HC Deb 20 May 1996 vol 278 cc73-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dr. Liam Fox.]

7.3 pm

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

I am pleased to have been granted this debate and that the House has reached the Adjournment at such an early hour. That will give the Minister and me due time to consider an important matter.

The debate provides an opportunity for me to bring to the House once again the vexed question of compensation for our service personnel who were injured while serving in a peacekeeping role in Bosnia—or rather, the lack of such compensation. This issue has been raised on previous occasions, and I regret that some of my speech will repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) said in his debate about his constituent, Corporal Stott, on 5 December 1994. The record of that debate is in columns 117 to 124 of the Official Report.

I am also aware of the attempts in 1992 by the former Member for Winchester, John Browne, and Lord Swinfen in, respectively, an Adjournment debate on 31 January 1992, which is in columns 1267 to 1274 of the Official Report, and in a private Member's Bill on 9 June 1992, the report of which is in the Official Report, House of Lords, columns 1193 to 1204, to introduce the concept of no-fault compensation payments by the Ministry of Defence to injured service men.

Furthermore, I am aware that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces answered a question by hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) on 13 February on the issue of compensation to service men who had been injured in Bosnia. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury has told me that, as a member of the Select Committee on Defence, he is worried about that issue, as are other members of the Committee.

The common thread that runs through the three debates and the parliamentary question that I have just mentioned is the unswerving consistency of the relevant Defence Ministers. They have been consistently compassionate and laudatory, but they have consistently refused to alter the anomalous position of service men injured in Bosnia compared with those injured by similar criminal acts in Northern Ireland, Germany or Hong Kong.

At about 20.30 hours on 3 May 1995, Maglaj school in Bosnia was hit by a single tank round, which was fired, it was thought, by a Serbian T34 tank. That school was a United Nations peacekeeping force accommodation unit housing a detachment of our forces. Six men were wounded, sustaining a variety of injuries.

The most seriously wounded was Sergeant Trevor Walker, at that time a corporal, of 21 Engineer Regiment. Sergeant Walker, who is now my constituent, sustained serious injuries to both legs, but particularly to his right leg. For reasons of time and possibly a certain amount of squeamishness, I will spare the House a reading of the medical report by the consultant at Queen Elizabeth military hospital at Woolwich on Sergeant Walker's injuries. I can confirm that it makes horrifying reading.

As a result of his injuries, Sergeant Walker has undergone 13 operations, the last of which was in January, when, after doctors had tried for nine months to save his leg—nine months of great suffering for Sergeant Walker and his wife—his right leg was amputated above the knee. Sergeant Walker's duties in Maglaj were to help to build a road for the civilian population, a job that is done well by the Royal Engineers, whose spiritual headquarters and Royal School of Military Engineering I am proud to have in my constituency. Such projects are the epitome of peacekeeping.

There is a question whether the incident in which Sergeant Walker was injured would have happened if there had been a more robust response to a similar attack on the school building a few days before. However, an air attack response was denied by the United Nations command, and the Bosnian Serbs felt safe in making their murderous attack on the peacekeepers. I say "murderous" deliberately, for that is exactly what it was, and the initial investigation by the special investigation branch of the military police was made on the basis of attempted murder.

If Sergeant Walker had sustained his injuries as a result of terrorist activity in Northern Ireland, it is beyond doubt that he would have been entitled to compensation under the criminal injuries compensation scheme. Under the new tariff, compensation for the loss of a leg above the knee would have been substantial.

Under the Ministry of Defence's parallel scheme for criminal injuries overseas, a similar but ex gratia sum would have been payable if Sergeant Walker had sustained his injuries in Germany or Hong Kong as the result of criminal activity. If he had been injured as a result of negligent behaviour by a fellow service man, he could, since the repeal in 1987 of section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947, have sued the Ministry of Defence for negligence in the way that Private Harness was successful in doing after he was accidentally shot by a fellow soldier.

It is possible that, if Sergeant Walker's injuries had followed an accident between two Army Land Rovers in Bosnia, he would also have had a possible case for negligence. That is significant, as many of the 18 service men killed and 41 seriously injured on UN operations in former Yugoslavia to mid-December 1995 sustained their injuries as a result of road accidents.

I understand that, since that time, the injuries sustained under North Atlantic Treaty Organisation command have also tended to be from road accidents. Had Sergeant Walker been serving directly for the UN rather than for his national force—perhaps as a military observer—he would also have been eligible to receive compensation for his injuries.

I have listed the circumstances under which Sergeant Walker might be eligible for compensation for his serious injuries. My hon. Friend the Minister is likely to tell me, however, that, because Sergeant Walker's injuries were sustained as a result of war or warlike operations, or military activity by warring factions, he is not entitled to compensation. That is wrong, because it is anomalous.

When they sign on, service men understand of course that, if they are required to serve their country in circumstances where the UK is actively engaged as a combatant—as in the Falkland islands or the gulf war— they may be asked to lay down their lives or to sustain serious injury, and they will not be compensated beyond the terms of the armed forces pension scheme and of the Department of Social Security war pension scheme.

In Bosnia, however, the UK has not been and is not a combatant, and nor was the UN, whose beret Sergeant Walker was wearing during his service in Maglaj. He was building a road for the civilian population as a peacekeeper when he and his colleagues were subjected to a murderous attack, which may constitute a war crime.

Sergeant Walker is still serving, and he has been constrained from speaking out, but I have seen him as a constituent on two occasions with his wife, and they have told me their story. He still receives his Army pay, and I have no doubt that he has received and will continue to receive every proper and compassionate consideration from the Army, but his injuries may prevent his fulfilling his engagement and, if he is discharged early on medical grounds, he will qualify for all the benefits under the armed forces pension scheme and under the DSS's war pension scheme.

Sergeant Walker will receive an index-linked pension for life, together with a tax-free lump sum equal to three times the annual rate of that pension. If his disability is assessed at 20 per cent. or more—which, in view of his injuries, seems highly likely—he would qualify for an enhanced tax-free pension, as well as an additional gratuity under AFPS. My hon. Friend will tell me all that, as he did when he wrote to me on 20 February. He will also tell me about the PAX-plus insurance scheme, which is available to service men going into a hazardous theatre of operations. Sergeant Walker had contributed to PAX, and will have received payment.

What my hon. Friend will not tell me is why it is necessary for our service personnel to purchase private insurance for death or personal accident cover when they are serving in our forces as peacekeepers under UN or NATO command. He will probably not tell me why it is that, when our troops are deployed as peacekeepers, they are not told in advance that they will not be eligible for compensation if they are killed or injured during their duties.

Sergeant Walker is a fine non-commissioned officer— one of the finest in his regiment, according to his former commanding officer, who foresaw promotion, certainly to warrant officer and possibly to a commission. Sergeant Walker's career cannot have been enhanced by injuries and may have been detrimentally affected, even curtailed, although he is working hard to get fit to return to duty. In that, he has been helped enormously by his determined and courageous wife.

For the sake of Sergeant Walker and for those like him who have been injured while serving as peacekeepers, my hon. Friend must reconsider either a no-fault compensation scheme, as Lord Swinfen proposed, or making service personnel serving as peacekeepers eligible for ex-gratia payments under the MOD's criminal injuries compensation overseas scheme.

Otherwise, our forces serving throughout the world on behalf of the UN as peacekeepers—increasingly, we have detachments serving in very unpleasant places throughout the globe—will be inequitably treated if they are killed or injured. Perhaps Sir Michael Bett's review of service conditions will offer an opportunity for such reconsideration, and my hon. Friend may wish to await his report to say what he might do in these circumstances.

Our forces are without equal. They serve selflessly and heroically, not just for the UK, but in the interests of oppressed people in many lands. If, during their duties, they are tragically killed or injured, as has befallen my constituent Sergeant Walker, they have a right to expect that they will be treated as generously as if they had received their injuries as the result of terrorist action in Northern Ireland. In short, there should be absolute equality of treatment for all our serving personnel. As I said, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this subject again, but I regret the necessity to do so. Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

7.15 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) on securing this debate on a subject of profound concern not only to the House, but to the public at large. This is not the first time that my hon. Friend, who represents a constituency with a rich military heritage—I do not suppose that any other constituency in the land has a richer one—has raised the matter with me. He, other hon. Members and members of the general public have written to me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I know that my hon. Friend has a genuine, warm and real concern for the welfare of all service personnel.

Let me start by reaffirming that the safety of British forces, wherever they are deployed, is of paramount importance to the Government. In Bosnia, that is clearly something that we must, and do, take extremely seriously. I know that hon. Members will wish to join me in commending all the people who have served, or are serving, in former Yugoslavia for their courage and fortitude in just getting on with their everyday life, under what are regularly the most difficult circumstances, undertaking vital tasks in dangerous conditions with distinction and skill.

No one who has been to Bosnia in any weather, at any time, would come away with anything but the most extraordinary feeling of pride in what those young men and women have achieved. I consider myself deeply fortunate to have seen at first hand their outstanding work, both as part of the United Nations protection force and now as part of the NATO-led implementation force.

It is, of course, an inescapable fact of life that, in a theatre of operations and on the place of honour, there will be casualties. So far, some 24 UK service men have lost their lives since operations began in the region. To them, their families, friends and colleagues, we all offer our deepest sympathy. I hope that they will feel justly proud of the sacrifice made by those men in helping to save thousands of innocent lives and in the cause of peace.

It is also an inescapable and sad fact that 342 British soldiers have been injured while serving in Bosnia—some of them, like Sergeant Trevor Walker, seriously. I have immense sympathy for them and their families, and offer them my best wishes towards a speedy recovery.

My hon. Friend has referred to what he rightly considers to be an anomaly between payments made to service men injured in Bosnia and other warlike operations, and those injured in Northern Ireland. It may help him if I set out my Department's policy here, which I realise he already knows but which, for the sake of good order, I am obliged to do.

Members of the armed forces in Northern Ireland provide support to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the fight against terrorism. They are not deemed to be involved in war operations while serving there, and are subject to the normal constraints of civil law. As terrorist acts are a criminal offence, any soldier or civilian injured in such attacks is entitled to apply to the Northern Ireland Compensation Agency for the award of criminal injury compensation.

In the past four years, 1,123 service personnel have applied for compensation under this scheme. The average settlement figure in 1995–96 for the scheme as a whole was about £6,000. My Department also pays criminal injury compensation to members of the armed forces and their dependants who are victims of crimes of violence while serving overseas on a similar basis.

However, where war operations or warlike operations are in progress as a result of military activity by warring factions, as in Bosnia, the normal process of the civil law will have broken down. Operations may be undertaken resulting in death or injury, which, if committed by someone subject to civil law, would constitute a criminal offence. It would therefore be impractical to try to extend the provisions of the criminal injury compensation scheme to cover the conduct of warlike operations in Bosnia.

As I have explained, members of the armed forces who are invalided from service receive for life the tax-free index-linked benefits of the armed forces pension scheme and the Department of Social Security war pension scheme.

Turning now to the case raised so compassionately by my hon. Friend, I should like again to say how deeply sorry I was to hear about Sergeant Walker's terrible injury, which he sustained last May when his observation post in the Maglaj school was hit by a tank round. My hon. Friend will understand that I feel truly for Sergeant Walker since I have on three occasions sat in the observation post in question for long periods at a stretch, and I have probably seen the tank that did the awful damage to Sergeant Walker.

My hon. Friend will understand that I am constrained by reasons of medical confidentiality, and I cannot comment in detail on Sergeant Walker's current medical condition. I can assure him, nevertheless, that the defence medical services are doing everything within their power to help him. It is too soon, however, to say whether Sergeant Walker will be able to continue with his Army career. In the meantime, he continues to serve on full pay. I am sure that hon. Members wish him well. I join my hon. Friend in praising the courage of Mrs. Walker, who has been a tower of strength to her husband.

Should Sergeant Walker be invalided out of the service, he will, of course, be entitled to a service-attributable lump sum and pension benefits from both the armed forces pension scheme and the DSS war pensions scheme. As I have just said, service-attributable invaliding pensions are tax-free, index-linked and payable for life. I cannot say at this time what the rate of pension will be, because that will depend upon date of final discharge and assessment of long-term disability. However, some illustrative examples may help the House to understand that Sergeant Walker will be properly provided for.

A sergeant aged 30 who is medically discharged after 12 years' service, and who is assessed by the Department of Social Security as 70 per cent. disabled, would be entitled to pensions under the armed forces pension scheme and the DSS war pension scheme totalling £9,204 a year. He would also receive tax-free lump sums amounting to £19,904. The estimated total capital value of these awards, assessed over the expected life of the recipient, would be likely to be about £220,000.

A corporal aged 25 medically discharged after eight years' service, who is assessed by the Department of Social Security as 50 per cent. disabled, would be entitled to pensions from the two schemes totalling £6,548 a year. He would also receive tax-free lump sums amounting to £13,561.

I fully understand—and share—the concern eloquently expressed by my hon. Friend that the arrangements that I have outlined should be as fair and comprehensive as possible. Sir Michael Bett's independent review of the armed forces' manpower, career and remuneration structures has recommended that the level of benefits payable to those who retire or die as a result of an injury attributable to service, and the procedure for determining whether an injury is attributable, should be reviewed. My Department is currently engaged in a thorough review of death and injury benefits for service personnel as part of our work on the detailed study and development of the independent review recommendations.

As part of this work, we have considered the feasibility of introducing a special scheme whereby additional lump sum compensation is paid where death or injury arises from warlike activity. I have already explained why it would be impractical to try to extend the provisions of the criminal injury compensation scheme to cover the conduct of war operations. In practice, it would also be very difficult to arrive at a fair and defensible definition of what constitutes a warlike operation. Would a soldier employed on a humanitarian relief mission who was killed or injured because his truck skidded and fell down a ravine be deemed to be engaged in warlike activity?

Extending cover to hazardous military training would be equally difficult. Accidents can and do happen to service personnel when they are not training; and accidents can happen in training which could be shown by statistics to be no more hazardous than civilian work. In practice, it would be very difficult to distinguish between hazardous military training and other everyday service duties.

We therefore believe that the right approach is to concentrate on a review of the current rates of attributable death in service and invaliding gratuities. This review may need to include the study of a number of representative case histories. Our objective would be to ensure that these benefits properly reflect the special needs of the bereaved and the most severely disabled, in all cases where death or injury is attributable to military service. This work is now in progress. I will keep my hon. Friend and the House informed of that progress.

We acknowledge that some ex-service personnel have special requirements as a result of their service with the armed forces. Of course, we recognise the particular needs of disabled ex-service people, for example, and the Government have not only preserved the preferential provisions of the war pensions scheme, but have done much to enhance it. War disablement pensioners are given priority when referred to the national health service for treatment of their pensioned disablement, both as out-patients and as in-patients, subject only to the needs of emergency or other cases.

My Department has developed a comprehensive resettlement package, which includes an extensive range of briefings and training courses, incorporating arrangements for on-the-job training and the introduction of national vocational qualifications.

Service personnel due to be invalided out of the armed forces on medical grounds are eligible for the full range of resettlement provisions after only one year of reckonable service. That is a concessionary entitlement for disabled personnel, as the resettlement package is usually available only to those who have completed at least five years' reckonable service.

Personnel who are medically discharged are given priority over all other service leavers for places on resettlement briefings and training courses; in addition, a medically discharged service man or woman may seek further resettlement and employment advice for up to two years after discharge.

As my hon. Friend knows, the armed forces have always prided themselves on, and have long been envied for, their service family system—it is at the very core of the ethos of the service man's life. Care for serving personnel and their families is essential to the well-being of the forces. The after-care of those who have served and of their families is equally important, as is the special care that must be provided for those medically discharged, particularly the seriously disabled, and for the widows and widowers, children and parents, and the friends, of those who die in service.

The duty to provide after-care for those who no longer serve but who remain part of the wider military family, continues, as the many regimental and corps associations bear testament. We are truly fortunate to have the many service and welfare organisations, and, as my hon. Friend knows, the many veterans' organisations, including the regimental associations, the Royal British Legion—I visited West Mailing in Kent only last weekend—and others who continue to provide advice, help and support to the ex-service community with great skill and enthusiasm.

Her Majesty's Government are truly conscious of the tireless work undertaken by the dedicated teams of voluntary workers throughout the country, and of the highly professional way in which they assist their colleagues. We very much value their advice and hold in high esteem the work they undertake.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham on advancing his case on behalf of Sergeant Walker in such a measured, sympathetic and compassionate manner. My hon. Friend knew very well what I was bound to say. The situation is not as satisfactory as we would like it to be. I hope that he will be reassured by the work that we are undertaking in the course of the Bett review.

We shall continue to ensure that Sergeant Walker and his family receive the very best care that is available. As my hon. Friend so rightly said, we have first-rate service men and women, and it is not only important but critical that we do all we can to assist them when they most need our help.

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the measured way in which he has presented the case to me. I shall be happy to continue to follow Sergeant Walker's case with my hon. Friend, and I very much hope that the matter will come to a satisfactory conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Seven o'clock.