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Disabled Ex-service Men

1 pm

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton): I am delighted to have secured this debate, which is particularly apt given that this month sees the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the successful campaign to regain the Falklands. We are also commemorating the loss of 255 men, and remembering the many wounded. The conflict cut short the careers of numerous soldiers, Marines and seamen, but many times that number are medically discharged every year. Sadly, the care of such veterans leaves something to be desired, and would be further reduced were it not for the tireless work of organisations such as the South Atlantic Medal Association 82.

I secured this debate to raise the iniquitous treatment of our service men, which has gone on for many years. In my first year as a Member of Parliament, several people walked wounded into my surgery. One 27-year-old former Marine from Norton Manor camp in my constituency had nine years' experience. He was given poor advice and left the corps because of an ankle problem, losing his place at the top of the Ministry of Defence medical treatment list. He now sits at the bottom of the NHS list, and will not be treated for at least a year.

Gulf war veterans who have suffered terribly from Gulf war syndrome have also come to my surgery. This country has not recognised that condition, even though the United States recognised it eight years ago. Indeed, several people are talking to a US congressional delegation elsewhere in the House today. It is perhaps apt that today's edition of The Sun quotes a widow as saying

I hope that the Minister will take note of that.

I particularly want to mention John "Jacko" Jackson and Martin Walkinshaw, who saw service in the Falklands. Through SAMA 82, they help others to rebuild their lives, and they work tirelessly for their fellow south Atlantic veterans. They brought the Benefits Agency's unfair treatment of veterans to my attention.

The common thread in all these issues is that those who serve in our forces are volunteers, who do military service because they love their country and are willing to put their lives on the line. As a result of serving our country, some pay the ultimate price, while others suffer for the rest of lives. The treatment of disabled ex-service men is unfair, given that they never questioned the fact that their country would look after them if they were injured. As one veteran put it to me, quite a few service men at Bagram airport and elsewhere in Afghanistan would have second thoughts about being there if one explained exactly how the welfare system worked against them.

There is a lot wrong with the way in which we treat those who volunteer to defend our country's interests, and I shall concentrate on one aspect in particular. This debate is about raising awareness of the need for greater liaison between Her Majesty's forces and the Benefits Agency so that the agency treats disabled ex-service men more equitably. One good suggestion would be for the

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agency to be represented on resettlement courses for service men who seek to leave the Army, the Marines, the Navy or the Air Force. We must educate the senior non-commissioned officers and warrant officers about the benefits system, because they have immediate responsibility and can help their charges to make the right decisions on leaving the corps, the Army, the Air Force or the Navy.

It appears unjust that service men should be disadvantaged because of the nature of their employment and their lack of contact with the outside world. At the weakest moment of their lives, when they have been medically discharged, more often than not lost their home and their career and are having to plan for their future, they do not know where to turn. Perhaps even more distressing is that many of the people in their world do not know how to get the necessary help for them either.

From an annual turnover of personnel in our services of about 20,000, roughly 1,600 service men are medically discharged. The bulk comes from the Army because it is the largest element of our forces, about a third comes from the Navy, which includes the Marines, and the balance comes from the Air Force. The Department for Work and Pensions informed me that the figure includes about 1,000 cases due to physical ailments—mainly musculo-skeletal problems involving broken bones or damaged ligaments, which make service men unfit for potential combat. Some 10 per cent. are discharged on mental grounds involving various problems that it is probably best for us only to guess at. However, less than half of the total receive incapacity benefit, and I am told that the majority do not satisfy the medical test for the personal capability assessment. Those numbers are not huge in Government terms, but each one represents an individual case where the system is failing to treat an ex-service man fairly. The following example is just one small indicator of the poor way in which we treat our service personnel.

After 28 weeks of sickness before his medical discharge, it is likely that a soldier or a Marine, once discharged, would have to claim incapacity benefit at the short-term, lower rate, whereas his civilian counterpart in, let us say, the Ministry of Defence, could claim it at the higher rate. The difference between the two rates is about £9.50 a week, which is withheld at precisely the time that that ex-soldier or ex-Marine needs support. That is despite the fact that he pays the same class A and class D national insurance contributions and the same level of income tax. As I am sure the Minister will tell us in detail, one reason for that among many is that that soldier or Marine would never have received statutory sick pay.

In recent weeks, much effort has been made to acknowledge that there is a problem. That is due to the tireless work of John "Jacko" Jackson, who works for the Benefits Agency in Bridgwater near my constituency and is an active member of SAMA 82. Recently, there has been much movement towards resolving the matter, but that has not always been the case. In response to a letter from Mr. Jackson, a civil servant at the then Department of Social Security wrote in March 1999:

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It is a common gripe among service personnel that those services outside the NHS are no longer what they were. I would say that that civil servant was harking back to former days.

In 1999, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), then Secretary of State for Social Security, wrote a letter to Tom King, the then Member of Parliament for Bridgwater, stating:

Those attitudes from three years ago might go some way to explaining the initial lack of progress.

When researching for this debate, the feedback that I received from the Ministry of Defence was that there were only a dozen or so such cases every year. I am sure that that was just a flippant remark from a civil servant, but it adequately demonstrates the nature of the problem and why it has taken the indefatigable work of people such as Jacko Jackson to get the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions publicly to announce that they are willing to try to do something. That announcement shows that things have moved on.

I acknowledge the positive letter written by the Minister on 8 June, which stated:

one year away. However, by way of caveat, he goes on to say:

I would appreciate the Minister's views on where the pitfalls may lie in the ensuing 10 months or so.

In that letter, the Minister continues:

Sadly, he adds that the PAX scheme was closed to new applicants after the way in which our country responded to the events of 11 September. I regard that as scant compensation for many in SAMA 82 and for those service men who were willing to put their lives on the line for their country and now expect their country to repay that debt. They expect their country, rather than the corporation, to be there for them.

I acknowledge that the MOD has been proactive, but I would have liked to have seen a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions here today. Every week for the past 20 or 30 weeks, I have tried to secure a debate entitled "Treatment by the Benefits Agency of Disabled Ex-service Men", so it is surprising—although I was told in advance—that a Minister from the Ministry of Defence will respond to the debate.

Why has it taken three years to highlight and bring to fruition something that should have been sorted out many years earlier, especially when the Government accept that there is a problem that needs solving? This is an example of how our service men our treated, and it demonstrates that they are treated less fairly than those who wear suits and do not, at least in the same way, lay their lives on the line for their country. I am glad that the

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debate has highlighted the plight of those who are medically discharged and who are unfairly treated compared with their civilian counterparts. We are a wealthy, well ordered country, and we should be able to sort things out more quickly. It is three years since John "Jacko" Jackson first wrote to the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions.

I acknowledge that the Veterans' Affairs Secretariat is doing its bit, but it could help further by having a dedicated armed forces liaison officer, perhaps jointly funded by the MOD, but certainly funded by some Department, who could train senior NCOs and warrant officers on what is available to those individuals who are considering leaving the forces or who are having that decision made for them. It is a pity that it has taken the Government three years to say that they are keen to resolve the issue, but too many of the Minister's words in the letters that I have seen are conditional on other Whitehall Departments getting their act together. I acknowledge that the MOD has made some great strides, but I seek cast-iron assurances from the Minister and his colleagues in the MOD that the work will be done by next April.

A broader problem remains in society, however, because we do not always adequately reflect on what these individuals do for us and for our country. The work of organisations such as the Royal British Legion, which supports the campaign, the Seamen, Soldiers, Air Force Association, BLESSMA and SAMA 82, which brought the matter to my attention, shows us that, as a society, we are not doing enough for those who are medically discharged. At a time of particular difficulty in recruiting and retaining service men in our professional Army, we are sending out the wrong message about how society will look after those who are badly injured in the service of Queen and country.

1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie) : I thank the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) for giving us the opportunity to consider the treatment of disabled ex-service men and women. Many people have no direct experience of military service, and it is easy to lose sight of the sacrifices made by many of those who served in our armed forces, as well as by their families. I welcome the opportunity to speak about the practical support and benefits provided to ex-service men and women who are incapacitated by illness or disability.

The issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised relates primarily to incapacity benefit as it affects armed forces personnel. I have been dealing with that in my capacity as Minister for Veterans, which is why I agreed that I should give the Government's response rather than a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions, as would normally have been the case. To use the standard cliché, it could be described as joined-up government. In case Ministers from other Departments are listening, I should add that the presence of the word "veteran" in the title of future debates will not necessarily guarantee that the Minister for Veterans will reply. However, I take a keen interest in the matter, and it is important that I continue with it.

Before I go into detail, I would like to pay tribute to all those who have been disabled or bereaved as a result of service to the country in the armed forces. The

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Government fully recognise the debt of gratitude owed to all those who made such sacrifices. I pay tribute also to the valuable work carried out by the volunteer and charitable ex-service organisations to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Incapacity benefit is a flat-rate national insurance benefit that is intended to provide a basic non-means-tested income to people who are incapacitated by illness or disability. As such, it takes no account of a person's particular financial needs. Incapacity benefit replaced sickness benefit and invalidity benefit in April 1995. The main test of entitlement to state incapacity benefits is the personal capability assessment, which sets a threshold of incapacity that must be met in order to qualify for state incapacity benefits.

The incapacity threshold looks at the effect of an illness or disability on a person's ability to perform a range of functions related to capacity for work. Until the medical test is completed, people receiving incapacity benefit must supply medical certificates from their general practitioner. As the hon. Gentleman said, incapacity benefit is paid at three rates: the short-term lower rate payable for the first 28 weeks, which is currently £53.50; the short-term higher rate payable between weeks 28 and 52, which is now £63.25; and the long-term rate payable after 52 weeks, which is now £70.95. Most employees will receive statutory sick pay from their employers for the first 28 weeks of their absence from work. At the end of the 28 weeks, employees may claim state incapacity benefit and receive the short-term higher rate if they satisfy the contribution conditions.

While in service, armed forces personnel continue to receive full pay. However, they are unable to claim incapacity benefit until they leave the service. If they qualify for incapacity benefit on discharge, they will therefore start at the short-term lower rate of incapacity benefit. That contrasts with the position of the rest of the population, whose time spent receiving statutory sick pay—up to 28 weeks—counts towards the short-term higher rates straight away.

The rationale for the current arrangements is that service personnel who are sick continue to receive full pay and allowances until they are discharged on medical grounds. Most receive generous occupational pensions following discharge. In addition, the armed forces control their own arrangements for certifying and dealing with sickness, which means that there is no direct link with the state schemes and the GP medical certification arrangements that underpin it. Therefore, if members of the armed forces leave due to ill health and make successful claims for incapacity benefit, the regulations result in them receiving incapacity benefit at the lower short-term rate, rather than the higher rate, for their first 28 weeks as civilians. That is because their time spent on sick leave for the previous 28 weeks could not be taken into account.

Given that social security legislation will continue to exempt members of the armed forces from the need to claim incapacity benefit while they are in the services, we shall be looking to put members of the armed forces on an equal footing with the civilian population by counting the first 28 weeks of sickness as if it had been a period of statutory sick pay.

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Further, the numbers affected by those arrangements are small. The last full year for which we have figures is for April 2000 to April 2001, when there were 1,580 medical discharges from the armed forces. The Navy has by far the most, the Army is second and the Royal Air Force has fewer than 200. Of the total, about 1,000 cases resulted from a disease. The rest were due to trauma. Of the diseases, musculo-skeletal conditions comprised half, with about 150 mental health cases.

Medical staff from the Surgeon-General's department have estimated that less than half of all medical dischargees would claim incapacity benefit and that the majority would probably not satisfy the personal-capability assessment. Despite the fact that the changes were made in 1995, the anomaly was brought to our attention only in 1999 by the organisations and Mr. Jackson. The current policy has been in place for many years. We would be keen to hear details of cases when veterans have been affected by the differing ranges of incapacity benefit, but none has been forthcoming so far. That is why the hon. Gentleman was given what sounded like a flippant reply from a civil servant; there would be few such cases. In reality, I hope that there are a few cases in which such action would take place, although I accept that there is a theoretical risk.

Mr. Flook : Does the Minister accept none the less that, by the time people work out that they may be entitled to extra benefits, time will have passed on? It is the nature of service men that they do not tend to complain about things in the past—or else many of them would not have turned up in the first place.

Dr. Moonie : I accept that absolutely. Despite the small numbers involved, we are determined to press ahead with the change. We acknowledge that the discrepancy should be rectified to allow days of service when sick to count towards satisfying the 25 weeks' requirement. I regret to say that any changes to the system, however small, will require either an amendment to legislation or complex regulations. They require changes to forms, guidance and training for Jobcentre Plus staff, not to mention computer systems—changes to which are not made lightly. It is not realistic to introduce the change quickly.

I should like to take the opportunity to explain the Government's changes to pension income rules over the past year, as they, too, have led to some discussion. Since 6 April 2001, the amount of incapacity benefit payable to a person who has a pension income is reduced by half the value of the pension in excess of £85 a week. That reflects the fact that many people now receive a pension income before they reach state pension age. The rules for incapacity benefit were brought up to date to reflect significant changes that have occurred in society since benefits for incapacity were first introduced.

The previous rules covering incapacity benefit ignored the fact that many people retired early and had occupational and personal pensions. For example, in 1953, only 28 per cent. of people received an occupational pension. Today, 86 per cent. of men in full-time work are members of an occupational or personal pension scheme, as are 77 per cent. of women who are in full-time work and 35 per cent. of women who are in part-time work. The changes affect those with the

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highest incomes. The rules for taking account of pension income in incapacity benefit mirror the rules for taking account of such income in the contributions-based element of jobseeker's allowance. However, there is a much more generous disregard: £85 as against £50 in jobseeker's allowance. Additionally, the regulations provide that only 50 per cent. of pension income over that amount is taken into account.

Personal pension income includes occupational pensions paid on cessation of employment. Armed forces service pensions paid on cessation of service are occupational pensions and are treated in the same way as other occupational pensions. That applies equally to both service-invaliding pensions, which are paid after medical injury, regardless of condition or injury or whether it happened on or off duty, and to service-attributable pensions, which are paid when the condition or injuries are attributable to, or aggravated by, service. However, war pensions paid because of disablement are paid whether or not employment in the armed services is continuing. For that reason, they are not included as pension payments. I hope that that explanation is more clear than it sounded.

When considering the legislation, the Government took the view that pension income from all sources should be included, whether provided through an occupational pension scheme, additional voluntary contributions or a private pension. To introduce a disregard for the armed forces, while continuing to take account of occupational pensions for the police and fire services, would be inequitable. The regulations provide that only pension income that a person is actually receiving is taken into account. If people choose to forgo some or all of their pension until a future date, their incapacity benefit will not be affected by the amount forgone. Pension changes apply only to new claims made for a period on or after 6 April 2001.

This is probably the first time that a Minister from the Ministry of Defence has dealt with a question about the service provided by the Benefits Agency. I welcome the opportunity because it provides a powerful illustration that the veterans initiative is working. The initiative arose from one of the wider themes of the Parliament—public sector reform aimed at achieving a co-ordinated approach and an integrated policy across government. Those words are easy for Ministers to use, but are much more difficult to deliver on.

Until now, veterans' concerns have tended to be dealt with on a single-issue basis by the responsible Department or within local government. Because of the Government's determination to provide a co-ordinated Government focus for veterans' concerns, on 14 March last year the Prime Minister announced that I would also be responsible for ensuring that veterans' issues were properly understood, appropriately prioritised and effectively addressed across Government. The appointment of a Minister for Veterans demonstrates clear recognition by Government of the special status of the ex-service community and the unique contribution that they have made to the nation.

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Three main priorities were identified for the initiative. First, we must pull together the Government's response to issues that cut across Departments, such as the assistance that is provided to address homelessness or ill health. Secondly, we must ensure that lessons learned are absorbed into the MOD's planning. We need to make sure that we have the right preventative measures in place to minimise later problems such as service lost to injury or illness, and to respond adequately to the challenges of operational stress and resettlement.

Thirdly, we should co-ordinate communication by publicising and demonstrating the full range of assistance offered to veterans by central and local government. That would ensure both that the Government receive credit for what they do and that veterans' organisations have the opportunity to represent their collective and individual concerns to the Government at ministerial level.

The issue of changes to the discrepancy in payments of incapacity benefits for armed forces and air personnel has been discussed in detail by the two new cross-cutting groups set up to help me in my work—the veterans forum and the veterans taskforce. At our last meeting in May, Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions agreed in principle to make the change. Unfortunately, they have been unable to give it a higher priority in their heavy modernisation programme because of other priorities for work with much more wide-reaching results. A clarification is being sought from the Department for Work and Pensions' legal team about whether such a change will need primary legislation, or whether changes to regulations will suffice. The timing of the change can therefore not yet be estimated.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Gulf war syndrome. I should like to correct a misapprehension that appears to have crept into the minds of those who write articles in the press about it. It will not affect the pension paid to any of our ex-service men by one penny if the illness is classified—in my opinion wrongly—as Gulf war syndrome, or if it is classified as something else. Our pensions are paid according to the degree of disability that people are suffering. The labelling of their condition has absolutely nothing to do with it. Some inflated claims have been made by journalists who really should know better, given the effort that we have put into trying to convince them in the past year or two. Pensions are paid according to disability, which is as it should be. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that; I was not suggesting that he did not.

The House will understand that whatever benefits our ex-service men and women receive, it can never be enough to repay the sacrifice of those who risked their health and well-being to defend their country. I hope that the report that this welcome debate has enabled me to present to the House gives some assurance about the progress being made by the veterans initiative to ensure that those who have given so much receive the benefits to which they are entitled. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall keep a very close eye on the matter, and that the changes will be brought in as soon as is practicable.

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