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Lord Burnham: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he may like to know that, actuarially, the year of maximum demand both in terms of requirements for service charities and also of pensions is 1997.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we have had an interesting debate which was ably introduced, as always, by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. By getting this debate so early on he has given the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, an opportunity to come out and have a canter around this interesting field. The noble Baroness will occasionally find it a tinge frustrating but on other occasions she will find a great deal of satisfaction in it. I think of occasions when, I expect, she will be invited to join my noble friend Lady Strange on the day before Remembrance Sunday with the war widows. On the three occasions I attended I found it a very moving experience and a reminder of the sacrifices that were made in the Second World War.
My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy also reminds us daily, if I may say so, not so much in word but simply by being here, of the sacrifices that many other people made. I do not know whether it can really be said that my noble friend's injuries prevented him from reaching the peak of his career--unless he had harboured ambitions to be the Prime Minister. He certainly managed to get a good deal higher than I managed to get in the great pecking order of politics. He fought against disability and overcame it to be a prominent politician and a senior member of the Government. I am glad that he has raised some of these issues. I want to take one of them up particularly seriously, but I shall do that a little later.
Before I reach that point, I want to say that there are many organisations working in this field which deserve a thank-you, a thank-you not just from the people they work for but from the wider community. I think in particular of BLESMA, which looks after the limbless ex-service men; of St. Dunstan's, which looks after the people who were blinded; of the Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society, which looks after people who were psychologically damaged and continue to be psychologically damaged, for example in the difficult area of service of Northern Ireland; and of the War Widows Association, to which I shall come a little later on. Any group of ladies which I am told loves me has to be given a special place in my remarks. Another group was not mentioned by name but the people it looks after have been mentioned. I refer to the National Federation of Far Eastern Prisoners of War, led by the indefatigable Mr. Harold Paine. All those organisations--SSAFA has groups all round the country with many volunteers--work very hard for ex-service men, and especially the ones I have mentioned work for ex-service men who were seriously injured in battle.
Perhaps I may mention just one other organisation to the noble Baroness. I refer to the Officers Pension Society. It works extremely hard as well. I caution the noble Baroness that, if she finds that it is running a campaign against her, she had better be pretty careful. As I found to my cost, it is quite the most effective of ambushers, as perhaps it should be, of any organisation I have come across. All these organisations work very hard for those injured in war and in some cases injured in ordinary non-wartime service.
There are two other organisations which I want to mention. One is the War Pensions Welfare Service which has a network throughout the country which gives advice, help and aid. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, quite rightly drew our attention to the changes that have been made in these organisations. The War Pensions Welfare Service is now connected to the War Pensions Agency by the magic of computer link, which means that it is much more able to give fairly quick advice to anyone who wishes to talk to the organisation.
The last organisation I wish to pay tribute to is the War Pensions Agency and its staff. Some remarks have been made about the time it takes to decide a case. It has to be said that often in order to explore a case records have to be obtained from the Ministry of Defence. They may be over 50 years old and they have to be gone through. In some cases they are incomplete
The retirement age from the Civil Service is 60 and as my noble friend Lord Campbell pointed out about ages, none of the current people served in the Second World War. The noble Baroness may have already found, if she has visited the War Pensions Agency in sunny Blackpool--which is a trip to the seaside for the Minister for pensions--that the tower at Blackpool is not usually thrown in, nor is the big dipper, which is perhaps just as well. Each time I went I ensured that the big dipper was closed and so nobody ever suggested that I should go on it to test my bravery. However, if the noble Baroness goes there, I am sure she will find that the young people there are very dedicated and interested in the cases they see before them. One young lady said to me that it brings history alive to read some of these cases. I pay tribute to them.
My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy and one or two others asked the Minister where the Government were at the moment in relation to the promise they made before the election to have a Minister or a department for veterans' affairs. I say to the noble Baroness that I was never convinced of the argument in favour of having one and I remain unconvinced--but I did not give any promises. The noble Baroness's party gave promises. I looked through the press handout from Downing Street to see whether the noble Baroness had been appointed the Minister for veterans' affairs or whether someone else had been. But I looked in vain. Perhaps she can tell us whether that is one promise which was made too hurriedly. I would not blame the Government if that were the case. On further investigation they can see that there is really no comparison between the situation in this country and, for example, in North America or Australia, where they have such departments because they have a positive job to do as regards health and so on as there is no national health service as we know it. That is something I look forward to hearing about from the noble Baroness.
The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, implied, as I believe did the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, that there were thousands of people who were due war pensions. I am never entirely sure about these claims. My recollection is--the noble Baroness may be able to help me over this--that on previous occasions when a lot of interest has been stimulated over these issues many inquiries are made. Forms are sent out, but few are returned. I suspect that when people read them they realise that they do not qualify, and even those who do have had quite a low success rate. If the claims are paid, they are usually paid at quite a low level.
That always encouraged me to believe that the organisations I have mentioned have done their job over these many years and made sure that all those people who were seriously injured and were living with the
I do not have to defend the previous Government's record particularly, but the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, could have mentioned that all the pensions and allowances are tax free. That is unlike anything else in the social security system, and rightly so. I must guard against sounding like a government Minister defending a position. But people have to realise that it is quite a concession to have such allowances tax free. If a person has been able to work after military service, as many of them did, or has been able to retire with a reasonable pension, it is quite a significant addition to their income if it is not counted for tax. The noble Earl, Lord Effingham, might have paid tribute to the generosity--rightly--of the scheme as regards both the war disabled and war widows.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Haig for his kind words about me and the job I did. I always tried to ensure that anomalies were removed, as he rightly said, and that the help that was given was going to those who were most seriously and obviously disabled. If I was looking the taxpayer straight in the eye I could defend these people having the special privileges that they do. I tried to do that. I like to believe that I managed on a number of occasions.
For example, I was very pleased that we were able to award automatic war widows' pensions where the husband was of 80 per cent. disablement and in receipt of UNSUP. By and large, these ladies had to look after their husbands more than the average wife has to, and during their lifetime they were probably unable to accumulate much money because of injuries. They deserved the automatic passage into war widowhood.
The noble Lord, Lord Sempill, and I believe the noble Lord, Lord Clifford, raised the special issue of former prisoners of war. The noble Lord, Lord Napier and Ettrick, made mention of it at the end of his speech. I believe that it is more a matter for the Ministry of Defence. I do not know very much about it and I am not sure whether the noble Baroness will be able to answer us this evening on that point. I shall certainly be interested to listen to her answer if she can reply.
My noble friend Lady Strange raised a similar question to that of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, about the number not receiving benefit. The noble Baroness may be able to help me when she sums up in case my recollection is not right, but I recall that the number of people who had actually applied for restored war widows pensions and had received them was coming very close to our original estimate. I believe that I would just be taking figures out of the air, but my recollection is that we were within 1,000 or so of our estimate, which suggests that very few war widows would be left unpensioned who were deserving of pensions, although I accept that there will be some.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, mentioned Polish airmen. Perhaps he will chide me by saying that it was a fairly costless reform, but it was one of the reforms that I was very pleased to deliver in putting Polish
The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, disputed with my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy his assertion that perhaps it was time to differentiate between war pensions as originally envisaged at the end of the Second World War and war pensions as they are paid to service men over the past 20 or 30 years and perhaps to servicemen who have never heard a shot fired in anger. I believe that my noble friend has a point here. I say to the noble Baroness that we ought to give serious thought to the matter. I suggest a review--although I was attacking them earlier on. But this issue needs to be reviewed.
When one reads the regulations, the basis of the war pension scheme was very much geared to the Second World War. It is my view that if a currently serving service man is injured, perhaps going to and from work, on the sports field, in a road accident in Bosnia or whatever, that should be the responsibility of the MoD. It should be part and parcel of the wages and conditions package and the pensions arrangement. The MoD ought to be responsible for today's and tomorrow's service men when it comes to injuries received. The war pensions scheme should deal with the past but not any longer be dealing with current and future service men.
Exactly the same situation arises with regard to war widows' pensions. As a result of the Bett review, I believe that the Government have an opportunity, which I hope that they will take--I certainly pressed my Ministry of Defence colleagues to do this--to look again at the superannuation schemes for the military and at the provisions for invalided-out ex-service men and incorporate them firmly within an employment, wages and conditions package run by the MoD rather than look to the Department of Social Security for help.
A few service wives still become war widows, perhaps as a result of accidents. Indeed, two of the most formidable ladies in the organisation were widowed young as a result of aeroplane crashes. It seemed wrong to me that they should not be given their pension for life. I knew, understood and argued about all the difficulties in that that does not fit well with the DSS system--and that is one of the reasons why I think that, for the benefit of current and future service men, such matters should be transferred to the MoD. The MoD--and that means the Government and all of us--should then take its responsibilities as an employer seriously and award widows' pensions to those who are widowed as a result of their husband's--or perhaps now, their wife's--military service in the same way as happens in other superannuation schemes for other occupations--that is, for life.
I have used up all the time that is available to me, so I conclude by saying that we have had a useful debate. I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, to this part of her empire. I am sure that she will find it most stimulating and interesting. I commend her to
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, as the relatively newly appointed Minister with special responsibility for war pensions, I very much welcome this opportunity to speak about the pensions and compensation available in respect of injury and illness attributable to service in the armed forces. In particular, I welcome the invitation to explain the availability of benefits under the war pensions scheme, as it is under the provisions of this scheme that the majority of disabled ex-service men and women, including those who served in the world wars, receive compensation.
We are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for bringing this matter to the House. I in particular thank him for his good wishes. It is regrettably the case, as the noble Lord implies, that the generous compensation provisions in this country for injury or illness sustained as a result of service in the armed forces are not generally appreciated. I hope that this debate will go some way towards extending public awareness.
Currently, some 325,000 people are receiving war pensions, of whom 60,000 are war widows. Three-quarters of those pensioners are aged over 65. Nonetheless, we receive something like 32,000 claims a year--not only because service in our armed forces continues, but also because there are no time limits for the claims.
As a war pensioner himself, wounded 52 years ago, the noble Lord has had close links with disability organisations which include many service people, and he has spoken in this place only recently about the considerable misunderstanding that arises from the description "war pension", pointing out that many such pensions are compensation payments for injuries sustained during service with no connection with a war. He is, of course, absolutely right, but it is a fact that surprises many people, and it is worth re-emphasising, that a war disablement pension may be awarded in respect of any disablement suffered as a result of any service in the armed forces, war time or peace time. The noble Lord suggested--my noble friend Lord Ashley agreed--that a better description might be "armed forces disability pension". While I understand the logic of his recommendation, I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie: I do not think that it would solve the problem.
It is not generally recognised that under the war pensions scheme, while most awards are made in respect of service in the armed forces (some in respect of war service and others, not) awards may also be made to certain people who did not serve in the armed forces, but who were injured as a result of war. Examples are
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who has considerable experience in this field, suggested that provision for compensation for future ex-service men and women disabled as a result of service should not so much be renamed as be handled instead by the MoD. That is an interesting view. At the moment, such compensation may be provided both under the war pensions scheme administered by the DSS and by the Ministry of Defence under the occupational Armed Forces pension scheme. In practice, however, because the attributable benefits under the latter scheme did not exist prior to March 1973, and because they are awarded only where the service man or woman is invalided from service, relatively few war pensioners receive pensions from both departments.
That is the current position. I am aware of course of the recommendation of the last Select Committee on Defence that there should be a thorough re-examination of the system of compensation for service personnel injured while on duty for their country. The Government are considering carefully this recommendation and we will respond to that point as part of the Government's formal response to the Select Committee on Defence.
Service personnel who are unfortunate enough to be invalided out of the armed forces are advised that their service papers will be referred automatically to the War Pensions Agency for consideration as to entitlement to a war pension. Others who are discharged without a war injury at the time are given an information pack which advises them that, should they later suffer disablement which they believe is due to service, they should claim a war pension as and when disability occurs.
The War Pensions Agency also does much to extend public awareness of war pensions; for example, posters about the scheme are sent directly to regimental museums, and are distributed locally to libraries and citizens advice bureaux. Several explanatory leaflets are available--the noble Countess, Lady Mar, pressed me on this the other day--and as part and parcel of its publicity role, the War Pensioners Welfare Service promotes and provides information by way of dedicated advice and information days. If there are any other ways in which the Government can extend knowledge of the benefits and pensions available, I shall take them up and seek my officials' advice on them.
As my noble friend Lord Ashley emphasised, this debate is about extending public awareness. Like the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, I pay tribute to the invaluable work of the ex-service organisations in this respect. At the moment, the noble Lord has a much greater awareness of what they have done than I have, but I know that those organisations work tirelessly in the interests of ex-service men and women and, in common with many other people, I have the greatest possible regard for their work.
In my short time as Minister with special responsibilities for war pensions, I have already met informally representatives of many of these organisations, including some from the Royal British Legion, the Royal British Legion (Scotland) with which the noble Earl, Lord Haig, is closely associated, the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association and the War Widows Association of Great Britain. Like the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, I have been greatly impressed by their dedication and experience. We have seen some of that today in the welcome contribution from the noble Earl, Lord Effingham.
There will be many future opportunities to discuss matters of concern with the ex-service men's organisations and I look forward to a challenging and constructive dialogue with them. I know that it will be challenging because I have already been pressed--tonight by the noble Earl, Lord Effingham--as I imagine that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, was pressed, on the question of disregards for council tax and housing benefit. There is already a statutory disregard of £10 for those benefits. I regret that I cannot help noble Lords any further tonight on the issue of disregards. This is a matter for local authority discretion. I understand that, were it to be made statutory, the cost would be some £95 million.
The current war pension scheme has a long pedigree. The first formal scheme for disabled soldiers and seamen was established during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Prior to the First World War, responsibility for war pensions was vested in the War Office for army officers and all widows, the Chelsea Commissioners for other ranks in the army and the Admiralty for all naval ranks. The Great War, however, changed our response. The vast numbers of volunteers, conscripts and their dependants had no access to occupational disablement pensions or private insurance and there was then no comprehensive social security system to provide for maintenance. While the Government tried to keep the same structure, the huge number of casualties made it clear that arrangements had to be changed. As a result, the Government took unified responsibility for war pensions in 1917 after the battle of the Somme, with the establishment of the Ministry of Pensions in February 1917.
Following the First World War, the new Ministry took over all powers and duties in respect of disablement and death arising from service in the Army and Navy during the Great War and also in respect of members of the Air Force and Mercantile Marine. After the end of the First World War, responsibility for casualties arising from that conflict remained with the Ministry of Pensions. Further responsibility was assumed by the Ministry at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. These and other responsibilities for war pensions in respect of the period prior to the First World War, between the two world wars and after the Second World War are now vested in the Department of Social
Over the years, the provisions of the War Pension Scheme have been much improved and extended to include not only preferential pensions in respect of disablement and death but a dedicated welfare service and a wide range of supplementary allowances, many of which are paid at preferential rates when compared with the social security civilian benefits also administered by the DSS. I have found that the war pensioner enjoys many advantages over his or her social security counterpart.
Noble Lords may already be aware of the extent of the compensation that may be received under the War Pensions Scheme. As this debate is about extending public awareness of these pensions, I make no apology for describing, albeit briefly, that compensation. A severely disabled single ex-service man or woman can receive currently a total tax-free war pension of over £386 a week. Of that, £107.20 is the basic war disablement pension. The rest of the award is made up of supplementary allowances in respect of unemployability, age and care and mobility needs. There is a wide range of allowances available, most of which are awarded at preferential rates and some of which are peculiar to war pensioners. In addition, where the person was invalided from the forces on or after 31st March 1973, an occupational pension may be awarded by the Ministry of Defence. Prior to that date there were no specific benefits under that or any other public service occupational pension scheme in respect of disablement or death suffered as a result of service. For example, a former private who had served five years in the Army, had been invalided as a result of a training injury to his back and whose disablement had been assessed as 100 per cent. could now receive a tax-free attributable pension from the Ministry of Defence of almost £4,000 a year. With the war pension, that would give the former private, based on five years' service, a total annual income of some £24,000, all tax free.
To put the level of the total war pension of about £386 into perspective, noble Lords will wish to know that the total equivalent social security benefits that could be received under the industrial injuries scheme by someone similarly disabled as a result of an accident at work would be some £53 a week less. A person whose injury was neither service nor employment related but who was entitled to incapacity benefit and disability living allowance in respect of both the care and mobility components could receive total benefits of £160 a week--less than half the total sum received by someone with the same injury who was entitled to a war pension.
The same principles apply to war widows' pensions. Under the scheme, a war widow's pension may be awarded where the late husband died as a result of service. That does not have to be wartime service. For example, a peacetime training accident could give rise to a tax-free war widow's pension. The majority of war widows receive currently a total weekly pension of over £151. That comprises the basic war widow's pension of £81 a week, an age allowance and a supplementary
I am delighted to confirm the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, a true champion of war widows. War widows who lost their pensions on remarriage can now regain it should they lose their second husband. The memory of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, as to the statistics serves him well. At the time, he estimated in debates in this House that some 16,500 war widows would be eligible for this pension. So far 16,000 have claimed. The War Pensions Agency and the War Servicemen's Association have done much to advertise these claims, but the noble Baroness is right that it is important that every war widow should avail herself of these changes in benefits.
So far, I have concentrated on the generous compensation that may be received under war pension schemes. However, noble Lords may not be aware that the onus of proof for war pension claims is very favourable, as is the compensation. For deaths arising or disablement claims lodged within seven years of termination of service the onus lies on the Secretary of State to show beyond reasonable doubt that disablement or death is not due to service. Apart from being required to show disablement and, where there is no record in service documents, to provide reliable corroborative evidence of a service injury or incident, there is no onus on the claimant to show any link between current disablement and service. He or she will still receive a pension. It is this provision which applies to all claims received so far from people who served in the Gulf. Even where a claim for disablement is made more than seven years after termination of service, or where death occurs more than seven years after service, the onus of proof is very generous. Unlike the civil burden of proof, which applies the test of a balance of probabilities, war pensions law provides that it is necessary for the applicant only to raise a reasonable doubt, based on reliable evidence, that death or disablement is due to service. The benefit of any reasonable doubt is always given to the claimant.
I have said that it would be impossible during this debate to describe all the preferential provisions attributable to war pensioners, but I have highlighted two: first, the very generous level of pensions compared with their civilian equivalents; and, secondly, the very real distinction that operates in favour of war pensioners in terms of the burden of proof. I give just two more examples that may be of interest to noble Lords. First, war disablement pensioners may receive priority hospital treatment under the NHS for their pensioned disablement, not where there is an emergency case but in terms of the waiting list. Secondly, help may be given with the cost of dental treatment and glasses if required
My final example is one which was quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and one which is much treasured by war pensioners; it is the existence of the discreet War Pensioners' Welfare Service to help war pensioners, war widows, their dependants and carers with personal confidential advice, help or support. As the noble Lord said, its work is invaluable and much appreciated.
My noble friend Lord Ashley and the noble Earls, Lord Haig and Lord Effingham, asked me about the independent review into hearing loss. We stated at the time that we were determined to be satisfied that the medical evidence on that is clear and unambiguous and that any decisions made on war pensions in that respect are made in accordance with the legislation.
As noble Lords will know, on 23rd May I wrote to Mr. Graham Downing, national chairman, of the Royal British Legion, informing him that I would be arranging a meeting of independent experts in the field of hearing loss in order to review the scientific basis of the approach to the assessment of this condition.
In reply to my noble friend Lord Ashley, I am delighted to announce today that the Government's Chief Medical Officer, Sir Kenneth Calman, will chair the review. Professors Mark Lutman and Adrian Davis, who have advised the Royal British Legion, are being invited to join the review, together with two other independent experts, whose replies we are awaiting. A departmental medical adviser will also be part of the team.
The present approach to the assessment of claims to war pensions for noise induced sensorineural hearing loss is based on the war pensions medical adviser's conclusion on the current medical understanding. The review will therefore investigate the scientific basis of that conclusion and will address the two questions on which the current approach is based. Those questions are: what is the progress of noise induced sensorineural hearing loss following removal from the source of noise; and is the combination of noise induced hearing loss and subsequent sensorineural hearing loss due to age more than additive? I hope and expect that the review will be able to come to a speedy conclusion. The outcome will be made public.
We discussed Gulf War-related illnesses, known popularly as Gulf War Syndrome, during Question Time a few days ago. As a result perhaps it has not been much referred to today. Other questions were asked today, and I shall do my best to respond to them. First, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy and the noble Earl, Lord Haig, asked me about the veterans' unit. For some time that was being urged upon us by the Royal British Legion, but more recently it has written to us saying that it wished to consider that matter further. So it is of course still under review.
Other noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Napier and Ettrick, mentioned the backlog of appeals. They are now down from some 20,000 to fewer than 10,000. But noble Lords are right, that is still too slow. The House will understand the difficulties referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, in assessing the situation where the injury occurred some 50 years previously. It is too slow and we are keeping it under review. I shall do as the noble Lord, Lord Napier and Ettrick, asked, and urge greater speed.
Finally, the noble Lords, Lord Sempill and Lord Clifford, raised the issue of prisoner of war compensation. I understand that a long and detailed report is currently being considered by the MoD. It is of course a matter primarily for that department. It hopes to inform Parliament of its decision on that report as soon as possible. I will ensure that the noble Lords, Lord Sempill and Lord Clifford, learn of that decision as soon as is practicable.
To summarise, in this country pension and other provision for disabled ex-servicemen and women and their dependants is properly both wide-ranging and generous. I am sure noble Lords will agree with me that given the circumstances of disablement or death, that is only right. However, those facts are often not understood or are overlooked by those often too ready to criticise. I am pleased that, thanks to the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, we have together during the debate been able to put the record straight. On behalf of the House, I thank him.
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I thank all who have participated in this debate. There are still a few minutes as a result of the creditable conciseness of the speakers. So I shall comment briefly. I am glad that the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, took part and spoke of the unsubsidised work of the Royal British Legion. I welcome him to these debates as a former member of the Royal Navy.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, would like to keep the word "war" in "war pensions", but I presume that he accepts my estimate that more than half the present recipients have never been involved in a war. That is no secret to the Treasury. The danger is that it could use the misnomer as a pretext for being less generous to the total of disabled ex-servicemen. That is clearly a matter of opinion upon which we differ.
In 1942, half way through World War II, as a field battery commander I insisted that the relevant soldiers manning my field guns--those nearest to the breech blocks--wore ear plugs. After the war I was told that I was among the first, if not the first, to do so. Later it became compulsory.
My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish was inclined to agree with me about the war pension being renamed. I am grateful to the Minister for her full reply. She pointed out some of the objections to my suggestion. I have not suggested that changes would solve the problem--the words she used--but it would avoid public misunderstandings. For example, on 5th December last it was clear from Hansard that Members of the other place assumed that war pensions, then suddenly in the news that day, were restricted to veterans of wars. Most of the media made the same error. My alternative to changing the name, which I made in my opening speech, is that there should be a campaign to spread information about these pensions so that those who have not been in any kind of war realise that they are entitled to something which is misnamed a "war pension".
It is too early in the life of the new Government for the Minister to be able to reply fully to questions such as whether a unit for ex-service personnel will be set up or to possible changes in the longstanding system of government actions responding to independent medical advice. She has told us that those must await the result of reviews. I am sure that those and other issues will be raised again in your Lordship's House. Again I thank most warmly all who have taken part in this debate. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.