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Mr. Caplin: The hon. Gentleman has taken my remarks slightly out of context, which is no surprise. I was talking about licensing under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, with which he is perfectly familiar. The Government had to introduce it because of the mis-selling of pensions by a Government in the 1980s of whom he was a supporter.
Mr. Howarth: I am sorry that the Minister chooses to make a slightly grubby point when there is a real issue here. It is the Government who are seeking to change the armed forces pension arrangements. There is agreement on the need to do so, and many of the provisions are welcome, but the Government have also heard a litany of complaints about their proposals. One of the issues is who will advise the scheme's current beneficiaries as to whether they would be better off staying with it or moving to the new scheme. We need an answer, and the Minister has not given us one.
The hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), a former member of the Defence Committee, shared that view, and rightly said that it is the duty of the House to respond to the Committee's report. Having served on the Committee for most of the relevant period, it is fair to say that the issue is complex, even if one understands pensions. If one does not, it is even more complex. It is not quite as difficult as local authority finance, but it is nearly as hard. Considering it in Committee was an interesting experience. The Government spent more time than it took the allies to defeat the Germans in the second world war to come up with an answer in their review of armed forces' pensions, and the Committee spent a couple of years on the issue. The House should salute the extremely good job that it did, and we owe it to the Defence Committee to ensure that the points that it made are pursued carefully in Committee and subsequent discussions, perhaps in another place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) made a number of interesting points. He said that our hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex made a great speech, and I agree. He also said that senior non-commissioned officers are the backbone of our armed forces, so it is important that we try to retain them for as long as possible. I agree entirelyanybody who has visited service establishments will be keenly aware of the role played by senior NCOs, who not only have experience but set an example to others, particularly new recruits. They are on hand to help junior officers when they first have the responsibility of ordering men around. Without the NCOs, many junior officerssome of my hon. Friends have held such posts in the pastwould find life much more difficult.
My hon. Friend bravely grasped the nettle when he raised the Government's proposals on benefits for unmarried partners. As the Secretary of State confirmed, those proposals will extend to people in single-sex relationships. It was disappointing that my hon. Friend was the object of a personal attack. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex said, these are contentious and difficult issues to wrestle with, so it is unfortunate if people who take a particular view are attacked in an unpleasant fashion. There is a risk that political correctness is inhibiting members of our armed forces and preventing them from voicing anxieties. The Secretary of State will not be aware of that because members of the armed forces are wary of sharing their concerns with Ministers. A two-star officer told me the other night that if he expressed some of the views that I have expressed he could experience great difficulties in his job. It is incumbent on the House, of all institutions, to allow freedom of expression, as political correctness is attacking freedom of expression in our country. My hon. Friend made a brave contribution and sought to address real concerns.
If I may address the issueI suspect I might get ambushed on it in any case, as I am on record as having expressed a view in the Defence Committee, so there is no point in pretending otherwisemy views are known by a number of those who participated in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex set out some of his concerns, which I share, not least the practical implications of assessing who qualifies. I want to give the Minister time to answer and tell us what assessment has been made of the likely litigation that could arise from judgments that people are not in an enduring, substantial relationship.
My own view is that there is a clear set of moral values that underpins service life and service commitment. We agree across the Floor of the House that the armed forces need to be different. They must take orders in a way that no other section of society would accept. We do not ask them to replace strict obedience to an order with a process of consultation that might apply to the rest of society. People who cannot take orders cannot be in the armed forces. That concept is not acceptable in any other part of society. In the interests of military efficiency, it is necessary for the armed forces to reject practices followed elsewhere by the society they serve.
Furthermore, the Government have made clear their belief that marriage is the best framework for bringing up children, yet by extending the privileges of marriage to those who spurn the option of marrying, they contribute to the undermining of the institution they regard as so important to the rearing of children. The Government must address that issue, as well as dealing with their equality agenda, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex called it. We are more concerned with the armed forces than with the Minister's equality agenda.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood raised the issue of the pension trough, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson). That issue is of concern to everybody, but I hold up my hand and say that the Conservative Government did not do anything about it. At this stage it is probably unlikely to be resolved, but we need to bear it in mind. Should we collectively win the national lottery, those who suffer from the pension trough ought to be considered on that happy day.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) is not a member of the Defence Committee, but he demonstrated in spades the merits of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, if I may say so. The fact that he did not learn all the lessons is to be regretted, but I am glad that he has participated in the scheme, and he is an example of its importance. I hope that others who are contemplating going on the scheme and do not have experience of the armed forces will learn from him, and that he will encourage them to do what he did.
I thought the hon. Gentleman was needlessly partisan, but in the spirit of good will and fellowship, I shall leave that aside. Some of his views place the Government's priorities the wrong way around. He was more concerned with what he called the social-progressive range of policies than with the armed forces, but in the end he redeemed himself admirably by praising my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex for an excellent speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), whose recent knighthood I salute, as I am sure the whole House does, brings knowledge to our proceedings that is much appreciated. He is chairman of the parliamentary pensions fund and it is good to have someone like that in the debate, although he is not in his place now. He made the point that graduate recruits will qualify only from the date of enlistment. The Government must address that. If graduates join up at the age of 22, they will be adversely affected.
The hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) told us that he lost his Euro seat and had to return to industry. That reminds me of a wonderful car sticker that I saw when my wife and I were on holiday in the west country. This sticker, on the back of a Volvo, read "Make your MP work. Vote for somebody else." His electorate obviously did that to the hon. Gentleman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) is so knowledgeable and such a dedicated supporter of the armed forces that he never fails to speak up for them. We appreciate that. He asked how the Government would consult the armed forces on the postponement of the preserved pension from age 60 to 65. That is a very serious issue, to which I will return shortly.
Is it proposed to provide any step indexation from 40 to 65? That is a long period to go without having the pension, or the payment in the case of early departure, without any increase in the amount of money. If the early departure scheme is there to help people leave at 40, and they will now have to wait until they are 65 for a pension, has the Minister any plans to provide step indexation of any description?
My hon. Friends the Members for Faversham and Mid-Kent and for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) also made valuable contributions. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-KentI receive many communications from members of the armed forces saying that they want to stay on. The Secretary of State talked about justifying some of his arrangements on the ground that people should be able to work longer in the armed forces. The truth is that not enough is being done in that direction. Greater opportunities should be given for people to serve longer when they want to do so and are able to do so. My hon. Friend said that he spoke for the other ranks. As a Whip, he is on a par with the formidable company sergeant-major. We valued his contribution, too.
The Government have treated both the armed forces and Parliament with grave discourtesy in bringing before us an enabling Bill with much of the detail underlying the proposals incomplete. It is a hollow Bill. Worse, any changes could be effected without further reference to Parliament, except possibly by way of a one-and-a-half-hour debate on a statutory instrument, provided the Opposition prayed against it.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West said, the Government could have put the detail into a schedule. I cannot understand why that was not done. It would have been a better service to Parliament and to those in the armed forces. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex said, the situation is
Members of the armed forces may not have on their payslips a line showing how much has been deducted as a contribution to their pension, but in calculating service pay the Armed Forces Pay Review Body provides an allowance or abatement which it deducts from the pay level that it would otherwise award. That rate is currently 7 per cent. It is therefore unreasonable to claim that this scheme is non- contributory.
We would like to see an element of independent governance introduced so that the Government are no longer judge and jury in this matter. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent both said, the fire service has trade union representatives to argue its corner and the police have the Police Federation and other associations to speak up for their members. The armed forces have no one, save for the Forces Pension Society and the Royal British Legion, which do a splendid job but do not stand in the same relationship to today's servicemen and women as do the organisations I have mentioned in relation to the others. The Minister says that trustees are necessary only for funded schemes, but I believe that a way could be found around that.
To conclude, we ask our servicemen and women to give a unique commitment to our country. That is why the Secretary of State was unwise to justify some of the reduced benefits on the ground that Tesco is asking its staff to contribute more. Every speaker has saluted the service and dedication of our servicemen and women. There will not be a vote tonightthe consensus is that there are some welcome improvements. However, overall, the scheme that the Government propose needs to be improved if it is to meet the collective view that such a unique commitment demands that we consider the case on its merits. Our armed forces are the best. They deserve the best.