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5.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): We have had a good debate on the Bill, which, as the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) said, deals with a complex issue. I thank all hon. Members who took part, including my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson), for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) and for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and the hon. Members for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson), for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill). I may return to the hon. Member for Uxbridge in a moment. I also welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), as well as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) and

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the work of the Select Committee on Defence. I was pleased that, notwithstanding certain comments, we were able to publish our response before today's Second Reading.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley made a powerful speech about equality, and recruitment and retention, in our armed forces. She has vast experience in such matters, and her contribution was welcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland drew on the experiences that he recently gained in Basra—not as a reservist, but on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, the success of which I join him in welcoming—and the knowledge of veterans' issues that he has gained from his membership of the Royal British Legion, which, I assure him, was consulted throughout the process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Preston, who has considerable interest in defence matters, made a thoughtful and detailed speech that showed that he has read and considered the framework documents attached to the Bill. When I asked the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) if he had done so, he was honest enough to say no. Hon. Members have a duty to read them, however, because they contain much of the detail.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South made an important, if brief, speech. I always welcome his observations, because he, too, has a long-standing interest in defence and foreign affairs.

I am almost speechless when thinking about what to say about the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), although I enjoyed his comments, if I can call them that. He said that we want clarity on all sides. That was outrageous, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave the House clarity in his opening remarks, especially on the legislative issues. Parliament is, rightly, deeply interested in the Bill, as we note in our response to the Select Committee.

All hon. Members need to reflect on the issue of primary and secondary legislation. The current schemes have to be amended two or three times a year to reflect wider changes in Government pensions policy. My right hon. Friend mentioned pension sharing on divorce, and other legal changes that regularly arise. It would be neither sensible nor fair to require such changes always to be the subject of primary legislation, which is, I think, what the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex was suggesting.

The hon. Member for Canterbury asked about parliamentary scrutiny. The current pension schemes do not allow for parliamentary scrutiny, because their details are set out in prerogative instruments over which Parliament has no such right, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preston explained in his thoughtful remarks. The proposals are based on the same primary enabling legislation as the schemes for the civil service, the national health service, the police and the fire service, with the details contained in secondary legislation—statutory instruments. That is a perfectly reasonable way in which to proceed, and I hope that we can progress from there.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent on managing to ask a question about the Royal Patriotic Fund Corporation. I had no idea that anyone would ask about that, but the answer to his question is yes.

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Every speaker mentioned the compensation scheme, which we shall discuss in greater detail in Committee. The current arrangements fail to provide adequate cover for those who are most severely disabled and they fail to address pain and suffering. They discourage and penalise rehabilitation and provide awards that do not discriminate properly between those who will never be capable of working again and those who can expect to return to a relatively normal life.

The current arrangements are rooted in an understanding of medicine and the scope for rehabilitation of 60 years ago. Several speakers expressed wider concerns about moving away from the provisions of the current scheme, but it would be wrong to continue with them, given the scheme's shortcomings. Our armed forces deserve better and that is why we are proposing the new compensation scheme. The arrangements that it offers are fair and simple to understand. They also tackle different sorts of disablement, and are well up with the best type of scheme that employers offer in the United Kingdom.

Several speakers, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland and the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex, mentioned time limits. The time limit of five years is not to settle the matter but to lodge the claim. We said before today's Second Reading that we accept that some conditions will take longer to emerge. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State repeated that today. Allowances are made for that because there are exceptions to the time limit. However, it is in everyone's interest that we try to settle those matters as speedily as possible.

Mr. Wilkinson: The Under-Secretary is making an important statement. I asked a specific question about excessive doses of radiation leading to illness in later life. Can the hon. Gentleman honestly say that an individual who has had an excessive dose of radiation will know in five years that he will be ill later? The illness emerges after 10 or 15 years, and the scheme will not specifically cover it.

Mr. Caplin: The hon. Gentleman asks an interesting question. I want to answer many questions, and I shall try to answer that one.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) asked about the Royal British Legion's claim that 60 per cent. of those who currently receive compensation payments will not get them under the new scheme. Indeed, the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent and some of my hon. Friends also raised the matter. As I said earlier, we have worked closely with the Royal British Legion in developing our proposals for a compensation scheme. We take account of its views, which are serious; we must ensure that we do that.

We have extended the time limit from three years in the original proposal to five years, to deal with the concerns of the veterans' community. I hope that that is satisfactory. We have examined the figures from the Royal British Legion and we do not expect 60 per cent. of claims to fail. No claim will fail when there is reasonable evidence that the condition was caused by service.

A point was made about record keeping in the context of compensation. The Select Committee rightly referred to paragraph 17 on page 7 of the Command Paper. I

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hope that hon. Members who have the chance to reflect on that will understand that I have made an absolute commitment. First, we shall legislate to ensure that any failure in record keeping will be the Government's responsibility. The statement in paragraph 17 makes that absolutely clear, and I hope that it reflects hon. Members' views.

Hugh Robertson: Before we leave the subject of compensation, will the Minister answer a question related to one that he asked me? When I said in my speech that I favoured less civil legislation and a more all-embracing scheme run by the Ministry of Defence, the Minister asked me whether I should like the American model to be adopted. Presumably the MOD considered that option. Why was it rejected?

Mr. Caplin: I discussed that model with the Americans when I was in Washington, but we do not think that it would be right for our armed forces. We believe that they should have the rights that any other citizen has, so the civil courts should be an option if they are needed.

In recent years there has been concern in the House, and more widely, about the adequacy of pensions provision for the dependants of those who die in service. The new pension and compensation schemes include major improvements to address that concern, notably the significant increases to widows' pensions and to the rate of death-in-service benefit. Those changes have been welcomed on both sides of the House. However, our reforms go further. They recognise that society is changing and redress long-standing unfair and unjust distinctions. The pain of loss, and the economic hardship that follows it, for the partners of servicemen and women who are killed is the same whether their loved ones are gay or straight, married or unmarried. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley made a most powerful speech on that subject, and I would certainly recommend it to some Conservative Members, in particular the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood.

In pensions for retiring service personnel, the same distinction has existed for years. Under the Bill such artificial distinctions will be a thing of the past, and a good job too; I know that Labour Members, at least, warmly welcome that. It is worth noting that in the unlikely event of the hon. Member for Aldershot or the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex—we all know his record on such matters—ever finding themselves running the Ministry of Defence, many families, and others, in such situations would be turned away from their door.

For instance, on criminal compensation, the hon. Member for Aldershot told a Standing Committee:

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State rightly decided that people's sexuality would not be a bar to their entry to the armed forces, the hon. Member for Aldershot described that as

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Would he care to tell the House, and those serving in our armed forces today, whether he still draws a distinction between the rights of homosexuals' partners and those of their heterosexual comrades? Is he for or against the extension of unmarried partners' benefits in this Bill? That is the question that we want to ask him. He has spoken from the Opposition Front Bench, at the Dispatch Box. Will he answer that question? Is he in favour of the extension of those benefits to unmarried partners—yes or no?

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