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Mr. Caplin: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can help me and the House, as we have had only 24 hours to examine the new clauses. Does new clause 3 apply both to the pension scheme and the compensation scheme or only to the pension scheme? From reading it, I am not clear about that.
Mr. Howarth: I suspectI may need to take advicethat it deals principally with the burden of proof in compensation cases. Mutatis mutandis, as they say in Rome, what applies there might also apply to pensions. The Minister may wish to develop his point in his reply. I do not want to drag the debate out, as we had an extensive discussion in Committee. The issue was a matter of great concern to the Select Committee and it is a matter of concern to the Royal British Legion. There are wide-ranging concerns and the Government have not made a proper case for change. I take the view that, if it is unnecessary to change, it is necessary not to change.
Rachel Squire: First, I declare an interest. I am the honorary vice-president of the Dunfermline branch of the Royal British Legion Scotland. My association with that organisation has clearly influenced my views, as have veterans throughout my life.
I welcome the opportunity to raise the concerns of the Royal British Legion Scotland and the Royal British Legion in respect of the proposed new compensation
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scheme. As has been said on several occasions, under the present system a claimant will receive a war pension if the Ministry of Defence cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt that an injury or illness was not caused by events occurring during that person's time in service. The proposals in the Bill will mean that service personnel will have to prove that, on the balance of probabilities, their injury resulted from their time in service.
The Royal British Legion has told me that it believes that the proposals will mean that 60 per cent. of all new claims from ex-service personnel will fail. Another factor is the introduction of a time limit, which will mean that claims must be made within five years of an incident taking place.
Angus Robertson: Does the hon. Lady agree with the Royal British Legion that claimants will be deterred from making claims if the onus of proving responsibility is placed on them? In other words, they will not make a claim in the first place.
Rachel Squire: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In my constituency experience, I have found it difficult, in other circumstances, to persuade people to register claims when similar barriers and pressures are encountered.
That leads me to my next point, which is that many people are unaware of time limits placed in respect of claims, for example under employment legislation. They are often unaware of what they are entitled to claim.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take into consideration as well the fact that, when a claim must be made within a five-year period, the condition to which the claim could legitimately apply may not have made itself felt. In other words, a person may not know that he or she is suffering from an illness or injury, as a complaint may take many years to develop.
Another problem arises in connection with handling claims when medical records are inadequate or incomplete. I hope that the Minister will be able to say whether he or his civil servants have consulted other Departments about the problems that can be encountered when a person tries to obtain medical records and other records from a long time ago. If there has not been wide consultation on that matter, I suggest that talks be held with ministerial and civil service colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry. I have been involved with compensation claims lodged by miners and I know that some of the problems and delays arising out of those claims have been owing to the inadequacy or lack of medical records that go back several years.
Although I accept that the present compensation scheme is an unusual benefit, I believe that our armed forces have deserved it in the past and that they will continue to deserve it. I agree with the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and my colleagues on the Select Committee: our service personnel run special risks and are involved in situations of great and constant uncertainty. The impact that that can have on their future health is beyond easy regulation or surveillance.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider retaining the current burden of proof in the new compensation scheme. At the very least, I hope that he
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will say that consideration will be given to the double test proposed by the Select Committee, that he will take the new clause away for further examination and that the matter will be brought back to the House for further discussion.
First, the Government claim that the new compensation scheme is in line with modern practice, although, as has been said, it is not particularly modern. However, the MOD appears to have been selective when it comes to the aspects of modern pension and compensation schemes that it wants to introduce. It seems to me that the selection has revolved around whether the Government can save money. I suspect that the motivation behind the proposal is not so much a desire to modernise the scheme as to make further cost savings. Everyone accepts that it will be much harder for complainants to succeed with the cases that they bring. That being so, fewer claims will be paid and money will be saved.
Secondly, even the existing system is unfair. Claimants have to fight an unequal battle. The MOD has unlimited resources to fight a claim and can prevaricate for years. If even more inequality is to be introduced by changing the standard of the burden of proof, that would be grossly unfair to people who want to make a claim.
The Royal British Legion does a magnificent job in supporting claimants, although at terrific cost, as no legal aid is available for compensation claims. The Select Committee deliberated for a long time on this matter and came up with a wholly reasonable solution. If that solution were implemented, some practical problems might arise and there could be great scope for prevarication, but the Select Committee at least attempted to resolve the matter and recognised the need for fairness. It behoves the Minister to say exactly why the MOD wants to change what is a fundamental aspect of compensation claims.
The new scheme will shift the burden away from the MOD and on to claimants. It has been pointed out that that will make it harder for people to make claims. As a result, a significant number of people will be deterred from even beginning an attempt to take on the MOD.
Mr. Hancock: I am slightly more optimistic than my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed). I hope that the Minister will see that the Government are making a shabby and shameless proposal in respect of compensation claims and that he will therefore accept the new clause. Anything else would fly in the face of what the Minister said that the Bill attempts to do.
People in our armed forces and their families must be treated fairly and equitably. That was the conclusion of the investigation by the Select Committee into the current legislation. In the much wider review that the Committee conducted in 2002, we looked specifically at the burden of proof. I defy any hon. Member to say that
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it is easy to get information about service personnel out of the MOD. Those seeking compensation find it extraordinarily difficult to obtain their medical records and a later amendment refers to that problem. The Defence Committee report also explains how difficult it is to obtain any proof from the Ministry of Defence. Some service personnel who have photographs and medals to prove their service in a certain location have been told that they were not in those places, because of the inaccuracy of the Ministry's records. How can the burden of proof be placed on those seeking compensation, not on the MOD? That is what happens under the current system, but the proposals in the Bill beggar any belief in fairness and justice. I thought that social justice and fairness under the law were high priorities for our party of government. It may aspire to provide those things to all citizens, but obviously not to members of the armed forces.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) mentioned the coal industry. Together with my local newspaper in Portsmouth, I am pursuing, on a daily basis, claims on behalf of service personnel, ranging from admirals to able seamen, who have been affected by asbestos-related illnesses, many of which do not materialise for 20 or 30 years. Trying to satisfy the standard of proof for such claims is all but impossible.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) said that in Committee the Minister asked him whether he supported the position of the Royal British Legion or the Defence Committee. That question is beyond belief, because they were saying the same thing. Every day, the Royal British Legion picks up the pieces of shattered and broken lives and fights to get people the compensation that they have been denied. Hon. Members are right to say that the Bill will mean that fewer people will make claims. We may say, cynically, that the MOD wants to make it so difficult that people will not make claims. It is already difficult to obtain the evidence needed to make a successful claim and the Minister failed to recognise that the Royal British Legion made that exact point and so did the Defence Committee.
The Defence Committee offered an olive branch in the form of a solution that would enable the MOD to meet just over 50 per cent. of the ambitions of the Royal British Legion. The MOD refused. It would not even agree to retain the status quo, because it wants to screw down on those making a claim. Claimants will have to meet a standard of proof that goes beyond what most of us would consider reasonable. Some of those hon. Members who will be persuaded to vote with the Government today may, in a year or two, contemplate fighting a constituent's case for compensation. With the proposed standard of proof, they will find it very difficult to obtain the compensation that their constituent deserves.
I ask hon. Members not to shame this nation by voting against new clause 3. That is what most reasonable people would expect[Interruption.] The Minister may be cynical enough to believe that this is a laughing matter, but those of us who deal with such claims regularly will know that my comments are heartfelt. I often meet claimants who cannot satisfy the standard of proof required. The MOD frequently asks for more evidence before agreeing to consider a case when it knows very well that the information needed has
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been in its possession and has either been lost or shredded. That is not good enough. The new clause offers a little hope for people who should get much more support. The Government should be ashamed of their proposals.
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