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Mr. Caplin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wilkinson: No. I am coming to the end of my speech.

In my judgment—

Mr. Caplin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wilkinson: I will not give way.

It is about time that Her Majesty's Government rectified that injustice, and I hope that they will use a statutory instrument to that effect.

3.45 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): I speak as an inexperienced Member of the House who is, furthermore, not a member of the Defence Committee. Although I am a lay person, I can speak with a little

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knowledge of the armed forces as in June last year I had the opportunity and the honour of visiting Basra with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. We saw at first hand the excellent work of our soldiers who were assisting the local population to rebuild their country and civil society after decades of misrule under Saddam. Everyone who took part in that visit returned united in our admiration for the British troops we met.

It is with those troops in mind that I, and, I am sure, other hon. Members, approach the Bill. We have a political responsibility to scrutinise Bills carefully, but when considering legislation that will have an impact on the men and women of our armed forces, who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, we have an even greater moral responsibility to do our best for their welfare. In that respect, there is much in the Bill of which we can be proud.

The provisions fit broadly into the socially progressive nature of the Government's legislative programme and I shall focus on that theme. I have some concerns that should be addressed in Committee, and I shall seek reassurances about them from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

The Bill is rooted in the values of fairness and equality that underpin so much of the Government's approach. It improves benefits for dependants; for example, widows' pensions will be increased by 25 per cent., compared with the current scheme, and will be awarded for life. The death-in-service benefit will be four times pensionable pay and there will be provision for registered unmarried partners, including same-sex partners. I wholly agree with that. I am pleased about those provisions, as I have in the past made representations on behalf of constituents whose late partners had served in the forces but, because they had not married, were denied the support to which I firmly believe they were entitled. Widows and widowers in similar circumstances in the future will receive the thanks of a grateful nation.

The severely disabled will also receive better compensation, with lump sum payments available for pain and suffering resulting from injury. The guaranteed income stream will be awarded for more serious injuries where there is a loss of earning capacity. I have only two concerns on that point. First, who will make the decision to award the guaranteed income stream? Secondly, how can we ensure that the process is even-handed? I do not want it to give rise to the sort of complaints that I often receive from people with disabilities. They visit my advice surgeries to ask me to intervene on their behalf so that they can be treated properly by a more sympathetic doctor than the one who originally dealt with their case. In some cases, the doctor does not even examine the patients, but merely talks to them across the desk.

Also to be welcomed is the introduction of common treatment for officers and other ranks. They will now serve the same number of years for a full career pension at the age of 55, with an even accrual rate.

These measures are therefore internally consistent with the contribution to the Government's commitment to modern, fair and progressive policies. They are also consistent externally with the principles behind other Bills in the Queen's Speech. The provision for unmarried partners reflects that in the proposed civil partnership Bill. Both Bills show Labour's commitment

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to promoting equality and diversity and to challenging unjustified discrimination wherever it exists—something that we heard in the previous speech. Likewise, the commitment to providing security in retirement is reflected in the proposed pensions Bill, which will provide greater protection for those in company pension schemes. The Bill should not be examined in isolation, but seen in the context of a wider agenda of social justice and fairness demonstrated throughout the Government's legislative programme, forming an holistic approach.

Some of the criticisms of the Bill made by Opposition Members are unjustified. Yes, the proposals are designed to be cost-neutral, but that is not evidence of penny pinching by the Government. After all, in 2002 the spending review put in place the largest increase in defence spending for more than 20 years. Defence resources are growing by 1.2 per cent. a year in real terms in the three years until 2005–06. That is a great contrast to the record under the Tories. Following their defence review, UK regular forces fell by 60,000 between 1992 and 1995, including 32,000 redundancies.

Hugh Robertson: We have heard that one at almost every debate since I first entered the House two and a half years ago. I was adjutant to a main battle tank regiment during that exact period. I lived through it. It was the end of the cold war and armies throughout western Europe were decreasing dramatically. Labour Members were pushing the Government hard to make bigger decreases than the Conservative Government made. Everyone was talking about a new world order and a peace dividend. That is the reason for the decrease—the hon. Gentleman knows that perfectly well—and it would be a very good idea if hon. Members on both sides of the House recognised that and stopped trying to make silly party political points.

John Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but the fact is that what I am saying is true. Some 60,000 people were made redundant, in effect, and defence cost studies led to a further loss of 22,500 military personnel from 1995 to 1997. The Tories neglected the armed forces, and Labour is supporting them.

Some issues, however, need to be considered in greater detail, and it is especially important that the House does so because the armed forces are not unionised, so they lack one of the major forums for consultation and representation that could usually be used. Several concerns have already been outlined by the Defence Committee, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) for her input—she certainly hit the button. Hon. Members on both sides of the House understand that certain things have to be considered, and my hon. Friend put them in context. I would be grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister if he were to comment on those points.

I am concerned about the decision to raise the preserved pension age—the age until which those who leave before the normal retirement age have to wait before they receive their preserved pension. That is of greater significance for members of the armed forces than for people in other public services, simply because the majority of service personnel retire considerably

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earlier. In keeping with the principles that I outlined earlier, which the Bill generally upholds, I hope that that point will be considered in greater detail in Committee.

Mr. Caplin: My hon. Friend makes several important and interesting points, especially about the progress of members of our armed forces who leave service early and go on to future jobs and careers. He might be interested to know that recent evidence shows that about nine out of 10 find good employment within six months of leaving.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Having met some of these soldiers, it does not surprise me that they get employment—I am only surprised that the figure is just nine out of 10.

I would like to hear the Minister's comments on the structure of the compensation scheme. The Royal British Legion, of which I am also a member, has expressed concern about several elements of the revised compensation package, especially the five-year limit for claims and the change to the burden of proof. It says that imposing a five-year limit on compensation claims would have a substantial negative effect on the ex-service community. Many other hon. Members have said that, so it would be right for the Government to revisit the time scale. Five years is not a long time, especially when we consider the conflicts in which we have put our soldiers, airmen and Navy personnel on the front line.

The legion's pensions department organised an awareness campaign between 1994 and 1996 that resulted in 150,000 new pension awards. The majority of the claims for injuries and medical conditions were outside the scope of any five-year limit, so hon. Members will understand why the legion wants us to reconsider the time scale. I want to put down statements about our armed forces personnel becoming conscious of suing the Government. The legion helps them to get money that they richly deserve, so we cannot say that they are a compensation-oriented group of people. It is important that we take account of real concerns felt by ex-servicemen and women, and I hope that the Minister will shed further light on the rationale behind the Government's approach.

The substitution of a balance of probabilities test for a test of reasonable doubt to determine whether an injury or illness is service related will make it much less likely that a claimant will receive a war pension.

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