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A simple principle should apply: the country owes a duty of care to those injured in its service. I would much prefer it if the provision made by the MOD was expanded to take account of that and if it closed down the opportunity for servicemen and women to pursue their cases through the civil courts, for larger sums and with all the consequences that we have discussedespecially for the MOD. That is why I greatly regret the changes that the Government intend to make to the proof of entitlement. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) said, Royal British Legion research indicates that 60 per cent. fewer pensions will be awarded under the new rules. I am prepared to bet that that will be accompanied by a vast increase in the number of cases going to civil litigation. That cannot be good, either for the litigants or for the Ministry of Defence.
The Bill also covers changes to the appeal process and to the Royal Patriotic Fund Corporation, which seem perfectly sensible. I had some dealings with the Charity Commission a few years ago, before I entered Parliament. Will the Minister confirm that the planned changes to the Royal Patriotic Fund Corporation conform to any new arrangements that will be set up under the charities Bill that is due to be introduced later in the Session?
There are several legacy issues that the Government have ignored in their review, such as post-retirement marriagesI declared an interest earlier. A couple of months ago, a constituent who had just retired from the Army, at 55, told me that, owing to the increase in unaccompanied tours, he had been forced to put off getting married for the last three or four years of his service. He married as soon as he left the service but, as a result, his long-time partnernow his wifewas not eligible for his pension if he died. As he is aged 55, it is perfectly reasonable that they could be married for 20 years, so there is something unjust about that provision.
Questions have also been put about pension troughs, non-attributable widows' pensions for life, and the pre-1973 one-third-rate widowsone has to be careful how one says that phrase. I realise that the Minister may not have time to deal with all these points in his summing up, but will he write to me with the MOD's best estimate of the cost of correcting those four legacy issues?
In conclusion, every hon. Member would accept that the armed forces need to changeindeed, in recent times, they have changedand of course their pension arrangements should reflect that. However, we as parliamentarians must recognise that the armed forces are differentcritically, they need to be differentand that the armed forces have nobody, save us, to represent their interests as employees. We in this county expect our armed forces to fight and, very occasionally and regrettably, to die for our country. That commitment, in my opinion, should be rewarded by security in their retirement. The challenge for all hon. Members is to safeguard that as the Bill passes into Committee.
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend and colleague the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson). I have been listening to the debate, and such a wealth of experience has been apparent on both sides of the House that I feel slightly humble, as I can honestly say that I have very little experience of military things. I think that the highest rank that anyone in my family reached was bombardier. With such a wealth of officer material around, perhaps I should be speaking for the other ranks.
One of the reasons why I was quite pleased to leave business behind was that the complexities of pensions were getting too much for me and I thought that I could leave that to the experts. It was a great pleasure therefore to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), who is probably acknowledged as the House's leading expert on such matters.
I am very fortunate to have RAF Uxbridge in my constituency. That station contains a great many personnel not only from the RAF but from other armed forces. The Army's legal services are based there, and many people go through there in transit. In fact, I have had quite a lot of experience over the years of dealing with the armed forces in my capacity as retailer. Over many years, I was involved in serving many families there. I remember, as a small boy, opening the post in the family business, when lots of our armed forces were all over the world, and we had a depository. So I have got to know a lot of the personnel, not so much as members of the RAF and the other armed forces, but as ordinary members of the community. Although I very much accept that service personnel are special, as my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent said, they are an integral part of the community.
In Uxbridge, the station is almost in the centre of townit is possibly one of the few such stationsso the personnel are not isolated from the community. That is very important because, although when we are talking about issues such as those in the Bill we have to realise that the armed forces have to be treated in a special wayand, yes, certain conditions applythey are also, in many respects, just like everyone else: they have families and partners and they face the various situations that we all encounter in our ordinary lives. They are very important not only to the local economy but to the local community.
Some of the personnel will play in the local sports clubs. I mention that because I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) said about injuries. I wonder what will happen if people injure themselves while playing for non-service sports clubs.
I was concerned to hear that the Bill is unfurling as an enabling measure, because I am concerned that we will not have ample opportunity to discuss it. More importantly, I should like to be able to discuss the Bill with my constituents and bring their thoughts to the Chamberan opportunity that I will obviously be denied.
I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who made his points well. I am always concerned when I hear that some people will benefit from a measure that is cost-neutral because, as he said, it almost inevitably means that someone else will lose out. Several hon. Members talked about the compensation culture, which is becoming a bit of a blight on society in general. It is unfortunate that it is entering the armed forces, so I hope that it can be contained and kept under control.
Having heard what I have heard today, I shall ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to keep me abreast of what goes on during the Bill's later stages so that I can ensure that the valuable members of my constituency who serve in the armed forces will be able to find out what is going on and what the Government propose.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): We have had a good, wide-ranging and, as usual, informative debate on defence matters. I cast my mind back to the picture in The Times one or two days ago that showed the Chamber more or less deserted during a debate on
I once again apologise to the House for the absence for the winding-up speeches, of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). He wrote to the Secretary of State, whom we are pleased to see back in the Chamber, to explain that he cannot be here because he has an unbreakable engagement. I am grateful for the courtesy of the House in understanding why he is not here.
It is significant that all hon. Members who contributed to the debate referred to the unique role of the armed forces and the high regard in which they are held. Like many hon. Members, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire). It was a pleasure and privilege to serve on the Defence Committee with her for about two years, and I say to her, as an insider in that regard, that she acquitted herself extremely well. The members of the Committee who could not be here today will feel that she did justice to them and to the Committee when talking about the piece of work that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex saluted in his earlier tribute. Her speech was brave because she was quite critical of her Government, but I do not think that the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary will hold that against her because they, like the rest of the House, regard her as a fair-minded person who is knowledgeable about such matters and prepared to speak up on behalf of those who need to be spoken up for.
The hon. Lady made several interesting points, one or two of which I shall select. She said that the Bill contains no requirement for Ministers to consult and that such a provision should be included. I have taken that on board and I shall do my best to add such an amendment to the list to be moved in Committee. It is good to put on record the important point that she made when she said that she did not think that young people who joined the services immediately thought about the retirement package that they would get. She is rightGod help us if young people queue up at the recruiting offices and the first thing that they say is, "Well, I'd like to join the Colours, but first tell me what my pension arrangements will be." That is precisely the sort of person whom we do not want in Her Majesty's armed forces. We want people who are robust and determined, and who have a certain sense of adventure and courage. I am not entirely convinced that asking about the retirement package at the outset would demonstrate the attitude that we are looking for in those who join up.
The hon. Lady also drew attention to the compensation arrangements which, by common consent throughout the House today, have been criticised. It is important to remember that the Government moved to the five-year time limit only as a result of the pressure that has already been brought to bear on them. The initial proposals, as Members will recall, provided for a three-year time limit. We welcome the extension, but the point has been made on both sides of the House that illnesses that are attributable to military service may manifest themselves only after the
The hon. Lady also made the point that medical records are held by the employer, and that should not be lightly dismissed. Of course none of us believes that any of the civil servants who administer these matters would wilfully withhold information, but it could happen. Records could be lost. Clearly, at the very least, there is a conflict of interest in the matter, and Ministers will have to consider that.
The hon. Lady referred to the lack of consultation with personnel and the lack of a system to provide statements of how their existing benefits will pan out, let alone information about how they will be affected by the new scheme. The Under-Secretary suggested that existing service personnel who will have the option, between 2005 and 2007, of deciding whether they want to remain in the existing scheme or move to the new one, will be on their own. It is clear that he was saying, "Don't expect any help from us." I understand why he said that; he does not want his employeesNCOs and officersgiving advice to their fellow soldiers, sailors and airmen for which they could be held to account but which they were not qualified to give. The question has to be asked, however: where are those people to go for information? As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex said, is the Under-Secretary proposing a new khaki battalion of independent financial advisers to organise that, or will servicemen and women simply have to go to the high street? We need an answer.