Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)

WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2002

COLONEL TERRY ENGLISH, MAJOR TOM HOUSE AND LT COL STEVE COLTMAN OBE

  Chairman: Gentlemen, welcome to the first public session of our inquiry. In an hour and a quarter we have about 15 questions to put to you so there is a need to be brief. I have to make a declaration of interest. I am honorary adviser to the Royal British Legion.

  Syd Rapson: I have a non-pecuniary interest to declare. I am a member of SSAFA Forces Health. I was appointed by the Secretary of State for Defence in the previous Parliament, and I assume that I shall hold that position until I retire.

  Rachel Squire: I am honorary vice-president of the Dunfermline branch of the Royal British Legion Scotland.

Chairman

  1. You have done a good job of penetrating the Committee. The review of the Armed Forces Pension Scheme was announced as part of the Strategic Defence Review. The process started in the autumn of 1998 with the intention that the review would take about a year. A review of compensation arrangements was conducted at the same time with the then Department of Social Security. The process took much longer than anticipated and the Defence Committee in the previous Parliament commented a number of times on the delay in publishing the review findings, most recently in February last year in our report on the Policy for People. We expressed the hope then that the outcome of the two reviews would demonstrate that the MoD was moving closer to being "the type of caring and effective employer" that we expected it to be. The current inquiry into the review proposals will enable us to decide whether the new schemes which the MoD is proposing meet the high standards which we expect, and which Armed Forces personnel deserve. The findings of both reviews and proposals for the new schemes were published as consultation documents in March 2001 with an initial deadline for comments by the end of July. But the consultation process in turn has been dogged by delays and, a year on, it appears that the MoD is still considering some of the major areas of the pension and compensation proposals. We will have a chance to question the Minister about this when he gives evidence next week. Today we shall be exploring with the Royal British Legion and the Forces Pension Society, as two of the key organisations representing ex-Service personnel, what they think of the compensation and pension proposals. Colonel English. would you like to make a terse introduction?
  (Colonel English) I am the Controller of Welfare for the Royal British Legion. On my left is Tom House who is head of our War Pensions Department and on my right is Steven Coltman, who is a legion member and a member of the staff of [1]BLESMA. In his final appointment in the Army he was on the Army staff responsible for preparing evidence for the compensation review. The Legion is very grateful for being invited to provide evidence to the Defence Committee regarding the MoD's joint compensation review. I want to make the point that although we are representing the Royal British Legion today, the views expressed have been considered and accepted by the executive committee of the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations (COBSEO). Therefore, we believe that they genuinely represent the overall views of the ex-Service community. In our initial comments relating to the paper, there is only one point that we wish to stress: the paper completely ignores the special status of war pensions and war widows and is seeking to put the ex-Serviceman or woman on the same level as civilians and those injured in criminal activities. That belief is the fundamental flaw in much of what follows in the paper: levels of compensation; no mention of a welfare service; and no priority in the National Health Service for those injuries received as a result of service. The status of individuals as war pensioners or war widows is important to society, and its impact should not be under-estimated. Service personnel are required to serve anywhere in the world at a moment's notice, irrespective of the local political situation, climate or exposure to civil disobedience. They are on call for 365 days a year. These factors alone differ from those involved in the emergency services, where responsibilities are usually confined to their own localities. Additionally, Service personnel are subject to military law and far harsher penalties for disobedience for minor infringements. Their social situation is also far different as they are required to move house as often as every two years and periods of long separation from family and friends are the norm. Leave, until recently, was a privilege and not a right. Ultimately, as part of their service, even on peace-keeping duties, they can be called upon to sacrifice their lives in situations that arise following government policy. These factors combined give Service personnel a very special status which should be reflected in the compensation packages available to them when their health and well-being are adversely affected as a result of service to their country. In the Legion's response to the MoD on the joint compensation review the point was made that in its current form as a package it was unacceptable and that certain key areas could be improved upon. We believe that the ex-Service community will expect nothing less for its personnel, and those who will join the ex-Service community in the future will expect to be at least as well looked after as their predecessors. I believe that the majority of other points that we wish to make will follow from our response to questions that we believe you will ask us this morning.

  2. Thank you. You have answered four of them. On the consultation process, the reviews of both pension and compensation arrangements have been characterised by delays. The MoD has now informed us that they are re-examining a number of "major areas" of the proposals and do not expect firm proposals to be put to the Cabinet until the autumn. What are your views on the message that this continuing delay sends to the Armed Forces about the relative priority that the MoD gives to their pension and compensation arrangements?
  (Colonel English) Chairman, we waited at least two years for this paper to emerge. Any further delay disappoints us. However, we believe that the war pensions scheme is robust enough to stand up to the delay. We hope that the delay has been caused by the points that we have raised with the MoD and that they are being addressed. I have been assured informally by senior civil servants in the MoD that that is the case.

Rachel Squire

  3. Colonel English, the MoD's proposals are predicated on the assumption that one scheme will be better than two. You do not appear to agree or to share that view, from the written evidence that you have given us. What advantages do you think there are in the current scheme that creates separate benefits under the war pension scheme and the Armed Forces pension scheme?
  (Colonel English) Essentially, the war pension scheme gives the ex-Serviceman or woman the opportunity to make a claim for a disability that arises through his or her service or if the condition is made worse through service, the right to claim well past the point when they leave. Only a few years ago we had people who made claims through the Royal British Legion who had served during the First World War, so I believe that the war pension scheme is robust and provides that facility. The other schemes apply more to those who are currently serving or who have recently left and provide that opportunity to start a claim while they are serving. There are aspects of that that we believe could be drawn together. We are not totally averse to a single system as long as what evolves is not worse than the systems combined together today.

  4. What do you think are the current faults of the system that we have today? What needs to be rectified? Do you think that the Government's new proposals address your concerns?
  (Colonel English) I believe that they could be moving in that direction, but as far as the scheme is concerned—without going into detail—one of the great problems, with which I think we can identify here, is the complication of trying to penetrate what each scheme means. Very often we find that Servicemen do not understand when they are entitled to a medical discharge, when it is to their advantage, and so on. As a result, they fail to initiate claims early on. As far as war pensions are concerned, the very name "war pensions" can cause confusion. Many believe that they have to be involved in a war to make a claim. As a result, they do not claim until years afterwards. I can give one example of someone claiming 50 years beyond the point when they left. That is happening every day. That is one disadvantage. Hand in glove with that goes the lack of advertising of the schemes. Some five years ago the Legion initiated a campaign of war pensions awareness. That was carried out by my colleague, Tom House, and the result was a 1,000 per cent increase in the claims that were forwarded through the Legion to Norcross. I am very happy to say, that we believe that at least 50 per cent of those were successful. It is knowing what a war pension is about and who is eligible to claim. Those two areas are the ones that I would highlight as being faults in the current system. I have to add, that we have been searching for another title for "war pension" for as long as I have been associated with the Legion and we cannot find a better one.

Mr Jones

  5. In terms of serving personnel getting to know exactly what they are entitled to and how the system works, do you think the present system is satisfactory? What suggestions do you have to ensure that people know more about what they can claim? To me that seems to be vitally important if people are to receive what they are entitled to. They should know what the system is when they join up.
  (Colonel English) Perhaps I can start to answer and then I shall ask Steven Coltman to come in as he has been very closely associated with this area recently. The most important point is to publish and to advertise the existence of the schemes and to ensure that Servicemen know what they are all about. There are aspects of personnel matters that receive regular publicity within the Services. That needs to be improved. Externally the same thing applies.

  6. When you start another job you get a pack often on the pension scheme, the healthcare benefits and so on. Do the forces have a system like that or is it left to hearsay?
  (Colonel English) Normally the Services are very good at producing packs; ensuring that people read them is the problem. I shall ask Steve to add a few words.
  (Lt Col Coltman) One of the biggest difficulties—I speak mainly from the perspective of the Army, having left it in 1999—is that when a young man joins the Army he has a tremendous amount of information overload, which is understandable, and the last thing that a young man will think of at that stage is pensions and war pensions. There has certainly been a big improvement in bringing information to the attention of those who are medically discharged, which amount to about 1,000 a year. Those are either the most seriously disabled who cannot be employed or normal recruits and the Army has quite a good pamphlet on that. That brings the information on war pensions, and in the case of those medically discharged, a link to the Service pension system, which is a link that is not well understood by many. The difficulty exists in that for many of those who are discharged normally, the information is there and sometimes it is brought to their attention, but not always. One difficulty is that very few people understand the linkage between the war pension system and either Service-invaliding pensions or Service-attributable pensions. I do not want to make it any more complicated.

Jim Knight

  7. In the opening comments that you submitted to us and repeated in the comments that you made this morning, you said that the view that underpins everything else is that clearly you see service in the Armed Forces as being different from other forms of employment in the public sector.
  (Colonel English) Yes.

  8. You say that that is not given proper account. Certainly when the Committee was in the United States recently, we noticed that their view of veterans is quite superior to the view that we take in this country. In what way are the proposals deficient in that respect? How would you like to see them changed to reflect properly the commitment that Service personnel make in this country?
  (Colonel English) Within the proposals themselves, certain things are contained in the current arrangements that appear to be omitted from the current proposals in that most importantly there is no mention of the welfare provisions provided by the War Pensions Welfare Service. We do not like the proposals to move essentially from an income stream system to a tariff-based system. We have seen the difficulties that arise there. Recently, after the South Atlantic war, for example, we had a number of Servicemen who were given lump sum payments. That was mismanaged by many and they had to come back to us, to the ex-Service sector—the charities—for assistance. We have seen the same sort of thing happen with arrangements that are currently in place. As you will know, on the Service pension side, officers up to a certain point—it is being phased out—could life-commute part of their pension. Of those who were successful in doing that, as many were unsuccessful and they are facing considerable hardship. That is an area that we believe to be weak as well. We believe that in the proposals there is inadequate recognition of deterioration of an individual's condition after they have left the Service; that is deterioration that goes beyond the normal ageing process. These are gaps in what is being proposed.

  9. We shall return to the welfare issue and the tariff issue later on in our questions. Do you think that a better way forward would be for a new compensation scheme to distinguish between injuries sustained during active service and those that occur in everyday occupations, more comparable to civilian work, possibly with higher payments for those people?
  (Colonel English) No, I think that would be very limiting on the individual. You have to bear in mind that the majority of a Serviceman's time is training for the operation in which he will take part. Probably the majority of injuries occur in training. That can happen from the outset. Recruits can damage their limbs through the high level training that they do, which is excessive to them. That can cause an injury that can last a lifetime. We would prefer to stay with the compensation given for duty in service.

  10. You do not want a distinction to be made for the nature of the work that they do, but for the fact that they have to put themselves on the line by joining the Armed Forces?
  (Colonel English) Yes.

Mr Howarth

  11. Do you believe that a Serviceman who plays football for his unit and who is injured on the sporting field should be entitled to the same benefits as someone who sustains an injury in Afghanistan?
  (Colonel English) Someone who looks at the situation objectively always picks on this point and says, "Is this the flaw in the system?" Sport plays a very important part in the training programme for Service personnel. Not only does it enable a chap to keep fit, or a lady to keep fit, but it also develops team spirit and the aggressive spirit, which is so important to the job that they are required to do. It has to be organised sport. The commanding officer has to agree that this is part of their fitness programme and it is not just kicking a ball about outside the barracks. It should be recognised as that.

  Mr Howarth: That is helpful. I shall pass that on to the Minister for Sport in my constituency. I declare an interest.

Mr Hancock

  12. That is not true, is it? I am dealing with a constituent who had an injury just mucking around on the base taking part in casual sport.
  (Colonel English) The commanding officer has to agree that the sport is organised and that it is part of the fitness programme.

  13. It is the interpretation of the rules. If it had happened while he was on holiday he would not have been covered, but because he was on the base when it happened, he is covered.
  (Colonel English) Yes, absolutely, if it was part of his training.

  14. No, it was not part of his training.
  (Colonel English) Then he should not qualify. These cases are not dealt with simply. I promise you that war pensions are not given away. A case like that would go up to the agency, and would probably go to appeal and it would be looked at with great scrutiny. I believe that the number who receive a war pension for sport is a veneer. That can act as a red herring to a real problem.

Mr Howarth

  15. Pursuing this a little further, I believe that in the public's mind there is probably a lack of recognition that taking part in a football match is comparable to active service. I take the point about sporting activity being essential to maintain fitness.
  (Colonel English) Yes.

  16. As far as you are concerned, you would make no distinction? You think that providing that it is broadly within the requirements of Servicemen or Servicewomen to take part in that activity to maintain fitness that they should be eligible for compensation?
  (Colonel English) The key phrase is "on duty". It has to be part of that programme. I say again that war pensions are not given away lightly. A case like that would probably go to review with the War Pensions Agency and the MoD would give its decision on whether or not it thought this was appropriate.

  17. What about someone who is injured while travelling to work?
  (Colonel English) I am not trying to cop out of these. I know that these are difficult areas. In cases like that, generally speaking, if the individual is travelling as the crow flies from where he lives to where he works, it is the case that War Pensions Agency will consider, and they will make a decision on, whether they consider that to be off-duty or not. I believe that the Army rules state that home-to-duty travel is not covered, but such cases are forwarded to the War Pensions Agency for decision. Very often they rule in favour of the applicant.

  18. So there is an element of discretion?
  (Colonel English) There appears to be.

  19. How would that compare with comparable civilian schemes? Suppose someone employed by Marks & Spencers was travelling to work as a shop assistant and was injured. Would he or she be eligible for compensation?
  (Colonel English) It would depend on how it happens, and what the provisions are in that particular instance. It is difficult to consider a hypothetical war pensions case, because war pensions are not given willy nilly. All the circumstances are investigated. How did the chap get injured? Was he in a staff car going from home to duty? Was there a faulty vehicle? Was the driver implicated? All those things will come into play. It would be wrong of me to give an overall judgment on that. I believe that there are circumstances in which home-to-duty travel should be covered and it has been in the past.


1   British Limbless Ex- Serviceman's Association. Back


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 9 April 2002