HC Deb 19 December 1990 vol 183 cc415-21 12.37 am
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I am most grateful for this opportunity to deal with an issue related to that which the House has just debated. The House has been reminded that, as we approach Christmas, we may also be approaching the prospect of war in the middle east. That is an especially sombre prospect for people serving in our armed forces in the middle east, for those on their way there and for their families. But I have every confidence that they will do their duty, if they have to, in the best possible fashion.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows that, in the short time I have been in the House, I have taken an interest in the terms and conditions of service of our regular armed forces. Tonight, however, I should like to focus on our volunteer reservists, of whom I understand up to 1,500 —possibly more—may be required for service in the Gulf. I want to focus more specifically on remuneration and compensation for members of the volunteer reserves who may become casualties as a result of service in the Gulf or of ordinary training. There is an overlap, because some of the people called up for the Gulf may go elsewhere to take the place of Regulars.

The problem is an old injustice that goes back many years and is best illustrated by describing two incidents that occurred during my service in the Territorial Army. Fourteen years ago, the members of my platoon were climbing from the back of a four-tonner in Norfolk. It was a bright, moonlit night and the vehicle was parked on a broad piece of open road and showing lights, as the rules required. A drunk came driving down the road with his car headlights off and drove straight into the men climbing from the vehicle. He knocked three of them over and forced three more into a knot under the back of the vehicle. One man was crushed against the vehicle and suffered multiple injuries to his legs.

As a result of those leg injuries, that soldier was away from his civilian employment for nearly a year. His employer was a responsible company and said that it would like to make up the difference between the money that he received as a private from the Territorial Army and his civilian pay. He was training for a professional job, and there was a substantial difference between the two rates of pay. When we tried to arrange that, we found that the Ministry of Defence policy, which has remained the same under successive Governments, is that, in such cases, any money that a soldier receives from civilian employment is deducted pound for pound from his Ministry of Defence remuneration. Therefore, that man received no money from the Ministry of Defence during the time that he was away from work.

A similar incident occurred three months ago in the home service unit in which I now serve. One of my best and keenest soldiers, a man in his early 40s who had been out of the TA for some 10 years, decided to rejoin, with the rank of private. He fell on an assault course and broke his arm and will be off work for approximately six months. He had reached quite a senior supervisory level in his civilian employment, but for reasons of safety his job required him to have the effective use of both arms. His employer was willing to pay half his normal salary while he was sick, but because that is slightly more than his pay as a private, he receives no money from the Ministry of Defence.

With the Gulf crisis looming larger and many hundreds of Territorials required in the Gulf, it is essential for this matter to be reviewed. A few days ago, I quoted to my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces a letter which sets out three basic questions summarising the problem. My hon. Friend the Minister has told me that he has seen that letter. My first question is general and asks whether this system could be urgently reviewed so that injustices can be righted. I understand that there are only a few dozen cases each year and if so, it should not be expensive to put the matter right for all time.

Secondly, there is the more immediate question of what will happen in the meantime to Territorials who find themselves in the position that I have described as a result of having volunteered or been called up for service in the Gulf. For example, let us examine the case of one of my constituents who is self-employed, has therefore a high income and mortgage commitments and so on. He fully recognises that, while he is serving in the Gulf, he will have to accept some cut in income. If he returns from the Gulf with severe injuries and is unable to work for nine months, and if one of his regular contractors is willing to help him out with a payment because of a long-term contract, will the money be deducted pound for pound from his Ministry of Defence salary?

Will this unjust system apply to Gulf casualties, or, indeed, to people who suffer training accidents while filling the place of a regular soldier who is in the Gulf?

My third question is: what would be the position of a Territorial soldier who, rather than merely being off work for a while as a result of an injury, becomes disabled, is severely wounded, perhaps has his leg blown off or is made blind? It is important that we should be able to reassure anyone in that position.

I ask my hon. Friend to bear in mind two categories of people when he considers these questions. The first are those who volunteered before the order was signed. It is important, given the terms and conditions that have been extended by the sensible system that my right hon. Friend has introduced—getting the Order in Council signed, but then asking for volunteers and calling them up—that the guarantees given to such people are extended to those who volunteered before the order was signed. The other category are those who may be injured when filling m elsewhere, although they are not casualties in the Gulf.

I do not want to labour this point late at night. This is not a packed House, and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is sympathetic, as, I am sure, are all hon. Members who are present. However, it is an important issue. First, it is disturbing for Territorials who are considering service in the Gulf not to know where they stand on these matters. As recently as last Saturday, I was approached by a constituent, who is a nurse in the TA, and who is concerned about this. She is anxious to do her duty, she is worried about the possibility of casualties in the Gulf, and she wants to do her bit out there to help them. She wants to know what her position will be should she volunteer to go out there and become a casualty herself. She is happy to face that risk, but she wants to do so on a equitable financial basis.

I hinted at the second reason at the beginning of my speech. It is the longer-term fact that we are anxious, with "Options for Change", to get maximum value for money out of our armed forces, and this must mean a greater burden falling on the TA. One of the triumphs of the Ministry of Defence over the past three or four years has been the successful setting up of the National Employer Liaison Committee, and I pay tribute to the work of Tommy MacPherson and his team. It must be obvious that this is exactly the kind of issue that can only cause friction between employers, who see the Minister of Defence as being unreasonable—it is not just this Government, for the anomaly has existed for a long time—when, if they are willing to put money into the pot, the Minister then removes it.

If we want to make a success of the TA, the small sum of money involved is worth expending, to remove this source of friction for both the soldier and his civilian employer. As it happens, the soldier involved in the incident that I described, who is now recovering from his broken arm, is an exceptionally good soldier. Perhaps as a small compensation for his injury, Corporal Chatterton has been picked out for promotion, and he has bent over backwards to say nothing against the Army or the unit. Nevertheless, it is not right that his fellow soldiers should see him suffering considerable financial hardship because of his injury.

I end where I began: with the possible onset of war in the Gulf, it is important that this small but irritating and worrying anomaly should be ironed out. Territorials who go to the Gulf should not feel that they have an enormous advantage over the Regular Army but it is important that, if there is a great difference between their pay in the TA and their pay in civilian life—perhaps because they have a junior position in the TA and a senior in civilian life—and they are willing to go there and their employers are willing to help out, they will not be penalised financially if they become casualties.

I end with my three questions in reverse order. First, what is the position of the TA soldier or his naval or Air Force counterpart, who becomes permanently disabled? Secondly, what is his position if he becomes a casualty and is off work? Finally, will my hon. Friend urgently review this matter for the long term, so that this anomaly can be straightened out?

12.49 am
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) delivered his speech with admirable brevity and succinctness. He having demonstrated that self-discipline, I would not dream of making a longer speech. I shall not, however, apologise for intervening in the debate because of the lateness of the hour. It may be 12.49 am here and we may be up late, but there are members of our forces in the Gulf who will be up all night tonight and all night tomorrow night. At 4 am, as it is in the Gulf, they would regard it as less than their due if we were to be apologetic for debating such an important issue at this hour.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury on raising the matter of the pay and compensation of our volunteer forces. His interest in and knowledge of such matters is well known. I heard testimony of that yet again this evening, when I had the privilege to host a dinner for the second battalion of the Parachute Regiment. The name which came up for mention was that of the hon. Gentleman. It was possible to bring together some old comrades in arms before the debate began.

I recall that the hon. Member for Canterbury participated in a debate on the Armed Forces Bill on 21 November, which was the first debate in which I spoke from the Opposition Dispatch Box. Like us all, the hon. Gentleman gets the occasional fact wrong, but that does not detract from his considerable expertise and knowledge.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was taking up a narrow or small point. That may be true, but only in the sense that the tip of an iceberg is a narrow or small point. It represents a much larger issue that lies beneath the surface, which is the view that we take of those who volunteer to serve in our armed forces. During a week when events have underlined once again the importance to Britain of its volunteer forces, it is fitting and proper that we should be concerned about the conditions in which they operate and the protection they are afforded by the state.

The issue which the hon. Gentleman has raised is a valid one: why, when people volunteer their services to their country, should they face the prospect of physical discomfort and financial disadvantage? The present position, perhaps by anomaly rather than design, is nothing more or less than a penalty on patriotism. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is possible for a volunteer to give up a highly paid position to serve in the forces. If he is subsequently injured or incapacitated, he can—this has happened to many such people—suffer prolonged financial loss and, in some instances, financial hardship. That is the result of an anomaly in the regulations. Surely that cannot be right. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman suggested that he believes that the Government have some sympathy for his argument. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

I urge the Government to give the matter urgent consideration. I hope that the Minister will, if possible, give specific answers to the three specific questions asked by the hon. Member for Canterbury. For the purpose of brevity, I shall speak only in general terms, but I shall advance three reasons to support my argument, unlike the two outlined by the hon. Gentleman.

First, his case stands on its merits. There is an injustice and, as I have said, a penalty on patriotism, when a man or woman is penalised financially in addition to any injury that he or she may sustain as a result of volunteering to serve in the forces of the Crown.

Secondly, the anomaly requires urgent consideration. At this moment, the Government are urging volunteers to enlist in view of the Gulf crisis. Earlier in the week, they attempted to ease the recruitment of specialist volunteers —many of those people, because of the specialist nature of their jobs, are in highly paid positions in civilian life—by guaranteeing job security. Even on the most cynical approach, the question of recruitment requires immediate attention. The existence of such an anomaly can hardly be conducive to volunteer recruitment during the Gulf crisis.

There is a deeper and more worthy consideration. It would surely be unthinkable that in the awful event of, God forbid, hostilities breaking out in the Gulf, some of those who volunteer and who may be injured might face financial penalties in addition to any personal injury.

I believe that a longer-term consideration is also involved. The outcome of "Options for Change" is still unknown, but one thing is certain—whatever happens, there will be a heavier and increasing dependence on reserve forces. Incidentally, that is something that the Labour party has advocated for a number of years. It is therefore essential that barriers to volunteer recruitment, such as that anomaly, are finally swept away.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury. He and I, and, I hope, the Minister, are tonight speaking of volunteers for our reserve forces, who rarely ask what their country can do for them. Indeed, sometimes they do not even ask what they can do for their country. They just know it instinctively, and they do it. It is fitting that, in the present circumstances, we should ask tonight what we can do for them.

12.56 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Kenneth Carlisle)

It is a great pleasure to reply to this short debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on raising the matter. We all know of his close interest in matters relating to the terms and conditions of service for members of the armed forces. As a member of the Territorial Army, he is exceptionally well qualified to debate this issue, and he did so with knowledge and sincerity.

I welcome the speech of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) who made some excellent points. He also paid tribute to my hon. Friend.

I wish first to make some general points about terms and conditions in the armed forces, because that will help to place the particular points raised by my hon. Friend in a wider context. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the House on 17 December, in order to provide job protection, arrangements have been made, and legal powers taken, formally to call out all those who volunteer to serve under the Reserve Forces Act 1980. We very much hope to meet our requirements for reservists with individuals who express willingness to serve, and that makes it essential that all those who volunteer should have their jobs protected.

Members of the reserve forces are, following call-out, paid the same rates of pay as members of the regular forces, including a full X factor. In addition, they will be entitled to appropriate regular allowances such as separation allowance and local overseas allowance where appropriate. As the House is aware, the Government gave an undertaking that service personnel would not stiffer financially as a result of being sent to the Gulf.

It seemed, therefore, only right and proper that action should also be taken to protect the financial position of members of the reserves who are called out as a result of operations in the Gulf. As my hon. Friend said, in some cases, they will be highly qualified people who receive high levels of remuneration for their work in civil life. Members of the reserves will have arranged their financial commitments, such as mortgage repayments, in the not unreasonable expectation that their earnings would be fairly constant. We therefore concluded that it would not be right for them or their families to suffer in consequence of their decision to volunteer to serve alongside the Regulars.

We are therefore making available a supplement of up to 20 per cent. of service pay, and more in special cases, which will he paid to those members of the Reserves who are called up, in order to make up any difference between their civilian earnings and their military pay which their employers do not make up voluntarily.

The figure of 20 per cent. was designed to protect the great majority of members from any financial loss as a result of being called up, without going so far as to give an entirely open-ended commitment. But, as I have already said, in exceptional cases we are prepared to consider a higher supplement. [Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North would like to hear my reply, if the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) would allow him. It is difficult for me to reply courteously to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury.

I hope that the House will agree that this scheme is designed to provide a generous degree of income protection for all members of the reserve forces who are supporting the Regulars during the current crisis in the Gulf.

The service pay of the Territorial Army volunteers embodied in the Regular Army for service in the Gulf would not be prejudiced if they continued to receive money from their civilian employers. In those circumstances, however, they would be ineligible for the special pay supplement, which relates to the loss of civilian pay. That would also be the case for those volunteers who continue to receive full rates of service pay while recuperating from injuries.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has raised a number of issues relating to members of the volunteer forces injured on active service or in training. I shall, in the time available, deal with them as fully as I can.

Members of the reserve forces who are injured in training—as in the case that my hon. Friend mentioned of training in Norfolk—may be paid a disablement allowance at military pay rates during periods of total incapacity when they are unable to pursue their normal civilian employment as a consequence of their injury.

The allowance is paid in respect of loss of earnings, and lasts until the total incapacity ceases, or up to a maximum of 26 weeks from the date of injury. The rate of the allowance is equal to the military salary for the rank held by the member at the time of the injury, abated, as my hon. Friend said, by any sickness benefit received from the Department of Social Security, statutory sick pay received from his civilian employers and sick pay from public funds. Benefits such as company sick pay are also deducted, because otherwise an individual could be better off sick than working.

Should they remain totally incapacitated after six months, or in the event that total incapacity ceases before the expiry of the six-month period but there is a residual disability, they may claim a residual disability award. Arrangements are made for medical examination in order to assess the extent of the disability. An assessment of 20 per cent. disability or greater provides a weekly pension, while an assessment of lower disability leads to a lump sum payment.

If it is necessary for a member to be medically discharged because of an injury which the Ministry of Defence has accepted as attributable to service, the Department of Social Security is asked to take over the case from the date of discharge. If the DSS decides that the disability is of sufficient severity to warrant the award of a war pension, the Ministry of Defence will award an additional pension under the attributable benefits for reservists scheme.

That additional pension will be made at a higher or lower rate depending on whether or not the member loses his civilian job as a result of the injury. If the member loses his civilian job, it will be abated, according to a prescribed formula, in respect of pension benefits received from his civilian employer, but no account will be taken of benefits from personal insurance.

The disablement allowance that I described is designed to compensate for loss of earnings, but I accept that there is an element of rough justice in the system. Some individuals will gain, whilst those with larger civilian salaries will lose if their employers do not continue to pay them in full. However, I assure my hon. Friend that I understand his particular concern over abatement, which he expressed with great force, and my noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, who has particular responsibility for such matters, will review the rules as far as that is concerned.

I am sure that my hon. Friend's views will be welcome to him in that review, but the Ministry of Defence cannot take into account every shade of disparity in civilian incomes or make exact reimbursement of lost earnings.

Mr. Brazier

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. He has fully satisfied me on two points, and kindly said that our noble Friend will review the third. The problem is that, because it is a pound-for-pound abatement, the employer —if he is to help the man at all—must help by more than the amount that the MOD would pay him, in which case the MOD makes no contribution. That is perceived as extremely unfair.

Mr. Carlisle

My noble Friend will take that point into account.

I naturally hope that employers will support the volunteer forces by granting special leave for training, and sick pay, when necessary. By doing so, they will make a significant contribution to the country's defences. Many already help in that way. In return, they can gain considerable benefits from the valuable training that their employees receive.

The position of members of the volunteer forces who are embodied into the regular forces for active service is quite different. If they are injured, they will either be kept on full pay until they are restored to full health, or they will be medically discharged—in which case, they will be eligible for attributable benefits from the Ministry of Defence. In addition, they will be eligible for benefits under the war pension scheme administered by the DSS. In other words, they will be treated in the same way as members of the regular forces of the same rank, and with the same degree of disability. I believe that the provisions made in those circumstances are not ungenerous. My noble Friend the Under-Secretary will write to my hon. Friend as soon as he can.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's efforts in this area, and I assure him that we want to make our arrangements as fair as possible. I hope that he will take comfort from the review of the abatement rules by my noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces. I will draw the attention of my noble Friend to what my hon. Friend has said tonight, with his usual zest and robust clarity, and I hope that any points that I have not dealt with can be covered in correspondence with him.

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