Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)

WEDNESDAY 9 MAY 2001

DR LEWIS MOONIE, MP AND MR CHRIS BAKER, OBE

  40. What assessment have you made of veterans' level of satisfaction with the services and provision they receive from the War Pensions Agency?
  (Dr Moonie) It would be fair to say that there are longstanding dissatisfactions with the way in which the system operates. Anybody who does not get what they think they deserve is obviously going to be dissatisfied, but the scheme at present bends over backwards to ensure that people are included. There is dissatisfaction with the length of time it takes to process claims. Claims are very complex and the system itself is a bit creaky. We have to remember it was set up in 1917 and there cannot be many of our institutions still around that have not been properly revised since then.

  41. Except the House of Commons, of course.
  (Dr Moonie) Except the House of Commons, indeed. Foolish of me to forget that. I think it is time now to have a very thorough review of what is going on to try to meet some of these concerns. The delays are annoying. I would like to see that certainly speeded up, particularly for the people who are very severely disabled and who require quick help.

Mr Gapes

  42. Minister, in March you published the long awaited consultation document on compensation arrangements following a review with the Department of Social Security. It could be argued that this change owes a lot to the lessons learned from the way in which Gulf veterans have been dealt with. A lot of the new proposals were based upon experience from the past but, as you are aware, the proposals you have come forward with do not have any retrospective element to them. Although lessons have been learned, the new proposals will do nothing to improve compensation for Gulf veterans and those who have been injured in the past. Why has the Ministry of Defence decided that the current compensation arrangements will continue to be acceptable for Gulf veterans but not for existing personnel?
  (Dr Moonie) I am hiding behind the standard government response here: new schemes are never made retrospective. Whatever scheme is extant at the time at which you become entitled to benefits under it, for example, that is the scheme which will be applied to you. I do not think there is any great level of dissatisfaction with the outcomes of what happens at present—more so with the process and the time it takes. This scheme was set up in 1917. We have two schemes which people have to apply for. They apply different criteria and therefore they can, on occasion, heighten the sense of injustice that people feel. I think it is high time that the system was reviewed and we brought in a better one to replace it, but it cannot be made retrospective. We cannot clear up the regulations under which somebody was first seen and see them again at a much later date under the new scheme. After all, you could not just restrict it to Gulf veterans; in these cases if you were going to be fair, you would have to make it applicable to anybody in the past and that is why schemes are not made retrospective. We just could not do it. It is not practical.

  43. When will the new arrangements come in?
  (Dr Moonie) On the overall scheme, we are still out for consultation and it is going to take us a considerable time to take in the responses we receive, to decide how we are going to do it and to proceed, for example, merging the two schemes, deciding which roof it is going to sit under. I would think to be able to do it over the next year would be setting a challenging timetable. It might take longer than that; it might not. I do not actually know how difficult it would be to bring in the new arrangements and put them into place. It will be done as quickly as practicable.

  44. There will not be any retrospective arrangements?
  (Dr Moonie) There will not be retrospective arrangements, no.

Chairman

  45. The Committee said in previous reports that with public/private partnerships and with PFI the private sector is getting closer and closer to the front line. If we want to encourage this process of civilians engaging in what could be very hazardous activities in peace time and in war, are you absolutely satisfied that arrangements for compensation and insurance would give some encouragement to add to a sense of patriotism for those who will not receive the benefit of being a member of the armed forces but who might be injured or killed?
  (Dr Moonie) You are quite right. We have to ensure that people in future have adequate cover for what may happen to them. It is possible that this could be based on some form of insurance. It might be that insurance companies might prove a little difficult to convince of the benefits of offering that type of scheme to people. I think we would therefore have to look at some form of indemnity. We are actively considering that and it is something which I think we will probably have to do.

  46. Through what vehicle will that be administered?
  (Dr Moonie) That I have not decided. I honestly cannot say what the most appropriate method would be. I presume it would have to be done within the Ministry of Defence.

  Chairman: Perhaps they should redesignate your role Minister for Veterans and Civilians Working Alongside Veterans' Affairs during a time of conflict, rather an unpalatable set of acronyms.

Mr Cann

  47. When we reported last year, we suggested that you might consider compensation for civilians who were injured in the Gulf and basically you said then what you have just said now which is that you are discussing possible future arrangements. Has the MoD's position on compensation for civilian contractors who served alongside Service personnel in the Gulf changed in any way since our report last year?
  (Dr Moonie) No. We are looking to the future when we are making proposals for civilian contractors. If we clearly had liability, we would pay compensation. If we do not, we do not. The future arrangements will provide a much better safety net than exists at present.

Mr Viggers

  48. Regular forces are of course eligible under the Armed Forces Pension Scheme and reservists are eligible under the Attributable Benefits for Reservists Scheme, ABRS, which has recently been extended to include eligibility for reservists who are medically downgraded after mobilisation. A response to a parliamentary question indicated that that change would take effect from April, so presumably it is running now?
  (Dr Moonie) Yes, it is. I am not sure how long it is going to take to deal with the cases that are extant but again they will be dealt with as quickly as possible.

  49. How many individuals will receive such payments?
  (Dr Moonie) It is a very small number. I think it is round about ten under the scheme itself and fewer than that under the ex gratia payment that we are offering for the very few people who are left uncovered by either scheme.

  50. For the record, perhaps you could say who that very small number who may receive ex gratia payments are, what categories they are and how many you anticipate they will be in the coming years.
  (Dr Moonie) I always find this horrendously difficult to get my head round. These are the handful of people from the long term reserves who went back to being civilians after they left the theatre in which they were engaged.[2] There are very, very few of them within that category who have missed out on the provisions that we have. In these cases we think it correct to make an ex gratia payment to them which will be the equivalent of what they would have received had they been in the scheme, but it is a very small number.

  51. Are you aware of any other groupings on behalf of whom representations have been made that in equity they should also be eligible?
  (Dr Moonie) I do not think so.

  52. No doubt they would come forward if they felt themselves aggrieved?
  (Dr Moonie) Were they brought to my attention, I would certainly have to deal with them. I think we have had long enough now for any such groups to have made themselves clear to us.

  Chairman: I would like to come to the question of negligence claims and mediation. As at 1 April 2001, the MoD had received 1,866 active notices of intention to claim from veterans and members of their families in respect of illnesses from the Gulf conflict. However, no writs or detailed claims have yet been received. The Committee has received a memorandum from a firm of solicitors, Hodge Jones & Allen, which represents over 600 veterans in respect of such claims. I met them last week. The solicitors claim that despite the government's declared policy of using mediation wherever possible the MoD have informed them that they are not prepared to engage in mediation as they do not see the evidence as likely to succeed in court. The Joint Compensation Review Consultation Document concedes that, "Concern is frequently expressed that civil negligence cases against MoD can be confrontational and protracted, cause distress to claimants and result in disparate awards for the same disablement" and it expresses the hope that the new compensation arrangements will enable more claims to be settled without referral to the courts. I will ask my colleague, Mr Cann, to ask the specific question.

Mr Cann

  53. Why has the MoD so far refused to enter into mediation discussions with the representatives of Gulf veterans who have given notice of negligence claims? Would you accept that mediation seems the most logical and cost effective way of going forward?
  (Dr Moonie) No, at present I would not. We have been very clear. Where it is appropriate, we will use mediation but in these circumstances there would have to be a recognition on our part that we had in some way been negligent. We do not accept that in any way at present and I see therefore no point in going to mediation where we are absolute in our defence of our position.

  54. You are defending your position; presumably the veterans are defending theirs. Is not that a case where mediation can judge properly between the two conflicting views?
  (Dr Moonie) No. I believe in this case the only way in which it can be resolved is by people who feel they have views taking them to court and testing them. I am absolutely convinced—I have looked at the evidence in detail—that there is no point at present in going to mediation. We would not accept a compromise position.

  55. You are going to need a lot of court space, are you not?
  (Dr Moonie) That is possible, yes, but so far no court action has been raised against us. We are not just going to pay compensation for an easy life. I do believe that what we have done and the stance we have taken is correct and I therefore feel that we should defend it.

Chairman

  56. A large sum of money has been paid out of the legal aid fund to lawyers to represent them and, if it is pushed to court, even one court case can be very protracted and costly. The record of the MoD in court is about the equivalent of the DA in Perry Mason. Would it be wiser perhaps to test it out by way of mediation in a couple of cases? Are you absolutely irrevocable in this decision to avoid mediation?
  (Dr Moonie) I would never say I was absolutely irrevocable about something. If the position changed and if new evidence was presented to us which showed things in a different light, clearly I would review it again, but at present I see no justification for altering our position. What I have said to representatives of Hodge Jones & Allen when I met them a few weeks ago is that we are trying to be inclusive. We are trying to keep in discussions. One of the things I see as Veterans Minister is not just sitting on committees, making decisions, but making direct contact with people who have concerns and trying to work our way through it. The important thing for the veterans after all is to try to alleviate in some way the suffering which they are undergoing. I think that is where our main efforts should be targeted, but as a department, where we feel we have nothing to be ashamed of and we have done nothing that we consider to be wrong, certainly not negligence, I think it is our duty to defend our position properly.

Mr Viggers

  57. There have been several statistical studies comparing groups of Gulf War veterans with groups of people who have not been to the Gulf. The statistical conclusion seems to be that there is little to show between the two groups, I understand. I remember in the States we were briefed and told that the only statistically significant figure was that reservists were far more likely to claim to suffer from Gulf War Syndrome than regular forces, perhaps indicating that the strain and physical stress of reservists going into battle was greater than that of the regulars. Are there further statistical studies planned in this country of Gulf War veterans compared with comparative groups perhaps, focusing on people of the same age?
  (Dr Moonie) It is difficult to get morbidity data on illness. If we are talking purely about mortality here, that is a very straightforward thing to do. For any population, we can construct standardised mortality ratios for the normal population and compare the group to see whether it is different. In fact, for both the group who served in the Gulf and for the non-Gulf soldiers, servicemen and women, who were used as a comparator, both are very considerably below the expected level of the general population for mortality. The figure for the general population is 660; whereas the Gulf Vets and the comparator both hover at round about 493. Servicemen and women are fit people. You would not expect so many of them to die as in the general population. There is adequate standardised epidemiological data available for mortality. It is very much more difficult however when you come on to symptomatology of illness, which is much less clearly defined.

  58. There is a study of 109 Gulf veterans who have died in road accidents which is being investigated. Can you tell me what form that study is taking?
  (Dr Moonie) First of all, I think we are going to try and find out details of what the accidents involved—were they pedestrians? Were they drivers? Were they passengers?—to see whether there is any obvious linking factor within them. We will compare that obviously with the group who were not serving. We do intend to follow this up. It is an interesting and slightly disturbing finding to me that there should be this disparity. We are talking about relatively small numbers in statistical terms and although there is a statistically significant difference between the two that does not rule out the possibility that there is still a chance. If you conduct enough investigations, look at enough parameters, some of them will show up by chance as statistically significant. It does not necessarily mean that they are. It could still be a random factor. It is just that over the years it will balance out. It is worth looking at—and we are going to spend some time on this—initially identifying the causes of the accident, what was involved and then seeing if there is any further work that can be done.

  59. Are there any other statistically surprising results which have come out of the studies so far?
  (Dr Moonie) Not to my knowledge, other than that there is an excess of deaths from accidental causes in the Gulf veterans' group which is matched by a relative reduction in the number of non-accidental deaths due to illness, cancer and a wide variety of things. By and large, no, there is nothing particularly surprising. There are fewer cancer deaths within them but that is again I think a random factor.


2   Note by Witness: Individuals such as those from the Long Term Reserve, who were recalled for service in 1990-91, but were not members of a Reserve Force as defined by the legislation. Back


 
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