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The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment seeks to delete Clause 58 from the Bill. On these Benches we seek to ensure that the present time limit in relation to an appeal will remain at 12 months. In Committee the Minister accepted that there had been some concern that six months did not provide vulnerable, and perhaps grieving people, with sufficient time in which to bring an appeal. The Minister also said that advice the Government had received from some ex-servicemen's organisations indicated that they were comfortable with the proposals.
I am not sure which organisations the Minister's department contacted to enable that statement to be made because those organisations that deal directly with war pensions and the agency itself and have most knowledge of representation at tribunals are decidedly uncomfortable with the proposals. Indeed, they are most concerned. Among those which have contacted me are SSAFA, the RAF Association, the RAF Widows Association, the War Widows Association, St Dunstan's (For Service War Blinded), BLESMA, Combat Stress (Ex-Services Mental welfare Society) and the RBL. I declare an interest as president of the Earl Haig branch of the Royal British Legion. They are all united in their advice that anything that shortens the length of time that people have in which to lodge an appeal is quite wrong. Their advice is not to be disregarded lightly.
The Government are giving the impression that they are out to limit claims and deny servicemen and women their rightful financial support by shortening the appeal period. Why should our forces be limited to six months when the Americans, our close partners in many war zones, get 12 months? Are our troops any different? Are their illnesses different? Surely not. All possible help must be given to those who are wounded or killed for us. Accordingly, the 12-month period should remain. I hope that the Minister will think again. I beg to move.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, perhaps I may rise on a point of information. War pensioners are injured in public service. The same point applies to vaccine-damaged children. I was informed that there was to be a very important Statement in the House of Commons this afternoon regarding vaccine-damaged children and the payment scheme for them. I should be very surprised indeed if the Government did not see fit to allow Members of this House to question and interrogate Ministers and scrutinise that Statement in the same way as in the House of Commons.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Astor, raised a point about the time limit on appeals for war pensions. My noble friend Lord Ashley drew the analogy that someone who is a war pensioner incurred their injuries essentially in the course of public service; namely, that those injuries were received while fighting for their country. He went on to ask, when considering vaccine-damaged children who received vaccinations for the sake of public health and the safety of other children, why the Statement was not repeated in this House. Both groups have suffered in the name of the public good.
Today the Government made an extremely important announcement which will affect the lives of many of the most vulnerable and disabled children in our society. My noble friend has asked why the Government did not see fit to come to your Lordships' House, as though only Members of the House of Commons would be interested in developments as regards vaccine-damaged children. Could it be that noble Lords decided that more important matters needed to be discussed, such as annuity rates at the age of 75? Should such matters take precedence over the interests and well-being of vaccine-damaged children?
I take the reproof. The Government offered the Statement to this House. Because for some time I personally have been involved with organisations representing vaccine-damaged children, I wanted to be able to tell noble Lords what the Government are doing in this area. I would have positively welcomed the opportunity to repeat the Statement to the House. My noble friend would have been able to interrogate me on the details and noble Lords would have been informed on a matter that is a major social security issue and which could quite easily have been debated as an amendment to the Bill before us had it not been agreed by mutual consent that the Government's own review should first come to its conclusion.
Although I offered to repeat the Statement, I understand--I hope that I am not putting words into anyone's mouth at this point--that Members of the Official Opposition rejected the Statement and did not want it to be repeated in the House this afternoon, even though this matter affects the well-being of some of our most vulnerable children. However, when it suits the Official Opposition, it will pursue questions on these matters with the Government.
Given that, I am happy to tell my noble friend that, at present, the parents of a vaccine-damaged child are eligible for an allowance in the form of a capital sum which is intended to offset part of the additional costs of bringing up that child. The maximum award is
I am happy to be able to report that in the Statement made in another place today, the Government announced that they are not raising the award of £40,000 for vaccine-damaged children to £50,000 or even £60,000, but to £100,000. That means that those who have already received moneys will have their allowances upgraded to a real-terms equivalent of £100,000. The upgrading will be speedily enforced in regulations.
Furthermore, we shall widen the scope of the scheme so that it will offer generous compensation to those not presently included in the scheme. At present the scheme operates only for those children with 80 per cent disability. From now on all children with greater than 60 per cent disability will be included. The present rules require a claim to be made within six years of the vaccination. That period is to be increased to 21 years, so that some young people whose symptoms manifest themselves only during adolescence and at puberty will now be brought within the scope of the scheme.
I am pleased that I have been able to give the House details of the scheme. This is a social security matter and one of important public interest. For families bringing up vaccine-damaged children, this measure will bring about a major improvement in their lot. Although I do not wish to suggest that because the Statement contained good news it was not taken up by the Official Opposition, I hope that my noble friend and others will agree that the Government have taken a decent, generous and compassionate step as regards vaccine-damaged children. I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to share this information with the House. I thank my noble friend.
Perhaps I may now turn to war pension appeals. In Committee I went to some length to explain our reasons for bringing forward this measure. I shall not burden the House by repeating those points. I had hoped that, in the light of those explanations, noble Lords would have accepted that this provision is reasonable and necessary for the smooth, efficient and speedy delivery of just and fair decisions.
The current arrangements mean that some appeals are not subject to any time limit but, where one exists, it is often extended indefinitely by tribunals. That can work against the interests of appellants, against the effective administration of appeals and against a fair and just outcome. That is not a recipe for success.
To ask tribunal members to consider decisions made decades ago is to place them in an invidious, time-consuming and frustrating position, one where they are expected to reach decisions based on the appellant's circumstances, the medical understanding
New time limits will ensure that appeals are heard nearer to when decisions are made; that is, the time limit applies not to the original claim, but on hearing appeals against the decision. Thus an appeal cannot be lodged 20 years after a decision, because most of the evidence will have been lost in the system. Facts are clearer when appeals are lodged close to the time that the decision is made and their relevance is more readily apparent. The time limits will largely negate the need to rely on assumptions about conditions that existed in the distant past. How can a satisfactory appeal be held on a decision that may have been reached 20 years previously when the medical and other knowledge on which that decision was based may have changed quite dramatically?
We propose that interim assessment decisions should retain their current three-month appeal time limit, but that in all other instances appeals should be submitted within a longer six-month time limit, starting from the date that the decision is notified. Elsewhere, most other appeal time limits do not exceed three months. We feel, therefore, that six months is relatively generous. In proposing this longer time-scale, we are paying due recognition to the unique status of war pensioners, the complexity of the war pensions scheme and the fact that these decisions have not previously been time limited.
We are also making provision for late appeals to be admitted within the 12 months following the end of the six-month appeal time limit. Affirmative regulations will be brought forward prescribing the circumstances in which late appeals will be accepted. We intend that such circumstances will be broadly similar to those contained within present social security provisions.
I think that it would also be pertinent to reiterate a point I made in Committee that noble Lords may have overlooked. Furthermore, it should go some way towards alleviating certain concerns that may possibly be based on a degree of misunderstanding in this area.
These provisions have no knock-on effect on claims for war pensions. War disablement pensioners and war widows may continue to make claims at any time--10, 15 or even 25 years after the incident or accident occurred. If a claimant incurred an injury at the age of 23, he may still bring in a claim at the age of 60. All we are saying is that the appeal against the ultimate decision should be made within a six-month time frame so that the appeal relates directly to the circumstances under which the decision was made--not 10 or 20 years further down the line. Efforts to be just and fair under those circumstances cannot be effective. The six-month appeal time limit will not start until after a claim for a war pension has been made, the necessary information provided and a decision notified.
The appeal clock will start to tick only from the date that a decision is finally notified by the War Pensions Agency. Even then, a dissatisfied claimant need only lodge an appeal within the six-month time limit. The
Once the appeal has been lodged, the agency will begin its preparation of the papers for an appeal hearing. When that is done, it will send the appellant full details of the case. At this stage, the claimant will be given a further 28 days in which to write in again with further information. Even that is not the end of the line. When the hearing date arrives, the claimant or his or her representative still has an opportunity to produce any additional evidence that is relevant to the outcome and that may previously have been overlooked. Therefore, there are several stages beyond the initial lodging of an appeal at which a claimant may provide any additional evidence. I do not believe that the six-month time limit is unreasonable.
I have also explained previously that decisions made before the new time limit is commenced will have transitional protection. Those affected by this provision, but who receive a decision before its commencement, will have at least a year from the notification of the decision in which to bring an appeal. The new appeal time limit will apply only to those for whom decisions are made on or after the commencement date.
Finally, as I explained in Committee, if at any future date we need to vary the time limit in the light of the workings of the proposal, I shall be happy to come back with affirmative regulations which will be subject to the agreement of both Houses. Given the fact that the original request for the war pension can be brought at any time is unaffected, what we are seeking to do, which is entirely reasonable, is to say that the appeal against that should be made within a decent period after the original decision being taken--in this case six months--together with transitional protection. That six-month period can be extended if additional information comes through and the war pensioner needs further time to collect that information. To have the current system in which one can have a decision taken 20 years after the injury and an appeal a further 20 years after the decision cannot be sensible or fair to people in similar circumstances and cannot produce a right and proper decision. Therefore, in the light of what I have said I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Astor, will agree that the clause in the Bill is acceptable to the House.
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply which ranged wider than the amendment we were considering. As regards the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, I understand that there is a Unstarred Question for the dinner break tomorrow on the vaccine damage payment scheme. Therefore, this House, unlike the other place, will have the opportunity to consider the matter.
I turn to the amendment. I thank my noble friend Lady Carnegy for her support. I agree with her that it is not a political point but a practical one. I accept that the Minister considered the amendment in great detail in Committee, but, despite what the Minister has said, a great many of the service charities are very unhappy. I shall consider Hansard in great detail and discuss the matter with those charities. In the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.