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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 ranksbut 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.
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
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 65to 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
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 partnersand especially those in single-sex relationshipsto 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:
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 childrenfor 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
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