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Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I declare an interest as President of the Earl Haig branch, and the Kent branch of the Royal British Legion. Also, as a former Regular Army officer, I was awarded a war disablement pension for service-attributed hearing loss in the form of a gratuity payment.

Our country takes great pride in its Armed Forces. As other noble Lords have said, that was very evident last weekend with enormous public support for, and interest in, the D-Day commemoration. I congratulate the Normandy Veterans Association, the Royal British Legion, the MoD and 102 Logistic Brigade on
 
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their outstanding organisation. Having spent most of the weekend in front of the television, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, in complimenting the BBC.

We owe the people of our Armed Forces a debt of honour. So far as that debt can be met in monetary terms, Parliament must make that possible. The Armed Forces are a special case. They are expected to fight, and sometimes to die, for their country. It is vital that they serve confident in the knowledge that they will receive a pension that is up with the very best of modern good practice pension conditions and, should anything happen to them, that their families will be provided for.

This is essentially an enabling Bill. It is indeed the barest of enabling Bills and little more. It includes some minor specific provisions. The main focus of what I say will be on mainstream points that the Bill should address but which, as the text stands at present, it avoids.

First, the Bill says nothing about the particulars of the schemes that it will enable the Secretary of State to establish. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, pointed out the need to reassure the Armed Forces by entrenching key benchmarks about the new schemes on the face of the Bill. We support that. We cannot sign a blank cheque and give the Government powers to do something not adequately defined.

Secondly, although the Bill includes the reserves within its Long Title, it does less than it could, and should, for those who serve in the reserves. That is a service that is willingly given but which disturbs personal financial planning. My noble friend Lord Attlee gave the example of forgoing weekend earnings. The House has given considerable time today to debating, in the Pensions Bill, what can best be done to help people generally to save for their retirement in a secure manner. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hodgson on his stamina in speaking in both debates. If what the Government are doing in that Bill is right, they should specifically recognise and protect the reserves in this Bill. In Committee, we shall certainly propose the inclusion of specific enabling powers for the Secretary of State to protect the personal financial planning of reserves.

Another issue that is seemingly omitted is the matter of effective oversight of the working of both the pension and compensation schemes to be set up under the Bill. The assignment of responsibilities to the AFPRB is a step in the right direction but the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, questioned, rightly in our view, whether it goes far enough. We believe that it does not and we will return to this in Committee. We agree with the noble and gallant Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, that the AFPRB's involvement should be on the face of the Bill. Unlike in other pension schemes, the interests of participants are not represented by trustees, nor are they, or can they, be represented by trade unions. As a result, they look to us as parliamentarians to protect their interests.

The legacy issues, which will still remain in effect for so many beneficiaries, have been raised by many noble Lords. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, highlighted the
 
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widows who get only one third of the pension. My noble friend Lord Hodgson and the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, mentioned the pension problems faced by many widows. The Royal British Legion, the Forces Pension Society and the War Widows Association of Great Britain—to all of which I am grateful for the mass of briefing that I have received on the Bill—have pointed out the demonstrable unfairness that no attempt has been made to correct past injustices, leaving many of today's pensioners severely disadvantaged. These have accumulated over time, unremedied and often unrecognised. We need to prevent such a situation from recurring and to be able to remedy such injustices piecemeal as opportunity offers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, who until recently was such a vigorous and effective chairman of the AFPRB, largely welcomed the Bill. There are aspects of the Bill that we also welcome. Like the noble Baroness, we welcome the equal treatment given to officers and other ranks. We particularly welcome the increase in death-in-service benefits from 1.5 to 4 times pay and the improvements to dependents' benefits, which will come much closer to good practice.

I turn to two specific issues that are addressed in detail in the Bill and its schedules. Like my noble friend Lord Hodgson, we accept the Government's view that the future of the Royal Patriotic Fund should be settled by primary legislation and that this Bill is an appropriate route to that.

The second issue is the appeals procedure. Schedule 1 has a provision that alters the appeals procedure that has been in place for more than 60 years. It has stood the test of time and provides an efficient, accessible and cheap method for fairly determining appeals on time. What is proposed is an added layer of complexity which is likely to cause delay and leave claimants aggrieved that they have not had the legal issue determined by a High Court judge. We see no reason to change a well established procedure. The greater mischief is that the Bill makes no provision for the claimant's legal representation to be met.

The noble Baroness, Lady Strange—the wonderfully proactive president of the War Widows' Association—raised some of the concerns and problems of the war widows. The War Widows' Association has also raised with me the point that pensions and the GISW should be indexed to the retail prices index and not any lower index. That is particularly important for war widows, many of whom are widowed with young children and remain widowed for a very long time. The impact of low indexation is particularly punitive for them. We look to the Minister to give a firm assurance on that.

At Committee stage we will be confronting the problem faced by existing widows who are not benefiting from the Bill, extending to widows with non-attributable pensions the same level as that received by those with attributable pensions. Thus the MoD is about to create wilfully and unnecessarily a new group of disadvantaged people. Quite rightly the MoD has conceded the principle that widows'
 
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pensions for life is an appropriate policy. It introduced it in 2000 for attributable service widows and included retrospectively existing widows—the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Strange.

The noble Baroness, Lady Strange, and the noble Lords, Lord Freyberg and Lord Redesdale, rightly highlighted the problems of post-retirement marriages. My noble friend Lord Attlee raised the compensation problems faced by junior NCOs and servicemen. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, highlighted very eloquently the problems raised by the proposal to change the burden of proof for compensation from "reasonable doubt" to "balance of probabilities".

As the noble Lord said, the Commons Defence Committee was sceptical of a change that appears to make the Government's job appear easier and the claimant's harder. As my noble friend Lady Park pointed out, the committee also said that because of the "special risks" those personnel undertake, the onus of proof should remain with the MoD. That has been law for 60 years and for very good reason. It has hitherto been government policy to ensure that no valid claim is likely to be rejected. We will be very strongly supporting the noble Lord, Lord Morris, on this issue at Committee stage.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, mentioned the five-year time limit for claims under the compensation scheme. My honourable friend the Member for Ruislip Northwood pointed out at Second Reading in the other place that radiological illnesses often take a number of years to develop; similarly with cancers and various pathological conditions arising from severe trauma.

The brief given to those conducting this review was in important respects the wrong one. They were told to come up with something that would be cost neutral, not something that corrects past shortcomings and sets a fair structure for the future. There are indeed some improvements and I have welcomed those, but essentially money is to be saved by particularly deferring payments from 60 to 65. There is one winner—the Treasury. The Royal British Legion pointed out that the majority of ex-service people will be negatively affected. The costs of the present scheme show up in the defence budget at more than £4.5 billion a year—one-eighth or more of the total defence budget. No one can grudge those payments as such but there must be questions whether better benefits could be provided if the systems were organised in line with best modern practice. The Bill must provide a mechanism for getting these things right for the future. It is in that spirit that I look forward to working constructively to improve the Bill in Grand Committee and thereafter.


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