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Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, has put the case in compelling terms for rejecting the new proposed standard of proof in this Bill—the balance of probability which puts the onus on the claimant to prove his case—and for retaining the present system. I cannot do better than to quote from the House of
 
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Commons Defence Committee report on December 2003 on Armed Forces pensions and compensation. In paragraph 69, the report said:

The Government claim that the proposal is to bring the scheme into line with civil law and common practice, and "reflect modern practice". The truth, I suggest, is that this is another cost-cutting exercise. Why should those who voluntarily risk their lives to serve their country be treated in the same way as a civilian, however brave and worthy, simply because it would be tidier? The MoD has a duty to prove that their service was not responsible for causing or making worse a condition for which a compensation claim is made.

The Gulf War veterans have had a long and painful experience in fighting this battle, although the MoD did eventually set up a Gulf Veterans Illness Unit. I heard the Minister say on the radio this week that the unit has spent £8 million so far on research to establish whether or not there exists a Gulf War syndrome. The research continues and they are not prepared to make any decisions of principle until the outcome is known. Meanwhile some of the veterans have died and others continue to lead stressful lives. They have been fighting just the kind of battle that the MoD now wishes to make the general rule, paying for legal help and finding it difficult, but not impossible, to make their case because of a serious failure in the MoD at times to preserve vital medical records.

I am not at all cheered to hear that there is a brand new computerisation program planned to provide access to medical records. What went wrong last time was a computer scheme that failed and lost a significant number of medical events. In the case of the Gulf War veterans, they were sometimes refused access to their medical records in any case because the records were said to be classified "Secret". I hope that that will not happen again.

However, I return to the simple but cardinal issues. The "modern" balance of probabilities formula requires a claimant to demonstrate that on balance the disablement is due to service. It is not reassuring that the Government wish to move to this procedure not only because it reflects so-called modern practice elsewhere in society, but also because:

I submit that servicemen are unique in that society because of their commitment of their very lives, if that is necessary, to defend the realm. Yet this Government, who I would have thought had very recent and direct experience in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq of the risk to life and limb that is accepted and embraced by our Armed Forces, wish to tidy things up and have the same standards for them
 
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as for, let us say, the insuring of a house or a car or for taking out holiday insurance to go skiing. They are prepared to put a man or woman, already ill or under stress, to further stress to fight their case. The onus should be on the Secretary of State to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the individual's service has not contributed to causing or worsening the condition for which the claim is made. This is all the more necessary since so much turns on the medical record, and the MoD, not the claimant, holds these records and has not been seen to be a very competent record holder in recent years.

The new plan does not strike me as likely to aid recruitment or create confidence because it is so manifestly weighted against the individual and in favour of the state, and all this is said to be in the interests of being modern and, I suppose, politically correct. I am greatly reassured to hear that the AFPRB will be playing a positive role in this issue.

It is not fashionable to recognise that the country owes a special debt to servicemen and women, a debt of which we have recently been reminded, and I do not believe that the ordinary man in the street would wish to see the system changed, because of its inevitable consequences for the individual claimant. The British Legion does much for these people, but the average claimant will not be able to afford legal advice if the case goes to appeal. He will have no right to legal aid, as it is not available for appeals concerning war pensions.

I feel particularly strongly about the need to place the onus of proof on the state, not on the litigant—which would, therefore, protect the litigant—because I have been involved for the past year in trying to do something for ex-servicemen and women in Zimbabwe. The many old age homes are having great difficulty in surviving because formerly the white farmers provided fuel, food, transport and much practical help. In just one of them, there are 44 service pensioners from all ranks and services. Their pensions are nearly worthless because of over 600 per cent inflation and can be reckoned in terms of from half a loaf of bread a month to eight loaves and nothing else. There is no money for medicine or medical care, food, shelter or rent, or for such basic needs as soap, batteries for the radio or new spectacles if they get broken. Unlike pensioners here, these pensioners can expect nothing from the state. Here they would get medical and dental care or social security payments. Their case is unique and it has simply not been known.

I quote them because, thank God, pensioners here are relatively well looked after both by the MoD and by the British Legion but we must not allow the Government to trickle their rights away in the name of modern best practice. These are valuable people who are not good at asking for help for themselves. They will be frail and they will find it difficult to fight battles for themselves rather than for the country.

I have one final point and one question. I do not know how great a part the MoD's medical advisors are required to play when claims are made but the present state of Defence Medical Services is still dire. What impact will that have on the pensions arrangements?
 
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In my question I ask for information, and it is my ignorance that compels me to ask. Has the MoD yet announced the compensation package for those who were improperly taxed? I ask because, in the Defence Committee's report of late December 2003, it had not been announced by late October.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, I apologise in advance to my noble friend the Minister if I am not able to stay to the end of the debate as I have to catch the last train to Scotland, but I hope I shall.

I must declare an interest as president of the War Widows Association of Great Britain, so that what I say will be directly applicable to those ladies. My noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde took some of us from the Defence Study Group last week to the MoD, where the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Bach—and his civil servants were most helpful to us all in talking us through the new Bill and answering all our questions. We were all agreed that there was much to be welcomed in this new Bill, particularly for service men and women, and—though I sincerely hope there will be none—war widows after 2005.

It is an enabling Bill, and there is some uncertainty over detail. Because of this we must ensure that the devil does not get in here. We want an assurance, as my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig of Radley, said, that all future revisions and draft regulations will be brought to Parliament under the affirmative resolution procedure, so that we can discuss them, and not just find them shoved away under the carpet in a corner of the Library.

We believe that it is particularly important that the pensions and guaranteed income stream should be index linked to the retail prices index and not to any lower index. This, your Lordships must agree, is particularly important for widows with young children, who have to eat and need new clothes as they grow.

It is possible that widows and young children will be better off under the new scheme, but there is still some lack of detail which we would like spelt out for us.

I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester, who is a vice president of the War Widows Association and does sterling work for us all, for his delightful and charming compliments. He and the noble Baroness, Lady Park—my noble friend—and the War Widows Association and the Royal British Legion all have many concerns about the change of the burden of proof from the DSS criterion, that an injury must be proved not to have been the result, to the MOD criterion which is that the burden of proof must be on the individual concerned. As the individual is obviously at the time in a damaged state that can be more difficult.

There is the Cheryl Hume case where a lady was awarded a war widow's pension by the DSS criterion; turned down by the MoD, on its criterion; appealed to the ombudsman, who decided in her favour; and then appealed in the High Court against the MoD, and won. There are other ladies in her situation who have
 
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not appealed, and are therefore disadvantaged. I think that there is much to be said for having one criterion, so that we do not have all this difficulty, but the decisions must be transparent, above board, and seen and known by everyone, and not just decided hugger-mugger in the MoD with no one having any access to what is going on.

In 2000, members of the War Widows Association were all delighted to achieve the right of post 1973 war widows to retain their attributable Armed Forces pension for life whatever their future marital status. That has been an enormous emancipation for them, although very few of them have in fact remarried. It does however create an anomaly for all service widows—but not war widows, as my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig of Radley said—who would lose their forces family pension if they remarried. After 2005, all service widows on the new scheme will be able to keep their pension for life, so this will once more create a trough. It is possible that not many of these ladies, like the post 1973 war widows, will wish to remarry; so to iron out this glitch might not be as expensive as the MOD fears. It does not represent new money from the Government, merely preventing money which is already being paid out and which could then be clawed back.

All of us at this time are touched and moved by the D-Day memorial services, all those hundreds of old men, in their uniforms and medals, standing in the boiling sun so proudly on the beaches on which they had once fought their way through so horrendous a battle, when they were only 18 or 19, so long ago. I think we all cried a bit, as we saluted their courage. This is a time now to remember also the girls, so many of them left behind. Some of them now, 60 years on, might wish to remarry or cohabit for companionship's sake. One of them wrote to me,

Could these ladies not just at least retain their MoD supplement if they remarry or cohabit for companionship's sake? As we remember those brave men who gave their lives on those blood-stained beaches, could we not show compassion to the girls they left behind so long ago?


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