Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Caplin: I know that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to mislead the House in any way. It would be right for him to say, therefore, that the new compensation arrangements are for events that occur after 6 April 2005, when the new compensation scheme will come in, provided both Houses approve the necessary legislation. Anything that happened before that date will be covered by the current war pension compensation arrangements.

Mr. Brazier: The Minister is, of course, entirely right, but that is exactly my point: we owe those who are serving in the armed forces now—our future veterans—the same duty of care that previous Governments have accepted since the first world war. It applied to those generations that went over the top on the Somme, on to the beaches of Normandy and to all the places I listed.

We owe that same debt to people who next year will serve in theatres in which we are still involved—Iraq, Afghanistan and so on—as well as in subsequent years and subsequent conflicts. The new arrangements are a shabby change. The Defence Committee put it terribly well:

as the Minister has just said—

The Committee's report points out that the Government's defence is the astonishing assertion that it is necessary to bring things into line with civilian practice. However, the powerful speech from the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) made clear a range of ways in which the armed forces are very different from the civilian community. The Committee said:

9 Jun 2004 : Column 352
 

The Minister has just alluded to both Houses of Parliament. Having voted against these proposals at every possible opportunity in the House, may I say that I very much hope that another place throws out this mean-minded little measure, striking it from the Bill?

I want to make one more point before moving on. One of the things that worries large numbers of people across all parts of the political spectrum—my private Member's Bill addresses a tiny part of this—is the growth in the litigious culture. Many people who have served in the armed forces are extremely worried about the demoralising and corrosive effect on morale and the command structure of the growing number of successful litigious claims being brought against the MOD. I can think of no other way of ensuring with greater certainty that the number of cases taken to the civil courts will spiral than such an emasculation of the internal procedures. What message do we send to the shades of the men whom the crosses in Normandy represent when we tell them that this is how we are treating their military descendants—our current armed forces?

Family life in the armed forces has been desperately hit by overstretch over the past few years. When this Government took office, the average divorce rate for the armed forces, which is very different among the three services, was well above the national average; since then, it has risen in the Army by almost another third.

The truth is that service families have aspirations too. Besides the obvious effects of overstretch, with husbands or wives being away for such long periods, one area where the pressure is greatest is housing. I pay tribute to the Minister for his work at the hardest end of the problem, which is considering the issue of the homeless and the fact that between 10 and 20 per cent. of people on the streets are former service personnel. That worries us all, but it is only a small part of the total.

The much wider problem for service families is the huge gap in respect of the aspiration, which they share with the civilian population, to own their own home. The reality is that the peripatetic nature of life in the Army and parts of the Air Force means that people cannot do so for the bulk of their service.

Indeed, the experiment that we introduced in the early 1990s to encourage soldiers to buy homes—the Navy concentrated mostly on south-west England—was a disaster, and resulted in a big increase in people leaving prematurely.

If we want to continue to attract and retain good-quality people in our armed forces, which are still under strength, despite the fact that the manning targets keep getting reduced—[Interruption.] I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to make a point.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab): I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I was making an aside that the shadow Chancellor's plans for spending on our armed forces would make that situation even worse.

Mr. Brazier: The shadow Chancellor has not announced any spending targets for defence. I have read his paper—I doubt that the hon. Gentleman has done so. He should watch this space for the announcement.
 
9 Jun 2004 : Column 353
 

The Government must address the issue of housing in the armed forces. One of the key factors must be to recognise the importance of continuing to provide a decent subsidy for rent, so that members of the armed forces can save to own their own homes.

Almost every Member who spoke in the debate mentioned the Arctic convoys. One of the Arctic convoy veterans, Commander Rodney Gear-Evans, whom I feel privileged to know, lives in my constituency. He is a quiet, self-effacing man and he does not talk about his experience. It is extraordinary, however, that of the two great outstanding medal issues, the Government have chosen the other one. I welcome the fact that the canal zone medal is being struck—by chance, my father served in the second half of that, the Suez operation, and not in the canal zone. It was deeply uncomfortable for the people there, and extremely hot, but there were relatively few casualties.

What those soldiers went through, however, in a hot, sticky, unpleasant environment, periodically getting shot at, cannot be compared with the incredible danger and discomfort that people on the Arctic convoys went through, with minus 40° weather, continued bombing raids and torpedo attacks. Only a small number of other parts of the service, such as Bomber Command and Fighter Command during the battle of Britain, suffered a death rate that was remotely comparable. The idea that we can agree to make a special case for the canal zone veterans, worthy as their case is, but turn down the Arctic convoy veterans, strikes me as extraordinary. On a visit with the Defence Committee to Moscow, it was strongly pointed out to me how much the sacrifices made by those brave sailors of both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy, whose casualties were much heavier, were appreciated. I hope that the Government will consider that again.

This has been an excellent debate in the most appropriate week of all. We owe our veterans a tremendous debt of gratitude. We pay tribute to the dead, and the best way in which we can do so is by looking after their comrades who survived not just the second world war but all the subsequent wars and those who will survive the wars that, sadly, no doubt are to come.

5.39 pm

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): Perhaps all of us are prone to overstatement in this place, but it is a privilege to contribute in a small way to a debate on such momentous events in our country's history. A couple of Opposition Members have mentioned the younger generation, and I hope that I can speak as a representative of that generation. One of my main points relates to how we remember, as we go forward into this century, the events about which Members have spoken so eloquently today.

Although I am no expert on military matters, I suppose I have family experience that is common to many British families—experience of loss in one of the great wars of the last century. My great-grandfather, Edward Burke, a soldier in the King's Regiment (Liverpool), died as a prisoner of war in Cologne during the first world war. That is mirrored in the experience of
 
9 Jun 2004 : Column 354
 
thousands of families in my constituency and throughout the north-west, and thousands more have given service to the armed forces. It is in recognition of service to our country that I speak today. In the second world war 1,800 people from our borough lost their lives, and in what is perhaps a more selfish era it is humbling to think of what they did for us and the enormous debt of thanks that we owe them.

The weekend's dignified events in France provide a sharp counterpoint to our more complicated and possibly more troubled times. Although they might have seemed to jar somewhat with a Europe-wide election, it was actually quite fitting that they took place at the time of an election in which issues such as racism, nationalism and isolationism are all on the agenda. I do not want to make a party-political point, but it was as if Europe was receiving a stern message from the past: that co-operation always defeats isolationism, that patriotism always defeats nationalism, and that our common humanity always defeats racism.

Over the weekend it was reported that Chancellor Schröder, who I think was very welcome at the celebrations, had said that the post-war period was finally over. I feel instinctively that that is true, but it prompts us to ask what we must do today to ensure that the sacrifices made in the last century are remembered by my generation, by my children's generation, and throughout this century. It is vital for us to support the organisations that will help us to remember those who died, and will continue to teach generations to come the lessons of the last century.

Let me say something about what we are doing individually to thank those who gave us the freedom that we enjoy today. I welcome what the Government have done, and join others in praising and thanking the veterans Minister, who has done a sterling job since his appointment: many hon. Members have mentioned the "Heroes Return" scheme, and passports for the over-75s enable them to travel freely in the free Europe that they helped to create. Those gestures are fitting and right.

The Minister mentioned the celebrations that will take place in July next year. I trust that they will be a great success, and hope that one of my constituents, Mr. J. R. Rollings, who was a driver for Field Marshal Montgomery when the Germans surrendered, will be able to play a part in them.

It would be a grave mistake, though, for policy-makers or politicians to imagine that we could ever do enough for the veterans, or that we have done our duty by them. In preparation for the debate, I met John Kelly and Jan Thomas of the Leigh branch of the British Legion. They asked me to raise with the Minister an issue related to the war disablement pension. I hope that the Minister will raise it with his colleagues in other Departments as part of the Government's spending review.

I believe that £10 of the war disablement pension is disregarded in the calculation of entitlement to pension credit. The same applies to any means-tested benefit. The disregard has not been uprated since 1990, when it was uprated from £5. According to the most recent figures supplied by the House of Commons Library, 11,200 people receiving war disablement pensions that have been taken into account receive pension credit. Currently, 251,400 war pensions are being paid, which
 
9 Jun 2004 : Column 355
 
suggests that many veterans are not taking advantage of the pension credit. That may be because it would not benefit them greatly, given that the disregard is only £10. I am not necessarily asking for a 100 per cent. disregard, but I hope that we can do more for elderly people in retirement who have given great service to our country.

Apparently, only a couple of years ago, 284,000 people were in receipt of war pensions. The number is now down to 250,000. It is declining sharply. It would be a small gesture to enable them to have more comfort and dignity in their well-deserved retirement.

I come on to the organisations that will help my generation and generations after that to remember what our forefathers did to give us the freedoms that we enjoy. I am sure that my area is not alone in this but, a few years ago, we lost the Royal British Legion club in Leigh because of financial difficulties and there is now no permanent branch in the town. One of the problems faced by such clubs is their dwindling memberships, which means that they are less able to draw on the membership to keep the club in existence. It is an issue not for the Government but for the Royal British Legion, which may need to be flexible when it comes to trying to help those clubs to carry on. The loss of the premises led to a capital receipt, which is held nationally by the Royal British Legion. I believe that a club has to have 200 or 300 members before the Royal British Legion will help it to acquire new premises.


Next Section IndexHome Page