Previous SectionIndexHome Page

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 sex—same sex or not same sex—in 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. Keetch: Is that a yes or a no?

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.

22 Jan 2004 : Column 1504

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.

Mr. Keetch rose—

Mr. Soames: I shall not give way. I have been trapped once, and I shall not be trapped again.

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 million—to £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 service—and the unique exposure to risk which goes with the territory—and 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

22 Jan 2004 : Column 1505

service and resulted in many claims being granted which would have been unlikely to succeed in comparable public service schemes. Figures provided by the Royal British Legion for the claims made in 2002–03 suggest that under the new arrangements, with the introduction of the balance of probabilities and the five-year time limit, 60 per cent. of those claims would fail on those criteria.

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.

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has experience in these matters. I shall come to that point.

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:

The onus should continue to be on the Government to prove that service was not responsible for causing or worsening a condition for which a compensation claim is made. The standard of the balance of probabilities—the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) was making—taken together with the five-year limit, does not take account of the pressures of military service. Medical conditions resulting from military service can often take years to surface. By setting an arbitrary time scale of five years, the Government could prevent certain members of the armed forces from receiving their proper due.

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:

It is extremely disappointing that in their response to the Committee the Government have dismissed that reasonable compromise. Worse, they have prayed in aid, in paragraph 15, the fact that their proposition is

22 Jan 2004 : Column 1506

Manifestly, that fails our litmus test, which is that the armed forces are not just another public service; they need to be treated differently.

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.

Our armed forces have always served our country with enormous distinction. They and their families rightly look to us to protect their interests. That duty we fully intend to discharge.

2.28 pm

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.

Next Section

IndexHome Page