HL Deb 11 June 1997 vol 580 cc934-64

6.21 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy rose to call attention to the case for extending public awareness of the availability of pensions and compensation to ex-service men and women and their dependants in respect of injuries or impairments attributable to service in the Armed Forces; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on her appointment, and I am glad that she is to reply to this debate. She and I have taken part in many debates from different positions in this House, on social security, health and especially on disabled people. I wish the noble Baroness all good fortune. She is now in the same field as that which she shadowed but she now has to provide the answers instead of putting the questions and complaints. I expect to continue asking questions from this side of the House.

Two debates in your Lordships' House have drawn attention to situations affecting ex-service men and women. Three years ago, a debate was initiated by my noble friend Lord Haig, who I am glad to see is to speak today. In January of this year, a debate was initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde. Both of those debates were time limited to one hour so that except for the first speaker and the Minister, the speakers were restricted to about three minutes each. I am glad to say that today, with two-and-a-half hours, we can more easily raise matters within the Motion without being cut off in full flow.

I am grateful to those intending to speak. I mention in particular the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. We have known each other for many years and have participated in many a debate in both Houses of Parliament. The noble Lord joined the other place seven years after I did and he could then hear me before he was struck by deafness. On all sides of the other place it was hoped that he would decide to continue in Parliament and we were delighted when he bravely took that decision. He has recently submitted himself to a comparatively new treatment for hearing impairments and that has encouraged others. He tells me that he can now hear me again faintly but that I sound like a Dalek with laryngitis. I am glad too that my noble friend Lady Strange is to speak because of her position in the war widows' organisation.

I must declare an interest as a war pensioner. I was severely wounded 52 years ago, just before the ceasefire in Europe the day before Hitler committed suicide. I then spent a long time in hospital. I had started to be a regular in the Army just before the outbreak of World War II. I have since been involved with disablement subjects of all kinds and have kept in touch with other servicemen and in particular those in the area of Northern Scotland where my home is and which was also my constituency. For most of the war, I was in a Scottish infantry division which had been in the Territorial Army before the war, including the Scottish field battery that I commanded. Some of the units were recruited from my area; for example, Seaforth and Gordons. Therefore, although 50 years ago a medical board pronounced that I was no longer able to carry out military duties, I hope that I have managed to keep in touch with service matters.

The main subject raised in the two previous debates was whether a special unit should be established in the Ministry of Defence or Whitehall to deal with ex-service matters. At present, about 17 government departments are involved which leads to confusion and duplication for individuals and the voluntary organisations. I shall not concentrate on that today but I merely make an inquiry.

The then Labour shadow Secretary of State for Defence is recorded as having stated towards the end of last year that a Labour Government would set up an ex-service affairs unit. That was the right honourable gentleman, Dr. David Clark, who is now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Is anything now being planned by the Government in that direction? Some of us were surprised when the new government appointments were made last month that for the first time for 23 years, no Minister with responsibility for disabled people was designated. We naturally wonder whether a Minister or a unit is now intended by the Government for ex-service people's problems.

Two changing situations have affected former members of the Armed Forces and those now still serving. First, as regards former members, their numbers are dwindling because World War II ended as long as 52 years ago. During that war, the Armed Services were at their maximum number since World War I. The Army was a citizens' army and the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force were at very high strengths. Numbers have been decreasing. I shall illustrate that with an age example. A 20 year-old serviceman at the end of World War II in 1945 will now be 71 or 72 years old. The large majority of wartime service men were older than that. Many of those who survived World War II have since died from natural causes or for ordinary reasons. It is not surprising that the membership of the Royal British Legion is reported to be declining. That is a reflection of the passage of time and the fact that there has not, mercifully, been another world war.

The total number of ex-service people is declining for natural reasons and that is only to be expected. However, that is no reason for reducing or relaxing the arrangements for pensions and compensation. Those who have served in our Armed Forces in a variety of circumstances—long service or short, in war or peace, in distant lands and seas or near home—merit continuing care and attention as individuals. I draw particular attention to those still alive today who were prisoners of war of the Japanese and who endured severe hardship and cruelty for nearly four years. I am glad to learn that other speakers are to say more about prisoners of war during the debate.

The second changing situation applies to our present Armed Forces. The numbers have been reduced, largely owing to the end of the Cold War. We still need fully trained and operational units in all three services prepared for the most modern forms of warfare, although we must hope that they will never have to be used for a major war again.

Our forces have to carry out also very different tasks. For example, one is peace-keeping, usually by lightly armed soldiers standing between, and separating, opposing military groups. There is also a special duty in Northern Ireland, unfortunately made necessary again when the ceasefire ended.

I shall not go into arguments about whether reductions have gone too far or whether units are over-stretched by commitments and probable calls for other deployments. In this changing situation I also urge the Government to ensure that there are adequate, fair and rational arrangements for pensions and compensation for those now serving who will in due course become ex-service men and women. There have been schemes at times encouraging early retirement—the equivalent of golden handshakes—when contraction was required. Such schemes should be administered with clarity and with plenty of notice given.

On service pensions, I hope that the Government will try to avoid the anomalies which have justifiably given rise to grievances. For example, at a time of high inflation—and 1977 was the prime example—those who retired received less than expected because a pay freeze had limited their final salaries. At the same time, someone of the same rank who retired two or three years earlier did better because his pension, which was already being paid, was increased by over 17.5 per cent. following the retail prices index. While we hope never to see galloping inflation of that kind again, to be fair to our forces now serving, they must be given confidence in their future both while serving and afterwards.

The last war in which this country was involved was the Gulf War, six-and-a-half years ago. It might have caused many battle casualties. In the event, there were very few—about 10 British for which we are thankful. I need not remind the House that casualties occurred of other kinds and that illnesses and "the syndrome" have persisted. At Question Time last week, I was glad to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, confirm that the number of cases still to be examined were down to about 120. I declare a small interest in that respect as one of my sons was in Operation Granby. He was flown to the Gulf at two days' notice that August (when Saddam invaded Kuwait) by the MoD, because of his previous service in the Middle East and his fluency in Arabic. In a Highland regiment, he went as a lieutenant colonel in a staff job and stayed for eight months. I was able to see him off. His main baggage when he left this country was a massive anti-chemical warfare suit and his bagpipes which go with him everywhere.

As regards ex-service people, the most serious cause of misunderstanding to which I must draw attention is the fact that the description of "war pensions" is used for all forms of compensation arising from disabilities or ill-health incurred in peace time, as well as in war, while on duty with the Armed Forces. Many war pensioners have never been involved in a war or hostilities of any kind. They fully deserve generous disability pensions. It is the description of "war pensions" that misleads. Moreover, the agency which makes these payments is at present named the "War Pensions Agency".

The term "war pension" is not only inaccurate because it includes many peacetime impairments of health, but it is also emotive for those who do not realise that it does not apply only to wounds or injuries received in war time. I have suggested instead, "Armed Forces disability pension" and the agency could be renamed accordingly. That would help the media and the public and would also be fairer to ex-servicemen and women. We have been fortunate in avoiding a world war for over 50 years. Conflicts since the war in Korea have produced few war disabled in comparison to the world wars.

A reply in Parliament to a Question tabled by me a few months ago stated that it is now virtually impracticable to distinguish recipients of what are known as "war pensions", between those resulting from service in war time operations and those arising from service unconnected with a war. I have therefore made my own estimate. From my knowledge and experience, I judge that well over half of the war pensions now being paid are to the second category, involving people not connected with any war. They are due compensation and are fully deserved. I shall give your Lordships an example. A soldier in barracks in Britain in peacetime, performing a task on duty, falls off a ladder and breaks a leg. After retiring he suffers serious arthritis from the accident. He rightly qualifies for compensation, but it is called a "war pension". The unfortunate effect of this is that some ex-service men have not applied. Indeed, I know cases of that kind where, when told that he may be entitled to a war pension, a retired serviceman has not pursued the matter. He thinks that that cannot apply to him because he has not been near any war and has served only in Britain in peace time.

Misunderstandings can also arise over war widows. Their eligibility for pensions covers fatal accidents on duty, in training or other peacetime activities. They should of course be awarded generous pensions. What appear to be unusual situations can arise. For example, if the soldier that I mentioned on the ladder had been killed as a result of his fall and was aged 22, he would have left a widow aged 20 who would have been described as a war widow, although she was only 14 at the time of the Gulf War—the last war in which there were British war casualties. In contrast, most of the public and the media consider that the term "war widow" denotes the wife of a man who lost his life in war time operations, probably in World War II and who is probably now in her seventies.

I am conscious of the time that is left to me, but I simply want to say that my message to all ex-service people is to apply for a pension and other payments if they have any reason to think that they could be eligible. I advise them not to be deterred by the word "war". I hope that the Government are considering changing the name. However, if that is found to be too difficult, even though the word "war" is becoming increasingly irrelevant as time passes, I hope that more can be done to spread the facts on eligibility. I am, nonetheless, concerned by reports that nearly 20,000 cases are waiting for War Pensions Appeal Tribunal hearings, with possible delays of up to two years.

My advice to applicants is, "do not be disheartened or despair". These tribunals can be understanding and generous. I have here the example of a war pension approved under the system. It relates to someone who did his national service in the Royal Air Force in the 1950s. He hurt his knee playing football for his squadron. Many years later his condition deteriorated. He was then awarded a pension—called, of course, a war pension—which I consider to be justifiable compensation, though some may not. Although there was intense and vigorous rivalry between his squadron and the unit that they were playing against, I understand that it did not amount to war. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

6.37 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to cross swords with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, but it is an even greater pleasure to fight on his side as I do tonight. I should like, first, to thank the noble Lord, for the very kind personal words that he addressed to me in his speech. Secondly, I should like to congratulate him on bringing forward a Motion of such tremendous importance to ex-service personnel and on giving the House the opportunity to discuss this most important subject.

In fact there is no substitute for personal experience. The noble Lord obviously speaks from deep personal experience with his very distinguished war record. We are all familiar with it and we all admire it. We also admire the way in which he advocates the cause of ex-service personnel. Of course the noble Lord speaks on many other subjects, but on this issue he is regarded as an authority. We are delighted that he has tabled such a convincing and, indeed, moving case today.

I hope that my noble friend the Minister will recognise the arguments put forward by the noble Lord. Lord Campbell, first, about the need for ex-service personnel to apply for pensions and, secondly, about the nomenclature of calling such things war pensions. Indeed, it is not only absurd, it is also misleading and induces people not to apply for them.

The best reason for this debate is that the Royal British Legion—rational and experienced advocate of the rights of disabled ex-service personnel—believes that large numbers of ex-service people are unaware of their entitlement to pensions for disabilities or medical conditions. The British Legion has campaigned on this issue and it has had some considerable success but it still believes that there are many more people who are unaware of their entitlements. That is totally unjustifiable. This House now has an opportunity to do something about that. I believe that unless that concern can be met there is a case for addressing the Government and the public to persuade them to try to do something.

I have a high regard for Colonel Terry English and his colleagues in the Royal British Legion. However, it must have been much easier for them to campaign after the war when people's memories of the war were vivid. There was great public awareness of the mass slaughter during the First World War—that was part of my childhood—and people were brought up with the terminology of Passendale, the Somme and Verdun. After the Second World War it was very much the same. However, fighting now is of a different nature. The services are concerned more with preventive activity rather than with fighting dramatic wars. That activity is less visible but it is no less important. The British Legion believes that the distance of time from the major wars means that fewer members of the public and the Government have experience or understanding of these issues. The British Legion is quite right in that regard.

It is a matter of real regret that at a time when public interest in these problems is falling, appeals for help from ex-service men to the British Legion are growing because their injuries are being exacerbated by old age. It would be a terrible irony if some of the young men who defended us in the early part of this century were left defenceless in old age. It is incumbent upon Parliament and the country to make sure that these men who were our saviours in the early part of the century should not be spurned at the end of the century. They are entitled to our consideration. But this can happen only if we win more understanding from the public and from the Government. I believe that that understanding should be two-pronged. It is not just the public who should understand the position, there is also a need for understanding on the part of the ex-service personnel themselves of what is available to them. There are many ways in which Parliament can help.

First, we should recognise that the nature of awards is changing. Yesterday I referred in the House to a landmark judgment by the Law Lords that can affect claims for benefit of many disabled people. Those people need to know about the new and improved law. Like the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, I, too, believe that they should be encouraged to apply for the benefit. If they do not apply for it, they will be deprived of their legitimate rights. There is now wider consideration of the implications of disability. Rather than focusing on the necessities of existence, people now seek a fuller, more normal life for disabled people. That is not before time.

Similarly, events relating to ex-service personnel are moving quickly. Service related disability is no longer so blindingly obvious as in previous years. Nowadays it is not always a case of bullet wounds or loss of limbs. Often it is a case of damage to the nervous system which shows itself later. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, has said, the classic examples are Gulf War veterans and also nuclear test veterans. Much more is known and understood about the Gulf War. The use of organophosphates, vaccinations and possible leakages of poison gas are being investigated, and, it is to be hoped, more speedily and sympathetically under this Government than was the case before. As more evidence emerges, ex-service personnel should be encouraged to apply for pensions or compensation where appropriate.

A number of us, including the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, have actively campaigned for a long time in another place and in this House on behalf of nuclear test veterans. Things now look brighter for those veterans, especially after the European Commission on Human Rights recently found that the convention had been violated and said that, satisfaction should be given by Government". That issue has now been referred to the European Court of Human Rights.

Another issue that we need to watch and eventually act upon is the government review of medical evidence on noise-induced deafness of ex-service personnel. Has my noble friend on the Front Bench considered that matter since our previous exchanges in the House? What has she done about it? Can she tell us anything about that matter today to take us forward? If we agree that ex-service men need more information we must agree that it was a retrograde step by the previous Government to stop sending out reminders to return claim forms or to seek increases in entitlement. I go further. I think that was a shabby and disgraceful step on the part of the previous Government which deliberately impeded the capacity of ex-service personnel to claim entitlement. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, will be able to find half a second to comment on that rather disgraceful step of impeding ex-service personnel. I also hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, will be able to comment on that matter as I believe it was one of the worst actions taken by the previous Government as regards ex-service personnel. I hope that it will be reversed by the present Government.

I also hope that the Government will accept the Royal British Legion's proposal—ably advocated by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean—for an ex-service affairs unit at the Ministry of Defence. That has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. The knowledge and expertise of such a unit would be invaluable in informing ex-service personnel of their entitlements and in focusing public attention on these issues.

I think that the House is broadly agreed on the need to do something for ex-service personnel. Their injuries are different from most disabilities because they were incurred in the service of the nation. We should lean over backwards and always give them the benefit of the doubt and urge them to apply and keep on applying—and issue reminders when they do not apply—for their entitlements. If that involves bureaucracy and problems for civil servants and Ministers that is just too bad. The ex-service personnel are entitled to make their applications for benefit. They have the right to do that. We owe a debt of honour to service personnel. This debate is a wonderful opportunity for us to articulate our views. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. I thank him again for initiating the debate and I look forward to hearing a response from both Front Benches in this House.

6.49 p.m.

The Earl of Effingham

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for introducing this important subject in the Chamber today. I must declare interests. I am an ex-service man and I work for the Royal British Legion, the country's leading ex-service charity. We receive no financial help from the Government and are able to provide assistance and advice only because of the generosity of the public through donations to the annual poppy appeal. I am responsible for managing 39 county field officers in England and Wales. These officers co-ordinate welfare work, promote year-round fundraising and assist the Royal British Legion's pensions department with claims, war pensions disregards and local authority matters.

In 1995, the nation celebrated and commemorated the Year of the Veteran, the 50th anniversary of World War II. I know that I repeat remarks made by the noble Lords, Lord Campbell and Lord Ashley; however, I believe that what I am about to say is important. There are among our veterans those who are unaware of their entitlement to a war disablement or war widows pension. We believe the figure not to be measured in hundreds but thousands. The 1994 "Legion Awareness Campaign" reported "the missing millions" and culminated in the biggest rise in applications for war disablement pensions ever received by the Legion.

From Gallipoli to the Gulf, Burma to Bosnia, or wherever or whenever one served, if still suffering from an injury, wound or medical condition related to service, a claim can and should be made. There is no time bar, except that a successful claim will be paid only from the date the claim was lodged. By reaching the remaining thousands the debt will have been paid. The War Pensions Agency is responsible for administering the war pensions scheme. Decisions on policy remain firmly with Ministers.

The war pensions welfare service takes the War Pensions Agency into the community. Its responsibility towards war pensioners and war widows does not end with the award of pensions and allowances. The underlying purpose of its work is to help them meet and overcome the difficulties and stresses occasioned by their disablement. The service was therefore created to give pensioners advice and assistance on any matters which concern their welfare and with which they need help. It works closely with statutory and voluntary bodies, such as those concerned with bereavement, and also with local authority social services and housing departments. Welfare staff will also be in touch with the Armed Forces authorities and the various ex-service organisations such as the Legion and the Soldiers', Sailors' & Airmen's Families Association. The service also works closely with war pensions committees, which take a keen interest in the welfare needs of the pensioners in their areas.

The war pensions committees meet three or four times a year. They will hear and consider complaints made by persons receiving or claiming a war pension, supplementary allowance or war widows pension. If they think fit, representations about the complaint will be made to the Secretary of State. County field officers now co-ordinate the operation of obtaining replacement Legion members on war pension committees when vacancies occur. They also serve on local committees themselves.

As I am sure your Lordships are aware, there is no national government policy on total disregard for war and war widows pensions. The Legion has always maintained that these pensions are not state benefits as such but compensation for loss of amenity or the death of a husband in the service of his country. Therefore, they should not be categorised as income and should be totally disregarded for the purposes of entitlement to housing benefit and local authority charges. These authorities are obliged by statute to disregard £10 of the war pension, £10 of the war widows pension and £62, which is the supplementary pension to those widows whose husbands served prior to 31st March 1973. Circumstances and local authority policies change, but it is estimated that around 90 per cent. of councils now apply a total disregard. The remaining 10 per cent. apply either the statutory minimum or a local scheme.

The Legion has campaigned for many years for a national policy on total disregard, also for a substantial increase in the levels of disregard in the absence of such a policy, based on a retail price index as applicable to war pensions and allowances. The position has improved at local level thanks to the efforts of both Legion formations and field officers, who have managed to persuade a number of authorities to adopt a more generous attitude to the war pensioners and war widows resident in their counties.

Some claimants and appellants for war and war widows pensions have used the services of solicitors, for which a fee is charged. In recent years, solicitors have become more involved in war pensions casework, probably in consequence of the large rise in claims for noise induced deafness. The majority of cases were successful and were often rewarded with a lump sum gratuity. Now, as a consequence of legislation, no such gratuities are paid and many claimants are exercising their right of appeal. Several firms of solicitors are advertising their services and offering representation at tribunals.

Solicitors who act in such cases are not acting outside the law. Indeed, in other compensation cases legal qualifications are mandatory in the actual litigation process, the Legion usually acting as a go-between. Having said that, however, an assessment appeal is decided on the medical evidence rather than the powers of advocacy of the representative, which cannot increase the minimal effects of deafness.

Many noble Lords will be aware of the new changes governing deafness entitlement and the controversy these have caused. The Legion has welcomed the promise, made by the new Minister for war pensions, to hold an independent review of all the medical evidence. However, the Legion is conscious of the cost of current appeal procedures and the need to avoid unnecessary cases through positive counselling. That would save considerable sums of money which could be used more effectively in other areas of welfare.

The Legion's pension department now handles the majority of war pension claims and appeal cases. The Legion and other ex-service organisations are currently in the process of publicising the fact that these specialist services are free of charge, though donations are welcome. The efforts of county field officers in assisting with this publicity, particularly in those areas where solicitors are involved, is warmly commended and appreciated.

However, in the final analysis it will be for each individual claimant and appellant to decide whose services to use. The Legion's task is to ensure, wherever possible, that the individuals concerned are aware of the options available.

I trust that the House will forgive me for presenting some statistics. In 1995–96 the Legion handled some 58,200 cases, of which 10.181 were new; 2,913 claimants were represented at appeals tribunals to prove entitlement and 2,893 for assessment. The Legion represented 84 per cent. of the total 6,902 tribunal cases and 54.8 per cent. of entitlement appeals were successful; 483 new cases, claiming compensation against the Ministry of Defence for negligence, were activated. The cost of this service was in the region of £865,000 and donations from those who were helped amounted to approximately £65,000.

In conclusion, the Royal British Legion provides a free help and advisory service for all ex-service men and women and their dependants seeking war and war widows pensions and associated allowances. It also provides free representation at war pensions tribunals.

The Legion considers that there is a strong case for a national scheme for a total disregard. But the fact remains that local authorities in England and Wales continue to have discretion as to whether they choose to apply more generous disregards for these categories of pensioners.

Benefits and allowances to enhance war pensions are not automatic. Even if qualified for benefit, it is up to the individual to claim. Therefore a potential claimant must have access to information so as to realise his full entitlements. The War Pensions Agency must work in tandem with the Legion. Desk-level, day-to-day administration operates very well, but I believe that the real problem lies with the policy-makers, who must extend public awareness of the availability of war pensions. My Lords, has the debt been paid?

7 p.m.

Earl Haig

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for initiating this debate. He has devoted many years to public service, in spite of his war disablement. I share with many of your Lordships a great admiration for his wonderful courage. He made a good speech, with which I concur and which covered the subject fully.

I was interested in the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Effingham. It is good that an official of the British Legion is a Member of this House. He speaks on behalf of ex-service people from the horse's mouth.

I congratulate the noble Baroness. Lady Hollis, on her appointment as Minister with responsibility for war pensions. Her responsibilities include all the Scottish ex-service men and women, with whom I too have been actively involved over the years. She succeeds a long line of Ministers whom I have known, amongst them women such as Miss Margaret Herbison and my noble friend Lady Trumpington. I am sure that her task of stewarding the work performed by the War Pensions Agency and the various voluntary ex-service organisations will be rewarding to her. Among them are the Royal British Legion Scotland and the Earl Haig Fund Scotland which runs the poppy appeal in Scotland. I assure her that we shall give her a very warm welcome when she comes to Scotland.

The noble Baroness and I share neighbouring coat pegs. Until recently her lovely hats cheered up our dark corner. I hope that the burden of her office will not mean an empty peg below her name.

On the subject of her office, I believe that the noble Baroness would benefit from the support of an ex-service affairs unit established within the Department of Social Security. At present the War Pensions Agency publishes a number of excellent pamphlets with instructions about how and where to apply for pensions. However, these are not enough to inform all those numbers of ageing veterans whose wounds and disabilities make life hard for them. They should have a co-ordinating point where they can go for advice about pensions and welfare.

Perhaps I may remind the Minister, as have preceding speakers, that in a recent debate her party, while in Opposition, supported the idea of a special unit, as did my noble friend Lord Howe on behalf of the Government. Is that idea still on the government agenda?

On the subject of pensions, all the proposals in a package of improvements to legislation made by my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish in April were very welcome. Those included proposals to create the automatic right of a widow to a war widow's pension if her husband had been 80 per cent. disabled. I pay tribute to my noble friend for his splendid work on behalf of ex-service men and women. I know that among the ex-service community in Scotland he is extremely popular. Thanks to his efforts and those of his predecessors, most of the unfair anomalies of the past have been removed.

Looking to the future, ex-service men and women must be able to rely on pensions which will give them a sense of security and which will be adjusted according to the cost of living. This is particularly important for men and women leaving the forces who also need guidance over problems with housing and jobs. The right of ex-service people to war preference over pensions and medical care is self-evident. This goes hand in glove with good communications—as the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, said—and full information when it comes to serious disablement resulting from battle or military service where modern weapons and technology are concerned.

All ex-service people should be entitled to social benefits on the grounds of the particular nature of their service. As the British Legion has put it: They are required to serve anywhere in the world at a moment's notice and permit themselves to be subjected to almost any measures that will safeguard the interests of the nation. In the preparations and training for any dangerous activity their health can be subjected to pressures and conditions not experienced by other groups". The legion is particularly concerned about two issues which have been raised by your Lordships and which need to be addressed with some urgency as they have dragged on for far too long. The regulations about noise-induced deafness, which were changed by my noble friend Lord Mackay on 5th December, need to be looked at again. The Prime Minister has agreed to an independent review of the changed criteria.

Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness for information on three points. First, when is the review to start? Secondly, in addition to Professors Lutman and Davis, who have been consultants over hearing cases, who will be the other members of the review team? Thirdly, when does the noble Baroness expect the team to be in a position to report?

The other problem which needs redressing concerns the disregard of war pensions when paying council house rents. That matter was also mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Effingham. Although this is not an issue in Scotland as local authorities there disregard war pensions over housing and other matters, in the rest of the country many ex-service people are affected. This disregard should be mandatory on all local authorities. Your Lordships pressed the previous Government on this matter many times. The legion calls on the Government to introduce a statutory national 100 per cent. disregard. I hope that, if she cannot give a positive answer this evening, the Minister will at least take the matter away and look at it.

Apart from those two particular needs, I believe that ex-service people are well cared for by the state. There will always be small anomalies in ex-service matters but I am sure that, if the present system which has evolved over the years is maintained by the Government, there will be no grounds for serious complaint. We in this country have a good welfare system, whose costs to the taxpayer have to be carefully husbanded. It is vital that, when any reforms to the system are considered, the present level of support for ex-service men will continue.

My noble friend Lord Campbell and the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, referred in their speeches to those who were disabled in the services but not in war. I would refer in particular to overseas ex-service men who did fight in war for our freedom and who do not deserve the poverty which they suffer today.

Last year my sister, Irene Lady Astor of Hever, my wife and I were privileged to attend the 75th anniversary conference of the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League in Cape Town in the presence of Prince Philip and President Mandela. The opening ceremony took place in the same hall where the founders, General Smuts and my father, sat in 1921. The League continues to provide much needed aid to impoverished ex-service men who fought under our flag. It is supported by our own funds, by the Army Benevolent Fund and other service funds and by the larger constituent organisations from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and ourselves. It is good that wars, which brought such suffering to the Empire and the Commonwealth, have provided a real feeling of goodwill. I have attended a number of conferences over the years and have always come home enriched and inspired by the delegates I met and by their spirit of comradeship. This is a reminder that, providing we get the matter of welfare right, we are cultivating an asset which brings great benefit to society as a whole.

7.10 p.m.

Lord Sempill

My Lords, I must apologise for deviating from the main thrust of the Motion this evening. But the subject that I wish to raise is totally appropriate. It was raised again in this weekend's Sunday Times under the headline: Forgotten POWs await the millions they were denied". As we seek to extend awareness and debate the issue of compensation to ex-servicemen and women and their dependants in respect of injuries or impairments attributable to service in the Armed Forces, I wish to highlight an outstanding issue of compensation to the National Ex-Prisoner of War Association and the Justice for Prisoners of War group.

I do not believe that this debate can be concluded without the realisation that there is an outstanding debt to many thousands of servicemen and their dependants for their contribution and subsequent incarceration in the defence of this realm and the liberty of many others over 50 years ago. Many of them, my father included, have since died. The issue of their derisorily low pensions and lack of compensation has been discussed before. It was reviewed and rejected in the early 1980s. However, owing to the persistent and, I may add, dogged actions of certain individuals determined to see justice done, the issue is being reviewed again and, I am reliably informed, is soon to be resolved. Therefore, I wish to take this opportunity to reinforce their claim for compensation. I bring to your Lordships' attention a debate in the other place on this subject on 15th January this year. It was generally accepted that, however the situation arose, however complicated it may be and however many years may have passed since then, it is straightforward: people serving in the country's Armed Forces were not paid the money due to them. That is the current position and it must be resolved.

A matter of principle is at stake. When we ask men and women who serve in the forces of the Crown to undertake certain risks, an obligation is placed on our government, regardless of their political persuasion, not just to provide them with resources to complete their tasks and minimise their risks but to take care of them should they suffer as a result of those activities. In this case, the obligation, 50 years after the events took place, appears never to have been discharged.

What is the cost of that compensation? According to a City accountancy firm quoted in the very same article that I mentioned earlier, it could amount with interest to some £90 million, a sum which the former prisoners of war believe is unlikely to be paid, especially in view of the new Government's intention to hold down public spending. However, I believe that a reasonable sum could be found—dare I add, from the lottery or other sources?—to compensate if not the remaining few then some appropriate service charities.

Finally, I take this opportunity to quote from the speech of the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces in the debate that I mentioned earlier. He concluded the summation of the debate by saying: I acknowledge the sense of what has been said by all who have spoken today, and the admirable way in which hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed the feeling that this is a debt of honour that must be resolved, that the work must he finished and that there must be a satisfactory outcome".—[Official Report, Commons, 15/1/97; cols. 256–257.] I therefore request the Minister please to update this House on the current situation regarding this issue and the likely date on which her Government will provide a satisfactory outcome.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for raising this issue. He is always a stalwart supporter of our Armed Forces and their pensions and I am honoured to speak in his debate. I should also like to support what my noble kinsman Lord Effingham said about total disregard. It is particularly pleasing to have someone in this House from the Royal British Legion who is so supportive of the war widows.

The War Widows' Association of Great Britain has for some time been seeking a way of publicising the recent changes in legislation, brought in by the former Conservative Government, which may affect war widows who will now qualify for a pension. Despite all the publicity which we and other ex-service organisations mounted at the time of the Victory Widows Campaign in 1995, we are still finding widows who are not aware that, as a result of the end of their second or subsequent marriage either through death or divorce, they are now eligible for reinstatement of the war widow's pension. This gives me a chance to say to the ladies out there to whom this could apply, or if there is someone who knows that such a person could be entitled, "Please apply to the War Pensions Agency."

Secondly, changes in legislation brought in by my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish (who, I may say, is also very popular with the war widows) which came into effect on 7th April this year mean that widows of war pensioners who were in receipt of an 80 per cent. war pension and where unemployability supplement was also in payment now have an automatic right to a war widow's pension. Widows of such war pensioners in the future will be notified by the War Pensions Agency. But widows whose husbands have already died are not recorded by the agency. So, unless the information is widely publicised, many current widows will not be aware of their eligibility.

There is a limit to the publicity that the ex-service community can give. I am now trying to extend this knowledge to as many ladies out there as I possibly can. Like the lottery fingers, I am pointing in their direction: you, too, may be entitled to a war widow's pension! If you believe you are, write to the War Pensions Agency.

Finally, I believe also that there is a need for a government-sponsored scheme to advertise these changes. Otherwise, many widows may be unaware of the benefits that they can justly claim. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, may consider doing something about this.

7.18 p.m.

Lord Napier and Ettrick

My Lords, I intervene only briefly in this most important short debate this evening, as I wish to highlight one particular problem in the War Pensions Agency, where I believe there is room for improvement. It concerns the delays that can take place in the agency when it is reviewing cases.

I am sure we all agree with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, that every possible effort should be made to bring to the attention of all those men and women who are so entitled their rights to pensions and compensation. But I have to add that, even when that has been acknowledged, it is not necessarily the end of their problems.

I must declare an interest. I receive a war disability pension, and I must apologise to your Lordships at the outset if I talk rather too much about my own experiences. It is because of my personal dealings with the War Pensions Agency that I am aware of the problems.

Over 46 years ago, after a somewhat arduous six-day patrol on active service in the dense jungles of Northern Selangor in Malaya, I suddenly and literally collapsed in a heap, unable to move. I subsequently discovered that I had been poleaxed by infantile paralysis, or poliomyelitis as it is more commonly known today. Some eight years later I retired from the active list of the Regular Army, because I knew that I had a residual disability and that I could never again be given that military medical grade FE—fit for everywhere.

In 1961, after a bit of a tussle, I was awarded a modest, but nonetheless most welcome, war disability pension. In those days it was £85 a year; it is a bit more today. But some of your Lordships may not be aware of what happens thereafter. From time to time, usually at intervals of about four or five years, one receives a letter from the Pensions Agency saying that it has been decided to keep the assessment of one's disablement at whatever percentage it is for a further period of years. But they do add that if the individual thinks his or her condition has deteriorated—perhaps with advancing years—he or she should say so and the case will be looked at again. That is where the problems can arise. The delays can be horrendous.

One is told that a review may take two to three months, six months, a year or even longer. After six months, during which time eight or nine computer driven letters have been received, I am absolutely no wiser as to when I will be seen by an agency doctor or go before a medical board.

I have to say that, while I am sure they do not intend this, both the Ministry of Defence and the Pensions Agency can give the impression that their job is to put up a barrier and to give away as little as possible. That in itself can have a depressing and frustrating effect on the disabled applicant. Of course the Pensions Agency must carry out its checks and balances; but I question whether such delays are conducive to instilling in the disabled individual a feeling of confidence in the whole system and its organisation. Are those delays really acceptable? I can wait, but I know there are hundreds of others less fortunate than I who certainly should not.

No blame for that state of affairs should be laid on Her Majesty's Government, who, after all, have only just assumed office. But, believing as I do that we may now have a caring government, particularly in this field, I ask the Minister who is to reply whether she will be kind enough to have a look at this particular problem to see whether there is any way in which procedures can be speeded up and thus greatly assist many deserving cases that have been left out in the wilderness for too long. Some of them may be coming towards the end of their days.

In conclusion, perhaps I may say how much I agree with what my noble friend Lord Sempill said.

7.23 p.m.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, on behalf of many surviving prisoners of war, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for resurrecting this debate—an issue upon which my late father spoke in 1981 and 1982. My father's first-hand experience—having been wounded at the Battle of Knightsbridge Box and imprisoned in Italy before escaping and fighting behind the lines for 15 months—led him to be a responsible and honourable supporter of claims such as those made by Group Captain Ingle, querying a shortfall in refunded income of prisoners of war.

Your Lordships may remember the great celebrations held in this country to mark the 50th anniversary of VE-Day and VJ-Day. The capital outlay and the cost of the hours lost at work—national holidays—ran into millions of pounds, but that was a justifiable recognition of what had been won for us—freedom, free speech and freedom of choice.

But who won that freedom? Many of your Lordships sitting in this noble Chamber deserve the gratitude of my generation and every generation since the last world war. "Time dulls the memory" so they say; not a bit of it! While the country celebrated victory in 1995, there were some, like Group Captain Ingle, who has already been mentioned, whose happiness was tainted by memories of despicable treatment in prisoner of war camps and the on-going dishonourable treatment of his like by governments and civil servants who are benefiting from the freedom for which he fought.

Protected personnel—prisoners of war—received money from the detaining powers as a matter of right under the 1929 Red Cross Convention, to which Great Britain was a signatory. As officers in Italian prisoner of war camps had to pay for part of their meals, the Italians paid that money out. But that did not happen throughout the world war zone and appellants such as Group Captain Ingle and Captain Bracken harbour regressive grievances against civil servants in the Ministry of Defence for sending reports to the Minister about applicants' cases for just treatment without even allowing applicants the opportunity of vetting a report's contents. The contents were taken from written evidence and were often highly inaccurate when related to prisoner of war conditions thousands of miles away.

Another grievance is the evident bad manners displayed in responding to claims made by ex-prisoners of war; even a letter of acknowledgement is better than nothing. Group Captain Ingle submitted a claim in 1995; the report landed on the Minister's desk the day that Parliament was prorogued.

Bearing in mind the millions of pounds spent on the 50th anniversary celebrations in 1995, we ask the newly appointed Minister of State for Defence Procurement, Dr. John Reid, to recognise that outstanding debt of honour to the long-suffering ex-prisoners of war.

7.27 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I too express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for bringing this debate before the House. I am not sure that I am awfully grateful; he does it so well and stirs the conscience so that one feels a little guilty that one has not done more.

I too receive a war pension, though not for very much. Mine is one of the deaf cases caused by flying too high in an unpressurised aircraft due to a craven desire to put as much space as possible between oneself and the hostile natives on the ground. I therefore receive a small pension which is very welcome. I hope that it will continue for a number of years and that I will draw it until I am 100 or thereabouts.

But that is one of the problems that faces the noble Baroness, in that in normal times and with the advancement of medicine, far from decreasing, I understand that the need for pensions to care for the old becomes greater as time goes on. The trouble is that not enough of us die off. Perhaps the noble Baroness can say what the projection is as to when the pensions for the First World War will begin to decline; I believe they are still rising.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, wanted to change the name. That would be an appalling mistake. If one is to change anything, one should call it the War Pensions and the Armed Services Disability Agency, but the greatest weapon in the hands of a Minister is the term "war pensions" in fighting his or her corner for money from the Treasury in order to do this very necessary job.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, as always, went straight to the point. He made the point which I have been making, about old age. The problems expand in old age. The problem of deafness becomes greater in old age. I am sorry to be speaking before the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, who has put forward the extraordinary argument, backed by research, that when a man becomes deafer as he gets older it is purely a question of old age and nothing to do with a war disability. I trust that the Minister will look at the matter in a different light.

The noble Earl, Lord Effingham, made a very good speech, in which he detailed the work that is going on in the British Legion. It also goes on in the Royal Air Forces Association and other organisations and in smaller units such as the Polish airmen's charity, to which I subscribe in a small way. They do a great deal of good work but their responsibilities are growing as people get older. The veterans do not need help when they are young but in old age they need more. We need to be aware of that point and to be pushing it at the Minister all the time. I hate the word "review" but I hope that the independent review will look at all the needs as well as at the usual purpose, which is to contain expenditure.

The noble Earl, Lord Haig, made a good point when he said that the pensions have to keep up with the cost of living. I would ask him to go a little further and say that pensions ought to keep up with the standard of living. In the Council of Europe I have some German friends who are interested in the matter of pensions. German war pensions are of a much higher standard than ours. I understand that they are related to the standard of prosperity in Germany, which, funnily enough, despite the protestations of the Tory Party, appears still to be a great deal higher than the standard of prosperity in this country. That is an important point.

The noble Lords, Lord Sempill and Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, referred to prisoners of war. There is no question but that they have been shabbily treated. Some effort should be made at this late stage. The same point applies: they are now becoming older and they are feeling the effects of their imprisonment much more than they did immediately after the war.

The question of reviews, which the noble Lord, Lord Napier and Ettrick, brought up, is a perennial one. I am the Liberal Democrat member on the committee which listens to and advises the agency under the guidance now of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and previously the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. It has made tremendous efforts to speed up the procedure and has introduced modern business methods into it. That has obviously helped greatly. However, I do not think it can do as much as the ex-service agencies and the War Widows Association, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, referred: their efforts are essential in promoting knowledge among people who are ageing that help is available and should be available.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has a job on her hands. It is a very worthwhile job. I hope that she will fight her corner hard for the money which this deserving cause needs and that she will get it.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he may like to know that, actuarially, the year of maximum demand both in terms of requirements for service charities and also of pensions is 1997.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, we have had an interesting debate which was ably introduced, as always, by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. By getting this debate so early on he has given the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, an opportunity to come out and have a canter around this interesting field. The noble Baroness will occasionally find it a tinge frustrating but on other occasions she will find a great deal of satisfaction in it. I think of occasions when, I expect, she will be invited to join my noble friend Lady Strange on the day before Remembrance Sunday with the war widows. On the three occasions I attended I found it a very moving experience and a reminder of the sacrifices that were made in the Second World War.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy also reminds us daily, if I may say so, not so much in word but simply by being here, of the sacrifices that many other people made. I do not know whether it can really be said that my noble friend's injuries prevented him from reaching the peak of his career—unless he had harboured ambitions to be the Prime Minister. He certainly managed to get a good deal higher than I managed to get in the great pecking order of politics. He fought against disability and overcame it to be a prominent politician and a senior member of the Government. I am glad that he has raised some of these issues. I want to take one of them up particularly seriously, but I shall do that a little later.

Before I reach that point, I want to say that there are many organisations working in this field which deserve a thank-you, a thank-you not just from the people they work for but from the wider community. I think in particular of BLESMA, which looks after the limbless ex-service men; of St. Dunstan's, which looks after the people who were blinded; of the Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society, which looks after people who were psychologically damaged and continue to be psychologically damaged, for example in the difficult area of service of Northern Ireland; and of the War Widows Association, to which I shall come a little later on. Any group of ladies which I am told loves me has to be given a special place in my remarks. Another group was not mentioned by name but the people it looks after have been mentioned. I refer to the National Federation of Far Eastern Prisoners of War, led by the indefatigable Mr. Harold Paine. All those organisations—SSAFA has groups all round the country with many volunteers—work very hard for ex-service men, and especially the ones I have mentioned work for ex-service men who were seriously injured in battle.

Perhaps I may mention just one other organisation to the noble Baroness. I refer to the Officers Pension Society. It works extremely hard as well. I caution the noble Baroness that, if she finds that it is running a campaign against her, she had better be pretty careful. As I found to my cost, it is quite the most effective of ambushers, as perhaps it should be, of any organisation I have come across. All these organisations work very hard for those injured in war and in some cases injured in ordinary non-wartime service.

There are two other organisations which I want to mention. One is the War Pensions Welfare Service which has a network throughout the country which gives advice, help and aid. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, quite rightly drew our attention to the changes that have been made in these organisations. The War Pensions Welfare Service is now connected to the War Pensions Agency by the magic of computer link, which means that it is much more able to give fairly quick advice to anyone who wishes to talk to the organisation.

The last organisation I wish to pay tribute to is the War Pensions Agency and its staff. Some remarks have been made about the time it takes to decide a case. It has to be said that often in order to explore a case records have to be obtained from the Ministry of Defence. They may be over 50 years old and they have to he gone through. In some cases they are incomplete and in others they are extremely difficult to read because of the passage of time. The agency then has to try to relate what it finds there to the condition of someone it sees in front of it. It must distinguish between the problems of advancing years and those which may have been triggered by military service. That is quite a difficult distinction to make as time goes on. I pay tribute to the agency.

The retirement age from the Civil Service is 60 and as my noble friend Lord Campbell pointed out about ages, none of the current people served in the Second World War. The noble Baroness may have already found, if she has visited the War Pensions Agency in sunny Blackpool—which is a trip to the seaside for the Minister for pensions—that the tower at Blackpool is not usually thrown in, nor is the big dipper, which is perhaps just as well. Each time I went I ensured that the big dipper was closed and so nobody ever suggested that I should go on it to test my bravery. However, if the noble Baroness goes there, I am sure she will find that the young people there are very dedicated and interested in the cases they see before them. One young lady said to me that it brings history alive to read some of these cases. I pay tribute to them.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy and one or two others asked the Minister where the Government were at the moment in relation to the promise they made before the election to have a Minister or a department for veterans' affairs. I say to the noble Baroness that I was never convinced of the argument in favour of having one and I remain unconvinced—but I did not give any promises. The noble Baroness's party gave promises. I looked through the press handout from Downing Street to see whether the noble Baroness had been appointed the Minister for veterans' affairs or whether someone else had been. But I looked in vain. Perhaps she can tell us whether that is one promise which was made too hurriedly. I would not blame the Government if that were the case. On further investigation they can see that there is really no comparison between the situation in this country and, for example, in North America or Australia, where they have such departments because they have a positive job to do as regards health and so on as there is no national health service as we know it. That is something I look forward to hearing about from the noble Baroness.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, implied, as I believe did the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, that there were thousands of people who were due war pensions. I am never entirely sure about these claims. My recollection is—the noble Baroness may be able to help me over this—that on previous occasions when a lot of interest has been stimulated over these issues many inquiries are made. Forms are sent out, but few are returned. I suspect that when people read them they realise that they do not qualify, and even those who do have had quite a low success rate. If the claims are paid, they are usually paid at quite a low level.

That always encouraged me to believe that the organisations I have mentioned have clone their job over these many years and made sure that all those people who were seriously injured and were living with the results of their service had been picked up. I accept that there will always be a few not picked up. But the idea that there are thousands without pensions is not right.

I do not have to defend the previous Government's record particularly, but the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, could have mentioned that all the pensions and allowances are tax free. That is unlike anything else in the social security system, and rightly so. I must guard against sounding like a government Minister defending a position. But people have to realise that it is quite a concession to have such allowances tax free. If a person has been able to work after military service, as many of them did, or has been able to retire with a reasonable pension, it is quite a significant addition to their income if it is not counted for tax. The noble Earl, Lord Effingham, might have paid tribute to the generosity—rightly—of the scheme as regards both the war disabled and war widows.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Haig for his kind words about me and the job I did. I always tried to ensure that anomalies were removed, as he rightly said, and that the help that was given was going to those who were most seriously and obviously disabled. If I was looking the taxpayer straight in the eye I could defend these people having the special privileges that they do. I tried to do that. I like to believe that I managed on a number of occasions.

For example, I was very pleased that we were able to award automatic war widows' pensions where the husband was of 80 per cent. disablement and in receipt of UNSUP. By and large, these ladies had to look after their husbands more than the average wife has to, and during their lifetime they were probably unable to accumulate much money because of injuries. They deserved the automatic passage into war widowhood.

The noble Lord, Lord Sempill, and I believe the noble Lord, Lord Clifford, raised the special issue of former prisoners of war. The noble Lord, Lord Napier and Ettrick, made mention of it at the end of his speech. I believe that it is more a matter for the Ministry of Defence. I do not know very much about it and I am not sure whether the noble Baroness will be able to answer us this evening on that point. I shall certainly be interested to listen to her answer if she can reply.

My noble friend Lady Strange raised a similar question to that of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, about the number not receiving benefit. The noble Baroness may be able to help me when she sums up in case my recollection is not right, but I recall that the number of people who had actually applied for restored war widows pensions and had received them was coming very close to our original estimate. I believe that I would just be taking figures out of the air, but my recollection is that we were within 1,000 or so of our estimate, which suggests that very few war widows would be left unpensioned who were deserving of pensions, although I accept that there will be some.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, mentioned Polish airmen. Perhaps he will chide me by saying that it was a fairly costless reform, but it was one of the reforms that I was very pleased to deliver in putting Polish ex-service men, after all this time, on the same footing as British ex-service men when it came to appeals. As I say, I do not believe that it made much difference in the pounds and pence column to anybody, but it was something which was long overdue and I was pleased to be able to do it.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, disputed with my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy his assertion that perhaps it was time to differentiate between war pensions as originally envisaged at the end of the Second World War and war pensions as they are paid to service men over the past 20 or 30 years and perhaps to servicemen who have never heard a shot fired in anger. I believe that my noble friend has a point here. I say to the noble Baroness that we ought to give serious thought to the matter. I suggest a review—although I was attacking them earlier on. But this issue needs to be reviewed.

When one reads the regulations, the basis of the war pension scheme was very much geared to the Second World War. It is my view that if a currently serving service man is injured, perhaps going to and from work, on the sports field, in a road accident in Bosnia or whatever, that should be the responsibility of the MoD. It should be part and parcel of the wages and conditions package and the pensions arrangement. The MoD ought to be responsible for today's and tomorrow's service men when it comes to injuries received. The war pensions scheme should deal with the past but not any longer be dealing with current and future service men.

Exactly the same situation arises with regard to war widows' pensions. As a result of the Bett review, I believe that the Government have an opportunity, which I hope that they will take—I certainly pressed my Ministry of Defence colleagues to do this—to look again at the superannuation schemes for the military and at the provisions for invalided-out ex-service men and incorporate them firmly within an employment, wages and conditions package run by the MoD rather than look to the Department of Social Security for help.

A few service wives still become war widows, perhaps as a result of accidents. Indeed, two of the most formidable ladies in the organisation were widowed young as a result of aeroplane crashes. It seemed wrong to me that they should not be given their pension for life. I knew, understood and argued about all the difficulties in that that does not fit well with the DSS system—and that is one of the reasons why I think that, for the benefit of current and future service men, such matters should be transferred to the MoD. The MoD—and that means the Government and all of us—should then take its responsibilities as an employer seriously and award widows' pensions to those who are widowed as a result of their husband's—or perhaps now, their wife's—military service in the same way as happens in other superannuation schemes for other occupations—that is, for life.

I have used up all the time that is available to me, so I conclude by saying that we have had a useful debate. I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, to this part of her empire. I am sure that she will find it most stimulating and interesting. I commend her to visit—my noble friend Lord Haig has invited the noble Baroness—the annual conference of the Royal British Legion in Scotland. It normally holds its annual conference in some of the more beautiful parts of Scotland—and normally manages to arrange excellent weather.

7.52 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, as the relatively newly appointed Minister with special responsibility for war pensions, I very much welcome this opportunity to speak about the pensions and compensation available in respect of injury and illness attributable to service in the armed forces. In particular, I welcome the invitation to explain the availability of benefits under the war pensions scheme, as it is under the provisions of this scheme that the majority of disabled ex-service men and women, including those who served in the world wars, receive compensation.

We are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for bringing this matter to the House. I in particular thank him for his good wishes. It is regrettably the case, as the noble Lord implies, that the generous compensation provisions in this country for injury or illness sustained as a result of service in the armed forces are not generally appreciated. I hope that this debate will go some way towards extending public awareness.

Currently, some 325,000 people are receiving war pensions, of whom 60,000 are war widows. Three-quarters of those pensioners are aged over 65. Nonetheless, we receive something like 32,000 claims a year—not only because service in our armed forces continues, but also because there are no time limits for the claims.

As a war pensioner himself, wounded 52 years ago, the noble Lord has had close links with disability organisations which include many service people, and he has spoken in this place only recently about the considerable misunderstanding that arises from the description "war pension", pointing out that many such pensions are compensation payments for injuries sustained during service with no connection with a war. He is, of course, absolutely right, but it is a fact that surprises many people, and it is worth re-emphasising, that a war disablement pension may be awarded in respect of any disablement suffered as a result of any service in the armed forces, war time or peace time. The noble Lord suggested—my noble friend Lord Ashley agreed—that a better description might be "armed forces disability pension". While I understand the logic of his recommendation, I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie: I do not think that it would solve the problem.

It is not generally recognised that under the war pensions scheme, while most awards are made in respect of service in the armed forces (some in respect of war service and others, not) awards may also be made to certain people who did not serve in the armed forces, but who were injured as a result of war. Examples are civilians injured as a result of enemy bombing during the last world war, or merchant seamen injured as a result of enemy action. It could be very difficult to come up with a description which would cover adequately all these groups. Also, I have some doubts as to whether a change of title, after all these years, would find general favour among current war pensioners.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who has considerable experience in this field, suggested that provision for compensation for future ex-service men and women disabled as a result of service should not so much be renamed as be handled instead by the MoD. That is an interesting view. At the moment, such compensation may be provided both under the war pensions scheme administered by the DSS and by the Ministry of Defence under the occupational Armed Forces pension scheme. In practice, however, because the attributable benefits under the latter scheme did not exist prior to March 1973, and because they are awarded only where the service man or woman is invalided from service, relatively few war pensioners receive pensions from both departments.

That is the current position. I am aware of course of the recommendation of the last Select Committee on Defence that there should be a thorough re-examination of the system of compensation for service personnel injured while on duty for their country. The Government are considering carefully this recommendation and we will respond to that point as part of the Government's formal response to the Select Committee on Defence.

Service personnel who are unfortunate enough to be invalided out of the armed forces are advised that their service papers will be referred automatically to the War Pensions Agency for consideration as to entitlement to a war pension. Others who are discharged without a war injury at the time are given an information pack which advises them that, should they later suffer disablement which they believe is due to service, they should claim a war pension as and when disability occurs.

The War Pensions Agency also does much to extend public awareness of war pensions; for example, posters about the scheme are sent directly to regimental museums, and are distributed locally to libraries and citizens advice bureaux. Several explanatory leaflets are available—the noble Countess, Lady Mar, pressed me on this the other day—and as part and parcel of its publicity role, the War Pensioners Welfare Service promotes and provides information by way of dedicated advice and information days. If there are any other ways in which the Government can extend knowledge of the benefits and pensions available, I shall take them up and seek my officials' advice on them.

As my noble friend Lord Ashley emphasised, this debate is about extending public awareness. Like the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, I pay tribute to the invaluable work of the ex-service organisations in this respect. At the moment, the noble Lord has a much greater awareness of what they have done than I have, but I know that those organisations work tirelessly in the interests of ex-service men and women and, in common with many other people, I have the greatest possible regard for their work.

In my short time as Minister with special responsibilities for war pensions, I have already met informally representatives of many of these organisations, including some from the Royal British Legion, the Royal British Legion (Scotland) with which the noble Earl, Lord Haig, is closely associated, the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association and the War Widows Association of Great Britain. Like the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, I have been greatly impressed by their dedication and experience. We have seen some of that today in the welcome contribution from the noble Earl, Lord Effingham.

There will he many future opportunities to discuss matters of concern with the ex-service men's organisations and I look forward to a challenging and constructive dialogue with them. I know that it will be challenging because I have already been pressed—tonight by the noble Earl, Lord Effingham—as I imagine that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, was pressed, on the question of disregards for council tax and housing benefit. There is already a statutory disregard of £10 for those benefits. I regret that I cannot help noble Lords any further tonight on the issue of disregards. This is a matter for local authority discretion. I understand that, were it to be made statutory, the cost would be some £95 million.

The current war pension scheme has a long pedigree. The first formal scheme for disabled soldiers and seamen was established during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Prior to the First World War, responsibility for war pensions was vested in the War Office for army officers and all widows, the Chelsea Commissioners for other ranks in the army and the Admiralty for all naval ranks. The Great War, however, changed our response. The vast numbers of volunteers, conscripts and their dependants had no access to occupational disablement pensions or private insurance and there was then no comprehensive social security system to provide for maintenance. While the Government tried to keep the same structure, the huge number of casualties made it clear that arrangements had to be changed. As a result, the Government took unified responsibility for war pensions in 1917 after the battle of the Somme, with the establishment of the Ministry of Pensions in February 1917.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, asked about the numbers of surviving First World War pensioners. As at March 1996, there were 211 such men; as of March of this year there were just 142.

Following the First World War, the new Ministry took over all powers and duties in respect of disablement and death arising from service in the Army and Navy during the Great War and also in respect of members of the Air Force and Mercantile Marine. After the end of the First World War, responsibility for casualties arising from that conflict remained with the Ministry of Pensions. Further responsibility was assumed by the Ministry at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. These and other responsibilities for war pensions in respect of the period prior to the First World War, between the two world wars and after the Second World War are now vested in the Department of Social Security and are administered at Norcross, Blackpool, which I hope to have the privilege of visiting fairly soon.

Over the years, the provisions of the War Pension Scheme have been much improved and extended to include not only preferential pensions in respect of disablement and death but a dedicated welfare service and a wide range of supplementary allowances, many of which are paid at preferential rates when compared with the social security civilian benefits also administered by the DSS. I have found that the war pensioner enjoys many advantages over his or her social security counterpart.

Noble Lords may already be aware of the extent of the compensation that may be received under the War Pensions Scheme. As this debate is about extending public awareness of these pensions, I make no apology for describing, albeit briefly, that compensation. A severely disabled single ex-service man or woman can receive currently a total tax-free war pension of over £386 a week. Of that, £107.20 is the basic war disablement pension. The rest of the award is made up of supplementary allowances in respect of unemployability, age and care and mobility needs. There is a wide range of allowances available, most of which are awarded at preferential rates and some of which are peculiar to war pensioners. In addition, where the person was invalided from the forces on or after 31st March 1973, an occupational pension may be awarded by the Ministry of Defence. Prior to that date there were no specific benefits under that or any other public service occupational pension scheme in respect of disablement or death suffered as a result of service. For example, a former private who had served five years in the Army, had been invalided as a result of a training injury to his back and whose disablement had been assessed as 100 per cent. could now receive a tax-free attributable pension from the Ministry of Defence of almost £4,000 a year. With the war pension, that would give the former private, based on five years' service, a total annual income of some £24,000, all tax free.

To put the level of the total war pension of about £386 into perspective, noble Lords will wish to know that the total equivalent social security benefits that could be received under the industrial injuries scheme by someone similarly disabled as a result of an accident at work would be some £53 a week less. A person whose injury was neither service nor employment related but who was entitled to incapacity benefit and disability living allowance in respect of both the care and mobility components could receive total benefits of £160 a week—less than half the total sum received by someone with the same injury who was entitled to a war pension.

The same principles apply to war widows' pensions. Under the scheme, a war widow's pension may be awarded where the late husband died as a result of service. That does not have to be wartime service. For example, a peacetime training accident could give rise to a tax-free war widow's pension. The majority of war widows receive currently a total weekly pension of over £151. That comprises the basic war widow's pension of £81 a week, an age allowance and a supplementary pension of £52.80. The supplementary pension is payable where the husband's death was due to service before 31st March 1973. Consequently, no attributable forces family pension is paid by the Ministry of Defence under the occupational scheme. To put the total pension into perspective, the standard National Insurance widow's pension is £62.45, some 30 per cent. lower than the standard war widow's pension. That is before the war widow has age allowance and supplementary provision, to which the amount paid to a civilian pensioner does not correspond.

I am delighted to confirm the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, a true champion of war widows. War widows who lost their pensions on remarriage can now regain it should they lose their second husband. The memory of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, as to the statistics serves him well. At the time, he estimated in debates in this House that some 16,500 war widows would be eligible for this pension. So far 16.000 have claimed. The War Pensions Agency and the War Servicemen's Association have done much to advertise these claims, but the noble Baroness is right that it is important that every war widow should avail herself of these changes in benefits.

So far, I have concentrated on the generous compensation that may be received under war pension schemes. However, noble Lords may not be aware that the onus of proof for war pension claims is very favourable, as is the compensation. For deaths arising or disablement claims lodged within seven years of termination of service the onus lies on the Secretary of State to show beyond reasonable doubt that disablement or death is not due to service. Apart from being required to show disablement and, where there is no record in service documents, to provide reliable corroborative evidence of a service injury or incident, there is no onus on the claimant to show any link between current disablement and service. He or she will still receive a pension. It is this provision which applies to all claims received so far from people who served in the Gulf. Even where a claim for disablement is made more than seven years after termination of service, or where death occurs more than seven years after service, the onus of proof is very generous. Unlike the civil burden of proof, which applies the test of a balance of probabilities, war pensions law provides that it is necessary for the applicant only to raise a reasonable doubt, based on reliable evidence, that death or disablement is due to service. The benefit of any reasonable doubt is always given to the claimant.

I have said that it would be impossible during this debate to describe all the preferential provisions attributable to war pensioners, but I have highlighted two: first, the very generous level of pensions compared with their civilian equivalents; and, secondly, the very real distinction that operates in favour of war pensioners in terms of the burden of proof. I give just two more examples that may be of interest to noble Lords. First, war disablement pensioners may receive priority hospital treatment under the NHS for their pensioned disablement, not where there is an emergency case but in terms of the waiting list. Secondly, help may be given with the cost of dental treatment and glasses if required on account of the war pensioned disablement; thirdly, the cost of accommodation in a nursing home may be met for war pensioners needing permanent nursing care because of their disablement.

My final example is one which was quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and one which is much treasured by war pensioners; it is the existence of the discreet War Pensioners' Welfare Service to help war pensioners, war widows, their dependants and carers with personal confidential advice, help or support. As the noble Lord said, its work is invaluable and much appreciated.

My noble friend Lord Ashley and the noble Earls, Lord Haig and Lord Effingham, asked me about the independent review into hearing loss. We stated at the time that we were determined to be satisfied that the medical evidence on that is clear and unambiguous and that any decisions made on war pensions in that respect are made in accordance with the legislation.

As noble Lords will know, on 23rd May I wrote to Mr. Graham Downing, national chairman. of the Royal British Legion, informing him that I would be arranging a meeting of independent experts in the field of hearing loss in order to review the scientific basis of the approach to the assessment of this condition.

In reply to my noble friend Lord Ashley, I am delighted to announce today that the Government's Chief Medical Officer, Sir Kenneth Calman, will chair the review. Professors Mark Lutman and Adrian Davis, who have advised the Royal British Legion, are being invited to join the review, together with two other independent experts, whose replies we are awaiting. A departmental medical adviser will also be part of the team.

The present approach to the assessment of claims to war pensions for noise induced sensorineural hearing loss is based on the war pensions medical adviser's conclusion on the current medical understanding. The review will therefore investigate the scientific basis of that conclusion and will address the two questions on which the current approach is based. Those questions are: what is the progress of noise induced sensorineural hearing loss following removal from the source of noise; and is the combination of noise induced hearing loss and subsequent sensorineural hearing loss due to age more than additive? I hope and expect that the review will be able to come to a speedy conclusion. The outcome will be made public.

We discussed Gulf War-related illnesses, known popularly as Gulf War Syndrome, during Question Time a few days ago. As a result perhaps it has not been much referred to today. Other questions were asked today, and I shall do my best to respond to them. First, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy and the noble Earl, Lord Haig, asked me about the veterans' unit. For some time that was being urged upon us by the Royal British Legion, but more recently it has written to us saying that it wished to consider that matter further. So it is of course still under review.

My noble friend Lord Ashley talked about nuclear test veterans. He will know that is essentially an MoD matter. I gather that the issue is not about compensation but about access to records. I am afraid I have to tell him that the Government will contest the case because they do not accept that lack of access to records prevented nuclear test veterans from receiving a fair hearing before the Pensions Appeal Tribunal. If my noble friend wishes to write to me, I shall try to give him any additional information on that that he may be seeking.

Other noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Napier and Ettrick, mentioned the backlog of appeals. They are now down from some 20,000 to fewer than 10,000. But noble Lords are right, that is still too slow. The House will understand the difficulties referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, in assessing the situation where the injury occurred some 50 years previously. It is too slow and we are keeping it under review. I shall do as the noble Lord, Lord Napier and Ettrick, asked, and urge greater speed.

Finally, the noble Lords, Lord Sempill and Lord Clifford, raised the issue of prisoner of war compensation. I understand that a long and detailed report is currently being considered by the MoD. It is of course a matter primarily for that department. It hopes to inform Parliament of its decision on that report as soon as possible. I will ensure that the noble Lords, Lord Sempill and Lord Clifford, learn of that decision as soon as is practicable.

To summarise, in this country pension and other provision for disabled ex-servicemen and women and their dependants is properly both wide-ranging and generous. I am sure noble Lords will agree with me that given the circumstances of disablement or death, that is only right. However, those facts are often not understood or are overlooked by those often too ready to criticise. I am pleased that, thanks to the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, we have together during the debate been able to put the record straight. On behalf of the House, I thank him.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank all who have participated in this debate. There are still a few minutes as a result of the creditable conciseness of the speakers. So I shall comment briefly. I am glad that the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, took part and spoke of the unsubsidised work of the Royal British Legion. I welcome him to these debates as a former member of the Royal Navy.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, would like to keep the word "war" in "war pensions", but I presume that he accepts my estimate that more than half the present recipients have never been involved in a war. That is no secret to the Treasury. The danger is that it could use the misnomer as a pretext for being less generous to the total of disabled ex-servicemen. That is clearly a matter of opinion upon which we differ.

Where deafness is concerned, most of the war pensions are being paid to former members of the Army for impairment from firing their own weapons—many in peacetime on practice ranges. They are rightly awarded as compensation for damage from our own friendly cordite propellant. Those injuries are different of course from damage to ears caused by high explosives; for example, from close bursts of enemy shells and bombs. Those wounds could be serious and include not just deafness but perforated ear drums and damage to the brain. That happened to some of the soldiers under my command.

In 1942, half way through World War II, as a field battery commander I insisted that the relevant soldiers manning my field guns—those nearest to the breech blocks—wore ear plugs. After the war I was told that I was among the first, if not the first, to do so. Later it became compulsory.

My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish was inclined to agree with me about the war pension being renamed. I am grateful to the Minister for her full reply. She pointed out some of the objections to my suggestion. I have not suggested that changes would solve the problem—the words she used—but it would avoid public misunderstandings. For example, on 5th December last it was clear from Hansard that Members of the other place assumed that war pensions, then suddenly in the news that day, were restricted to veterans of wars. Most of the media made the same error. My alternative to changing the name, which I made in my opening speech, is that there should be a campaign to spread information about these pensions so that those who have not been in any kind of war realise that they are entitled to something which is misnamed a "war pension".

It is too early in the life of the new Government for the Minister to be able to reply fully to questions such as whether a unit for ex-service personnel will be set up or to possible changes in the longstanding system of government actions responding to independent medical advice. She has told us that those must await the result of reviews. I am sure that those and other issues will be raised again in your Lordship's House. Again I thank most warmly all who have taken part in this debate. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.