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11 Jun 2008 : Column 92WH—continued

The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about medical care and compensation. While Corporal Compton is in the care of the armed forces, that would be provided either directly through the armed forces or through the
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hospital that we use in his case. Thereafter, responsibility will fall to the national health service, which will be responsible for ensuring that the highest possible standard of medical care is provided. We have been working closely with the Department of Health on these issues over recent months, and, as part of announcements that I made several months ago, a case officer will now be allocated by the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency to work with and help the most seriously injured personnel, certainly in the first two years and thereafter if necessary, if they are discharged. As I said, that is a new initiative.

The armed forces compensation scheme came into effect in April 2005. For the first time, it provides for a lump sum payment to be made to serving members of the armed forces who are injured due to service. I stress that this is the first time that compensation is being paid in-service to injured service personnel. That is an important step forward and an improvement made by this Government.

The lump sum award compensates for pain and suffering and is made under a tariff-based system that is informed by existing established models such as the Judicial Studies Board guidelines for the assessment of general damages in personal injury cases, and the criminal injuries compensation scheme. We review the tariff levels periodically, and, as I announced to the House in April, such a review is under way.

The most seriously injured are also awarded a guaranteed income payment, which we have just discussed. I stress that it is a tax-free, index-linked payment made every month from discharge for the rest of the individual’s life; it does not stop at retirement. That important point often gets overlooked—deliberately so by sections of the press. The guaranteed income payment is part of the whole compensation package.

When we constructed the scheme, we listened to the advice of ex-service organisations to give lifetime financial security, rather than adding to the lump sum in the initial award, as is done in some civil cases. Again, that is an important point. We could have made it all part of a lump sum, but we did not. We thought that income for life was an important aspect of the compensation.

I believe that the guaranteed income payment provides better support for our servicemen and women, but, regrettably, it means that the true value of an armed forces compensation scheme award is not always readily understood. I stress again that the guaranteed income payment is part of the whole package. Between the lump sum and the guaranteed income payment, individuals can receive hundreds of thousands of pounds over a lifetime, and, unlike other compensation schemes such as the criminal injuries compensation scheme, the armed forces compensation scheme has no monetary cap.

To give an example—I stress that this is an example, but one that is worth tabling—a 25-year-old soldier earning £22,000 a year who is very seriously injured may receive up to the £285,000 maximum lump sum. He will continue to be paid while in service, including during rehabilitation, which may last for several years. On discharge, he will receive a guaranteed income payment of around £19,000 per year, which will be tax-free and index-linked. That is an example, but it shows the sort of payments that can be made. By the time the individual reaches the age of 45, he will have received £380,000 by
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way of a guaranteed income payment. By the time of his 65th birthday, he will have received some £760,000 plus the lump sum. I stress that the guaranteed income payment figures are baseline amounts and are, in fact, uplifted year on year to take account of inflation.

As the armed forces compensation scheme is relatively new, we keep it under review in the light of experience. For example, in common with other injury schemes, the armed forces compensation scheme contains a multiple injury discounting rule to prevent those with a large number of relatively minor injuries from receiving more than someone with fewer, more serious injuries.

Hugh Robertson: That is the nub of the problem, is it not? I entirely accept the logic of the situation, but there is a reverse effect, whereby if the injuries are as severe as they are in this case, the tick-box method on the form may not be capable of reflecting the absolute severity of the injuries suffered by this young man.

Derek Twigg: That is the nub of the whole debate, which goes slightly wider than that, but I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point and it is an important one to make. At the end of the day, what payment is enough for our injured service personnel? Many people have different views on that—I will probably return to that a little later—but I stress that the point about what would be enough is important. We have to base the scheme on past practice and on other schemes to come to a conclusion about the sort of scheme that we should offer. As I said, we based this scheme on the Judicial Studies Board and on precedents that have been set. No scheme is perfect, but the key issue is whether those with the most serious multiple injuries get the best award. I accept that the point is important, but it is not straightforward.

At the end of last year, we recognised that the scheme was not fully meeting its policy intent of focusing resources on those who were most seriously injured. We therefore changed the rules relating to those who suffered multiple injuries from a single incident, better to reflect the serious and complex nature of some of the injuries that servicemen and women were receiving on operations. That was widely welcomed as a step forward. It is important to stress that the armed forces compensation scheme addresses pain and suffering, as well as the loss of earning capacity.

Individuals leaving the services also have access to all the state benefits that cover the other elements of civil compensation awards such as the NHS, which I have mentioned, for ongoing treatment, the disabled facilities grant for home adaptation, and the disabled living allowance for care. For instance, I know that the homes of some service personnel who are still in service were adapted to take account of disability.

It is worth reminding ourselves that any member of the armed forces injured due to service has access to these awards on a no-fault basis—this is a key point—without there being a need for negligence on the MOD’S part or for a time-consuming and costly legal process.

As I said, there are a variety of opinions about what the right compensation should be for those injured while in service. No amount of money can adequately compensate for some of the more serious injuries received by our armed forces personnel, but the armed forces compensation scheme does deliver no-fault compensation
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for those who are injured and for the families of those who are killed as a result of their service in the armed forces.

Of course, welfare for injured service personnel is much broader than the compensation. This is an important point: medical care is often caught up in the wider welfare provision for injured service personnel. I want to make a few important points about medical care, which starts with the care that they receive in theatre and, for the more seriously injured, continues with the clinical care that they receive once they are returned to the UK for specialist treatment.

Since 2001, the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, which I visit regularly, based at the University Hospital Birmingham Foundation Trust, has been the main receiving unit for military casualties evacuated from an operational theatre. The clear view of all the injured service personnel and families whom I spoke to during my last visit was that they were being really well looked after. There were no complaints about the care that they were receiving.

In the Birmingham area, military patients can benefit from the concentration of five specialist hospitals, including Selly Oak hospital, to receive an excellent level of clinical care. Indeed, I and many others believe that Selly Oak is at the leading edge in the medical care of the most common types of injuries that our casualties sustain. If there is a need for urgent specialist treatment that cannot be immediately provided in the Birmingham area, we ensure that the patient is admitted promptly to a unit elsewhere in the UK that specialises in the particular injury, such as the burns unit at Broomfield hospital.

The Defence Committee recently described the treatment available to troops injured on operations as “second to none” overall—an assessment that I share, having visited our patients and staff in field hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in NHS hospitals in the UK. All veterans now receive priority care on the NHS after discharge for conditions caused by their service. The NHS recently reinforced that message.

If military patients require further rehabilitation following initial hospital treatment, they may be referred to the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court in Surrey, which is widely recognised as delivering first-class specialist rehabilitation of complex cases. The Government recognise that continuing investment is needed to ensure that Headley Court retains its reputation as a centre of excellence, and have recently announced that they will invest an additional £24 million in the Headley Court site over the next four years to maintain and enhance its capabilities. The new investment, together with current funding for new facilities, means that Headley Court will see an investment over those four years totalling some £24 million, in addition to substantial funding that the charity Help for Heroes intends to provide for the new rehabilitation complex. We also adapt service accommodation, where appropriate, for injured personnel who are able and willing to continue their service career. That is another important point. Many injured service personnel remain in service.

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Injured personnel also receive welfare support during their treatment and convalescence. Visiting officers, available on 24-hour call-out duty, maintain regular contact with injured service personnel. The Birmingham welfare office supports the hospitals in that area, there are regular welfare surgeries at Headley Court and the veterans welfare service contacts seriously injured personnel before their medical discharge. In combination, those services provide support to injured personnel and their families throughout treatment. We have also increased community psychiatric and nursing support.

No amount of money can adequately compensate for some of the serious injuries received by our armed forces personnel, but the Ministry of Defence can and does ensure that those injured in service are provided with exemplary health care.

Hugh Robertson: I thank the Minister for his remarks about the armed forces compensation scheme and his commitment to ensuring that Lance Corporal Compton gets a proper indication of his guaranteed income payment. Will he also look again at the file? I accept that no figure could possibly compensate that young man for his injuries, but for better or worse, there is a figure of £285,000. I, as his representative this morning, would like to ensure that he receives the maximum sum possible for his injuries under the scheme. Will the Minister undertake to look again at the file to see whether that is possible?

Derek Twigg: The straightforward answer is yes. I said to Lance-Corporal Compton last week when we discussed the nature of the injuries and how they were compensated that I would look at it, and I will.

As I was saying, the Ministry of Defence can and does ensure that those injured in service are provided with exemplary health care, a compensation award to reflect the pain and suffering that they have experienced, welfare support and, in the cases of the more seriously injured, a tax-free income stream for life to reflect the loss of potential earnings and pension. I reiterate, because the press often deliberately overlook it, that we provide a guaranteed income payment that can amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds during a lifetime.

I believe that we are supporting our armed forces personnel and their families to a much greater degree than ever before. We can always look to see what can be improved, and we continually review what we do for our armed forces personnel and veterans and their families. That is why we are reviewing the compensation scheme. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a time scale or tell him what the conclusion might be; I can only say that the fact that we are reviewing it indicates that we are not sitting back. We always listen to the contributions and representations made to us. We will make an announcement at the appropriate time.

11.22 am

Sitting suspended.

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Minimum Wage

2.30 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce a debate on enforcing the minimum wage. I am raising the issue in the House this afternoon because of a recent case from my constituency, which in turn highlighted a number of wider problems with the national minimum wage and its enforcement.

The national minimum wage is one of the big success stories of this Government. By one estimate, its introduction has brought at least 1.3 million people extra income and it has been particularly beneficial for women, who make up 70 per cent. of the beneficiaries. Part-time workers have also benefited—about two thirds of the jobs affected have been part time. Despite the hysteria in some quarters when it was introduced—I am referring to the official Opposition—the national minimum wage has not cost jobs; in fact, the evidence is that it has created jobs.

It is a success story, but to reap the full benefits the national minimum wage must be enforced. Minimum wage enforcement teams throughout the UK have had a degree of success. According to figures given in various sources, in the past year the teams identified more than £3 million in underpaid salaries throughout the UK, and they have helped to return more than £27 million to about 80,000 underpaid workers since 1999. To give an example, recently, as a result of only one call to the helpline, 180 employees of a company in the London area shared a total payout—they were owed the money, of course—of more than £100,000.

Many cases, however, slip through the net, which is what I want to concentrate on today, and in particular on one case from my constituency. About two years ago, a woman, a foreign national, who worked in a restaurant, came to my surgery with her partner. I will not give her name for reasons that will become obvious when I recount her story. She was on low pay and discovered that she was being paid less than the national minimum wage. She found out about the wage and how to assert her rights. She complained to her boss, but made no progress on receiving her rightful minimum wage. After a while, her boss sacked her because of her requests.

My constituent complained to the national minimum wage helpline. She was here legally and had a work permit, but its terms required her to find a new employer within four weeks if it was not to become invalid. However, her boss let it be known to others in that sector of the restaurant trade that she was a trouble-maker because she complained that she did not get the minimum wage, so she had difficulty finding a new employer. Thanks to the intervention of the Department responsible for such things at the time—it was either the Home Office or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—she was given an extension on the period in which to find a new employer to three months, and was able to get a new job and stay in the UK.

My constituent worked with the national minimum wage enforcement unit to try to get the money that she was due from her previous employer, and they worked out that she was due more than £6,000 in back pay because of the low wage that she had received. I intervened to try to sort out the difficulty caused by her work
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permit, and was in contact with her up to the stage at which she was trying to get the £6,000 she was owed. I thought that the case had been solved, that there had been a satisfactory result, and that the woman had got her due rights.

However, a few weeks ago, my constituent came to my surgery with the same problem, because the story did not end as happily as I thought it would. I was told that the enforcement unit, because of a heavy work load, had not been able to bring the case to a conclusion in almost two years. During that time, my constituent’s family had been threatened with violence, presumably to persuade her to withdraw her claim here in the UK, and the employer resisted making payments. Eventually, at the request of the enforcement unit, which wanted to bring the case to a conclusion, my constituent agreed to settle for a lesser sum than she thought was due. She agreed to receive £4,000 and, as I understand it, an order to that effect was made by an employment tribunal, after which her employer, which was a limited company, went into liquidation without paying her a penny. She is pursuing the matter as best she can, but the outcome was that when she tried to enforce her rights, she found that the enforcement unit was unable to act as quickly as she felt it ought to. As a result, she has not received a penny for the wages that she was due some two years ago.

I emphasise that my constituent does not complain about the individual officers in the unit; she feels that they worked very hard to help her with her case. She was told, however, that the officers’ work load was such that they were not able to put the time that they would wish into individual cases.

That case led me to make inquiries about the enforcement of the national minimum wage, and it now seems to me that there are a number of ways in which to make enforcement more effective. According to the Government’s estimates, almost 300,000 UK workers are being paid less than the minimum wage. I shall not go into all the case studies that I have seen because of the time, but organisations such as Citizens Advice suggest that it is a big problem in many areas of the UK. Indeed, since the national minimum wage was introduced, there have been only three successful criminal prosecutions for offences involving disregard of national minimum wage regulations by employers. Many more cases resulted in payments of back pay, but criminal prosecutions have been rare.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): We had a similar debate on poverty a week or two ago. Does my hon. Friend recall the last pre-Budget statement by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer? He announced that the Government were increasing the resources to tackle non-compliance by 50 per cent.—£3 million or more. Does my hon. Friend know how that money was used? There appears to have been a steady growth in the number of cases of failure to pay the national minimum wage, not only by direct employers but by outsourcing at arm’s length through agencies. The latter arrangement is difficult to tackle.

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