an independent financial audit for each
MEPs total expenditure every year, which is then published on their website.[ Official Report, 16 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 272.]
The Auditors report has to be presented to the EPLP by 31st March.
Ms Harman: As we are discussing the business for next week, I do not want to detain the House on issues that were debated at length yesterday on an Opposition motion. On the question of expenses of MEPs, and how Labour MEPs deal with the issue, my understanding is that there is a voluntary arrangement whereby Labour MEPs put their expenses on their own websites. [Interruption.] That is what I understand the position to be.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): In 2006-07, 2,500 fixed penalty notices were issued in Northamptonshire for crimes including shoplifting, drunkenness and criminal damage, but only 836 were actually paid. Can we have a debate in Government time about the effectiveness of the fixed penalty notice system as a part of the criminal justice?
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Hundreds of thousands of Equitable Life policyholders know that the Government did everything that they could to obstruct the report that has been published, and to delay the time when that investigation reached its conclusions. That has been confirmed by the ombudsman, who said that it was iniquitous and unfair that the Government failed to establish a single inquiry in 2001. Policyholders, who have been waiting eight years, want to know whether the foot dragging will now end, so that they can find out how much compensation they will get. It seems that we are getting more foot dragging from the Leader of the House right now. Can we at least have a debate, even a short debate, in Government time, to establish the criteria by which compensation will be assessed and paid, or are the Government too fearful of the £4 billion overhang that will hit an already distressed public sector financial deficit?
Ms Harman: I do not accept the hon. Gentlemans points or the implications that lie behind them. I have said how the Government propose to deal with the important report of the ombudsman on Equitable Life. I have nothing further to add.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con):
I hope that the Leader of the House will respond to this question. She said earlier that the press should apologise promptly when they get it wrong. The Government have got it wrong on Equitable Life. Why will they not
do the ombudsmans bidding and apologise now? Why can they not put a stop to their weasel words on the issue?
Ms Harman: I do not want to draw out the issue, because two important statements are coming up. However, hon. Members should recognise that the problems in Equitable Life started to arise under a regulatory regime that was the responsibility not of this Government, but of the previous Government. If Conservative Members have joined us in being concerned that there should be proper regulation of the private sector, we welcome that.
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I must go back to the vexed question of Somerset. I have carried out the right hon. and learned Ladys advice, but it now turns out that the deal with IBM, on which I want a debate, was negotiated on 21 February last year. They got the joint venture because of secret meetings, even though the bid was £25 million more expensive than the next nearest bidder. The only councillor who had the guts to stand up was Paul Buchanan, who was taken to the Standards Board for England on 55 charges by the chief executive of the county council. When I tried to sort the case out on his behalf, I was threatened with legal action by the Standards Board
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but the questions are getting longer and longer. We have quite a long list of business items to deal with today. I think that the right hon. and learned Lady might have got the sense of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. [ Interruption. ] The look of puzzlement on her face induces me to allow one final sentence from Mr. Liddell-Grainger.
I have on previous occasions suggested that if the hon. Gentleman wants such a debate he ought to look to Westminster Hall or an Adjournment debate. I was looking slightly dismayed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I think that it is very important that we do not stray into making serious allegations under
the protection of the privilege of this House that we would not make outside the House or if we did not have that privilege.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I wish the Leader of the House an enjoyable recess and thank her warmly for next Mondays debate on speech, language and communication services. May we please have a debate in Government time, preferably on the Floor of the House, on autism? Given that of the estimated 500,000 people in this country on the autistic spectrum only 15 per cent. become independent as adults, 40 per cent. live with their parents all their lives and a mere 12 per cent. are engaged in paid work, is it not timely now for us to debate the Governments autism strategy in the interests of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities?
Ms Harman: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his report. As he says, the House will have an opportunity, which I know that it welcomes, to debate the subject on Monday. The question of provision and support for those with autism in their families will be centre stage in that debate.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to speak to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and ask him to make a statement to the House on the chaos that has engulfed the key stages 2 and 3 SATs exams? The Secretary of State has admitted that 120,000 pupils will not have their results by the end of term and the Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, on which I sit, has said that those who have just recently passed A-levels have been marking those papers. Is it not time that the Secretary of State did what he has so far refused to dothat is, that he apologised in this House?
Ms Harman: The Secretary of State gave evidence about those issues to the Select Committee yesterday. He has set up an inquiry under Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, which will report in the autumn. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has responsibility for the contract to manage the service. Many key stage 2 results for 11-year-olds went out on Tuesday and more will go out tomorrow. More key stage 3 results will go out tomorrow. The Secretary of State has said clearly that he believes that the situation is unacceptable and that is why he has established the inquiry.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the service personnel Command Paper, which I am publishing today and which has been laid before the House.
The men and women of our armed forces are a force for good. I know that the whole House is proud of the work that they do in dangerous and challenging circumstances, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, or closer to home. All around the world, every day, they demonstrate their courage, dedication and professionalism, risking injury and death in the service of their country. They are a credit to the nation.
Increasingly, the level of support provided to our forces by the Government, and also more widely by the nation, has come under scrutiny from the public, the media and, most importantly, those in the services and their families. It is absolutely right that that should be the case. If we ask our forces to risk their lives in order to keep us safe, we should all be prepared to look after them while they are in service and afterwards. I believe that we have made a number of big improvements to the lives of our people in the past two years.
We have introduced the first ever tax-free operational bonus, we have invested substantial additional money to improve our armed forces accommodation and we have awarded them among the highest pay increases in the public sector. However, we can and should do more. Last year, the Prime Minister and I asked ministerial colleagues across government what more we could do and should be doing to demonstrate our gratitude for the service and sacrifice of our service personnel. The result, led by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, is todays Command Paperthe first ever truly cross-Government approach to demonstrating our commitment to the armed forces.
The Command Paper was not just a cross-Government effort. We also consulted our external reference group, among others, widely and in detail. That group comprised the Royal British Legion, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, the Confederation of British Service and ex-Service Organisations, the armed forces families federations and the War Widows Association of Great Britain. I am delighted that they have so warmly welcomed the publication of this paper and will continue to work with us on its delivery.
This Command Paper is underpinned by two fundamental principles. The first is to remove any disadvantage. The nature of their work and the requirements of service life means that our people, and their families, can face disadvantage in their daily lives. Many of them move locations frequently, often with no choice of where or when, and schooling can be disrupted as a result. They might lose their place on a national health service waiting list, for example, or lose out on an in vitro fertilisation procedure. Many of the measures in the paper are therefore aimed at ending that disadvantage. They seek to ensure that service personnel and their families receive continuity of public services wherever they are based and wherever they are obliged to move.
The second fundamental principle is that where special treatment is required in order to recognise those who have sacrificed the most, we must and should provide it.
This is a comprehensive package of 40 measures covering almost every aspect of life, from health care, education and transport to housing, resettlement and the care of veterans.
I want to highlight just a few of the commitments that we are announcing today. Right hon. and hon. Members are only too aware of the terrible price that some members of our armed forces have paid, suffering mental and physical injuries that will be with them and their families for the rest of their lives. Every Member of this House would agree with me that as a Government we should be willing to make the following commitment: if those personnel have been injured serving their nation, then the Government and the nation must ensure that we support them as much as they need for as long as they need. We must aim to offer the best possible continuous care from the point of injury, through to recovery and beyond, for the rest of their life. The measures set out in the paper are aimed at doing just that.
One of the key changes that we are announcing today is an increase in the compensation payments for personnel who suffer injuries due to their service. I understand that no amount of money can ever make up for the pain and sacrifice that these brave people have endured. However, we need to recognise the special nature of their sacrifice. The top-level tariffs in the armed forces compensation scheme will be doubled, affecting about 80 of the most seriously injured people who have already made claims since the scheme began in 2005. Obviously, it will apply to the most serious claims in future.
These things are quite complex as the compensation scheme has many different levels. In practical terms, though, that means that the lump sum awarded for the most serious injuries, which was previously between about £50,000 and £285,000, will double. The new maximum award for an injury will be £570,000. Everyone with an award for injury under the compensation scheme will benefit and the most seriously injured will benefit the most. On discharge, the most seriously injured will also continue to get tax-free income throughout their livesthe annual guaranteed income payment, which is also index-linkedso overall the lifetime payout could be in excess of £1.5 million. Furthermore, these compensation payments for those who are severely disabled will now be disregarded from the local authority means test when they are applying for the disabled facilities grant. That means that seriously injured personnel who receive a lump sum under the armed forces compensation scheme or war pension scheme will not have to spend that money adapting their homes. That money was intended by this House to be compensation for serious injuries, and this approach will guarantee that that intention is fulfilled.
That change is in addition to a host of other changes: seriously injured personnel will be prioritised in waiting lists for adapted social housing; we will roll out community mental health services for veterans nationwide, following successful pilots launched earlier this year; at the earliest opportunity, we will extend free bus travel across England to those service personnel and veterans under the age of 60 who have been seriously injured through service, and Scotland and Wales will do similar; and finally, severely disabled veterans will have an automatic entitlement to blue badges, which provide parking concessions, for life.
Everyone in this House knows that none of those things can make up for the injuries that some people will bear for the remainder of their lives. Nothing can do that. We owe this immense debt, and although it can never sufficiently be repaid, we should, and we will, do our utmost to acknowledge it. The Government will also strive to mitigate the disruptive consequences of mobility on family and everyday life. For example, we will provide continuity of national health service care for service families by ensuring that they retain their relative place on NHS waiting lists across the UK, however often they move, and we will take steps to improve NHS dentists for service families.
We will also minimise the disruption to education suffered by many service children. To that end, we will do the following: review admissions policy to ensure that service children are treated fairly in the allocation of school places; ensure that special educational needs support is uninterrupted when children move schools; and give service children priority access to places at state boarding schools.
Those who choose to leave the armed forces will enjoy a greater level of support, ensuring a smooth transition to civilian life. We will give free further or higher education to service leavers of more than six years experience, up to first degree level. That means that a soldier, sailor or airman can join the armed forces from school, secure in the knowledge that six or more years service will be rewarded with the chance of a college or university education free from tuition fees. We will also make it easier for service leavers to find homes, whether through the purchase of their own properties or through social housing. We recognise that the mobility of the average service careertypically, people move every two yearsmeans that individuals often prefer to wait until they leave the armed forces before buying a home. For that reason, we will extend the key worker living scheme so that service personnel are eligible for its assistance to purchase homes for one year after they leave the forces.
Social housing will also be more accessible to service leavers. In the past, service leavers had difficulties obtaining social housing, as local authorities prioritise individuals with a local connection to the area. This legislation will be changed, enabling personnel to establish a local connection and so settle in the location of their choice. That is not all, because we will make empty MOD properties available to service leavers as an interim measure, and we will work with the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Housing Corporation and charities to reduce the incidence of homelessness, which will include building new supported housing on gifted MOD land.
In this Command Paper, the Government have listened to the real needs of the service community and responded to those identified needs, introducing real improvements. We are as committed to our armed forces and veterans as they are committed to us, and we will deliver on these promises; after all, it is the very least we can do. The measures I have outlined are the Governmentsand, indeed, the nationscommitment to honour and care for those who have sacrificed most in service to their country, and let me make it absolutely clear that this is for the long term. It is the product of many months of concerted effort by Government Departments and the
devolved Administrations. We are determined to make this stick, and we will put in place mechanisms to ensure that we deliver. I commend this Command Paper on the nations commitment to our armed forces, their families and veterans to the House.
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and for prior sight of it. Conservatives welcome any measures to help our armed forces and their families, and indeed many of the proposals announced today echo proposals that we have made over the past year. Although it may have taken a long time for the Government to introduce this package of measures, if this is the beginning of a genuinely constructive and bipartisan approach to the welfare of our armed forces, their families and service veterans, the whole country will welcome it.
No other group in our society is asked to make the sort of sacrifices that our armed forces make on our behalf. Those on both sides of the House who have visited our troops in Iraq or Afghanistan know the hardships that they face. Those who have talked to service families about how they feel when they hear that another soldier has been killed or injured but they have not yet learned the name of the person involved marvel at their courage. Those who have visited young soldiers in Selly Oak or Headley Court have been humbled by the soldiers lack of self pity in the face of great adversity.
May I ask the Secretary of State to clarify a number of points in his statement, starting with the compensation issue? We welcome the doubling of the maximum award for the most seriously injured, but he will be aware that the points system determines eligibility for the most serious injury payment and that it has attracted much criticism. That issue has been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Does he believe that the system is sufficiently holistic in its approach? What plans are there for a review of it, and when will that take place?
Secondly, the Secretary of State said, Everyone with an award for injury under the compensation scheme will benefit. Will he clarify that? Does he mean that there will be an automatic uprating of all awards made since 2005, and if so, when will such changes be made? What of those injured in Iraq or Afghanistan before 2005? What changes will be made to bring their treatment and compensation into line with the changes announced today for those injured after 2005? The public will find it hard to accept an arbitrary date for discrimination in treatment. May I remind the House that between 1 January 2003 and 31 December 2005, 33 UK military personnel were categorised as very seriously injured and 78 were categorised as seriously injured, and that in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2005, six were categorised as very seriously injured and four as seriously injured? What will happen to them?
Can the Secretary of State also tell us how many claims have been made by former service personnel against the MOD in the civil courts, how many such claims are outstanding and what the estimated liability is? What assessment has he made of the likely impact of todays statement on those claims? Finally, will more money be made available from the Treasury for the changes that he has announced today, and if so, how much? We do not want the MOD to be forced to cut other parts of an already overstretched budget.