work needing to be done in Committee. As the Secretary of State said, it is entirely down to us to table amendments. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot will lead for us in the Committee, where we will explore some of our ideas and concerns in great detail by way of amendments. If we are not to seek to block the Bill's progress here and in another place, we shall need answers to some important questions that we shall seek to raise.
Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West) (Lab): I begin by presenting the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, who is unable to be present for the whole debate. As has already been said, the date of the debate was changed at short notice, which the House will appreciate made it very difficult for my right hon. Friend, in view of his commitments for today. However, he hopes to be able to join us before the end of the debate, when those commitments allow.
On that basis, I have been given the honour of being asked to speak for the Defence Committee as a whole. I should, however, declare that I have a personal interest, in that I am the entirely voluntary honorary vice-president of the Dunfermline branch of the Royal British Legion Scotland.