Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, when as a director or chairman of a company I have been involved in the takeover of another company, what was set out in the books at the time has been accepted. However, afterwards it is the custom and practice to review the books in order to see whether they are correct and to make sure that everything is in order. It is common custom and practice. Surely, the Statement reiterates what is a common practice in most companies which have been taken over by a new organisation. That new organisation makes sure that what is in the books is correct. That is all that the Statement does.

The things that have been said by the Members of the Opposition--and I hope they remember that they are Members of the Opposition and that they were in power

11 Jun 1997 : Column 933

for 18 years--are rightly being checked by us. After all, they did little during the past 12 months and we are making sure that everything in the books is correct.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that comment. When a company takes over an organisation it certainly does as he suggests. The whole purpose is to re-target the expenditure to the objectives of the new management--to the objectives of this new Government.

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, as this is the first time that I have spoken in the House since the election, perhaps I may take the opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord and the Opposition Front Bench team on their appointments--

Noble Lords: Government!

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I refer to the former Opposition. It is difficult after 18 years suddenly to realise that there are changes for the noble Lord's party as well as for mine. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that one is duty bound to look at the books. However, I say to the Minister that there is nothing new in the Statement. As my noble friend Lord Mackay said--and as the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, will know--we have all done this exercise before.

I take issue with the Minister that it will be "a simple and straightforward exercise". It will be anything but simple and straightforward because we know how difficult it is. However, the noble Lord's party will do it.

Will the Minister ask the government departments to take a more private sector view of what is capital and what is income? I believe that the public are concerned to know more about that. Secondly, will he ask departments to take a more long term view; longer than three years? I do not believe that many private sector companies take a three-year view but must take a longer-term view. Thirdly, the private finance initiative has implications for what is revenue and what is capital, in particular when the terms of the agreement come to an end after 20 or 25 years. Will the review highlight what will be capital and what will be revenue? What will be the effect on public expenditure at the end of the term of the various agreements? Finally, if the Government are serious about being effective and taking care of public finances, as they have said, surely they should take full and sole responsibility for creating the money supply.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his kind words. He inferred from my comment that this was a simple review, that there would be nothing new. I respond by saying that we are carrying out the review with new objectives. The Government have come to power with policies to which public spending must be adapted. The purpose of the review is to start carrying them out. The difference between this review and all the others is that we are undertaking it with those objectives in mind.

11 Jun 1997 : Column 934

Regarding the noble Earl's comments about capital and income, I am not qualified to get into an argument over the minutiae of accountancy. However, I would point out that we are introducing resource accounting, which the noble Earl has mentioned on previous occasions, and I remind him that it was the Tory Government which reduced the budgeting period from five years to three years.

Lord Desai: My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend on his role in this House. Contrary to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, I believe that it does not matter. My noble friend is sufficiently versatile to handle the Treasury as well as any other department. I know that a spending review will not deal with the question of capital and revenue. However, will he say to his right honourable friend the Chancellor that it is perhaps time to undertake a thorough review of the definition of the PSBR so that we are clear that capital and revenue accounts are kept separately and when we spend on the capital side, we do not have to add it to the PSBR? That should relate only to revenue deficit.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his remarks. I shall certainly pass on his comments to the Chancellor. The difference between capital and revenue will be dealt with by the introduction of resource accounting and budgeting.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that the use of the PFI to build infrastructure in remote areas, such as the Skye Bridge, is rather misguided policy? Does he agree that the creation of a viable economy in a remote area such as North West Scotland is not helped in any way by a return toll charge of more than £10? Can he assure me that the PFI will be used only for infrastructure projects in well-populated areas?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I cannot undertake to say where a PFI project will or will not take place. The noble Earl believes that the Skye Bridge project is misplaced. I do not know whether that is true or not. We are committed to proceeding with the PFI but it will be more selective and will be used for those projects where there is a proper return. It will be used only for worthwhile projects. I cannot say where the location of those projects will be.

Armed Forces Pensions

6.21 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy rose to call attention to the case for extending public awareness of the availability of pensions and compensation to ex-service men and women and their dependants in respect of injuries or impairments attributable to service in the Armed Forces; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

11 Jun 1997 : Column 935

I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on her appointment, and I am glad that she is to reply to this debate. She and I have taken part in many debates from different positions in this House, on social security, health and especially on disabled people. I wish the noble Baroness all good fortune. She is now in the same field as that which she shadowed but she now has to provide the answers instead of putting the questions and complaints. I expect to continue asking questions from this side of the House.

Two debates in your Lordships' House have drawn attention to situations affecting ex-service men and women. Three years ago, a debate was initiated by my noble friend Lord Haig, who I am glad to see is to speak today. In January of this year, a debate was initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde. Both of those debates were time limited to one hour so that except for the first speaker and the Minister, the speakers were restricted to about three minutes each. I am glad to say that today, with two-and-a-half hours, we can more easily raise matters within the Motion without being cut off in full flow.

I am grateful to those intending to speak. I mention in particular the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. We have known each other for many years and have participated in many a debate in both Houses of Parliament. The noble Lord joined the other place seven years after I did and he could then hear me before he was struck by deafness. On all sides of the other place it was hoped that he would decide to continue in Parliament and we were delighted when he bravely took that decision. He has recently submitted himself to a comparatively new treatment for hearing impairments and that has encouraged others. He tells me that he can now hear me again faintly but that I sound like a Dalek with laryngitis. I am glad too that my noble friend Lady Strange is to speak because of her position in the war widows' organisation.

I must declare an interest as a war pensioner. I was severely wounded 52 years ago, just before the ceasefire in Europe the day before Hitler committed suicide. I then spent a long time in hospital. I had started to be a regular in the Army just before the outbreak of World War II. I have since been involved with disablement subjects of all kinds and have kept in touch with other servicemen and in particular those in the area of Northern Scotland where my home is and which was also my constituency. For most of the war, I was in a Scottish infantry division which had been in the Territorial Army before the war, including the Scottish field battery that I commanded. Some of the units were recruited from my area; for example, Seaforth and Gordons. Therefore, although 50 years ago a medical board pronounced that I was no longer able to carry out military duties, I hope that I have managed to keep in touch with service matters.

The main subject raised in the two previous debates was whether a special unit should be established in the Ministry of Defence or Whitehall to deal with ex-service matters. At present, about 17 government departments are involved which leads to confusion and duplication

11 Jun 1997 : Column 936

for individuals and the voluntary organisations. I shall not concentrate on that today but I merely make an inquiry.

The then Labour shadow Secretary of State for Defence is recorded as having stated towards the end of last year that a Labour Government would set up an ex-service affairs unit. That was the right honourable gentleman, Dr. David Clark, who is now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Is anything now being planned by the Government in that direction? Some of us were surprised when the new government appointments were made last month that for the first time for 23 years, no Minister with responsibility for disabled people was designated. We naturally wonder whether a Minister or a unit is now intended by the Government for ex-service people's problems.

Two changing situations have affected former members of the Armed Forces and those now still serving. First, as regards former members, their numbers are dwindling because World War II ended as long as 52 years ago. During that war, the Armed Services were at their maximum number since World War I. The Army was a citizens' army and the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force were at very high strengths. Numbers have been decreasing. I shall illustrate that with an age example. A 20 year-old serviceman at the end of World War II in 1945 will now be 71 or 72 years old. The large majority of wartime service men were older than that. Many of those who survived World War II have since died from natural causes or for ordinary reasons. It is not surprising that the membership of the Royal British Legion is reported to be declining. That is a reflection of the passage of time and the fact that there has not, mercifully, been another world war.

The total number of ex-service people is declining for natural reasons and that is only to be expected. However, that is no reason for reducing or relaxing the arrangements for pensions and compensation. Those who have served in our Armed Forces in a variety of circumstances--long service or short, in war or peace, in distant lands and seas or near home--merit continuing care and attention as individuals. I draw particular attention to those still alive today who were prisoners of war of the Japanese and who endured severe hardship and cruelty for nearly four years. I am glad to learn that other speakers are to say more about prisoners of war during the debate.

The second changing situation applies to our present Armed Forces. The numbers have been reduced, largely owing to the end of the Cold War. We still need fully trained and operational units in all three services prepared for the most modern forms of warfare, although we must hope that they will never have to be used for a major war again.

Our forces have to carry out also very different tasks. For example, one is peace-keeping, usually by lightly armed soldiers standing between, and separating, opposing military groups. There is also a special duty in Northern Ireland, unfortunately made necessary again when the ceasefire ended.

I shall not go into arguments about whether reductions have gone too far or whether units are over-stretched by commitments and probable calls for

11 Jun 1997 : Column 937

other deployments. In this changing situation I also urge the Government to ensure that there are adequate, fair and rational arrangements for pensions and compensation for those now serving who will in due course become ex-service men and women. There have been schemes at times encouraging early retirement--the equivalent of golden handshakes--when contraction was required. Such schemes should be administered with clarity and with plenty of notice given.

On service pensions, I hope that the Government will try to avoid the anomalies which have justifiably given rise to grievances. For example, at a time of high inflation--and 1977 was the prime example--those who retired received less than expected because a pay freeze had limited their final salaries. At the same time, someone of the same rank who retired two or three years earlier did better because his pension, which was already being paid, was increased by over 17.5 per cent. following the retail prices index. While we hope never to see galloping inflation of that kind again, to be fair to our forces now serving, they must be given confidence in their future both while serving and afterwards.

The last war in which this country was involved was the Gulf War, six-and-a-half years ago. It might have caused many battle casualties. In the event, there were very few--about 10 British for which we are thankful. I need not remind the House that casualties occurred of other kinds and that illnesses and "the syndrome" have persisted. At Question Time last week, I was glad to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, confirm that the number of cases still to be examined were down to about 120. I declare a small interest in that respect as one of my sons was in Operation Granby. He was flown to the Gulf at two days' notice that August (when Saddam invaded Kuwait) by the MoD, because of his previous service in the Middle East and his fluency in Arabic. In a Highland regiment, he went as a lieutenant colonel in a staff job and stayed for eight months. I was able to see him off. His main baggage when he left this country was a massive anti-chemical warfare suit and his bagpipes which go with him everywhere.

As regards ex-service people, the most serious cause of misunderstanding to which I must draw attention is the fact that the description of "war pensions" is used for all forms of compensation arising from disabilities or ill-health incurred in peace time, as well as in war, while on duty with the Armed Forces. Many war pensioners have never been involved in a war or hostilities of any kind. They fully deserve generous disability pensions. It is the description of "war pensions" that misleads. Moreover, the agency which makes these payments is at present named the "War Pensions Agency".

The term "war pension" is not only inaccurate because it includes many peacetime impairments of health, but it is also emotive for those who do not realise that it does not apply only to wounds or injuries received in war time. I have suggested instead, "Armed Forces disability pension" and the agency could be renamed accordingly. That would help the media and the public and would also be fairer to ex-servicemen and women. We have been fortunate in avoiding a world war for

11 Jun 1997 : Column 938

over 50 years. Conflicts since the war in Korea have produced few war disabled in comparison to the world wars.

A reply in Parliament to a Question tabled by me a few months ago stated that it is now virtually impracticable to distinguish recipients of what are known as "war pensions", between those resulting from service in war time operations and those arising from service unconnected with a war. I have therefore made my own estimate. From my knowledge and experience, I judge that well over half of the war pensions now being paid are to the second category, involving people not connected with any war. They are due compensation and are fully deserved. I shall give your Lordships an example. A soldier in barracks in Britain in peacetime, performing a task on duty, falls off a ladder and breaks a leg. After retiring he suffers serious arthritis from the accident. He rightly qualifies for compensation, but it is called a "war pension". The unfortunate effect of this is that some ex-service men have not applied. Indeed, I know cases of that kind where, when told that he may be entitled to a war pension, a retired serviceman has not pursued the matter. He thinks that that cannot apply to him because he has not been near any war and has served only in Britain in peace time.

Misunderstandings can also arise over war widows. Their eligibility for pensions covers fatal accidents on duty, in training or other peacetime activities. They should of course be awarded generous pensions. What appear to be unusual situations can arise. For example, if the soldier that I mentioned on the ladder had been killed as a result of his fall and was aged 22, he would have left a widow aged 20 who would have been described as a war widow, although she was only 14 at the time of the Gulf War--the last war in which there were British war casualties. In contrast, most of the public and the media consider that the term "war widow" denotes the wife of a man who lost his life in war time operations, probably in World War II and who is probably now in her seventies.

I am conscious of the time that is left to me, but I simply want to say that my message to all ex-service people is to apply for a pension and other payments if they have any reason to think that they could be eligible. I advise them not to be deterred by the word "war". I hope that the Government are considering changing the name. However, if that is found to be too difficult, even though the word "war" is becoming increasingly irrelevant as time passes, I hope that more can be done to spread the facts on eligibility. I am, nonetheless, concerned by reports that nearly 20,000 cases are waiting for War Pensions Appeal Tribunal hearings, with possible delays of up to two years.

My advice to applicants is, "do not be disheartened or despair". These tribunals can be understanding and generous. I have here the example of a war pension approved under the system. It relates to someone who did his national service in the Royal Air Force in the 1950s. He hurt his knee playing football for his squadron. Many years later his condition deteriorated. He was then awarded a pension--called, of course, a war pension--which I consider to be justifiable compensation, though some may not. Although there

11 Jun 1997 : Column 939

was intense and vigorous rivalry between his squadron and the unit that they were playing against, I understand that it did not amount to war. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

6.37 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to cross swords with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, but it is an even greater pleasure to fight on his side as I do tonight. I should like, first, to thank the noble Lord, for the very kind personal words that he addressed to me in his speech. Secondly, I should like to congratulate him on bringing forward a Motion of such tremendous importance to ex-service personnel and on giving the House the opportunity to discuss this most important subject.

In fact there is no substitute for personal experience. The noble Lord obviously speaks from deep personal experience with his very distinguished war record. We are all familiar with it and we all admire it. We also admire the way in which he advocates the cause of ex-service personnel. Of course the noble Lord speaks on many other subjects, but on this issue he is regarded as an authority. We are delighted that he has tabled such a convincing and, indeed, moving case today.

I hope that my noble friend the Minister will recognise the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, first, about the need for ex-service personnel to apply for pensions and, secondly, about the nomenclature of calling such things war pensions. Indeed, it is not only absurd, it is also misleading and induces people not to apply for them.

The best reason for this debate is that the Royal British Legion--rational and experienced advocate of the rights of disabled ex-service personnel--believes that large numbers of ex-service people are unaware of their entitlement to pensions for disabilities or medical conditions. The British Legion has campaigned on this issue and it has had some considerable success but it still believes that there are many more people who are unaware of their entitlements. That is totally unjustifiable. This House now has an opportunity to do something about that. I believe that unless that concern can be met there is a case for addressing the Government and the public to persuade them to try to do something.

I have a high regard for Colonel Terry English and his colleagues in the Royal British Legion. However, it must have been much easier for them to campaign after the war when people's memories of the war were vivid. There was great public awareness of the mass slaughter during the First World War--that was part of my childhood--and people were brought up with the terminology of Passendale, the Somme and Verdun. After the Second World War it was very much the same. However, fighting now is of a different nature. The services are concerned more with preventive activity rather than with fighting dramatic wars. That activity is less visible but it is no less important. The British Legion believes that the distance of time from the major

11 Jun 1997 : Column 940

wars means that fewer members of the public and the Government have experience or understanding of these issues. The British Legion is quite right in that regard.

It is a matter of real regret that at a time when public interest in these problems is falling, appeals for help from ex-service men to the British Legion are growing because their injuries are being exacerbated by old age. It would be a terrible irony if some of the young men who defended us in the early part of this century were left defenceless in old age. It is incumbent upon Parliament and the country to make sure that these men who were our saviours in the early part of the century should not be spurned at the end of the century. They are entitled to our consideration. But this can happen only if we win more understanding from the public and from the Government. I believe that that understanding should be two-pronged. It is not just the public who should understand the position, there is also a need for understanding on the part of the ex-service personnel themselves of what is available to them. There are many ways in which Parliament can help.

First, we should recognise that the nature of awards is changing. Yesterday I referred in the House to a landmark judgment by the Law Lords that can affect claims for benefit of many disabled people. Those people need to know about the new and improved law. Like the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, I, too, believe that they should be encouraged to apply for the benefit. If they do not apply for it, they will be deprived of their legitimate rights. There is now wider consideration of the implications of disability. Rather than focusing on the necessities of existence, people now seek a fuller, more normal life for disabled people. That is not before time.

Similarly, events relating to ex-service personnel are moving quickly. Service related disability is no longer so blindingly obvious as in previous years. Nowadays it is not always a case of bullet wounds or loss of limbs. Often it is a case of damage to the nervous system which shows itself later. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, has said, the classic examples are Gulf War veterans and also nuclear test veterans. Much more is known and understood about the Gulf War. The use of organophosphates, vaccinations and possible leakages of poison gas are being investigated, and, it is to be hoped, more speedily and sympathetically under this Government than was the case before. As more evidence emerges, ex-service personnel should be encouraged to apply for pensions or compensation where appropriate.

A number of us, including the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, have actively campaigned for a long time in another place and in this House on behalf of nuclear test veterans. Things now look brighter for those veterans, especially after the European Commission on Human Rights recently found that the convention had been violated and said that,

    "satisfaction should be given by Government".
That issue has now been referred to the European Court of Human Rights.

Another issue that we need to watch and eventually act upon is the government review of medical evidence on noise-induced deafness of ex-service personnel. Has

11 Jun 1997 : Column 941

my noble friend on the Front Bench considered that matter since our previous exchanges in the House? What has she done about it? Can she tell us anything about that matter today to take us forward? If we agree that ex-service men need more information we must agree that it was a retrograde step by the previous Government to stop sending out reminders to return claim forms or to seek increases in entitlement. I go further. I think that was a shabby and disgraceful step on the part of the previous Government which deliberately impeded the capacity of ex-service personnel to claim entitlement. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, will be able to find half a second to comment on that rather disgraceful step of impeding ex-service personnel. I also hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, will be able to comment on that matter as I believe it was one of the worst actions taken by the previous Government as regards ex-service personnel. I hope that it will be reversed by the present Government.

I also hope that the Government will accept the Royal British Legion's proposal--ably advocated by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean--for an ex-service affairs unit at the Ministry of Defence. That has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. The knowledge and expertise of such a unit would be invaluable in informing ex-service personnel of their entitlements and in focusing public attention on these issues.

I think that the House is broadly agreed on the need to do something for ex-service personnel. Their injuries are different from most disabilities because they were incurred in the service of the nation. We should lean over backwards and always give them the benefit of the doubt and urge them to apply and keep on applying--and issue reminders when they do not apply--for their entitlements. If that involves bureaucracy and problems for civil servants and Ministers that is just too bad. The ex-service personnel are entitled to make their applications for benefit. They have the right to do that. We owe a debt of honour to service personnel. This debate is a wonderful opportunity for us to articulate our views. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. I thank him again for initiating the debate and I look forward to hearing a response from both Front Benches in this House.

6.49 p.m.

The Earl of Effingham: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for introducing this important subject in the Chamber today. I must declare interests. I am an ex-service man and I work for the Royal British Legion, the country's leading ex-service charity. We receive no financial help from the Government and are able to provide assistance and advice only because of the generosity of the public through donations to the annual poppy appeal. I am responsible for managing 39 county field officers in England and Wales. These officers co-ordinate welfare work, promote year-round fundraising and assist the Royal British Legion's pensions department with claims, war pensions disregards and local authority matters.

11 Jun 1997 : Column 942

In 1995, the nation celebrated and commemorated the Year of the Veteran, the 50th anniversary of World War II. I know that I repeat remarks made by the noble Lords, Lord Campbell and Lord Ashley; however, I believe that what I am about to say is important. There are among our veterans those who are unaware of their entitlement to a war disablement or war widows pension. We believe the figure not to be measured in hundreds but thousands. The 1994 "Legion Awareness Campaign" reported "the missing millions" and culminated in the biggest rise in applications for war disablement pensions ever received by the Legion.

From Gallipoli to the Gulf, Burma to Bosnia, or wherever or whenever one served, if still suffering from an injury, wound or medical condition related to service, a claim can and should be made. There is no time bar, except that a successful claim will be paid only from the date the claim was lodged. By reaching the remaining thousands the debt will have been paid. The War Pensions Agency is responsible for administering the war pensions scheme. Decisions on policy remain firmly with Ministers.

The war pensions welfare service takes the War Pensions Agency into the community. Its responsibility towards war pensioners and war widows does not end with the award of pensions and allowances. The underlying purpose of its work is to help them meet and overcome the difficulties and stresses occasioned by their disablement. The service was therefore created to give pensioners advice and assistance on any matters which concern their welfare and with which they need help. It works closely with statutory and voluntary bodies, such as those concerned with bereavement, and also with local authority social services and housing departments. Welfare staff will also be in touch with the Armed Forces authorities and the various ex-service organisations such as the Legion and the Soldiers', Sailors' & Airmen's Families Association. The service also works closely with war pensions committees, which take a keen interest in the welfare needs of the pensioners in their areas.

The war pensions committees meet three or four times a year. They will hear and consider complaints made by persons receiving or claiming a war pension, supplementary allowance or war widows pension. If they think fit, representations about the complaint will be made to the Secretary of State. County field officers now co-ordinate the operation of obtaining replacement Legion members on war pension committees when vacancies occur. They also serve on local committees themselves.

As I am sure your Lordships are aware, there is no national government policy on total disregard for war and war widows pensions. The Legion has always maintained that these pensions are not state benefits as such but compensation for loss of amenity or the death of a husband in the service of his country. Therefore, they should not be categorised as income and should be totally disregarded for the purposes of entitlement to housing benefit and local authority charges. These authorities are obliged by statute to disregard £10 of the war pension, £10 of the war widows pension and £62, which is the supplementary pension to those widows

11 Jun 1997 : Column 943

whose husbands served prior to 31st March 1973. Circumstances and local authority policies change, but it is estimated that around 90 per cent. of councils now apply a total disregard. The remaining 10 per cent. apply either the statutory minimum or a local scheme.

The Legion has campaigned for many years for a national policy on total disregard, also for a substantial increase in the levels of disregard in the absence of such a policy, based on a retail price index as applicable to war pensions and allowances. The position has improved at local level thanks to the efforts of both Legion formations and field officers, who have managed to persuade a number of authorities to adopt a more generous attitude to the war pensioners and war widows resident in their counties.

Some claimants and appellants for war and war widows pensions have used the services of solicitors, for which a fee is charged. In recent years, solicitors have become more involved in war pensions casework, probably in consequence of the large rise in claims for noise induced deafness. The majority of cases were successful and were often rewarded with a lump sum gratuity. Now, as a consequence of legislation, no such gratuities are paid and many claimants are exercising their right of appeal. Several firms of solicitors are advertising their services and offering representation at tribunals.

Solicitors who act in such cases are not acting outside the law. Indeed, in other compensation cases legal qualifications are mandatory in the actual litigation process, the Legion usually acting as a go-between. Having said that, however, an assessment appeal is decided on the medical evidence rather than the powers of advocacy of the representative, which cannot increase the minimal effects of deafness.

Many noble Lords will be aware of the new changes governing deafness entitlement and the controversy these have caused. The Legion has welcomed the promise, made by the new Minister for war pensions, to hold an independent review of all the medical evidence. However, the Legion is conscious of the cost of current appeal procedures and the need to avoid unnecessary cases through positive counselling. That would save considerable sums of money which could be used more effectively in other areas of welfare.

The Legion's pension department now handles the majority of war pension claims and appeal cases. The Legion and other ex-service organisations are currently in the process of publicising the fact that these specialist services are free of charge, though donations are welcome. The efforts of county field officers in assisting with this publicity, particularly in those areas where solicitors are involved, is warmly commended and appreciated.

However, in the final analysis it will be for each individual claimant and appellant to decide whose services to use. The Legion's task is to ensure, wherever possible, that the individuals concerned are aware of the options available.

11 Jun 1997 : Column 944

I trust that the House will forgive me for presenting some statistics. In 1995-96 the Legion handled some 58,200 cases, of which 10,181 were new; 2,913 claimants were represented at appeals tribunals to prove entitlement and 2,893 for assessment. The Legion represented 84 per cent. of the total 6,902 tribunal cases and 54.8 per cent. of entitlement appeals were successful; 483 new cases, claiming compensation against the Ministry of Defence for negligence, were activated. The cost of this service was in the region of £865,000 and donations from those who were helped amounted to approximately £65,000.

In conclusion, the Royal British Legion provides a free help and advisory service for all ex-service men and women and their dependants seeking war and war widows pensions and associated allowances. It also provides free representation at war pensions tribunals.

The Legion considers that there is a strong case for a national scheme for a total disregard. But the fact remains that local authorities in England and Wales continue to have discretion as to whether they choose to apply more generous disregards for these categories of pensioners.

Benefits and allowances to enhance war pensions are not automatic. Even if qualified for benefit, it is up to the individual to claim. Therefore a potential claimant must have access to information so as to realise his full entitlements. The War Pensions Agency must work in tandem with the Legion. Desk-level, day-to-day administration operates very well, but I believe that the real problem lies with the policy-makers, who must extend public awareness of the availability of war pensions. My Lords, has the debt been paid?

7 p.m.

Earl Haig: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for initiating this debate. He has devoted many years to public service, in spite of his war disablement. I share with many of your Lordships a great admiration for his wonderful courage. He made a good speech, with which I concur and which covered the subject fully.

I was interested in the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Effingham. It is good that an official of the British Legion is a Member of this House. He speaks on behalf of ex-service people from the horse's mouth.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on her appointment as Minister with responsibility for war pensions. Her responsibilities include all the Scottish ex-service men and women, with whom I too have been actively involved over the years. She succeeds a long line of Ministers whom I have known, amongst them women such as Miss Margaret Herbison and my noble friend Lady Trumpington. I am sure that her task of stewarding the work performed by the War Pensions Agency and the various voluntary ex-service organisations will be rewarding to her. Among them are the Royal British Legion Scotland and the Earl Haig Fund Scotland which runs the poppy appeal in Scotland. I assure her that we shall give her a very warm welcome when she comes to Scotland.

11 Jun 1997 : Column 945

The noble Baroness and I share neighbouring coat pegs. Until recently her lovely hats cheered up our dark corner. I hope that the burden of her office will not mean an empty peg below her name.

On the subject of her office, I believe that the noble Baroness would benefit from the support of an ex-service affairs unit established within the Department of Social Security. At present the War Pensions Agency publishes a number of excellent pamphlets with instructions about how and where to apply for pensions. However, these are not enough to inform all those numbers of ageing veterans whose wounds and disabilities make life hard for them. They should have a co-ordinating point where they can go for advice about pensions and welfare.

Perhaps I may remind the Minister, as have preceding speakers, that in a recent debate her party, while in Opposition, supported the idea of a special unit, as did my noble friend Lord Howe on behalf of the Government. Is that idea still on the government agenda?

On the subject of pensions, all the proposals in a package of improvements to legislation made by my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish in April were very welcome. Those included proposals to create the automatic right of a widow to a war widow's pension if her husband had been 80 per cent. disabled. I pay tribute to my noble friend for his splendid work on behalf of ex-service men and women. I know that among the ex-service community in Scotland he is extremely popular. Thanks to his efforts and those of his predecessors, most of the unfair anomalies of the past have been removed.

Looking to the future, ex-service men and women must be able to rely on pensions which will give them a sense of security and which will be adjusted according to the cost of living. This is particularly important for men and women leaving the forces who also need guidance over problems with housing and jobs. The right of ex-service people to war preference over pensions and medical care is self-evident. This goes hand in glove with good communications--as the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, said--and full information when it comes to serious disablement resulting from battle or military service where modern weapons and technology are concerned.

All ex-service people should be entitled to social benefits on the grounds of the particular nature of their service. As the British Legion has put it:

    "They are required to serve anywhere in the world at a moment's notice and permit themselves to be subjected to almost any measures that will safeguard the interests of the nation. In the preparations and training for any dangerous activity their health can be subjected to pressures and conditions not experienced by other groups".

The legion is particularly concerned about two issues which have been raised by your Lordships and which need to be addressed with some urgency as they have dragged on for far too long. The regulations about noise-induced deafness, which were changed by my noble friend Lord Mackay on 5th December, need to be looked at again. The Prime Minister has agreed to an independent review of the changed criteria.

11 Jun 1997 : Column 946

Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness for information on three points. First, when is the review to start? Secondly, in addition to Professors Lutman and Davis, who have been consultants over hearing cases, who will be the other members of the review team? Thirdly, when does the noble Baroness expect the team to be in a position to report?

The other problem which needs redressing concerns the disregard of war pensions when paying council house rents. That matter was also mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Effingham. Although this is not an issue in Scotland as local authorities there disregard war pensions over housing and other matters, in the rest of the country many ex-service people are affected. This disregard should be mandatory on all local authorities. Your Lordships pressed the previous Government on this matter many times. The legion calls on the Government to introduce a statutory national 100 per cent. disregard. I hope that, if she cannot give a positive answer this evening, the Minister will at least take the matter away and look at it.

Apart from those two particular needs, I believe that ex-service people are well cared for by the state. There will always be small anomalies in ex-service matters but I am sure that, if the present system which has evolved over the years is maintained by the Government, there will be no grounds for serious complaint. We in this country have a good welfare system, whose costs to the taxpayer have to be carefully husbanded. It is vital that, when any reforms to the system are considered, the present level of support for ex-service men will continue.

My noble friend Lord Campbell and the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, referred in their speeches to those who were disabled in the services but not in war. I would refer in particular to overseas ex-service men who did fight in war for our freedom and who do not deserve the poverty which they suffer today.

Last year my sister, Irene Lady Astor of Hever, my wife and I were privileged to attend the 75th anniversary conference of the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League in Cape Town in the presence of Prince Philip and President Mandela. The opening ceremony took place in the same hall where the founders, General Smuts and my father, sat in 1921. The League continues to provide much needed aid to impoverished ex-service men who fought under our flag. It is supported by our own funds, by the Army Benevolent Fund and other service funds and by the larger constituent organisations from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and ourselves. It is good that wars, which brought such suffering to the Empire and the Commonwealth, have provided a real feeling of goodwill. I have attended a number of conferences over the years and have always come home enriched and inspired by the delegates I met and by their spirit of comradeship. This is a reminder that, providing we get the matter of welfare right, we are cultivating an asset which brings great benefit to society as a whole.

11 Jun 1997 : Column 947

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page