HL Deb 10 May 1994 vol 554 cc1503-19

7.35 p.m.

Earl Haig rose to ask Her Majesty's Government: what steps they are taking to promote the welfare of ex-servicemen and women; and whether they will establish a special veterans' unit within a government department to co-ordinate this activity.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am glad to have this opportunity to raise some points of concern about ex-servicemen and women. I thank all those of your Lordships who are taking part in the debate, among them the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, who is the national vice-president of the Royal British Legion. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle represents the very strong Geordie ex-service element. The three of us are descended from Sir Hussey Vivian who commanded a cavalry brigade at Waterloo. My noble friends Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Holderness were both severely wounded in the last war, since when they have been involved in government office and in work for the disabled.

Our system of support for the disabled has stood the test of time since 1st August 1919 when the Select Committee on War Pensions made its first recommendations. Those recommendations were accepted by my father with the words: I am prepared to be satisfied—and in any event I recognise that a great advance has been made". He went on to say: The fact that the state has acknowledged what is due from it should not be taken to absolve the individual from doing all that lies in his power to supplement the state's action". The system has involved a partnership between the Government and voluntary organisations, principally the Royal British Legion which represents the interests of all ranks and their widows from all branches of the Armed Forces, free of charge, regardless of whether they are members of the organisation. On their side, government departments are responsible for providing the compensations and financial support to which individuals are entitled according to financial legislation.

Due to the difficulties of old age which add to the effects of war disabilities, there is an avalanche of new cases for the appeal tribunals to deal with. Not all the appeals are soundly based, but nevertheless they have to be handled by Legion staff, paid for from benevolence money. This year in Scotland there will be a need for a second appeal court and a second appeals officer. All this work is greatly facilitated by the good relationship which exists between the Royal British Legion and the Department of Social Security. The needs of ex-service people are in many ways better provided for than they have ever been. The rates of our pensions compare favourably with those in other European countries, at a cost to the taxpayer of over £1 billion per year, now provided through the new War Pensions Agency.

Thanks to generous redundancy payments and good briefing, the effects of Options for Change have not been bad and individuals who are suffering from the change are in the minority. The Triservice Resettlement Organisation provides resettlement advice,. co-ordinates retraining courses and has established a job matching network. In addition, the Officers' Association is playing its part as an employment agency

However, because of the number of different agencies, some co-ordinating body is required. The Royal British Legion has signalled for some time the need to establish a special veterans' unit within a government department, under one Minister with responsibility for ex-service matters who would oversee the resettlement operation. The unit would act as a focus for policy-making and as an advice centre to help people to make the right approaches.

Time has passed since the last war and fewer members of the Civil Service and fewer Members of Parliament (from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence downwards) have any experience of service in the Armed Forces. Until recently, most of the civil servants and local authority staff with whom the Legion's people had to deal had served in the forces. In the early years of the Legion my father argued for staff appointments to be given to men who had been wounded or who had suffered in war, Today the situation is different. The awareness of the realities of service life has been lost. One example of a failure to understand because of a lack of personal experience was the Government's recent inability to distinguish between D-Day and VE-Day.

Given the increasing numbers of Second World War people who need help, there is a strong case for a government department to help the ever-ageing, ex-service community to deal with officialdom. Those who are close to ex-service organisations would obviously turn to them for help, but many are not: necessarily connected with the Legion, or regimental or other associations. It is those people who have a myriad of problems ranging from disability to housing resettlement who would benefit considerably from having one agency to which they could speak which would at least understand their problems.

The confusion involved in dealing with several government departments applies not just to the older ex-servicemen and women and widows but to younger people who are leaving the services and who are seeking resettlement in civilian life.

One example of a case which illustrates the need for an ex-service unit is that of the three guardsmen who suffered dreadful injuries and loss of limbs on an exercise in Canada. Their struggle to obtain rehabilitation and appropriate levels of compensation was only successful after years of campaigning, both on their own behalf and by other organisations in the service and ex-service movements. The matter was discussed in Parliament and it was that, coupled with the wide coverage in the media, which highlighted their problems and difficulties, that led to some measure of justice eventually being done.

It is our experience in the Legion that no matter how sympathetic is the war pensions Minister to ex-servicemen and their affairs the response invariably is that no funds are available to solve their problems. The Minister who went down really well at one of our conferences was my noble friend Lady Trumpington who spoke at election time and of course was unable to talk about politics. The result was that she made a speech which included some good stories that I dare not quote to your Lordships, but which went down much better than a set speech.

A junior Minister has little clout in those government departments which control government funds. The ex-service community is marginalised unless the various organisations club together in a mass lobby, as happened with war widows' pensions. There would be a greater opportunity to get things right if there were an ex-service unit to co-ordinate action, to investigate problems as they arise, and then to deal with them as sensitively, efficiently, and quickly as possible.

With regard to costs, it is the legion's view that a veterans' unit within an existing department, possibly the MoD or the DSS, would be able to provide the required expertise without the need for a second tier of administration. In the Legion's view there would even be a saving in administrative costs, and a better service would be provided. By having a co-ordinating centre for ex-service matters, individuals would be directed to the right place to deal with them without the shuttling between departments and consequent delay.

The Legion has felt that there should have been closer liaison between the Government and ex-service organisations over the changes in war pensions for noise-induced deafness. The DSS should have consulted the Legion before the announcement was made, if only to give it a chance to challenge it. Another bone of contention between the Legion and the DSS has been the introduction of legislation on smoking. It was easy for servicemen under pressure to become addicted when cigarettes were issued as part of the ration. I remember how many in PoW camps depended upon their cigarettes issued with Red Cross parcels. For some the craving became so great that the contents of food parcels were swopped for cigarettes. Some even resorted to scavenging old cigarette ends which they hoarded and re-used. The Legion felt that the new proposals to exclude smoking as a factor of service has debarred from compensation many with justified smoking addiction.

It is my view that a veterans' unit within a government department would be able to co-ordinate ex-service affairs and to focus support in directions where there is a real need. In that way, the ex-serviceman and woman would have greater confidence than they have at present that their interests are looked after. They feel that the Legion's democratic voice is not being listened to by politicians. They suffer from a sense of injustice. Some way must be found to ease the situation. Something must be done, and I hope that my noble friend the Minister who will reply on behalf of the Government will listen this evening.

Let us remember the way in which servicemen and women have carried out their duties over the year. In return, the least that we can do is to give to them the care which they need and deserve. In their turn, those who are given houses and jobs will give to their communities the same comradeship and service as that which prevailed in the forces.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, in the four minutes available to me, I shall explain one reason why I support the proposal made by my noble friend for a special veterans' unit. The unit should be small and under the wing of one department but in touch with all government departments. Because of retirement ages, there cannot now be, anyone left working full time in government departments who is a World War II veteran.

The need for better understanding was illustrated recently by the sudden and unexpected announcement by the Department of National Heritage that street parties and other local celebrations were to be organised to mark D-Day. That was unexpected because the MoD had already worked out appropriate plans, announced on 6th January by the Prime Minister, for Normandy and the Portsmouth area, where dignified events of thanksgiving and remembrance were proposed.

A veterans' unit could ensure that recent history was recalled clearly and not distorted. For example, 6th June 1944 started a period of anxiety and suspense for most of the British public. A beachhead was being won, but against many hazards, and it had to be held and reinforced by the continuous landings of many more troops and weapons in June and July. The weather would be an unknown factor, and in the event serious delays were caused for several days by stormy sea conditions. As a result, plans had to be modified; our soldiers had to withstand the arrival of fresh enemy armour; and the crucial and intense battles to break out of the beachhead were postponed by a week or more with a high price in casualties.

To recognise the full measure of achievement by Allied forces against the hazards, adversities and tough opponents at least 70 days of hard fighting in Normandy must be recalled. It took more than a month after D-Day to capture Caen, eight miles inland; and the nearby Hill 112, occupied and given up at the end of June, was not finally retaken until nearly four weeks later.

The moment for some relief and satisfaction came when the Normandy campaign ended successfully at the end of August. It was the sweeter because the Allies' rapid advance into Belgium and Holland soon put London beyond the range of V1 and V2 missiles which had first come into action that June.

There were many other D-Days in World War II, several of them later in Normandy and in the North West Europe theatre. That of 6th June was so sensational that it has provided a popular name for the 10-week campaign, "D-Day Landings". That led to an impression that the Allied forces all arrived on one day. Even the first leading article in The Times on 21st April stated: 1 million Allied troops poured into occupied Europe in a single day". That was more than six times the actual number. The Times was merely repeating a widespread misconception. However, it does not do justice to the fighting men involved or the commanders and staff coping with the difficulties arising from delayed landings. The Times published a short letter from me clarifying the situation —short because the Imperial War Museum, no less, had also written, and its letter, with precise figures, appeared with mine.

An organisation called the Normandy Veterans Association has developed recently, with branches in different parts of the UK. Your Lordships will note that they are not D-Day veterans—they are not called that —because only about one in four of them landed on D-Day. The other three do not want to be treated as if they did too. But they also had notable and perilous experiences in Normandy.

On the subject of casualties, the Allies' D-Day casualty figures were multiplied by 20 by the end of the campaign in Normandy in August. From what I have been saying, it will come as no surprise that the press reports that the Government, at the request of the Normandy veterans, have agreed to postpone any function in Hyde Park until August.

I am sure that the permanent existence of a small veterans' unit would have helped the media during the past year to get their military history right and to keep government departments informed of the feelings of the veterans. That is no reflection on the temporary unit which was set up a year ago in the Ministry of Defence to make and to co-ordinate arrangements for commemorations. It has been doing a magnificent job, but it is temporary. It is totally absorbed in immediately defined tasks.

I hope that the Government will take special care about commemorations for VJ Day. Sometimes our troops in Burma felt that they were a forgotten army. The Burma Star Association and other organisations of veterans can provide their views in good time if they are sought.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I crave the indulgence of the House. Many of your Lordships have been in the situation in which I find myself tonight; that is, having to be in two places at the same time. Unfortunately, I may have to leave the Chamber early and I hope that your Lordships will understand. Nevertheless, I wished to make an endeavour to support the noble Earl, Lord Haig. His illustrious father created the Royal British Legion and today all members of the Haig family make weekly contributions in some way to assist the Royal British Legion in every part of our land. That should be put on the record and I am proud to be able to do so.

As the national vice-president of the Royal British Legion, I wish to pay my respects to all my colleagues in this House who will contribute to the debate or who have come here today to back us up. I am grateful for that too. We in the British Legion have seen so many touching incidents. We have seen people of my own age —in their mid-seventies—who have fallen into difficulties and do not know where to turn. There is one magic phrase and it applies in Scotland, Wales., Northern Ireland and in England. It is: "Why don't you go and see whether the British Legion can help?". Often people come back and tell me, "The most wonderful thing has happened to me since I left the services all those years ago. When I had a difficulty somebody advised me to go to see the British Legion and they worked wonders". My response is, "When are you joining?"

The plea which the noble Earl made today is very important. I do not expect the Minister to give complete and absolute assurances on what the noble Earl and I have said. We know that there are men and women who have served in all branches of our British forces ands who have difficulties. If we could have more access to Ministers via an equivalent of a Minister of State life would not be easier but we could be more efficient on behalf of the members of the Royal British Legion. That is what we are after.

I beg the Minister to give those comments some consideration. I do not expect anything to be done overnight—we know that it cannot—but the noble Earl and I will settle for a reasonable assurance that what has been suggested today is worthy of any government's examination.

7.54 p.m.

Lord Holderness

My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to discuss this matter and I wholeheartedly support what he said, certainly as regards the first part of his Question. I do not imagine that any Member of this House or another place does not believe that the welfare of those who remain must be the first care of the Government. I am glad that all governments, including those in which I played some part, have made that a primary part of their policy.

I remember playing a small part on both sides in the generally friendly relationship between the government and the voluntary organisations. It is therefore of great satisfaction to me to hear an organisation such as BLESMA (British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association) expressing great satisfaction with the relationship that exists with the office of my noble friend Lord Astor, his officials and the War Pensions Agency. It has avowed that that relationship has never been better. However, in case my noble friend Lord Astor is inclined to rest on his laurels, I hope that my noble friend Lord Cranborne will point out to him that it could be better still.

For many years voluntary organisations and government have co-operated closely and that co-operation has been fruitful. I hope that my noble friend Lord Cranborne will be prepared to look favourably on a proposal which will make that relationship even more fruitful. I am not asking for a change in what is known as the statutory disregard, but it would be of enormous help to a great number of needy people who are getting quite old if voluntary organisations were able to use their considerable funds to provide more help without affecting the income-related benefits to which they are entitled.

With the help of the great organisations—that is, the War Pensions Agency, the War Pensioners Welfare Service, and more recently the Medical Discharge and Resettlement Committee which was established by the Ministry of Defence —I am satisfied that sources of help exist for ex-service people and their dependants. However, I believe that there also exists a communications problem. While giving my noble friend Lord Haig my wholehearted support, I wonder whether the special veterans' unit that he is proposing will be able to clarify the position for ex-service people any more than my honourable friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People, in spite of his tireless work, has been able completely to remove all problems of communication in his own field.

Although it sounds less ambitious and uninspiring, I believe that the problem of communication can best be solved by continuing patience, perseverance and persistence on behalf of local authorities, health authorities, the Department of Social Security and a host of other agencies across the country, not forgetting organisations such as the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux. It is there, rather than in my noble friend's chosen instrument, that the possibility of further progress lies.

7.58 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Newcastle

My Lords, as time presses and each of us has so little time in which to speak, I shall come straight to the subject which I wish to draw to the attention of the House and the Government. It is the matter of war disablement pensions and the discretion allowed to local authorities —for instance, in the calculation of council rents—to disregard the income received by holders of those pensions. I understand that the greater number of authorities exercise their discretion in favour of the holders of war disablement pensions. However, some local authorities do not disregard them, or disregard them only to a limited degree. Not surprisingly, those whose pensions are not disregarded feel a sense of injustice, which rankles for several reasons.

First, those who have been injured in the service of their country surely deserve generous treatment and, if anything, discrimination in their favour; secondly, this matter should not be left to chance, depending on one's place of residence, with some pensioners being lucky and others not; thirdly, the decisions of local councils affect pensioners who are council tenants. Being council tenants, they are likely to be people of modest means. In some instances, they receive very little benefit from their war disablement pensions. Therefore, the problem is likely to be most acute in areas in which traditionally there have been high levels of recruitment.

I am told that some councils would dearly like to be able to disregard those war disablement pensions but find themselves unable to do so on account of the numbers of people involved.

In all that, I have concentrated on war disablement pensions but similar questions apply also with regard to war widows' pensions and, indeed, all war pensions. At present discretion in those matters lies with local authorities. That works in a way which is manifestly unsatisfactory. The issues need to be addressed by some organ or limb of central government.

The Question before us mentions a unit in a government department for veterans. If there were a unit responsible for the affairs and welfare of ex-servicemen the difficulties on which I have touched would, I am certain, soon be resolved. I submit that that all adds weight to the Question which the noble Earl has tabled for discussion this evening.

8.1 p.m.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, I also support and thank my noble kinsman for bringing this matter to your Lordships' attention. Some of your Lordships will be aware that only a, few years ago, I became an ex-serviceman. Since then, I have been interested in ex-servicemen's affairs. I believe that the Government are to be congratulated on the many supportive systems which have been implemented during the past few years to deal with the great number of servicemen forced to leave the services as a result of the reduction in force levels which stemmed from Options for Change.

Resettlement courses have been of a high standard and are much appreciated. The setting up of the Forces Resettlement Group has been highly successful. Redundancy payments have been fair and welcome. However, there is a feeling among ex-servicemen and women that although a great deal is done for them at their time of departure from the services it seems to tail off rather quickly thereafter.

Some resentment already exists within the ex-service community, not just because the older members of that community are experiencing more difficulty in relation to their wounds as they grow older; not because the younger element have been made redundant through defence cuts, albeit with generous redundancy payments; but because they feel, like many of your Lordships, that cuts have been excessive and that their past sacrifices may have been in vain. They feel that the Government should take a greater interest in individual ex-servicemen or women throughout the remainder of their lives and not just when they are leaving.

Recently I have consulted a number of ex-service organisations and it is true to say that they do not all speak with one voice. Some would welcome one central co-ordinating authority with which to deal, but others are content with the existing system; for example, there is already an efficient and well-run agency dealing with war pension problems, which is highly spoken of and to which your Lordships have referred already this evening. I agree that it would be wrong to become involved in duplication of effort and consequently I believe that it would be beneficial to ex-servicemen and women and their organisations, and helpful to the Government, if one small central co-ordinating authority could be established within the DSS. That could be used as a focal point to feed in all ex-service problems.

I believe that such an agency would speed up answers to queries on problems and would probably save money in the long term. It would instil ex-service personnel with a greater confidence that their affairs are being attended to promptly and with care.

In conclusion, I should like to bring to your Lordships' attention these points. First, on balance I believe that there would appear to be a need for an ex-service affairs unit to advise, co-ordinate and act as a focal point.

Secondly, the distance in time from a major conflict makes compelling the case for a sub-department or agency to look after ex-service affairs, because fewer members of the public and senior members of government have any experience of the Armed Forces. Furthermore, appeals for help from the wartime generation are growing and are likely to do so for some years to come as those whose lives were blighted by war, through mental or physical injury or both, find those disadvantages seriously exacerbated by old age.

Thirdly, the special knowledge gained and the close contact that would be developed with the other ministries would not only lead to speedier and more efficient resolution of individual problems but would ensure also that important matters affecting ex-service people could be properly aired.

This is an opportunity for the Government to show to the whole country their gratitude to our ex-servicemen and women —young and old. Last Sunday in Hyde Park I attended the 70th Annual Combined Cavalry Old Comrades Parade where a wreath was laid and the "Last Post" and "Reveille" sounded. As always, it was a moving and sad occasion ending with those immortal words, We will remember them". This evening I ask that the Government continue to remember our ex-service personnel and create a small ex-service affairs unit.

8.6 p.m.

Lord Burnharm

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Vivian understates the situation when he says that the ex-service charities do not always think alike. But, generally, they have been pressing for a discrete department to look after "veterans", and we must be grateful to my noble friend Lord Haig for raising the matter this evening. The service charities have not served their cause well by seeming at one time to be pressing for a complete department to look after veterans' affairs and by failing even now to express an opinion in which department of state the unit should be situated.

The wording of my noble friend's Question reflects the now firm statement that it is only a unit within a department which is being sought and there is little doubt that the department concerned should be the Department of Social Security. But whichever ministry it is, it should not be the Ministry of Defence. That body, in effect, ceases to be interested in a man or woman the day he or she leaves the service. From then on it becomes a social matter. But the most important thing is that there should be a single place where all the peculiar problems which affect the ex-serviceman can be co-ordinated.

It is true that the ex-service charities are fine ones to talk about a single co-ordinating body. Goodness knows how many members there are of COBSEO—theCouncil of British Serving and Ex-Service Organisations. The Handbook for Nautical Charities, which I published at the. end of last year, lists 44 tri-service charities and a total of 165 for serving and ex-serving members of the Royal and Merchant Navies. Many of them, of course, are local and totally independent, but there is a considerable amount of overlap.

In that context, I must underline that if there is to be such a unit, the welfare of the men and women of the Merchant Navy should not be forgotten. There is no need to underline the value of that service during the war and its affairs, too, should come under the unit's remit.

I would, with respect, query one word in my noble friend's Question; namely, the use of the word "veterans". I know why he has used it. Similar bodies in the United States, Canada and Australia are described as departments of veterans' affairs. But the word gives a misleading impression of the scope of the proposed unit; or I hope it does. "Veterans" gives the feeling of gentlemen in their seventies and over who fought in the war. It is different for the United States, and to a lesser extent, Australia, whose servicemen were involved in the conflict in Vietnam.

Here, many ex-servicemen who may make use of such a unit are not veterans in that sense. Morale is low in the services because of Options for Change, and there are many problems involved in the resettlement of those who are leaving. Accommodation, particularly, curiously, for those who are unmarried, is a major difficulty and retraining, not only for the men themselves but for their wives, which has to begin long before a man leaves, is far from adequate in spite of the efforts of the Royal British Legion at Tidworth and other centres.

Other servicemen leave because of difficulties with their domestic arrangements, their physical or mental well-being or simply because of an inability to get on in service life. The solution of their problems urgently needs a single department where answers to the different situations can be co-ordinated. A service engagement is by no means necessarily long lasting—there is much short service—and those who are affected by its end are frequently young and inexperienced. That is another reason why service life is different to civilian employment.

Even if they have served in Northern Ireland or the Gulf, most of the people affected are still not veterans. Their problems are likely to be different from those affecting the men and women who fought in the war, in Palestine, Korea or Malaya. Most of those are now becoming old with problems which have arisen solely because of their service 50 or more years ago. A noble Lord drew attention to the issue of cigarettes, which were a palliative for all problems.

However, it is not only social problems that the proposed unit would aid. Many noble Lords have been distressed by the confusion which has arisen concerning D-Day celebrations —affairs which the Royal Navy wish to ignore totally, having celebrated the Battle of the Atlantic in 1993 and preferring to wait for 1995. It is hard to feel that there would have been the same problems if there had been one single unit to co-ordinate the celebrations. For all those reasons, I wish to commend the views of my noble friend Lord Haig to my noble friend the Minister and the Government.

8.12 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I should like to support my noble kinsman. As president of the Earl Haig branch of the Royal British Legion I am well aware of the problems faced by the Legion in dealing, and in many cases arguing, with 17 different government departments on a wide range of issues. I would welcome a special veterans' or ex-servicemen's unit as proposed by the Legion. I am convinced that it would not create another tier of government or extra administration but rather that it would improve efficiency.

Many countries have ex-service departments, including the more well-known ones in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Russia and the less well-known such as those in Poland and Taiwan. In Europe, France, Holland and Germany have more co-ordination within their administrations and special facilities for former service people, either through a special department or within a subsection of their ministry of defence. Legion people have visited all those countries and found the systems to be working to the benefit of veterans, their dependants and widows and to the advantage of the governments concerned.

I should like to focus briefly on the problems of veterans with noise-induced deafness. As a former serviceman who received a disablement gratuity for Army-related deafness I am very sympathetic to them. The system seemed grossly unfair as present policy is to deny compensation to those whose deafness is assessed at less than 20 per cent. That 20 per cent. is a selective, mean and meaningless figure. A former serviceman with one good ear but who is totally deaf in the other is assessed as less than 20 per cent. deaf, which means no compensation.

Another problem is where the sensory hair cells in the inner ear have been damaged. It is a common disability of my generation for those who have been exposed, without ear protection, to high velocity rifles, especially the SLR. As a result, high frequencies are lost, making conversation in many environments, even in your Lordships' House, difficult and at times impossible. As yet, no hearing aid has been invented solely to pick up high tones. In many cases the sufferer, whatever age he may be, is unemployable. However, if low frequencies are undamaged in those cases, the affliction will be assessed at less than 20 per cent., which also means no compensation. I question why former servicemen should be treated in that way. Surely independent tribunals should decide the seriousness of each case.

I must tell my noble friend the Minister that the subject causes resentment. I accept that the limit was introduced for monetary considerations. However, it was done without the opportunity of parliamentary debate. Instead it was discussed with the Central Advisory Committee on War Pensions, whose advice was disregarded.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Dormer

My Lords, I rise briefly to support my noble friend this evening. Servicemen and women have given the best years of their lives in the service of their country. In so doing they have endured hardship, separation from their wives and families and sometimes danger. When they retire they are surely entitled to a reasonable settlement in return to civilian life. I am thinking not only of a financial settlement but also of suitable and generous support in medical treatment for whatever disability they may have incurred during their service lives. From time to time some of us have thought that the provision of such medical care falls short of what might reasonably be expected in the circumstances.

I fully agree with my noble friend that what is wanted is a central body which can list those who suffer from a disability of whatever kind as a result of their service and can co-ordinate medical care for them. The country owes a great deal to its servicemen and women—a fact of which we are all being made aware almost daily. I very much hope that my noble friend the Minister will lend a very sympathetic ear to what has been said in tonight's short debate.

Lord Elton

My Lords, in the few minutes that remain in the gap perhaps I may ask your Lordships to include with the veterans their widows and their families. That would give a voice to some of the smallest groups, including the widows of those officers who retired before 1973 and who get only one-third of their husband's pension instead of one-half and those widows of post-retirement marriages who have little pension if the qualifying service was before 1978 and none if it was afterwards. I am most grateful to my noble friend for the opportunity to say that.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I should like to say a brief word on behalf of the War Widows Association to my noble friend the Minister. All my ladies are already very devoted to my noble friends Lord Cranborne and Lord Astor. Any closer association that they could have with either of them would be very much appreciated.

8.19 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Earl on the timeliness of the debate. The Government made fools of themselves about D-Day and we trust and hope that they are now searching for something really good that they can do. I believe that the noble Earl has given them the opportunity to agree that here we have a worthy object with which to commemorate D-Day.

I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, talk about deafness because I too am deaf. The Government very kindly gave me an award because they alleged that the deafness was caused by flying non-pressurised aircraft. I was very glad to accept both the money and that explanation. Deafness has great advantages on occasions because one can screw off the hearing aid during certain speeches in this House; indeed, in quite a few speeches.

However, I do not want to be nasty to the Government altogether, because I am a member of the war pensions committee. I was most impressed by the work carried out by the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, and the noble Lord, Lord Astor, were the Ministers concerned. I was quite impressed with them, but I was even more impressed by the members of the committee, who are as tough a collection of ex-service babies—if that is the correct description—as I have ever seen. They really knew their stuff. The Minister and his department really had to attend to what they said.

I am also interested in the set-up of the War Pensions Agency. Quite apart from the fact that it has published a glossy leaflet—indeed, every agency seems to—the workload is most significant. The annex to the leaflet refers to the alleged workload for next year and quotes a figure for first deafness claims of 53,000. It also refers to a figure of 34,100 for other other first claims; 32,900 for further/deterioration/invaliding claims; 9,300 for assessment appeals; and a figure of 7,600 for entitlement appeals. We obviously have a tremendous problem which that agency is tackling, I think, rather well. I think that the Government could well emulate this.

It is true that the greatest problem probably is that of the war pensioner who is now reaching an age when he needs more help, and solving it depends very largely on the voluntary bodies finding war pensioners, helping them and telling them where they can obtain the help. I trust that the Government's financial help to these bodies is substantial because they are the people who really will find out about these things.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, bemoaned the fact that civil servants dealing with this matter are now much younger. But as long as there is a House of Lords there will be work for people of our age to stand up to speak for the pensioners.

I finish on the matter of employment for people who are made redundant from, or who come out of, the services for various reasons now. In that case the service departments must busy themselves and set about arranging proper training to enable these men and women to find jobs. There is nothing worse than coming out of the services and being totally disowned and not knowing how to go about finding work or where to find it. I believe that to tackle that situation would be an admirable first step for the Government.

8.21 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Haig, for asking this Question. It is a matter of great importance, as the House will recognise, and I for my part am grateful to him. I am also, if I may say so, grateful to the noble Earl for sending me some remarks that he was going to make because it allowed me to consider my response and indeed to discuss the response that I might put to the House with my colleagues in another place.

We have a very great deal of sympathy with the thrust of the Question that the noble Earl has put to the Government. There is no doubt that we should honour and protect those who have fought gallantly and the dependants of those who have fought gallantly for Her Majesty and the United Kingdom. I do not think there is any doubt in your Lordships' House that that is a principle which we must observe. Having said that, I join with the noble Earl, Lord Haig, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, in saying that I regret, and I regret it very seriously, that the Government seem to have mixed up D-Day with VE-Day—D-Day is an occasion on which fighting men and women performed certain functions and VE-Day is the day when we should all rejoice in reconciliation, and we should have whatever spam fritters we want, but we should have parties. I regret very much that the Government seem to have mixed up the two.

There certainly is a need for better co-ordination to deal with the many areas of interest to ex-service personnel. This is particularly true, if I may say so, at a time when the rather haphazard nature of defence planning under this Government has led to a good deal of confusion and uncertainty. There is concern about the complexity of the benefits system and what I can only regard as the jungle of rules and regulations that can apply to an individual case. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, and the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, in regretting the decision to restrict the compensation available for noise-induced deafness arising from service in the forces without adequate consultation—this is the point. That is just one example of how the Government do not seem to take on board this problem.

But having said that, there are difficulties, in our view, with creating an entirely separate Department of State, as some have argued for, overlapping many existing ministries. We are considering setting up a special unit within the Ministry of Defence, with a specific Minister, to look after all questions relevant to ex-service personnel in that department. Such a specific ministerial appointment would give, in our view, status and new authority to these issues. Under the Department of Social Security the new War Pensions Directorate has just been established and we hope it will give a more focused and efficient service to ex-service personnel and their families. Nevertheless, while we are. still in Opposition, we shall continue to monitor what the Government are doing in this respect, and when in government we will not hesitate to take further action as and when that is necessary because., as I hope the Minister when he comes to reply to this Question will understand, this is not an issue which should be taken lightly, particularly in your Lordships' House.

8.26 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Haig has indeed, as many of your Lordships have recognised this evening, done your Lordships' House a considerable service in raising this Question this evening. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that every Member of your Lordships' House would insist that former servicemen and women deserve to be honoured by their country and that they should feel that part of being honoured is being treated fairly by the nation.

Indeed, the formidable and knowledgeable case made by your Lordships this evening, particularly by the manifold sprigs —if I may put it that way to my noble friends—of the Haig family, whose devotion to this particular cause I think all of your Lordships greatly admire, demands, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has already said, that we take this Question extremely seriously. I can assure your Lordships that that is indeed what we in Her Majesty's Government do. However, I have to say to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy, in spite of his assertion to the contrary, that I for one would very much doubt that the existence of a department of veterans' affairs, or even a special unit within either the Department of Social Security or the Ministry of Defence, would have made much difference to what was proposed for D-Day.

I have, as the Minister to whom matters concerning former servicemen fall within the Ministry of Defence, received and answered many hundreds of letters over the past few months from members of the Royal British Legion advocating the establishment of a department of veterans' affairs. Of course I greatly welcome this further evidence, if any indeed were needed, of the assiduity with which the Royal British Legion pursues the interests of its members, as indeed do many other ex-servicemen's organisations. I very much take the point made by my noble friend Lord Burnham. We value their advice and esteem the work they do. Indeed, we would always want to ensure that we kept open the channels of communication between the Royal British Legion and my department.

However, I must confess to a mild degree of scepticism, however much I would wish to follow your Lordships in everything that you suggest to me, as to how effective the Royal British Legion's proposal would be in improving the existing lot of servicemen and women, to say nothing of the practical difficulties of arranging the administration and legislation to make it work. Equally, my noble friend's rather more modest proposal may, I suspect, be open to the same sort of objections, if on a rather more restricted scale.

If your Lordships will allow me, I would like therefore to take advantage of the opportunity my noble friend has so kindly given me to set out Her Majesty's Government's position. Indeed I am particularly delighted that my noble friend Lord Haig recognised the efforts that the Government have made, particularly of late, in this field.

Much is often made in discussions on this important subject of the fact that other countries have departments of what they often call veterans' affairs or units of the kind that my noble friend advocates. Your Lordships will be aware that such departments tend to concentrate on providing medical services to ex-servicemen, but not exclusively. The trend in this country is exactly the opposite, as your Lordships will be aware. Indeed, we try to make sure that ex-servicemen and their dependants have full access to the health and social security services available to the population at large. That is, I would submit, a practical approach and there is a further reason for adopting it which, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to come to in a minute.

That is not to say that we do not recognise that ex-servicemen and women have special needs. Those needs are many and perhaps I may give your Lordships a few examples. The House will observe from their wide range that the Government already have in place substantial administrative arrangements which can be and have been enhanced or adapted for ex-servicemen and which it might be less effective to attempt to duplicate.

The example that perhaps evokes our greatest sympathy, and to which many of your Lordships referred, is the example of the disabled ex-servicemen. Noble Lords will know that the Government have not only preserved the preferential provisions of the war pensions scheme but have also done much to enhance it. Despite a considerably increased workload, performance in dealing with claims has improved and the War Pensioners' Welfare Service continues to provide a comprehensive service for war pensioners and their dependants. I am glad that so many of your Lordships paid tribute to the work of the War Pensions Agency, which aims to provide an even better service to war pensioners as a special group of customers.

My noble friend Lord Astor, the Minister with special responsibility for war pension matters, regularly meets and consults the Central Advisory Committee on War Pensions. He also meets representatives of local war pensions committees, and, needless to say, my noble friend and I liaise closely on these matters.

I should also like to confirm that the long-standing arrangements which enable war pensioners to be given priority when referred to the National Health Service for treatment of their pensioned disablements still apply, subject of course to the needs of emergency and other urgent cases.

To take another example, we are committed to ensuring that personnel leaving the services make a smooth transition to civilian life, to take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie. This was recognised by my noble friend Lord Vivian, and I was grateful for what he said in that respect. My department has explained to employers the many qualities that service leavers have to offer as employees. This has been supported by a number of initiatives which have resulted in many offers of job opportunities for service leavers.

All service personnel undergo a varied and extensive training programme. We provide comprehensive resettlement advice and support and an extensive range of briefings and training courses which incorporate arrangements for on-the-job training and the introduction of non-vocational qualifications. Those are elements of what I hope your Lordships will consider a comprehensive package, particularly as it includes encouragement of home ownership within the services and help for those leaving, including a new services home saving scheme and a focus for housing advice for all serving personnel and ex-service personnel who are still in married quarters. I could give other examples if time permitted.

I submit, even in the face of some of the remarks which have been made this evening, that liaison with other government departments is the right approach on this important subject. By bringing other government departments into the process rather than isolating them from servicemen's affairs, we can ensure that they appreciate the particular difficulties of servicemen and women as they try to adapt to civilian life. A new department, even a new focus devoted exclusively to ex-service affairs, could not resolve all the problems experienced by service personnel. It would be more likely to be simply a post office, passing on inquiries to those authorities, such as the War Pensions Agency and local authorities, which exist to deal with such matters directly. Despite what my noble friend said, such a department would risk adding another tier of administration to the present system and would undermine the new initiatives to which we attach considerable importance

Finally, there is a more general point that I should like to make which underpins our entire approach. As the proportion of the total population which served in the Second World War and subsequent campaigns, or indeed did National Service, diminishes—which is a point to which a number of your Lordships referred—and as the size of the services themselves reduces, we must ensure that the Armed Forces do not become isolated from the rest of our people. The history of some other countries contains examples of the problems which may arise if that happens. That is a point to which your Lordships attach importance, as I discovered when answering a recent Unstarred Question in your Lordships' House about the future of the cadet forces. Setting up machinery to deal with veterans' matters separately and exclusively may risk isolating ex-servicemen from the rest of society at a time when we are anxious that serving servicemen and women should be seen as part of national life.

It is for that reason, and the practical ones that I have mentioned, however fleetingly in view of the time constraints, that I firmly believe that welfare provision for the ex-service community should continue to be integrated with that for the nation as a whole and that our existing approach is a more practical and effective one. Of course, as your Lordships have observed, there is always room for improvement. I acknowledge that in this case there is certainly room for improvement. But I am convinced that the fundamental approach that we have adopted is a sensible one. I commend it to your Lordships' House.