HL Deb 06 February 2002 vol 631 cc711-30

8 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the situations of surviving ex-servicemen who were severely wounded, or suffered serious injuries to health, as a result of enemy action in the Second World War.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in asking this Question I shall be calling attention to a particular category of ex-servicemen. They are all over 70 in age—they are survivors because the normal pattern of human mortality means that many of those who were severely wounded in World War II will not be alive today. Even the able-bodied, with a normal span of three score years and 10—that is regarded as the norm, though life expectancy has increased considerably over the past 100 years—probably need special attention and supervised care. I understand that there is now no Member of Parliament in the other place who is old enough to have been in the Armed Forces in World War II.

I must declare an interest as a war casualty. Having been commissioned in the Army at the beginning of the war in 1939, I was wounded on the day before Hitler committed suicide at the end. I then spent over one year in hospital, followed by some months in and out of hospital. The hospital was St Bartholomew's, then evacuated to rural Hertfordshire. The other patients in my ward were all wounded servicemen, some severely. That started my interest and my concerns that I later raised in Parliament.

When we were able to leave hospital we came under the wing of the wartime military medical organisation and its services. However, some 20 years later the ex-servicemen were informed of a major change. In future we would be dealt with by the Department of Health. That seemed a sensible rationalisation; and the number of disabled veterans from World War II was dwindling. They all received letters assuring them that the NHS had been charged with an obligation to give them priority in treatment. A letter which I received recently from BLESMA—the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association—tells me that that is nowadays often forgotten. It states that BLESMA has to remind the NHS trusts and NHS staff that that priority still exists.

That is the main message I wish to transmit in raising this subject in Parliament today. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who is due to reply, to confirm that the Government still recognise that priority, and that they circulate it within the NHS. It is not a burdensome task. The survivors are steadily decreasing in number, as I have pointed out.

The transfer in the early 1970s of medical care and supervision to the NHS was a landmark event, and a nightmare for some. It had its problems for the clients. For example, in my case the papers with the specifications for the callipers and associated equipment—the orthotic devices—which I had to use, and still have to, were lost in the transfer. So were other important papers concerning wounded ex-servicemen. Those papers were necessary for routine replacements and many ex-servicemen, including me, had to make several special journeys in order that measurements be taken again—quite unnecessarily—for future replacements. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, can assure us that that will not happen again.

As an illustration, I should like to mention two soldiers who were in the same ward as me in St Bartholomew's Hospital in 1945 and 1946. One was a sapper officer, and he had lost both hands. Another was an infantryman who had lost both feet. The first, as noble Lords will have guessed, had been neutralising or lifting enemy landmines, a sapper's job, and the second—an infantry soldier—had been blown up on a mine when he was advancing during an operation against the enemy. Even then, 56 years ago, artificial limbs were fitted for them. But they were simple and unsophisticated compared with what is available now.

In my case I had been wounded the day before Hitler committed suicide, having started in the Army just before the war in 1939. I had been commanding a field battery in the Scottish Division for three years, but my time in the Army was now being brought to an end by enemy action.

My admiration for the surgeons and staff in St Bartholomew's grew steadily as they repaired us. I must make it clear that I had no reason to complain about treatment over the years. My complaints were usually about bureaucracy. The medical treatment has always been excellent and my colleagues report the same. My injuries were the result of a bullet fired at very close range which passed through my middle, hitting some things but just missing vital others.

I want to put a question to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, arising from the announcement that some tax had recently been charged incorrectly on war pensions that are supposed to be tax-free. Were war disability pensions affected? They are supposed to be tax-free. I gave the noble Lord notice of my question so I hope that he will be able to provide us with the relevant information.

The term "war pension" is misleading. Most of those now receiving a war pension were not involved in any war. Many sustained injuries in this country while on duty. That is the point. A soldier may have fallen off a ladder in the barracks at Aldershot. If he was doing the job on duty, his compensation—to which he is rightly entitled—is called a "war pension". I suggested it be renamed "Armed Forces disability pension", to avoid the confusion which so often arises from that description.

As this is a Question and not a debate, I cannot speak again. But I thank those who have put their names down to speak, in particular the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and the noble Lords, Lord Hardy and Lord Weatherill.

To recapitulate, I hope that the reply from the Government Front Bench will deal with two points. First, do the Government still expect priority to be given to ex-servicemen wounded in action? Secondly, can they give us an assurance about the continuing priority for disabled ex-servicemen? In relation to tax, have some of the war pensions to which I referred—war pensions and disability pensions—been incorrectly taxed, as reported in the recent controversy in the newspapers? I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some information on those matters.

8.9 p.m.

Viscount Slim

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for getting us together tonight—a rather select little band; we all know each other. It will be an interesting though short debate.

Perhaps the Minister will allow me to take this subject in a slightly broader way. I have to declare as I think all noble Lords know—that much of my life involves veterans' affairs. I am dedicated to that activity and enjoy it. I shall not list the number of associations or charities with which I am associated. They can be seen on the computer. The positions are all unpaid, as they should be because we volunteer for these activities.

What does a veteran need? What does he want? We have been bad, historically, at looking after our veterans. All political parties are culpable. No one has taken much notice of our veterans, men or women. Other countries in the Commonwealth. and even our enemies of the past, give more status and recognition to a veteran than we as a nation do. At the end of the war it became blindingly obvious to us that no British government was going to look after the veterans and that we had better look after them ourselves. Therefore, these great organisations look after the veterans. Their work involves welfare, benevolence and care for members representing perhaps a small ship, an RAF squadron or a regiment which has its own association.

A veteran deserves status within the nation. At times he deserves recognition. He always needs help and care as he gets older. I echo the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, regarding the status and recognition of the veteran. He generally behaves with dignity and quietness. He does not boast of what he has done for his nation. Therefore, I take issue with the fact that, medically, he does not receive priority. As the noble Lord said, the National Health Service should give priority to a veteran. So should the GP. If priority is not given, and the veteran is stuck in a corner on a trolley, or told to come back in two or three years' time for an operation, he should carry some form of recognition. Many veterans' organisations have a veterans' gold card. Everyone is talking about ID cards at present. Perhaps in conjunction with that, some form of recognition could be given. I hope that the Minister will consider that issue.

All veterans have great hopes in and support for the Minister for veterans' affairs. We have been asking for many years for a Minister with responsibility for veterans' affairs. I congratulate the Government on at last providing one. However, we must ensure that the number of staff the Minister is given is adequate for the job and that the position is not a political cosmetic to make everything seem better.

I hope that the Government will support their Minister for veterans' affairs. He needs support. I mention two stumbling blocks. Some veterans may refer to "the enemy". I refer, first, to another place. The general feeling is that Members are quite good at looking after themselves, their emoluments and pensions. I understand that they are now talking about partnership pensions for both genders. It is time that they were alerted to the fact that there are veterans and that Members are sitting on their green Benches because of the veterans' work in stopping this nation being invaded and conquered.

I believe that the Minister for veterans' affairs will have considerable trouble with local government. We find that veterans are somewhat pushed to one side by the vast majority of local councils or local government. There have been times—the Government put the matter right—when veterans' pensions were stopped because they received other gratuities and so on. If the task is to be a success, the Minister and his staff will have to bring local government on side. The ethnic—they are now British—associations of warriors from India, west Africa and the small group of African ex-servicemen have been somewhat left out. I am a trustee of the old Indian Army Association based in Southall. The most marvellous man, Wing Commander Puji—he fought in the Battle of Britain in a Spitfire and a Hurricane and went on to fight again in Burma—is very much its leader. The association is full of the most tremendous warriors which only the Martial Tribes of India could and did produce in the war.

I pay tribute to the War Pensions Agency. The Burma Star Association has a good relationship with it. We go to the agency in Blackpool. A veteran is our contact man. It does its best but it is under much constraint. If the Minister for veterans' affairs is to do his job he must look closely at the difficulties that the agency has in helping with the disablement pensions and normal pensions. In the Burma Star Association alone last year—we are probably the only other tri-service organisation apart from the Royal British Legion and SSAFA—the agency had to deal with 300 to 400 problems. We had success.

We had to deal with 200 to 300 widows' problems. Thanks to the agency, we had some success. When we talk of veterans, it is often forgotten that the issue involves widows. There used to be 30,000 to 35,000 members of the Burma Star Association. The number is down to 13,000. We shall die. Quite a lot of people might breathe a sigh of relief; it will cost less money here and there. But there are 20,000 widows. I have told them, sadly, that in my lifetime I shall not have time to dance with every one of them before I kick the bucket. But those widows have to he taken care of. Most of the associations of all three services pay great attention to their widows. They are perhaps the main priority of the Burma Star Association and other associations with which I am associated.

The Minister will be aware that there are rumours—they are more than rumours—of a merger between the larger associations. That would be no bad thing, but the two organisations concerned carry out all the case work. The Royal British Legion and SSAFA are two outstanding organisations, which in many ways take the lead in our association affairs. Their raison d'être is case histories and visiting veterans and widows.

All mergers, whether of businesses or charities, always end up in a row about who will be the boss and who will manage the organisation. The bureaucracy can get bigger and everything can go into default because of that. I am not saying that a merger is not a good idea, but one has to look very carefully at it. I hope that the Minister of veterans' affairs will be allowed consider the issue.

I hope that representatives of the new department get out and about and visit the veterans. We have great faith in the Minister. We have told him that we will give him a year to 18 months before we start to get beastly and twist his tail and so on. As I have said, I hope that there will be sufficient staff.

There are many good, young retired officers—young in comparison to my age, perhaps 55 or 60 years old—and warrant officers of all three services. If the Minister had a dozen of those on his staff, they could get out into the country, learn about all the different associations—right down to the smaller ones which do marvellous jobs for their regiments, ships, squadrons and so on—and they could be his eyes and ears.

If the Minister really wants to know how to run a good veterans' association, he should visit Australia. The Returned Services League of Australia and its other organisation, Legacy, are blueprints for such organisations. They are most outstanding. I declare an interest. I have been a member of the Returned Services League of Australia for some time and I am its representative in Great Britain on the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League.

I have gone slightly over my time. We support the Minister and wish him well. We are here to help him. Someone should come and talk to us and ask how we can work together and make a success, for the first time, of all the veterans' organisations in Great Britain.

8.23 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and to the noble Viscount, Lord Slim. Both noble Lords have spoken from positions of considerable authority. No one is more qualified to speak on this subject than the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy.

Let me offer a word of encouragement. I have recently been studying the 1891 census for Wath-upon-Dearne and Brampton Bierlow, where I now live next door. In 1891 there were 280 people aged 65 or more, about 3 per cent of the population. When the 2001 census, or perhaps the 2011 census, is published, we can expect that that percentage will be at least four or five times higher, and rising. So one hopes that many veterans will still be with us for a very long time, including both noble Lords who have spoken.

They have presented a formidable case. During my service in the other place, I found that when I pursued war injury matters the officials who dealt with those cases were sympathetic. So they should be. The ex-servicemen involved were wounded and injured on behalf of all of us. It is right that the priorities which have been promised should be pursued.

I wish to make a fresh point which I believe is relevant. In addition to the provision of substantial public support, the voluntary ex-service organisations play an essential role. First, they provide guidance and assistance in the representation of individual cases; secondly, a nd substantially, they provide additional, complementary and supplementary support which assists public funds. But, in order to carry out their function, which may be increasingly difficult for the reasons already given, they need to maintain public attention and public support in order that their funds are not diminished.

During the past few years they have faced, and for the rest of this decade they will face, substantial demands as the effects of ageing mean that veterans become more disabled, suffer greater hardship and have less mobility. For that reason, it is important that society does not create situations in which the veterans' organisations are prevented from attracting public attention. It is to that issue that I shall now address my remarks.

I live in South Yorkshire; I am a member of the Royal Air Force Association; and I am president of an absolutely first-class Air Training Corps squadron. In September of each year we have in Rotherham a parade on Battle of Britain Sunday, as is the practice in every other area. But it has particular importance in areas like mine. During the Second World War, after the first year or so, miners were not allowed to join the Armed Forces unless they volunteered for aircrew. A very large number of them did, and many died. Some of the survivors are friends of mine.

The late Ken Sampey, president of the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, was a navigator; the former Chief Constable of South Yorkshire was a flight sergeant air gunner; the former mayor of my borough, a ward colleague of mine on the local authority, was a warrant officer air gunner who survived two tours. Not many did that. One flew on the Dambusters' raid. One was the office manager of the Yorkshire miners' offices during Mr Scargill's first years in charge there. There were many. Some of them died. Some are still alive, and I hope that they will be alive for a long time. We have that legacy.

We are joined on Battle of Britain Sunday by veterans. The young people on my squadron, my cadets, can see the veterans. One chap has a double Pathfinder decoration from Bomber Command. At last year's service, a friend of mine, Doug Segar, who flew Hurricanes in 1940, read Gillespie's High Flight, which was quite an experience.

And yet, shortly before that event, the organiser of our march was contacted by the police and was told that we might have to cancel or pay a fee of more than £500. I wrote to the Chief Constable—it was a matter of policy—and I received a reply from a sergeant, who referred to a constable at divisional level who was in charge of events, parades and ceremonials. I was not happy about that because it was a matter of policy.

It was suggested that some members of ACPO are not happy about having parades and ceremonials, although they accept that there should be one on Armistice Sunday. I am not satisfied that any inhibition on activities of this kind will be useful. It is right that young people should be exposed to reality. They should have an opportunity to see the living history that my cadets can see on Armistice Sunday.

We were then told that we could hold the parade in 2001. I have made it clear to the authorities that we hope to hold it each year for as long as the veterans wish to take part in it.

This is important because in the few days before the Battle of Britain service, veterans, other supporters and our cadets raise money for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, which is a very good cause, as the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, is aware. Therefore, I am concerned about the matter.

I was concerned also to find that the Girl Guides were prevented from holding a rally. I am waiting to see what happens in April, when the Boy Scouts hold a parade and church services. Scouts, scout leaders and parents gather for that event.

I believe that it is quite right to hold these events. For people to argue that they are a denial of human rights, as has been suggested, is absurd. We may occupy a road for a short time; we may be denying someone the use of that road. All right, we are denying their human right—if they are intolerant and unreasonable and feel aggrieved. But are they not denying the human right of those of us who wish to honour those who fell, or were injured, or served? Are we right to deny young people the opportunity to see that there is such a thing as service to the community? Or do we want them all to be roaming the streets aimlessly?

Therefore, I have been in correspondence with the Home Office. I have tabled a Question for later this month. I hope that the Answer will be a satisfactory one. If the inhibitions to which I have referred develop, the ex-service organisations will find themselves attracting less attention and will, therefore, experience a diminishing income at a time when the veterans most need our support and sustenance, as they age and as mortality beckons. We should be acting irresponsibly if we allowed the kind of experience that we had—and which we have temporarily overcome in Rotherham—to develop in other areas. As the noble Viscount. Lord Slim, will be aware, one of the organisations with which he is involved faced a threat—I believe a sum of £1,500 was mentioned. That is not tolerable. We are not raising money for veterans' organisations to pay into the public coffers because of a short-sighted and unwise approach, which needs to be deterred and discouraged by the Government as early as possible.

8.32 p.m.

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for initiating this short debate. As a regular soldier with a courageous war record and having suffered severe wounds, which, sadly, are still with him, the noble Lord speaks from personal experience and knowledge.

The Question is whether those who have suffered as a result of enemy action and who sustained serious injuries are being properly looked after. Similarly, the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, has made some positive suggestions in respect of veterans, notably those in the Burma Star Association. The noble Viscount and I have a number of things in common. I am a member of the Burma Star Association. I also share a room with the noble Viscount. Therefore, we have been able to co-ordinate our speeches to ensure that the contents do not overlap.

As some of your Lordships may know, like the noble Viscount, I had the privilege of serving with Indian troops in the Burma campaign and in Malaya. Our Army commander was the noble Viscount's highly distinguished and much loved father, Field Marshal Slim. Fortunately, I was not wounded, but many of those with whom I served were killed and others were severely wounded. It is, therefore, natural that I should take an interest in the welfare of those who survived.

The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and I are active members of the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League (BCEL). I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to what BCEL has done, and continues to do, to support those Commonwealth veterans who fought with us in World War II with such loyalty and bravery.

I mention two initiatives in particular with which the noble Viscount and I are associated. The first is the Jubilee Appeal of the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League. It is often overlooked—or perhaps more accurately, forgotten—that over 5 million men and women from the Commonwealth fought with us in World War II in defence of the freedoms which, sadly, too many people today take too much for granted.

In the Indian Army alone, some 3 million volunteered to fight for a country that they had never seen and a monarch they had only heard about. They formed the largest volunteer army that the world has ever known. Casualties were great—over 36,000 were killed or wounded—and in the process no fewer than 30 VCs were awarded.

Others came from the Caribbean and from East and West Africa. They served in all three services, as well as in the Merchant Navy and in civilian work, and notably in the nursing services. There is little doubt that, without their contribution, the allied war effort would not have succeeded, and the war would have gone on for a great deal longer had they not been with us.

BCEL was founded after the First World War by Field Marshal Earl Haigh. Incidentally, he was the grandfather of the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever. Since that time, it has helped Commonwealth ex-servicemen and women in need, and continues to do so. With a tiny staff of only four, but with volunteers in Commonwealth countries, BCEL dispenses around £1 million per annum to those in need.

But as the years roll on, we find that demands for support outstrip our resources as more and more of our comrades in arms, without pensions or welfare and often living on starvation levels, are unable to fend for themselves in their old age.

Under the leadership of our Grand President, HRH Prince Philip, BCEL has established this year a Jubilee Appeal to raise £5 million—a positive response to this debate. I take this opportunity to commend this initiative. It is surely a matter of honour that we should care for those who did their duty by coming to our aid in our hour of need.

The time allotted for this debate is short. However, perhaps I may commend one further initiative with which the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and I are associated; namely, the memorial gates now under construction at the top of Constitution Hill. I know that taxi drivers, and possibly some of your Lordships, curse the traffic jams. But it may come as a surprise that, apart from a small plaque in St Paul's Cathedral and another in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, there is no major memorial in London to the troops of the Indian Sub-continent, East and West Africa or the Caribbean islands who took part in either of the world wars. Therefore, under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, with the generous support of the Millennium Commission and with other generous contributions from numerous individuals, the memorial gates will be a lasting and long overdue memorial to the Commonwealth troops from the countries I have mentioned who came to our aid in the First World War, 1914–1918, and in the Second World War, 1939–1946. They did so in such numbers, and fought with such courage and loyalty—every single one of them a volunteer.

I began by saying that it was a privilege to have served in the Indian Army and to have fought in Burma with such fine troops. It was indeed. I conclude by again thanking the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for initiating the debate and for giving me an opportunity to let your Lordships know that BCEL will continue to bring aid and comfort to the surviving ex-servicemen and women who supported us in such numbers and with such loyalty.

We are not asking for money from the Government, strangely enough. We should like some, of course. But we should not forget the contribution of those troops. We should help them now, in their hour of need.

8.40 p.m.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, raises the standard today for an important group of people who were required to go wherever they were told and to put their lives on the line in order that this country should remain free. I cannot claim to be such a veteran. I am one of that onetime famous breed known as war babies. I was born during the war. Fortunately for me, my father was in a reserved occupation and was not called up, but the vast majority of men of his age were called up. Many of them did not come back, and many of those who did were injured to some extent.

The Question refers to ex-servicemen who were seriously wounded or suffered serious injuries to health. One of the difficulties that many ex-servicemen find is that, while their injuries were not terribly serious when they came back—not serious enough to stop them working or carrying out a normal life—the older they get, the more difficulties those injuries cause them. As the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, said, as people get older they become more disabled anyhow. If someone is carrying an old injury, even if they appeared to have recovered from it in the past, it can often reappear and cause particular mobility problems and psychological problems in later life.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I had in mind the prisoners of war of the Japanese in south east Asia. Those who survived suffered very serious injuries even though they were not wounded by weapons.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I shall refer to those people later.

The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, referred to the recent appointment of a Minister responsible for veterans' affairs. That is linked with the Government's new Veterans' Forum and their taskforce. It is tempting to be cynical when the Government talk about forums and taskforces because they have set up so many of them, but in this instance the move is welcome. It is a clear recognition of a need that should have been dealt with before. From these Benches we welcome that very much. It is too soon to judge the outcome of the initiatives because they began only last year. but we shall look at the effects of the new appointments and bodies. We sincerely hope that, by working together with veterans' organisations and others, they will be able to do the work that has been identified.

When I was talking to others in preparation for the debate, somebody said to me that it is all right being an injured arid disabled war veteran as long as you are prepared to be patient. If you wait, sooner or later somebody will come along and look after you. I questioned him further about the NHS priority that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, mentioned. He said that the situation was often all right within the NHS, but a lot of what such veterans need if they are living at home in the community does not come from the NHS but is on the borderline between NHS, social services, housing and other agencies. There is not the same recognition among those non-NHS agencies of the important status that people who have offered the ultimate sacrifice and come back injured or disabled need.

It has been suggested to me that a lot of elderly disabled people have problems with equipment and adaptations, particularly mobility equipment such as electric wheelchairs, which can be extremely sophisticated these days, as well as the more run-of-the-mill social services adaptations such as stair lifts which allow people to continue living in their own homes. In some cases those are a matter for the NHS but in many cases they are a matter for social services. The arrangements by which they are delivered vary considerably from place to place.

The organiser for the Royal British Legion in the north of England, who is a near neighbour of mine, said that there have been improvements in charities working together on providing mobility equipment.

They are getting their act together and are now working together quite well. However, that is not necessarily the case with local authorities. In some cases they are able to work together with local authorities and perhaps share the cost of an electric wheelchair, which might be £2,000 to £3,000, but in other cases they cannot. Once such people have been assessed as needing a wheelchair, the local authority view is often that they should go on the list. The local authority will pay but the person concerned will have to wait, so it might be 18 months before they are able to get the wheelchair.

It might be helpful if the Government could provide advice to local authorities in the case of people who have served in the Armed Forces, for whom some funding may be available from charities such as the Royal British Legion and others. There should be cooperation between the charities and local authorities. As an indication of the importance of that work, I have been told that 40 per cent of the mainstream funding grants that the Royal British Legion provides in the north of England now goes on mobility equipment.

Many of the services that former servicemen and war veterans receive are not specific to them but are part of the general services within the community. Because of their particular difficulties, in many cases they find that they can no longer live in their own homes and they have to go into residential accommodation. I am aware that there is financial pressure on residential accommodation provided by charities and that difficulties are caused by the new, more stringent regulations that the Government are bringing in for such homes, for the best of motives. However, most of the war veterans whom I have talked to have been in local authority old people's homes. There is real concern that provision in that sector is being dramatically reduced. In Lancashire, where I live, the county council has just published a one-option consultation proposal that three-quarters of its homes for the elderly should be closed. The council wants to transfer the resources to domiciliary care. That affects 36 homes across Lancashire. That has caused a lot of alarm for people who can see no option but to live in a home at a time when the private sector is also being put under great pressure.

My final concern relates to those who were prisoners of war in Japanese camps in the Far East. The compensation payments that have been made to those former prisoners have been very welcome, but it is a matter of great regret that the way in which the scheme was announced gave the impression that those payments would be made to all the former prisoners who had served in the British forces, including those among the 5 million Commonwealth citizens—or citizens of the Empire, as they were then—referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill.

The subsequent news that that understanding was inaccurate—although it had been very widely publicised in the press in places such as India and Pakistan and in newspapers such as the Daily Jang in this country—caused enormous disappointment and gave a very poor impression of what this country is about. People who were mainly officers, mainly white and largely still British citizens quite rightly received compensation. Those who held other ranks and were mainly Indian citizens—although they may now be Pakistani or Bangladeshi citizens—did not receive compensation although they had served in the Indian Army.

There was a widespread belief that they would get compensation; many people living in towns and villages on the Indian subcontinent believed that they would be receiving it. When the point was brought home to them that they would not be receiving compensation, many servicemen and widows felt great disappointment and anger, partly because they thought that they would be receiving it. It has not done this country's reputation much good at all, certainly not among those with whom I have been in contact, at second hand through a friend of mine, in villages in the Punjab in Pakistan.

The compensation payments would have been quite outstanding and transformed those people's lives. They were given the vision that they would be receiving compensation. Hundreds of thousands of forms were filled in and sent to this country, but they were all sent back with the words, "Sorry, no". It is not a very happy episode at all.

8.51 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, as a past serving member of the Lifeguards I am only too aware of the importance of the debate that has been initiated by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy.

Participation in conflict creates unique circumstances once that conflict ceases, particularly if the participant was injured during service. Historical records suggest that pensions in one form or another have almost always been paid to the casualties of war. During King Alfred's reign, pensions or the equivalent in grants of land were an established form of reward for disablement. Queen Elizabeth I declared that: such as have adventured their lives and lost their limbs, or disabled their bodies in defence of Her Majesty and the State, should be relieved and rewarded that they may reap the fruit of their good deserving". The current Government have done rather a lot to raise awareness of "veterans' affairs" and to improve the situation of ex-servicemen. During the last Parliament, the Veterans' Advice Unit was established. It is a confidential helpline to advise ex-servicemen and their families on where and how to obtain expert advice on a number of issues. The facility went online in May 2000.

Like the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, I welcomed the appointment of Dr Moonie in March 2000 as Minister with responsibility for veterans affairs. Since his appointment, the Veterans Forum has been created along with the Veterans Task Force. Those bodies are intended to identify the issues that concern ex-servicemen and to ensure that the policies of individual government departments and of devolved administrations are co-ordinated. They also look at co-operation between government and veterans' organisations and at education.

Recently, pensions have been the best publicised aspect of ex-servicemen's situation, due largely to the tax error. Last month, Dr Moonie announced that, a number of Army pensioners have had their attributable invaliding pension mistakenly taxed".—[Official Report, Commons, 23/1/02; col. 891.] The MoD examined the files of more than 25,000 ex-servicemen and found that 1,003 had been underpaid. The 1952 income and corporation taxes legislation made pensions tax free if they were granted on account of medical unfitness attributable to service in the Armed Forces. Civil servants managing Army pensions failed to take that into account. The Daily Telegraph estimated that the oversight could cost about £50 million, although the MoD disputes that.

So the current Government have some achievements, but what about the Armed Forces Pension Scheme, which is currently under review? That MoD review has been running for three years. When will it be completed? BLESMA—the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association—while emphasising its appreciation of the war pension, has expressed concern about maintenance of that pension against other pensions and allowances. The association would, value a regular articulated commitment to that principle from the Government". For example, the unemployability supplement paid to those whose war disability prevents them from working has thus far been seen as equating to the retirement pension. The unemployability supplement used to increase at the same rate as the retirement pension but it no longer does. When will the Government consider rethinking that issue?

Last November, the president of the Forces Pension Society raised a similar point during a parliamentary lunch meeting. He emphasised the cost-neutral straitjacket that was imposed on the review from the start. Is it correct to impose a cost-neutral straitjacket on those who unselfishly risked their lives and limbs for their country? The constraint means that existing resources are merely redistributed and war pensions remain well behind standard practice elsewhere.

The Forces Pension Society criticises current policy in a number of ways, ranging from the duration of the reviewing process—compared with that undertaken for the parliamentary pension scheme—to the well-documented anomalies and inequities that occur and will continue to occur. For example, a major who retired in 1977 receives £4,269 less per annum than an exactly comparable major who retired two years earlier, in 1975. The widow of an ex-serviceman also can be subject to anomalies within the system—anomalies based on the date of her marriage. Will the Government ensure that ex-servicemen are provided for at a level comparable with other professions or indeed comparable to their parliamentary masters?

Another issue is whether war pensions should be disregarded when councils are working out entitlements to help with rent and council tax. At present local authorities have discretionary powers on whether to disregard war disablement and war widows' pensions. So we have a situation in which disregard depends on where a war pensioner lives. In other words, we have post-code pensions. Is it true that the Government have no plans to change that?

Another important matter relating to ex-servicemen is how easily they can gain access to healthcare. As has been said, in 1953 hospitals run by the Ministry of Pensions for the treatment of war pensioners were transferred to the NHS. The Government undertook to ensure that war pensioners would receive priority treatment in NHS hospitals for the conditions for which they received a war pension or gratuity. In 1997 the definition of the term "war pensioner" was extended to include those injured during the inter-war years. However, as my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy and the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, have said, BLESMA has expressed concern that priority treatment in the NHS is often forgotten at the point of delivery. BLESMA states that, the NHS has a duty to remind its staff on a regular basis. BLESMA often has to remind Trusts and staff that the priority exists". Ex-servicemen who have lost a limb are also entitled to a duplicate limb. BLESMA is concerned that this is becoming an increasingly mythical provision in the NHS. Funds earmarked by the NHS for the limb service are not ring-fenced and can become lost at the local trust level. BLESMA has heard from one limb centre that it now feels forced to deny war pensioners this additional service. Will the Government issue a circular to remind the NHS that the priority exists so as to ensure that war pensioners will receive priority treatment in NHS hospitals for the conditions for which they received a war pension or gratuity?

The Royal British Legion is the leading charitable organisation dedicated to ex-servicemen and their dependants. Some 15 million people are eligible to approach the legion. Its activities touch the lives of many more people than that. The legion offered free representation at some 6,000 war pension appeal cases during 2000. It provides breaks in homes for people who have been ill or bereaved and homes specialising in nursing and residential care. It is expected that the demand for long-term care will increase over the next few years. Figures suggest that 40 per cent of those eligible for help will require some form of care at the age of 70, and 70 per cent at the age of 80. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, mentioned nursing in that connection.

The RBL is the best known organisation but there are countless others in the voluntary sector, all of which do a tremendous amount of work in protecting the interests, welfare and memory of ex-service people and their dependants. It is pleasing to see that the Government prioritise co-operation between government and the voluntary sector.

9.2 p.m.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I very much welcome the opportunity to respond to the debate on behalf of the Government. I have found it a fascinating debate to listen to. If one is allowed to discriminate among your Lordships, I think they will all understand when I say that I was particularly fascinated to hear the contributions of the three speakers who had suffered during the Second World War. I found what they had to say absolutely fascinating. I pay tribute in particular, of course, to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for initiating the debate. I recognise his incredibly distinguished service.

I shall try to reply to most of the points that were made. Some of the comments I shall make will relate more generally to ex-servicemen and women rather than specifically to those who served in the Second World War. Some of the comments I shall make will relate to the situation post-World War Two when, of course, changes were made.

At the end of December 2001 there were 274,000 war pensions in payment comprising 223,000 war disablement pensions and around 51,000 war widows' pensions. Of course, a large proportion of those are in respect of service in World War Two, which the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, specifically addresses. In looking at the figures when researching the issue one realises that there are, incredibly, still people in receipt of pensions who served in World War One. It is sobering to think of people's contribution to that war.

It is only right for me to pay tribute—as one would expect anyone of my generation to do—to those who risked and gave their lives in the Second World War to ensure that people of my generation could live in freedom. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said that he was a Second World War baby, as was I. I took the precaution of not arriving until after we had won the Battle of Britain and the world was a little safer. Our generation owes an enormous debt to the preceding one.

As a number of speakers, including my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath and the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, have mentioned, we are also indebted to all those volunteers who support the ex-servicemen's associations in so many different ways. My noble friend Lord Hardy mentioned his former constituency and I hope that it is not invidious of me to think of mine. I think of a good friend of mine, Dennis Edwards, the chairman of the Telford branch of SSAFA in Shropshire and the voluntary work that these people do in numerous ways, for example, helping people with their pensions, helping widows and assisting with bereavement. They assist in a whole range of ways. All that is done voluntarily and they would not dream of asking for any reward. As we all know, that is happening up and down the country.

A wide range of information is available in respect of the various schemes that are available to people who have been in the services and what they provide. There is a statutory provision for a report on war pensions to be presented to Parliament each year. That report, the war pensioners' report, details the current number of war pensions' recipients and also gives information on the various issues affecting war pensioners considered by the statutory central advisory committee on war pensions. That committee meets twice a year with the Minister responsible for veterans' affairs. Committee members traditionally represent major ex-service organisations.

A further statutory annual report is presented to Parliament by the chief executive of the War Pensions Agency. The War Pensions Agency annual report and accounts detail how the war pensions scheme is administered and include details of performance targets and achievements. Those documents fully describe the rules of entitlement for pensions benefits under the schemes and record the levels at which pensions are set. It is, of course, vitally important that we disseminate the information and that people know exactly what their entitlements are.

I wish to mention briefly the Armed Forces Pension Scheme which, as the House will know, was introduced after the Second World War but is part of the overall picture. The normal full retirement age for Armed Forces personnel is 55, by which time most individuals have earned a full career pension. However, immediate pensions are payable on retirement at younger ages. Pensions are increased annually in line with the rate of inflation using the RPI so that they maintain their purchasing power.

The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, asked a specific question as to when the review of the Armed Forces Pension Scheme would be complete. The review's emerging findings were published for a period of public consultation last year which ended on 31st July. The responses to the consultation are now being considered. The Government will publish a report on the outcome of the consultation in due course.

I am not going to give the House endless detail about the levels of war pensions. I simply point out that they are available to people who served after the Second World War as well as to those who were injured or bereaved as a result of service during the Second World War. This Government have fully protected the purchasing power of war pensions by uprating them again in April this year in line with the retail prices index. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, who specifically raised the issue that the recent problem over tax has not affected the war pensions to which I refer, which are tax free. It is important to be absolutely clear about that point.

Over the years the provisions of the War Pensions Scheme have been 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 higher rates compared to social security benefits.

There is another point about the special service that is provided to all war pensioners. I understand from reports to us that it is greatly valued. I refer to the War Pensioners Welfare Service. It exists to help war pensioners, war widows, their dependants and carers and to provide personal confidential advice and support. The welfare service works very closely with the ex-service charities and it is held in high regard by the ex-service community.

I remind the House of the service it provides. Whatever the needs of a pensioner or widow, the War Pensioners Welfare Service aims to provide a confidential service of the highest standard. All the welfare staff undergo professional training and the type of help they can assist in delivering is infinitely varied. The following are a few examples touching on some of the issues which have been raised during this debate: first, making sure that a person receives their full entitlement to a war pension; secondly, checking entitlement to any other state benefits; thirdly, obtaining financial assistance from ex-service charities; fourthly, helping with a move to residential care, which refers to a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves; fifthly, assisting with disability problems, which is extremely important; and, sixthly, arranging a number of other benefits which are of particular advantage to war pensioners.

A number of speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, but more specifically the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, raised the issue of priority treatment for war pensioners in the National Health Service. I can assure the House that the Government remain committed to the longstanding pledge that war pensioners should be given priority in National Health Service hospitals for examination or treatment relating to their pensioned disablement, subject always, of course, to the needs of emergencies or other cases which demand clinical priority. There has been absolutely no change in the position on that. The War Pensions Agency liaises with colleagues in the health service to ensure that periodic reminders about the priority treatment arrangements are issued to hospitals, GPs and other key individuals in the referral process. War pensioners themselves are also informed of their right to priority treatment in leaflets issued by the War Pensions Agency with award notifications in pensions books. They are also informed of the importance of telling their GP about the disability for which a war pension or a gratuity has been awarded. That is an extremely important issue. I hope that I have clarified it.

I now move to the Veterans' Initiative, which I am so pleased was welcomed by so many speakers. It is one of the themes of this Parliament to try to ensure that—I do not like phrases such as "a joined-up approach" but the House knows what I am talking about—different government departments relate to one another in a common cause, particularly when it is as important as veterans' issues.

There was a welcome for this from a number of speakers, including the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves and others. It was because of the Government's determination to provide a coordinated government focus for veterans' concerns that on 14th March last year my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced that Dr Lewis Moonie, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, would also become responsible for ensuring that veterans' issues are properly understood, appropriately prioritised and effectively addressed right across government.

The appointment of a Minister for veterans' affairs demonstrates clear recognition by the Government of the special status of the ex-service community and the unique contribution that it has made to the nation. I should like to put on the record the three priorities identified for the initiative. They were: first, to pull together the Government's response to issues that cut across government departments, such as the assistance that is provided to address homelessness or ill-health; secondly, to ensure that the lessons learnt are absorbed into future Ministry of Defence planning; and, thirdly, to co-ordinate communication by publicising and demonstrating the full range of assistance that is offered to veterans by central and local government and to ensure that veterans' organisations have the opportunity to represent their concerns to government at ministerial level.

Several noble Lords pointed out that my honourable friend Lewis Moonie has chaired two new groups, the Veterans Task Force and the Veterans Forum. The Veterans Forum is precisely the kind of body in which many of the issues that were discussed by noble Lords can be raised. We were given, I believe, 18 months on probation by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim. I am sure that my honourable friend in the other place will read this debate and take notice of that. However, I am very pleased with the start that has been made. A number of issues have already been discussed by the Veterans Forum. One concern is that the generation that is not represented here—the younger generation—should be made aware of all that has happened in the past.

I am running out of time and I shall finish very soon but I want to relate a tremendously heartening experience from my former constituency. Every year around Remembrance Day there is a ceremony of light, at which young people play in a band and a candle is lit for 100 people from the Wrekin area who gave their lives. The fact that it takes 12 years to get through the full list of people who gave their lives in two world wars gives some indication of the sacrifices that were made.

In conclusion, the Government are open with Parliament and ex-service organisations on what to do for those who are disabled or bereaved as a result of service to this country. There is a comprehensive package of help and support which includes financial recognition by way of the various service pensions and professional help and advice in the form of the War Pensioners' Welfare Service and the Veterans' Initiative, to which I have already referred.

The Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, specifically related to World War II. I know that the House will understand that whatever the level of benefits that our servicemen and women receive, it could never be enough to repay the sacrifice of those who risked and gave their lives saving our country's freedom and, in so doing, defending the whole of the free world.

Our debt is immeasurable but I hope that the report that this welcome debate has enabled me to present to the House gives some assurance about the practical measures and assistance that the Ministry of Defence is giving to those who have themselves given so much.

Viscount Slim

My Lords, before the Minister concludes, I shall try- -with my memory being what it is—to be helpful. We very often forget the Merchant Navy. There is currently a problem about who is responsible for it. There is no need for the Minister to answer that now. Merchant seamen wear veterans' medals, they fought from their merchant ships and many thousands of them died in the sinking of those ships. Perhaps the Minister would care to think about that matter. I know that we accept anyone with a Burma Star, for instance, whether he was in the Royal Navy or the Merchant Navy.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I assure the noble Viscount that I shall write to him on that detail.

House adjourned at nineteen minutes past nine o'clock.