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12.10 am

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I hope to make a speech that is rather different from those made by most Members tonight. Most of them have raised—as is their right—difficulties or worries relating to their constituencies. My purpose is different: I want to give the House some good news, which I hope all Members will use on behalf of male constituents in their early or middle sixties.

My constituent, Mr. Gordon Ashby, aged 63, falls into the group now entitled to the winter fuel payment following the ruling of the European Court on non-discrimination between the genders. On hearing that he might have a chance to claim the payment retrospectively, Mr. Ashby obtained the forms needed to enable him to make his application late in the spring of 2000. Unfortunately for him—and, obviously, for his wife—his wife became ill that year and had to go into hospital on several occasions.

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Needless to say, Mr. Ashby's energies were mostly focused on looking after his wife. The forms that he had obtained in the spring were put aside until he had a better chance to fill them in and send them off. He did not send them off until July 2001, at which point the Benefits Agency turned down his claim on the ground that it was too late: it should have been returned by the statutory claim date of 31 March.

The form did not state that there was a cut-off date for the application. A letter accompanying the form sent to Mr. Ashby, dated 5 May 2000, merely said:

Mr. Ashby allowed the four weeks to expire by a good many months, whereas the letter had merely said that it would be "helpful" for him to return the form.

When Mr. Ashby finally got round to claiming his payments in July 2001, he was amazed to find that he received his payments for the two previous years—because there was no cut-off date for those—but was denied a payment for 2000–01. It seemed logical to him that, after an initial payment had been made for earlier years, subsequent payments would be automatic, given that he had clearly reached the qualifying age. After all, sadly, none of us gets any younger as the years go by.

Mr. Ashby appealed against the decision. He went through the appeals system, right up to a tribunal. The tribunal, however—like all the earlier appeal bodies—upheld the original decision. Interestingly, in the decision made on 21 November 2001, the tribunal admitted that the explanatory note did not specify a deadline for returning the claim form. In dismissing the appeal, it nevertheless stated:

Sadly, despite that, no ex-gratia payment was made by the Benefits Agency.

In response to a letter from Mr. Ashby, who got in touch with me in January this year, I wrote to the Benefits Agency again on 5 February to raise his case. I received a reply from the Department for Work and Pensions on 14 March, but that simply reiterated the position as upheld on appeal—that Mr. Ashby's claim was disallowed because it was made after the statutory closing date.

Mr. Ashby was asked to send in the form within four weeks because it would be helpful. It was absurd that some months after that he should be told that there was a cut-off date. The next step was to take the matter to the parliamentary ombudsman, which we did on 8 April this year. By that stage, we had sent a number of letters, between us, to both the Benefits Agency and the Department; it was some eight months after the initial decision.

The ombudsman, as he always does, made some initial investigations and started talking to the Department. He has now sent me his final conclusions. I am delighted to say that he tells me that the Department for Work and Pensions has capitulated. Faced with the likelihood that the ombudsman would find this a clear case of maladministration, the Department has paid Mr. Ashby not only his £100 winter fuel payment, despite his late claim, but an extra, well-deserved £50 to compensate him for all the hassle that he has had to go through. A clear injustice has been rectified, although only after a year of trying.

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Now we come to the real reason why I wanted to raise the issue. Potentially, there are implications for a very large number of other men of a similar age, who may have been misled by the Department's failure to make it clear that there was a closing deadline for claims—a cut-off point for sending applications. I hope that we can have an assurance from the Minister tonight that he will get the relevant Department to write to all the other men whose claims have been turned down because they were late, telling them that they can have their payments after all.

The Government are always keen to claim that they will ensure that everyone who should get benefit payments of any sort does so when they are due. They must know by now who all the claimants are who have been refused winter fuel payments because they made a late application for the years concerned. I urge the Government to put their money where their mouth is and to send the overdue payments to all those who so far have been wrongly denied.

12.18 am

Patrick Mercer (Newark): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). I am sorry that the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) is no longer in the House as I thought his speech was both clear and extremely powerful. I hope to be able to follow him on an issue that is not a local matter but concerns the whole of the nation—probably the whole of the world, I regret to say.

It is clear that the much vaunted and signalled campaign in Iraq seems to be grinding inevitably into action. The United States President has made it fairly clear in speeches to West Point and other establishments that he intends to go to war in Iraq. With the departure of United States troops in Saudi Arabia, their seeking to go to other countries such as Qatar, and the rapprochement between America and Jordan, it is clear that American plans are well advanced but it raises the question: exactly where does this country stand? What decisions have been made by this country? What will be the fate of this country's men and women when and if we go to war alongside America?

I want to refer to three quotes from the Prime Minister. The first is from March this year:

The second quote is also from March:

Only last week, the Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee that the lesson of 11 September is that if there is a

It seems clear to me that our Prime Minister has made a decision that we are going to act in concert with the United States of America in a war against Iraq. In fact, our forces are already in action against Iraq. Every day, our pilots risk their lives flying over Iraq. Every day, they come under fire to a greater or lesser extent.

Our senior military officers have made it clear to naval and other audiences that war is expected in the near future. The commanding officer designate's course, run at the school of infantry for majors and lieutenant-colonels

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who are going on to command battalions and regiments, was told by a senior military source that the officers must be prepared for active service within a few months.

Our troops are in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan. I am delighted, and I pay tribute to the work done by 45 Commando Royal Marines and by the second battalion of the Parachute Regiment and the first battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment over there. The soldiers and marines are now back in this country, regrouping, we assume, for further operations.

We also hear that our garrison in the Balkans is to be withdrawn, or at least heavily run down. What exactly are the plans for Macedonia? The NATO mandate for Operation Amber Fox runs out at the end of October. It is widely supposed that the Euro-army—the European security and defence policy troops—will get their first outing at that stage. Exactly where will British involvement lie? Currently, it is planned that British numbers in Macedonia and the southern part of the Balkans will fall. Should a Euro-group go into Macedonia, surely that will mean that British numbers have to increase. That cannot fit easily with what lies ahead, one assumes, in Iraq.

We also hear that reservists have been nominated to take over from regular soldiers in Afghanistan. To my best knowledge, that has not happened since a company group of Territorials took over work in the Falklands in the late 1980s. It is a wholly unusual move for reservists to be used in a theatre that is still highly dangerous.

I want to echo the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). I am a walking example of the work of the Royal Hospital at Haslar. I may not be a very convincing instance of what it can do, but it certainly kept me up and running. I am worried by the state of the defence medical services, and he perhaps rather undersold the problem. If we are going to war in Iraq, we should have 14 field ambulances, but we have only three that are currently operational. The newspapers, at least, seem to think that a conflict is forthcoming—hence all their words about doctors and other medics standing by.

Last week, the Defence Secretary announced plans for additional defence spending. By anybody's estimate, it is a considerable tranche of money for the armed forces, not just for the war against terrorism, surely, but for whatever operations lie ahead.

I do not want to take a stance for or against the operation, but I believe that there are questions that the House needs answers to before our troops take part. For instance, what will be the size and shape of the coalition? Will only the United States and Great Britain take part? I hope not.

What form of initial settlement will there be in the middle east, before our troops sally forth into Iraq? What initiatives will come from America—and, indeed, from the Prime Minister—to solve this most difficult of problems? How will moderate Arab opinion be affected? What exactly is Iraq's involvement with weapons of mass destruction? I hear a lot and I am told a lot, but there is not actually much to see. Is there a real connection? Do we know, before the inspectors are allowed back in, what Iraq's potential is to strike with weapons of mass destruction?

What are the links between Iraq and terrorist organisations, if any? We have been told that the links between Iraq and al-Qaeda are largely assumed; they are

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not proven. What of the regime change of which we hear so much? If Saddam Hussein is indeed toppled, who will follow him? What treasure will it take from this country, and from the United States and the other allies, to prop up that regime? What guarantee have we that the next ruler will be any better than the one toppled?

I posit these questions for the simple reason that the House and the nation needs to know the answer to them before we take such measures any further. I understand that the alliance may well be sabre-rattling on a grand scale, and I applaud that. Bringing about defeat without destruction strikes me as both sensible and laudable, but I want to know the answers to these questions, and the House and the nation have a right to know them.

The last time that British troops were committed not to peacekeeping but to combat operations—in other words, when we sent 45 Commando to Afghanistan—the House was not consulted. I believe that that was wrong, and if we are to go down the route of war in Iraq, this House and the nation should have the chance to voice their opinion.

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