HL Deb 14 March 1994 vol 553 cc8-11

2.59 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consider what steps can be taken to improve the co-ordination between government departments in handling the problems of those disabled while serving with the Armed Forces of the Crown.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the Government keep under review the co-ordination between departments in handling the problems of those disabled while serving with the Armed Forces of the Crown. A detailed study into the welfare, rehabilitation and resettlement of servicemen and women on medical discharge from the services was conducted by the Ministry of Defence in 1991 and the work of the Services Medical Discharge Welfare Committee in particular, which was set up in 1990, was reviewed.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Does he agree that as time passes the burden of disability —the pain—becomes more serious? Does he also agree that as memories of major wars fade so there is at least a danger of a weakening of understanding and sympathy? Since there are no fewer than 17 departments handling the problems of the disabled, it would not be going too far to assume that there is room for better co-ordination and improved focus.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising this important question. He is absolutely right that the pain becomes more serious and indeed that the memories of past wars fade. The committee to which I referred in my original Answer meets every six months and brings together all those who have an input on the subject, including medical and personnel staff from the Ministry of Defence, the three services, representatives from the Department of Social Security and the Department of Health and, of course, from ex-service organisations. We are always looking at ways of improving that co-ordination. We are never perfect but we think that it is improving all the time.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I declare an interest as a war pensioner, as my father was before me, and I wish to pay tribute to the work that has been done in recent years. It is a good deal better than it used to be. There is no doubt about that. In the work that I do I come across people in the Royal Air Force who dived in their aircraft from 22,000 feet down to 5,000 feet and whose lungs increasingly get worse than they thought they were 10 or 15 years ago. Who co-ordinates the activity; who or what in government co-ordinates? It cannot be a committee meeting every six months.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the committee to which I referred is the overall co-ordinator. It delegates certain areas to departments concerned. I can perhaps help the noble Lord by instancing the War Pensions Directorate, in which he has already declared a direct interest, which formed in 1992 a body known as the Current Invaliding Group. It is a team based at Norcross which deals specifically with disabled claimants and liaises with other interested departments.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, will my noble friend issue an invitation, although it is quite difficult for him to do so, to take my noble friend Lord Peyton and the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, up to the war pensions department of the Department of Social Security in Blackpool for them to see exactly what is going on and how much better, as the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, said, the situation now is compared with 10 or even five years ago?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for that suggestion, but I think that my noble friend in the department would feel it was rather impertinent of me to issue invitations to visit government departments for which he is responsible. However, I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will have heard what my noble friend said. Perhaps he and I can both encourage him to issue that invitation and perhaps I will be able to accompany noble Lords on that visit.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, about disabilities that are worse than people thought they were apply also to the British nuclear test veterans? Is there a case for further review of their condition in the light of the onset of open government in Washington?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am sure the noble Earl will be as well aware as I am that the National Radiological Protection Board has finally issued the report which many of your Lordships were so keen for it to issue somewhat earlier than it felt able to do. The contents of that report made it perfectly clear that there was no evidence to support the very broadly held contention that the nuclear test veterans suffered any greater incidence of cancer than the rest of the population.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there are a number of war widows whose husbands served with the New Zealand forces and as a result receive a substantially smaller pension than those widows whose husbands died with Her Majesty's forces from this country? Will my noble friend do something about it? These ladies are war widows. They lost their husbands serving the Crown and they live in this country.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for drawing my attention to the plight of these ladies. I shall pass on his message to my noble friend who is responsible for these matters.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that I support the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, and by the noble Earl, Lord Russell? Will he also bear in mind a group of very loyal ex-servicemen who were disabled in the service of the Crown by alleged negligence? They campaigned against Section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act which denied them the right to sue for compensation. They were successful. But when that section was repealed the Ministry of Defence said that they would not benefit because there was no retrospective provision, even though there are many precedents for retrospective legislation. Those loyal men are deeply embittered. Will the Government look again at their claim ?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I always listen to the suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, with the keenest of interest, but I think he knows as well as I do that it is not possible for us to look retrospectively at matters of this kind; just as it is not, for instance, for matters of pensions where much the same strictures apply. I am sorry to have to disappoint the noble Lord, but I am afraid I must answer no.

Lord Annan

My Lords, is not the answer to the very pertinent question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, this: it is the duty of the chairman and of the secretary to the committee to chase problems which are outstanding. A committee cannot chase things but the chairman can, and should.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord's experience in these matters is well known to your Lordships. Certainly I fully agree with him.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, bearing in mind that the Royal British Legion has to deal with 17 government departments and that we are all finding this somewhat difficult, would he please be prepared to talk with Colonel Creasy, the secretary-general of the Royal British Legion—I am proud to be the national vice-president—to see whether some other system can evolve to help British ex-servicemen?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am well aware of the noble Lord's interest in these matters. We all admire him for it. Equally, I would certainly yield to no one in my admiration for the work of the Royal British Legion. However, I must say to the noble Lord that suggestions, for instance, for a department of veterans' affairs do not sit very well with me because I feel that in the end we are only talking about introducing another layer of bureaucracy, of which there is more than enough in government circles as it is.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for the understanding he has shown. I want to make only one point which has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Annan. Too much faith in a committee could be misplaced. One really needs the edge which can be contributed only by an effective leader.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I have already agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Annan. The chairman of the committee is in the end responsible for its actions.