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3.12 pm

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): I am delighted to speak in this important debate. There may not be many hon. Members who wish to participate or many people in the Press Gallery who are interested to hear us, but I nevertheless believe that our debate is exceptionally important because it signifies how we should treat members of our armed forces and respond to their particular needs.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who rightly spoke about the importance of our armed forces. He was also right that we should not just patronise them by saying, "Aren't the armed forces wonderful?", but properly respect and respond to their needs.

It was interesting to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) speak about the Defence Committee. We are fortunate to have such a fine Select Committee. As I look around the Chamber, I see in their places members of that Committee both past and present. Between the time when I was first fortunate enough to serve on it and now, I have noted the incisive and practical way in which it deals with the important issues for the armed forces. Much detail in the Bill needs to be discussed—we cannot escape that—but I believe that the armed forces will be glad to know that they have such fantastic champions in the form of our Select Committee.

I want to focus on another issue, which also demonstrates the importance of the enabling legislation. It is vital because it deals with the whole issue of equality. It is important to be able to say that we respond well to our armed forces, that we respect them and treat them as an important body, but we must also treat them with equal respect in relation to the rest of society. That is why the changes in the Bill are so crucial.

The first issue of equality has not been tackled for far too many years: the pensions of officers and those of other ranks. To deal with that, we must understand how two people on roughly the same pay can, when they leave the armed forces, have vastly different pensions. That is insupportable. Whatever the rank of serving members of our armed forces, we must ensure that their pensions properly reflect the contributions that they make. The Bill does that and redresses the inequality very well.

Another vital issue is the position of unmarried partners. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) said that the issue of same-sex partners aroused huge passions on both sides of the House. In fact, for the most part, on this side of the House it does not. Our

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passion is for making other hon. Members understand that our society has changed and moved on. It is vital for the whole House to recognise that. The last thing that we want is to appear not to be in touch with our communities. Frankly, it is fantastic that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence with responsibility for the armed forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) represents such an interesting constituency where there are partnerships of all sorts. It would be most incongruous if he opposed equality for same-sex partners. We must now accept as a society that people with a substantial partnership can contribute, pay their taxes and live decent lives. The House must accept and respect that, and I am pleased that the Bill does.

The Select Committee rightly raised points of detail, but the Bill has many positive aspects, such as providing much better compensation for the severely disabled. If the Government are in power for anything, it has to be for fairness. We could debate how long it has taken to reach this point and how many people have been able to contribute actively to ensuring that the proposals are supportable, but the Bill does tackle the issue of fairness. It ensures that those who are most in need will get the best benefits. Surely that is what everyone wants from a pension scheme.

Mr. Brazier: I greatly enjoyed serving on the Defence Committee with the hon. Lady for many years. She said that those who were most in need would get the best benefits, but the vast majority of those most in need are people who, after devoting the best part of their lives to the armed forces over many years of service, leave in their 40s. They will now have to wait until they are 65 before they receive a full pension. That is a 10-year step backwards.

Laura Moffatt: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, as he made a point that I would like to tackle. I have the feeling that he will not support what I am about to say. I believe that age is not a disability. Age is not a reason for someone to say that it is time to leave the armed forces. I have fought for equality and fairness for most of my adult life, and part of that involves ensuring that people who are getting older can play their part in society. I know that many members of the armed forces, who played their part extremely well, expected to leave at an early stage. However, life has changed and it continues to change. We should not continue to support people just because they are able to leave.

Mr. Wilkinson: The hon. Lady is making an interesting point, but does she understand that it does not make economic sense to many employers to take on someone who has spent more than 30 years in the armed forces in an activity that might not be very marketable in today's highly competitive commercially oriented society? The person concerned may find it incredibly difficult to find an appropriate job after many years' devoted service in the armed forces; he may not find it possible to find a job at all. At the very least, that person should receive a proper pension from the age of 55. That is the least that our society owes him.

Laura Moffatt: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but we are talking about people who leave

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the armed forces at the age of 40. We expect them to go into a second career, and they are well able to do so. Not only have they contributed extremely well to the armed forces, but the armed forces have also given them the ability to be able to work in a second career. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) may tell of people whom he knows—and certainly there are people whom I know—who have gone into second careers in the police force immediately after leaving the armed forces. I expect that to happen. It is a natural progression for someone who has given a large part of their adult life to the armed forces.

The proposal is fair. If I were to lose my seat at the next general election, I would not expect to be able to take my pension at 50 or 55. Society is moving to the point where a person aged 40 or 50 today is not the same as someone of that age 20 years ago. Society is different and we need to reflect that point in the way in which the House deals with the armed forces.

There are many benefits in the Bill for members of the armed forces. The death-in-service proposals that are worth four times pensionable pay are incredibly important. The proposals cover the points that have been raised in the House. They are designed to ensure that when something dreadful happens, people are left in a fit state and have time to get their lives together and go back out into the community. If a member of the armed forces dies, money is vital to the loved ones who remain so that they have time to reintegrate into society and get back on their feet.

The scheme contains many other advantages that are well worth supporting. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex say that that the Opposition were not minded to divide the House at this point. There are plenty of ways of dealing with the details that have been rightly referred to by members of the Select Committee. There is choice, and it is important that we understand that.

Mr. Brazier: The whole point of the Select Committee report, which was so well worked out, is that the details of the key issues have not been published. When the detail is published, it will be pushed through by statutory instrument.

Laura Moffatt: The hon. Gentleman obviously sees a risk in the way that the Bill will progress, but I do not see the issue in those terms. It was vital to get out the general plan on how the pension scheme was to be run and to put it through. The Select Committee may not agree with that, but it is a reasonable way to take the Bill forward.

It is important to widen recruitment into the armed forces. The pension scheme will make the armed forces more attractive to people who may not be formally married but who have been in a substantial partnership for many years—whether as part of a heterosexual or a gay couple. It can be nothing other than of benefit to the armed forces if they more fully reflect our society and we can widen participation in them. The message of the new pension scheme reflecting society is crucial. The House should support it.

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There has been much debate about the early departure scheme, and I understand the difficulties involved. However, we can deal with those difficulties. I was interested to hear the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson—

Mr. Wilkinson: Spokesman.

Laura Moffatt: No, spokesperson. If I have an opportunity to correct the hon. Gentleman's language later, I might do so.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex referred to homelessness and the armed forces, and none of us would argue that people leaving the armed forces do not face difficulties. I suspect that none of the homeless were once officers in the armed forces; I would be extremely surprised if they were. Therefore, ensuring that pension provision is fair for both officers and those in other ranks must help with the problems faced by those who find it difficult to become settled and who might now be dealt a blow by a pension scheme that does not properly reflect their needs.

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