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Armed Forces

Armed Forces

Column Number: 149

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 24 February 2004

(Morning)

[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Armed Forces

(Pensions and Compensation) Bill

8.55 am

The Chairman: I welcome everyone to this morning's sitting, and in so doing I appeal to them to ensure that mobile phones are switched off.

Clause 5

Amendments to Pensions Appeal Tribunals Act 1943

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 15, in

    clause 5, page 2, line 42, at end add—

    '(2) The Secretary of State shall reimburse a claimant for his reasonable expenses in taking his case to appeal under this section.'.

Thank you for that reminder about switching off my mobile phone, Mr. O'Brien. The clause deals with the pensions appeal tribunal and the amendments necessary to the legislation providing for it. We welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy)—I know that he will deal with the detail of the changes and we look forward to hearing what he has to say. The amendment is specific and it would impose an obligation on the Secretary of State to reimburse a claimant for his reasonable expenses in taking his case to appeal. It concerns an important issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) will deal with in greater detail.

The Government are relying on the generosity of the voluntary sector, particularly the Royal British Legion, to support claimants in their detailed cases against the Government. The proposed changes, including the introduction of another tier of appeal, will impose substantially increased burdens on the voluntary sector. Although we accept that there may be a case for the social security commissioners having a role, we have been informed by the Royal British Legion that that will result in an increased work load for it.

My hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the Ministry of Defence website encourages appellants to approach the Royal British Legion. That is bizarre. I wonder what the reaction would be if the general public were aware that those who want to appeal against their pension entitlement award, having served in Her Majesty's armed forces, have to pay out of their own pocket or get support from a charitable organisation rather than the Government. Everyone has a warm feeling about the

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Royal British Legion—they associate it with the poppy appeal and Remembrance Sunday—but about £500,000 of its money, raised through the blood, sweat and tears of its members throughout the country, is expended on providing support and advice that should come from public funds.

The Royal British Legion has a relatively small and stretched staff: my hon. Friend will set out some precise figures on what it is engaged in, but I shall try to give the Committee some idea of that too. Everybody will accept that it is not just to continue in this fashion, and I hope that the Committee will take a careful and considered view of the matter to judge whether the issue can be resolved. An amendment to a later clause deals with aftercare issues, and I shall explore that matter at greater length then. I want to make it clear that about 93 per cent. of cases that go to appeal are funded by the Royal British Legion, and it is simply not acceptable that such money has to be found from charitable sources. I do now know whether the Minister is alive to this issue. He is indicating from a sedentary position that he is, so I hope he addresses it.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I have been listening with interest to what he is saying. Can he tell me—I do not the answer—what happens with other public sector workers, such as those who work in health, local authorities and education? If they appeal, are they funded out of the public purse?

Mr. Howarth: I do not know whether other public sector workers are funded out of the public purse, but that is not our concern here today. Our concern is with Her Majesty's armed forces, and as we have discussed on many occasions in this Committee and on the Floor of the House, there is a strong sense in which members of the armed forces are a special case, because they put their lives on the line for their country.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): My hon. Friend is right to say that the armed forces are different. I recently dealt with a case in which a teacher was appealing for an interim award following an assault by a pupil. The teacher was able to go to his own GP with his own medical records and his own evidence from the hospital casualty department where he was treated. The point about the armed forces is that all those matters are handled in-house by the body against which members of the services are appealing.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We shall specifically address it when we discuss medical records, so I do not want to trespass on to that territory now. I am desperately searching my notes for some individual details relating to the Royal British Legion, but I regret that I cannot immediately lay my hands on them. Suffice it to say that we feel that the Government must address the issue, as it has not been addressed. The Minister has indicated from a sedentary position that he is alive to the issue and that he will address the Committee, so on that basis I hope we can proceed with a constructive debate to ensure

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that something can be done to alleviate the burden that is falling disproportionately on one of the nation's favourite charities.

If the public knew that a lot of the money that they spend on the poppy appeal goes to fund people who are challenging the Government over their pension entitlement, I think that a degree of anger would be shown that would not reflect favourably on the Government's standing in the country.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): I do not want to speak for long, but I have some questions that I know Opposition Members will be able to answer, because they are more experienced in these matters than me. Having listened to confrontations and exchanges in previous sittings, I am somewhat in a quandary over the amendment. It appears to be a blank cheque: any appeal would receive finance, even if it was just someone's attempt to see whether they could get something. That would clog up the system. In view of those circumstances, the amendment is flawed.

I gather from the Opposition's remarks at previous sittings that they want to stop the judicial use of the Government's and taxpayers' money, but the idea of the blank cheque, if my interpretation of the amendment is correct, contradicts that. However, I am slightly concerned about the British Legion and the money that it has to put forward, and I have some sympathy with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). As an honorary member of the legion who does various bits of work for it up in Scotland, I understand its reservations. Although I am sympathetic, I also have to look at the financial situation, so I could not support the amendment in this form.

Shona McIsaac: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that although there is great sympathy for the British Legion, there could be a lawyers' feeding fest if the amendment is accepted? They would take up cases on behalf of other public sector workers and cite that provision as a reason why everyone working in the public sector should receive public funds if they take an appeal to a tribunal.

John Robertson: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I would at all times say, however, that the armed services are a different case entirely. They do not have a trade union to represent them; the British Legion is effectively their trade union. She makes a valid point about a charter for lawyers—they are not people who I have great sympathy for—so I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): I am pleased to be here this morning to assist the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin), and to represent the Government as a Minister at the Department for Constitutional Affairs on the important matter of the tribunal arrangements for our armed services. The

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Government agree with the spirit of the amendment. We feel that the reasonable expenses of claimants should be met when taking a case to appeal. In that regard, we are introducing an amendment to clause 7, which I will get to in due course.

I want to explain what is available to people when they make applications. Both the pensions appeal tribunal and the social security commissioners provide for the expenses of claimants incurred in the course of a hearing. Accommodation and travel expenses are met, and the detail is set out in the pensions appeal tribunal rules and the procedural regulations under the Social Security Act 1998. The cost of rail travel or car mileage is paid. Subsistence is paid at a rate of £4.25 for five to 10 hours away from home. Overnight accommodation in London is also paid.

The community legal service—what some might think of as legal aid—can assist people in meeting other expenses incurred when taking a case before a tribunal. For example, the legal help scheme can provide up to £500-worth of assistance from a solicitor in preparing papers for appeal. However, the Government do not consider legal representation in front of a tribunal to be necessary. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) mentioned, the general nature of the tribunal system, whether it involves a social security or an employment tribunal, is that people represent themselves.

Mr. Brazier: The Minister is rightly using the natural structure of employment tribunals as a parallel, but will he address the central point that at any other tribunal workers would naturally look to their trade union representative to act as the point of contact and as their advocate? A Conservative Member should not have to point that out to a Labour Minister. Members and former members of the armed forces do not have such a figure available, which is why the British Legion is paying out £500,000, and those bills will rise because the Minister is extending the process.

 
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Prepared 24 February 2004