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Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am sorry that the Minister has come to the Dispatch Box in a rather pugilistic mood. As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) made clear, a great many ex-servicemen and women are concerned about this issue. It is not just people outside the House who are concernedmany Members on both sides of the House are as well. There cannot be anyone inside or outside the House who fails to understand the difficulties that this Government or, indeed, any Government face in meeting people's aspirations while keeping down the tax burden or, in the case of the Ministry of Defence, remaining within budget. The Opposition, however, and many other people believe that our armed forces are different, and should be treated differently.
The Bill provides us with a great opportunity to look at all pension and compensation arrangements. We should not treat the Bill, as the Minister wants us to do, as a take-it-or-leave-it package. He is in such a belligerent mood that, if we do not like it, he will take his bat away.
Mr. Caplin: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene at an early stage, but I have made it clear that we cannot cherry-pick the scheme and expect it to remain coherent. That was the point of the cost-neutrality that I first referred to in September last year and which we debated at length in Committee. The hon. Gentleman talked about the ex-service community and people outside the House, but perhaps he will reflect on the fact that the new compensation arrangements come into effect on 6 April 2005, and do not affect arrangements made prior to that date.
Mr. Howarth: Indeed not, but the hon. Gentleman knows that the ex-service community takes an abiding interest in today's armed forces, and has a close personal attachment to them. He and I have come to the House straight from a service at St. Paul's cathedralit was extremely kind of him to give me a lift backin which we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the heroic events on the beaches of Normandy. A large number of veterans, many from the Aldershot branch of the Normandy Veterans Association, attended the service not just to commemorate the heroic events of years gone by but to demonstrate their ongoing interest in the affairs of today's armed forces. The Minister, who has responsibility for veterans' affairs, will have learned of that interest from his discussions with veterans, as I have in my role both as shadow Minister and as the Member of Parliament for Aldershot.
The Opposition believe that the armed forces should be treated differently. I accept that the Bill is cost-neutral, as the Minister said, and that the new arrangements are driven by cost-neutrality. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) will
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confirm, when the Defence Committee was first appraised of these matters by Ministers, the expression "cost-neutrality" was not used, and appeared only late in the day. We should not be driven by the Minister's self-imposed constraint, because that was not the MOD's original position. It was only because it lost out in the battle with the Treasury that it had to impose a cost-restraint straitjacket on the new measures.
Members on both sides of the House will recognise the tremendous work carried out by the Royal British Legion on behalf of the veterans' community in providing representation for people seeking compensation and in campaigning on veterans' welfare issues. I am sure that the Minister is at one with me on that. In constituencies up and down the country, hon. Members recognise the vital role played by the Royal British Legion. Equally, Members on both sides of the House will share my disappointment at the shabby way in which the Government have treated the Legion during the passage of the Bill. What can only be described as open warfare spilled out in exchanges in another place. Everyone in the House would concede that our debates can become frenetic and even rebellious, but the Lords tend to debate contentious issues in a more measured fashion. It is therefore all the more astonishing that Lord Bach, the Minister in the other place, was treated to a severe roasting from Labour peers, including a former Minister, who turned on the Government over their sniping at the Legion. Lord Morris of Manchester was well known in the Commons as a Minister with responsibility for disabled people, and has spent a lifetime, Members on both sides of the House will concede, seeking to look after the interests of the most vulnerable people in society. He is a doughty campaigner in the other place, where he said on 8 September at column 572:
"The Legion's legal adviser has told my noble friend that there has been no meaningful discussion whatever."[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 September 2004; Vol. 664, c. 572.]
The exchanges in another place on 15 September make interesting reading. Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, formerly the MP Robin Corbett, moved an amendment, and began his contribution by accusing Lord Bach of "misleading" the Lords about the position of the Royal British Legionhis word, not mine. Both here and in the other place, the Government have sought to give the impression that the Royal British Legion has been unwilling to compromise on the burden on proof, and that its stubbornness, along with the alleged stubbornness of the Opposition, have threatened the implementation of the new scheme.
There has been an attempt to blackmail the Royal British Legion and the Forces Pension Society, which the Minister continued today. He suggested that the Government were acting reasonably in making three changes, two of which were requested by the Defence Committee and the Opposition, so should not be regarded as extraordinarily generous dispensations to the Royal British Legion. It has been told that if it and the House do not accept the changes, and if the Lords do not accept the package on offer, that is the end of the deal. Of all the new benefits that will be available, the most significant is the increase in the death in service benefit from 1.5 times salary to 4 times salary. That is one of the biggest benefits that will be brought about by the changes, which are not so much on compensation as
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on the pensions side, but if the package is not accepted, the Government will withdraw the Bill and that will be the end of the story. That is not grown-up politics.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention to the threat that the Minister made. He said that if we failed to disagree to the amendment, he would withdraw the Bill. For those of us who served on the Standing Committee and can think of any number of good reasons why it would be better to see the back of the Bill, does that bring those reasons into the scope of the amendments, so that we can achieve the very prospect that the Minister has held up in front of us?
Mr. Caplin: I am grateful. On the three points, the extended time limit was discussed between the Royal British Legion and the Ministry of Defence in the run-up to the launch of the scheme in September last year. The agreement to report to Parliament annually was an initiative that I took as the Minister for veterans, along with my noble Friend Lord Bach. The second point, concerning exceptional review, was part of various discussions between ourselves and the British Legion. It is rather disingenuous of the hon. Gentleman to suggest that we have not been discussing these matters with the British Legion for some time. I have correspondence going back to 3 December 2003 about the compensation scheme. We are debating only the compensation scheme. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said, but he is confusing compensation and pensions. As I made clear in my opening remarks, we have not transferred money from one to another. Both schemes will be rebalanced within themselves to make good and effective schemes for the future.
Mr. Howarth: I accept what the Minister said about not transferring any savings to be made out of the compensation scheme to the pension scheme, so let us leave that on one side. But I do not want the Minister to get away with the idea that he has been extraordinarily generous to the Royal British Legion in accepting these changes to the compensation scheme. They were argued by hon. Members in all parts of the House and by the Defence Committee. The Minister is trying to say how carefully the Government have listened to the British Legion and responded. Yes, indeed, that was part of the Legion's pitch, but the point was made by many other people as well. The Minister should not claim that he has given the Royal British Legion a thoroughly decent hearing. On the big issue with which the Legion is concerned, the Government have made no shift at all.
I know that hon. Friends of mine and other hon. Members wish to participate, so I shall pursue my remarks. We and the Royal British Legion have attempted to achieve a more equitable balance in the
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burden of proof. We have been open throughout to the double standard compromise proposed by the Defence Committee, where both parties would have to make their case on the balance of probabilities test, with the onus resting on the Government. The Government would have to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that the claimant's injury or ailment was not attributable to service, and the claimant would have to prove on the same standard that it was. Only when both had gone against the claimant would the claim fail. That seems a reasonable compromise.
It is the Government who have proved so resistant to compromise. They dismissed out of hand the Defence Committee's proposal, and refused even to sit down with the Legion and representatives of the veterans community to work out some kind of compromise. The Minister says from a sedentary positionI will save him interveningthat that is not true. The fact is that he has been intransigent on the possibility of compromise. He has simply said that the scheme will cost £200 millionwe are now told £300 millionand that's it. No deal. The Minister is about to tell me otherwise.
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