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Hugh Robertson: I bit my tongue the first time the hon. Lady started off down that track but I cannot contain myself any longer. She has not explained how one can remove inequality in a system based on rank. I entirely support the Bill's laudable, perfectly correct and reasonable attempt to remove the distinctions between officers and other ranks—but one has to accept that all three armed forces are based on rank. Officers have very different responsibilities from soldiers, so equality will never come to pass. They are different creatures.

Laura Moffatt: The Bill clearly demonstrates that the proposed pension scheme draws no distinction but will ensure that people are properly rewarded. The Bill gives non-officers an important indication that they are valued. I accept that there are all sorts of ranks. My background is in the national health service, which is riddled with hierarchy. The Bill responds to those who fear that members of the armed forces would be dealt a worse blow if the existing pension scheme were to continue.

As to the true cost of the Bill, if the House fails to do anything about pensions, that will be to the detriment of the armed forces, who would be left thinking that the House did not understand their new needs and place in our communities and in the different world in which they have to respond. Of course our armed forces are special. We shall always support them. Not a week goes by without the House complimenting our armed forces, and rightly so. But we must back our support with this important legislation.

3.31 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish that you had been in the Chair to hear the admirable speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). His speech was refreshing, rumbustious and big-hearted, and demonstrated a commitment to the armed forces that was not replicated by the Secretary of State, whose performance was somewhat absent-minded. It almost seemed as though he was preoccupied with matters

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elsewhere. That is a pity because our armed forces deserve better than this Bill, which is genuinely half-baked. We are asked to take many of its provisions on trust because they have not yet been spelt out; I refer in particular to the early departure compensation scheme, about which I shall speak later.

Mr. Caplin: Had the hon. Gentleman read the two extensive framework documents that accompany the pension and compensation schemes before making that accusation?

Mr. Wilkinson: No, I have not read them but I am still happy to make the accusation, because the Secretary of State was not able to clarify from the Dispatch Box the pertinent questions put by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) has made a distinguished contribution to defence matters, as a graduate of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and having given long service on the North Atlantic Assembly and on the Defence Committee. The hon. Lady's speech came from someone who knows what she is talking about and cares. It was in a sense based on a Defence Committee brief, but she put her own gloss on it, whereas the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) read from the Labour Whips' brief. Her speech was full of woolly thinking and over-optimistic expectations and showed little clarity or understanding of the demands that the armed forces place on those who serve in them.

The Bill is said to be cost-neutral but I do not see how that can be, unless the measure is predicated on a steadily declining number of members of the armed forces over time, an inappropriate early departure compensation scheme and making pensions drawable at age 65—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) so eloquently referred.

One aspect of the early departure compensation scheme has not been fully taken on board. A full career for other ranks is 22 years, which means that people serve up to the age of 40 or thereabouts. By then, they are mature and usually senior non-commissioned officers, able to give junior personnel the full benefit of their accumulated experience. It is entirely right that they should serve for 22 years, because the understanding, experience and authority that they acquire in that time are crucial for the maintenance of discipline. Senior NCOs set the example for other personnel: they are the backbone of our armed forces, and contribute greatly to discipline, motivation and fighting effectiveness. If those NCOs are to leave after 18 years' service, those qualities will not be available to the same extent.

Moreover, the Government have given no assurance that the income stream to be derived after 18 years' service, once the gratuity upon leaving has been received, will compensate people for rises in the cost of living. That is a serious matter, and I know that the Government are seeking to make savings in this area.

I imagine that the Government may also have savings in mind with their proposal to limit to five years the period during which compensation claims can be made. I intervened in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex to point out the sad fact that radiological illnesses often take a number of years to

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develop. Cancers and other illnesses can become evident after 10, 15 or 20 years, and that is why it is entirely wrong that claims should be limited to a five-year period after an injury has been sustained. Similarly, the high-tone deafness suffered by people who have worked in close proximity to aircraft or artillery and so on can take a long time to develop, as can the various pathological conditions arising from severe shock or trauma. Mental illnesses can develop as a result of war experiences and unpleasant combat conditions, and certain other illnesses arise from tropical infections suffered in the course of service. In both cases, the most dire manifestations can become evident after a long period of time. It is therefore most inequitable for the Government to insist on the proposed five-year compensation period.

On the subject of equity, I hope that the Government will think again about their proposals on unmarried partner benefits. The Minister and I have exchanged letters on this matter, as I am genuinely concerned about allowing unmarried partners—and especially those in single-sex relationships—to enjoy the same eligibility for benefits as genuine spouses. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex was right to say that lawyers will be salivating at the prospect of the claims that will be lodged in disputes about benefits eligibility, especially in respect of single-sex partners.

However, the Minister has injected some clarity into this debate. On 16 December 2003, he replied to me on the subject of unmarried partner benefits, stating:

My interpretation of the Minister's letter is that the Government will seek to be as generous as they can.

Laura Moffatt : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wilkinson: No, I will not.

That implicit generosity will cause a problem because it will encourage individuals, particularly those in single-sex partnerships, to lodge applications. We all know that single-sex partnerships tend to be more transient than marriages and, of course, are often more transient than ordinary partnerships where there are children—for example, when a trooper from the Special Air Service regiment was tragically killed in Sierra Leone, the Ministry of Defence rightly offered compensation to his bereaved partner who had to bring up their child. I am worried about this matter and think that the Government will give the impression that they like the kind of society that does not put marriage and the value of marriage at the heart of the values that it tries to inculcate in the armed forces.

Labour Members say that the armed forces must reflect society as a whole; I disagree. The armed forces must demonstrate a quality of life, commitment and values that exceed those in society as a whole. They are

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required to make sacrifices of an order that most of us do not comprehend. Not only must they be prepared to give their lives in circumstances of which they may not individually approve, but they must sustain the separations of service and endure pains and traumas that ordinary civilians, mercifully, do not normally have to put up with. For those reasons, service personnel must be loyal to the group as a whole and have a degree of selfless commitment which is normally best demonstrated in society as a whole by a loving marriage. That is why I believe that the provisions are dangerous for our society in the long term.

Members of our armed forces who are traditional in their orientation may become alienated from the society that they are called upon to defend, and that may diminish their morale. I have seen letters from individuals in the armed forces, whom I much admire by virtue of their dedication, knowledge, expertise and the service that they have given to their country, who are particularly vexed by the idea that married quarters should be given to single-sex partners, and I agree with them.

I have said my piece, but I have one final observation. Clause 10 allows the Government easily to make adjustments by statutory instrument after one and a half hours of debate under the negative procedure. The Government know that the power in clause 10 is wide-ranging. Subsection (2) states that statutory instruments may be used

Subsection (3) states:

It is about time that this Labour Government put right the injustice that was perpetrated by the Labour Government in the 1970s—the pension trough. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who gives such distinguished service both on the Select Committee and on the Front Bench and who shows real commitment to the armed forces, has pointed out in parliamentary questions that, because the Chancellor of the day insisted that service pay should be kept down while inflation was rip-roaring away, many categories of people were paid artificially low pensions in the '70s. That injustice has never been rectified.

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