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The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): May I, first, take this opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces, to the staff of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the state veterinary service and other Government Departments and to the many volunteers who are working so hard to combat this disease?
The armed forces have responded speedily and effectively to various requests from MAFF for assistance. Their mission is to provide logistical and organisational support, and thereby contribute to the eradication of the disease and to the return to normality in the countryside. Military personnel have supplemented MAFF regional staff in the co-ordination and best use of contractor teams and other Government assets involved in disposing of carcases. They have also provided direct support to MAFF at other stages of the reporting, identification, culling and disposal chain and in the disinfection of premises.
Mr. Olner: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I also pay tribute to the armed forces for the work that they have been seen to have done on the ground. Given that the current outbreak is far tougher to deal with than the one that took place in 1967--that is due in part to the vastly increased number of sheep movements across the
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, in particular for his observations on the comparison between the current outbreak and that in 1967. We estimate that as many as 2 million movements of sheep might have been made before this outbreak was detected, which has presented considerable difficulties in tracking down the disease and in dealing with it. I am also grateful for his comments on the role of the armed forces, which continue to provide support to MAFF. Indeed, I anticipate that a further deployment of logistic troops will be made to Devon to deal with the backlog of carcases in that county.
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): The Secretary of State may be aware that a case of foot and mouth confirmed yesterday arose because the infection was carried on a person's clothing. Will he give an assurance that every step is taken to ensure that no infection is carried by the clothing of members of the armed forces who deal with foot and mouth infected animals?
Mr. Hoon: Certainly the armed forces that are involved in combating the disease ensure that their organisation, behaviour and individual activities do not contribute to the spread of foot and mouth. Indeed, we severely restricted training by the armed forces to ensure that they did not use land that might cause them to spread the disease.
Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about extra armed service personnel coming to Devon to add to the excellent work that they are doing from the Ministry's offices in Exeter. However, is he aware that their job is being severely hampered by the desperate shortage of disposal sites in our county--[Interruption.] Yes, Devon sunshine. Had hon. Members come to Devon, they would have the same tan.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that there are more disposal sites? What discussions has he had with other Departments and, crucially, the Environment Agency about finding more sites to deal with the desperate backlog of carcase disposal?
Mr. Hoon: Extra logistical support is being deployed to Devon and part of its effort is urgently to address the problem of disposal sites. Work is under way on a mass burial site at Ashmore, but completion is some days away. It is crucial that we clear the backlog of carcases in Devon.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): May I join the Secretary of State in congratulating the armed forces on their fantastic work? The way in which they have dealt with the problem since they were called in, and the focus that they have given to the disposal and to the need to speed up the processes, is something on which they should be congratulated.
An issue arises directly from the fact that the armed forces have been so successful. Last week on, I think,19 April, we discovered from The Guardian and other papers that Brigadier Malcolm Wood, who is responsible in Whitehall for co-ordinating the role of the armed forces, said:
Mr. Hoon: I have studied carefully the account of the 1967 outbreak and have told the House that the circumstances then were different, not least because ofthe considerable number of animal movements across the country before this outbreak was detected. The hon. Gentleman is not right to suggest that it took a month before members of the armed forces were involved in dealing with the outbreak. They advised and assisted early on. He continues to pursue his argument because he confuses the presence of the armed forces behind the scenes, in which they gave advice on logistics, with their public participation, which became necessary when the scale of the outbreak became known. Since then, members of the armed forces have been involved in extensive work to combat the disease, which they will continue to carry out.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): The Ministry of Defence claims database does not distinguish between claims from former and serving members of the armed forces. The total amount of compensation paid to serving and former service personnel in each of the past five years was£20.5 million in 1996-97, £30.2 million in 1997-98, £37.4 million in 1998-99, £40.9 million in 1999-2000 and £47.9 million in 2000-01. The last figure is provisional and subject to final validation.
There are 8,570 claims outstanding against the Ministry of Defence. Of those, 2,092 are third party motor claims, 1,981 are service personnel employer's liability and 1,451 are civilian employer's liability. A total of 2,341 of those outstanding claims are from serving and former service personnel.
Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for those figures, which prove that there is a culture of political correctness and a creeping tendency towards compensation claims in the armed forces, placing officers and those who serve under them in an extremely difficult position. Does the Minister agree that the legal liability under which the MOD will pay compensation has increased under this Government
Dr. Moonie: What I can confirm is that the number of outstanding complaints has remained relatively constant over the past four years, which would suggest that what the hon. Lady asserts is not the case. The major change came about in 1987, when we accepted full liability for compensation issues. Clearly, court decisions on human rights will have some effect on numbers as rights are established or not. Overall, however, we expect the number of outstanding claims to decrease over time as the time scales for case management introduced by the 1999 civil justice reforms take effect.
Mr. Boswell: In light of my hon. Friend's comments, will the Minister not acknowledge that the numbers are going up and that there is a prevailing climate of litigiousness and political correctness? It is essential that Ministers give no signal whatever that it is open season for compensation claims. Will he assure the House that risks will be properly and professionally managed, that claims will be handled tightly but not unfairly and that, wherever possible, losses will be mitigated through effective rehabilitation?
Dr. Moonie: I have already said that the number of outstanding claims has remained constant over the past four years, so that deals with the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question. With regard to rights, I do not see anything wrong in serving members of the armed forces, male or female, having the same rights as any other citizen in this society. We manage our claims very carefully. Where there is clearly a liability to pay compensation, we do so, and where there is not, we defend our position vigorously.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): May I ask about compensation claims arising from active service, particularly in relation to Sierra Leone? Ten members of 1 and 2 Para returned from Sierra Leone with malaria and had not been given tablets before they left, but the Ministry of Defence is giving compensation to only one of them. Why are the Government expecting the other nine to go through the courts to get their compensation? Will the 100-plus other troops who have come back from Sierra Leone with that debilitating disease be given compensation?
Dr. Moonie: The answer to the second question is no. The answer to the other is that 17 claims were made against us. We feel that we clearly have liability in one case because the person was not treated until after four or five days in theatre. In all the other cases, treatment was started prior to deployment, despite what has been said to the contrary, and we will not be paying compensation.