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Mr. Dalyell: I wonder whether those in the Ministry of Defence involved in the case would at least to talk to Lord Jauncey. He is a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and has spent endless time on the matter. If he cannot be convinced, how on earth can the Ministry of Defence express these certainties?
The key word in what the Father of the House has just said is "certainties". The original rules
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were drawn very tightly and said that no deceased pilot was to be blamed unless there were no doubt whatever about what had happened. Yet there is debate, dispute and controversy. There is doubt about what happened, so the pilots should not have been blamed. Given that they were blamed, however, and given that the rules were changed as a result of their being blamed, it is manifestly unjust that they should continue to be blamed. This is a tragedy not just for those who died, but for those who survived them, because 10 years later they are still haunted by the case.
Mr. Key: Is not the situation worse than that, because the Scottish accident inquiry refused to come to the conclusion that the pilots were negligent, as did the original RAF board of inquiry? It was the conclusion of the experts that was overturned. The situation is bizarre, and absolutely against natural justice.
Dr. Lewis: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know that he has long campaigned on the matter and knows a great deal more about it than I. I still feel that with good will, even at this stage, it should be possible to find a form of words that would satisfy people that the senior officers did what they did in good faith but that the time has now come to overturn the verdict. I should have thought that that was the common-sense, compassionate and humane way of dealing with the matter.
Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is probably not aware that the Minister from his party who dealt with the matter at the time stood up in Westminster Hall some 18 months ago and admitted that he now felt that he had been wrong.
Dr. Lewis: I am aware that a number of people have changed their views, but obviously, the concern must be that in putting this matter right, we do not then denigrate the integrity of the senior officers, who almost certainly do not deserve such an outcome. In the light of the many articulate, clever, legally trained, inventive and ingenious minds available in this House and in the Ministry of Defence, it ought to be possible to come up with a form of words that would resolve the situationat lastin an acceptable way to all concerned.
I shall deal very briefly with some other topics. I thank the Government for providing satisfaction in respect of the Suez canal zone medal, but I can only reiterate the concern expressed so effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) about the closure of the Army medal office in his constituency. The Minister said that he anticipates that the Army will have cleared the backlog after two years. It that proves true, it will be a pleasant surprise. An article in Soldier magazine of May 2004 said that that is not nearly so likely an outcome, and it has been suggested that several years could be added to the time it will take to get those medals issued. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head. I trust him, and if he assures me that he has the staff on the job to get those medals out in two years, I will forthwith move on from this topic.
I have made it clear that I will keep the House informed of progress on the dispatch of Suez
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medals. Changes will be made to the way in which the medal office operates, and I hope that they will create efficiencies both before closure and afterwards.
Mr. Luff: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I encourage him not to accept that assurance at face value. The Minister plans to make most of the staff at the Army medal office redundant. The "Suez canal" website of the Veterans Agency says:
"Checking eligibility is a skilled, time-consuming and exacting job, but the medal offices have skilled staff who are experts at assessing eligibility quickly and accurately."
Dr. Lewis: The Minister's mark has gone down to one out of two, and I am now provoked to make another point on this topic. According to an article on the cost of producing medals, a new medal for the Arctic convoys might cost £140 per medal for the Royal Navy alone. If the people making these calculations are the same people who are calculating the time it will take to issue the Suez canal zone clasps and general service medals to the veterans who will be awarded them, one cannot have a great deal of confidence in the reliability of their timetabling. However, I shall move on because the issue has had a sufficient airing.
I have only one more point to make about medals, and it concerns what used to be called the reserve and territorial decoration. The Opposition applauded the decision that decorations for reservists were to be awarded both to officers and to other ranks. That was a change for the better, but it was decided that, instead of both officers and other ranks having the initials "RD" or "TD" after their name, in future nobody would have the benefit of such initials to signify receipt of those awards. That was not a change for the better.
I raised this issue with the Secretary of State for Defence back in April 2002. I said that all concerned should be able to put these initials after their name, rather than nobody, now that all in the reserve forces were eligible. He said:
"I will certainly look at that practical suggestion, but I will refer later to questions of recruitment and retention. I will set out some of the efforts that the Ministry of Defence is making to ensure that we have the right numbers of people coming in and remaining in the armed forces for as long as we need them."[Official Report, 11 April 2002; Vol. 383, c. 176.]
: I am someone with a vested interest in that I am able to place the initials "TD" after my name, though, unlike many earlier holders of that award, I have never seen active service. May I tell my hon. Friend as a matter of historical fact that the War Office took exactly the same dim, foot-dragging view after the first world war when the same case was made? That
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designation was achieved only through many hundreds and thousands of eligible people simply placing the initials after their namesand eventually, acceptance just happened. That may well have to be the case again.
Before finally leaving the issue of commemorations, I should like to draw the House's attention to a letter that I recently received from Vivien Foster, who is president of the National Merchant Navy Association. He makes the point that the Merchant Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service were in action during the Falklands conflict in 1982
"when 17 merchant seamen lost their lives".
"To honour their memory, a group of supporters and friends of the Merchant Service met after a Remembrance Service at the Falklands Islands Memorial Chapel at Pangbourne to discuss plans to build a small memorial to these brave men. This project is now firmly under way, the Memorial will be set in the Merchant Navy garden near the main Monument. To this end, a Trust has been formed, the Memorial has been designed and funds are being sought."
They are not being sought, as far as I know, from the Government, but I would have thought that the lottery might be interested and that hon. Members might, on an individual basis, want to highlight and promote the project.
Let me move on briefly to the issue of pensions. As the Minister pointed out, the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill has enjoyedif that is the right wordmany hours of detailed debate both on the Floor of the House and in Committee. We maintain that veterans from the armed forces are unique and that they have a special status because of the special risks that they undertake. It should not be said that certain concessions should not be granted to them because of any read-across to other public servants. Members of the armed forces are in a category of their own because of what they do. That should be recognised.
I entirely endorse the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), when he expressed his concern about changing the burden of proof in compensation claims. The Defence Committee noted in paragraph 69 of its report that, because of the special risks run by members of the armed forces,
"we continue to believe that the onus should remain on the Government to prove that service was not responsible for causing or worsening a condition for which a compensation claim is made."
I have spoken about the special status and special conditions of the armed forces. In that regard, we remain unhappy that the widows of people who served in the armed forces but retired before 1978 receive no pension at all on the death of their husbands if they married them after that time. The Government should ask themselves why servicemen would have delayed getting married for so long. It is precisely because they
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were servicemen. It is connected with their special service, and it is a shamea word I use deliberatelyand a disgrace that their widows are not benefiting from the fact that their husbands served their country for so long in such way.
There is also continuing concern about the widows of those who died before 1973, who receive only one third of their late husbands' pensions: whereas, post-1973, they would previously have received a half of that pension, they will receive nearly two thirds in future.
The Government have expressed a concern that existing war widows are likely to remarry and that the number of people for whom pensions would still have to be paid would be quite large. The Government should do away with the anomaly that means that war widows who remarry after what are called the non-attributable deaths of their husbandsthat is, deaths that cannot be attributed to their conditions of serviceare a burden on the Treasury. Will the Minister say how many of the existing war widows who, in December 2000, were granted the concession to retain their pensions for life have subsequently remarried? I suspect that the figure is not all that high.
I turn now to combat stress. When people are injured in battle, we regard it as our duty to treat the wounds of the body, but it is clear that we must do more to treat the wounds of the mind. I welcome the fact that the Government take this matter seriously, and I note yesterday's written statement announcing the establishment of an academic department to deal with defence mental health issues.
However, although I do not want to detain the House much longer, I want to set out some of the caveats that I have. I want it to be recognised that some minds are more vulnerable than others to being wounded. If it is possible to identify people with that propensity, they should not be recruited as service personnel in the first place. Those who are recruited should be tested, and trained to cope with what they may have to endure. We do no favours to recruits if we gloss over the risks that they run when they opt for a military career.
Combat is, by definition, traumatic and stressful. The combatant's mind must be strengthened before combat, and supported after it, but no force will ever be battle worthy if concepts emerge such as those described by Robert Vermaas of King's College, Londonthe very institution to which the Government are looking for advice on this matter. In an essay that appeared in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute in June 2002, he stated:
"By 1990, a mood of recrimination, blame and culpability emerged in the UK, as large numbers of soldiers argued that they should have been adequately briefed about the potential psychological effects of their work. It was the beginning of a political and financial nightmare for many western armed forces. Falklands veterans began to pursue legal action, claiming they were not fully warned of the hazards of their profession and, once returned to civilian life, that they were not adequately treated for the trauma they had experienced."
One can agree that there is a need to support people on their return to civilian life. However, it is rather naive to imagine that, when people are thinking of signing up for careers in the armed forces, it is the duty of those
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forces to impress on them that war is terrible and combat vicious, and that horrible sights will be seen that it will be impossible to forget. Interestingly, a case based on that approach in May last year did not succeed in the High Court. It would be very difficult for any country to have an armed force that was effective, deployable and resilient if that force could be sued successfully by its members for not warning them that they would be going into situations that would threaten their lives and their psychological and physical well-being.
Finally, on the topic of health, I reiterate the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot for a public inquiry into Gulf war vaccinations. The Government have some sympathy from us on the issue because it has not clearly been shownand that is agreedthat a single syndrome is responsible for all, or even the bulk, of the ailments suffered by people after they came back from the first Gulf war. However, on the face of it, there is an arguable case that the cocktail of vaccinations that the people were given may have had some serious side effects. That is one aspect that deserves further investigation.
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