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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): The armed forces compensation scheme was introduced in 2005 for personnel who are injured as a result of service in the armed forces. For the first time, our personnel can claim compensation while they are still serving, by way of a tax-free lump sum for illness or injury, up to a maximum of £285,000. Those more seriously injured will, in addition to a lump-sum payment, receive a tax-free, inflation-proof guaranteed income payment which is paid on discharge and monthly thereafter for the rest of their lives. The payment is not capped and may, over a lifetime, be worth many hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Mr. Evennett: I thank the Minister for his response and, in particular, for the information about the review that he is conducting. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, asked:
What on earth are we to make of a system where the secretary who gets a wrist injury typing the orders receives more compensation than the soldier who loses his legs following the orders?
Can the Minister justify that appalling imbalance, regardless of the fact that the serviceman receives a continuing pension and the civilian does not? I hope that it will be taken into account for the purposes of his review.
Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman is not comparing like with like. This is a no-fault scheme, and the claim to which he refers was a negligence claim. Armed forces personnel can claim against the Department for negligence, but the key point is that, for the first time ever, armed forces personnel can be paid, while they are still serving, a sizeable lump sum in addition to any lump sum that they could claim under the war pension scheme after leaving the service. Moreover, the lifelong guaranteed income payment for those most seriously injured is worth many hundreds of thousands of pounds. This is a significant improvement on the previous scheme.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): What support is the Minister giving the families of service personnel undergoing extensive long-term hospital and medical treatment? How are those families managing financially?
Derek Twigg: There is support enabling the families of injured personnel returning from Afghanistan and Iraq to stay at Selly Oak and to receive expenses. We have also been working with the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association to provide improved accommodation at both Selly Oak and Headley Court.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): Financial compensation is, of course, extremely important, but so are the recovery and rehabilitation of injured servicemen and women before they receive that compensation. Is the Minister not rather ashamed that, apparently, the swimming pool, physiotherapy centre and relatives accommodation at Headley Court must wait for a charity pop concert rather than being provided by the Ministry of Defence now?
Derek Twigg: I am certainly not ashamed. Headley Court is a world-class establishment, and has been recognised as such by the Select Committee on Defence. We pay for treatment and facilities at Headley Court, which already has a number of gyms and a rehabilitation pool. We welcome the idea of people being able to raise additional resources to complement what we provide. We do so for a number of reasons, not least because it gives the British public a chance to show their support for the armed forces.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab):
Before the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004, there were no lump sum payments in the 18 years in which the Conservative party was in power. When the
Act came before the HouseI was on the Bill Committee not once were the objections now being raised by the Conservative party brought up. The only thing that was raised in the Select Committee was the objection by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) to my amendment to extend these benefits to unmarried partners.
Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend makes an important point. When the statutory instrument was laid to set out the new compensation scheme, the Opposition parties did not object and did not pray against it. It is a bit rich for them, this far down the road, suddenly to start to criticise a scheme that they did not object to at the time.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Are the comments attributed to General Sir David Richardsthat payments to injured soldiers will rise threefoldin yesterdays The Sunday Telegraph correct? When does he expect this to happen and when does he expect our serving personnel to receive similar compensation to that of civilian personnel?
Derek Twigg: The House would not expect me to say at this stage because we have not yet received the report, which we expect to receive in May. We will consider its recommendations and information before we make any further announcements.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): In the light of the welcome comments by Commander in Chief, Land, over the weekend, the Minister might like to express his regrets for the inadequacies of the 2005 armed forces compensation scheme that General Richards has found so wanting, and as the current review implies. Meanwhile, the Adjutant General continues to push private insurance schemes such as Pax that cost the private soldier a months pay to cover risks run on our behalf in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. Why does this months gimmickthe armed forces benefits calculator, designed to convince service men that they have never had it so goodcompletely ignore the disbenefit of having to take out personal insurance to cover occupational risk?
Derek Twigg: As I said, that is a bit rich from the Conservative party, which, let us be clear, supported the armed forces compensation scheme. This is the first time that compensation of this scaleup to £285,000is payable while serving. That is a significant step forward. The guaranteed income payment is index-linked, tax-free and paid for life. Unlike the previous war pension scheme, it is not capped, changed or withdrawn if the injured serviceman or woman improves at some point. The Conservative party did not introduce any such scheme during its 18 years in power. The scheme should be kept under continual review, which is why we made the changes last year in terms of motor injuries and why we are reviewing it now in the light of experience.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Ministers visit Iraq on a regular basis. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited most recently and was encouraged by the good spirits and professionalism of our troops. Equally, two of the Chiefs of Staff have been in theatre recently and similarly report that morale among our forces is good and that we are working effectively alongside our coalition partners and the Iraqi security forces in Basra.
Bob Spink: I welcome the Governments policy of holding an inquiry after troops are withdrawn from theatre. An inquiry while they are still in action would put them in more danger and damage their morale. Will he always put the safety of our troops uppermost and resist opportunistic attempts to turn our troops into a political football?
Mr. Ainsworth: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. When we discussed the matter a few weeks ago it was clear that people wanted an inquiry for purely party political purposes and that there was no precedent for holding such an inquiry while our troops were still in theatre and in danger. That is why we rejected the call for an inquiry at this time.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): There is no prouder body of men and women than the British Army. What is it supposed to do for their morale when they read the unfair and uncomplimentary remarks about allowing the Americans to do our dirty work for us in the recent operation in Basra in Iraq? Would it not be better for their morale either to let them get stuck in or to get them out of that country, rather than chain them up in the airport against all the traditions of the fighting British Army?
Mr. Ainsworth: From the discussions I have had with our armed forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I know that broadly speaking they ignore what they read in the media and know what the facts are. The fact with regard to Basra is that our forces are involved in a very similar way to the American forces. The American forces came down to Basra with the additional Iraqi forces. Our own forces are in Basra assisting the Iraqi 14th division, which they helped to give the capability that it is now showing in its success in Basra town. Although we should not overstate our own role, the Iraqis would not be capable of doing what they are now doing in Basra if it had not, in part, been for the contribution that the British forces have made and continue to make. We should not run them down just because the press do.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): As at 23 April 2008, the endorsed force levels for southern Iraq and Afghanistan are 4,000 and 7,800 respectively. The precise number of personnel in theatre at any one time fluctuates on a daily basis for a variety of reasons, including mid-tour rest and recuperation, temporary absence for training, evacuation for medical reasons and the roulement of forces.
Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will he join me in paying tribute to those from RAF Leeming who are currently serving, and those from RAF Linton-on-Ouse, Dishforth airfield and Alanbrooke barracks, Topcliffe? Will he also have regard to the fact that the numbers serving and the length of tours is having a tremendous impact on overstretch and morale? How can we ensure that morale is not affected by the long tours and the short time those serving have at home with their families in between?
Mr. Ainsworth: I am very happy to do as the hon. Lady asks by paying tribute to those forces, and to all our forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However, I must say to her that despite the fact that our armed forces are stretchedwe recognise that that is the caseand working hard, the morale of our forces in theatre is good. When I go out to theatre, I find that not only is it good, but that those forces at the sharp end on the front line who are in the most austere of circumstances have the best morale. They are soldieringthey are achieving and doing what they wanted and trained to do. Their morale is good, and they are doing an excellent job and they deserve the support of the House.
Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): The Government argue that our troops are stretched but not overstretched, yet the drawdown from Iraq has been postponed and serious recruitment difficulties cannot be entirely masked by a massive increase in recruitment from the Commonwealth. For how much longer can we operate beyond defence planning assumptions without doing damage to our future capabilities? Do we really have the spare capacity to undertake further commitmentsin Kosovo, for exampleand if we do, what lessons have we learned from Iraq and Afghanistan about making it clear that we are going in for a time-limited shift and not taking on another open-ended commitment?
Mr. Ainsworth: There is no untime-limited commitment open to us in Kosovo. There is a commitment we will have to deal with and respond to, but it is a time-limited commitment to provide forces to Kosovo. Of course we must be mindful of the hard work we are asking of our armed forces. We must keep that under assessment at all times, and we do so. We take advice from the military chain of command on what is feasible and what is acceptable, and we must ensure that we stay on top of that and do not ask too much of our armed forces, because they are working hard. We are asking an awful lot of them and they deserve our support. They are doing an excellent job, and I am satisfied that they are capable of continuing to do so.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and I have held frequent meetings on this subject with Ministry of Justice Ministers. We make regular statements to the House about progress on reducing the number of outstanding inquests. We are strongly committed to minimising delays, and we will consult regularly about management of, and support to, inquests relating to deaths on operations.
Mr. Joyce: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I have received a number of letters from constituents who are concerned that the Scottish National party Administration in Scotland are dragging their heels on this matter. Does he think they are doing everything they can to expedite a solution?
Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend knows that the situation in Scotland is different from that in England and Wales. We have been trying to deal with the matter for some time. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), wrote to Kenny MacAskill MSP in June last year raising this issue, I have tried to meet Scottish Executive Members and the Secretary of State wrote again to Mr. MacAskill in March setting out what needs to be done, so the ball is now firmly in the hands of the Scottish Executive.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am sure the Minister will join me in paying particular tribute to David Masters, the Wiltshire coroner, who is doing an outstanding job wrestling with the complexities of the inquest into the deaths of the 10 people killed when a Hercules came down in Iraq. Can the Minister confirm that in no circumstances will he or anybody else in the Ministry of Defence attempt to interfere with the investigations or with the outcome of any such inquests, even if those inquests were to be critical of Ministers or of the MOD?
Mr. Ainsworth: Not only would we not attempt to interfere with such an inquest, but we welcome the input that we get from the independent coronial system. It throws up issues and findings of immense importance, which we must examine and know about, so of course I can give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that no attempt will beor has beenmade to interfere with coroners decisions.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I encourage the Minister to keep trying with the Scottish Government as far as the holding of fatal accident inquiries for Scottish-domiciled soldiers is concerned? Such inquiries would not only take some pressure off the English inquests system, but would mean a great deal to the families of serving soldiers who were domiciled in Scotland at the time of their death.
We believe that it is important not to oblige families to travel the distances that they are required to travel to attend inquests in the south of England when they are based in Scotland and their loved ones who have died came from parts of Scotland. That is why we have been pursuing the matter with the Scottish Executive and will continue to do so. As I have said, we have made representations over time, and we
hope that a solution to the problem will be found because that would be in the interests of Scottish families.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The primary focus of the international security assistance force mission is to assist the Government of Afghanistan in the maintenance and extension of security. Practical support for reconstruction and development efforts is one of ISAFs key supporting tasks.
Lyn Brown: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Given the situation in southern Afghanistan and the Talibans cowardly attacks on the international aid agencies working in that area, when does he think the situation might sufficiently improve to allow aid agencies to return and re-establish their vital work?
Des Browne: My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that the work that the Afghan Government do is supported by non-governmental organisations. More important is the presence of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in southern Afghanistan. I am confident that under the leadership of Kai Eide, who has recently been appointed to the co-ordination role, we will see an early presence for the mission in Helmand province. That will be a sign to many organisations that they can come and work with us, but we should not ignore those organisations that are doing good work there now, many of which are Afghan-based NGOs.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The security situation in southern Iraq is stable, but has a fragility. Recent operations by the Iraqi security forces, supported by UK forces and coalition partners, who are deployed with those forces in Basra city, have been successful in helping the Iraqi Government consolidate control over Basra and all key routes into and out of the city. There are encouraging signs that conditions in the city are improving and we will continue to work with our coalition partners and the Iraqi authorities to help sustain this positive trend.
Mr. Blunt: When Ministers have a strategically weak argument, they have a disagreeable habit of hiding behind the arguments of generals who have a responsibility down the chain of command to support the morale of the troops of whom they are in charge. The Secretary of State has done that this afternoon. The fact is that the strategic situation in Basra with the British forces is an example of dither, and it is damaging the reputation of the United Kingdom and the morale and capacity of our armed forces. When will the Government resolve that?
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