Like many people born after world war two, we hoped that war was going to be a thing of the past, but since then we have seen war and conflict in many parts of the world, from the Falkland Islands to the Balkans, and now in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the list of dead and injured increases daily. Those men and women look to their Government to deliver their side of the covenant between them and their country.
“When people sign up to our armed services, they show that they are prepared to put their life on the line for their country. In return, they should be certain that they and their family will be looked after appropriately.”
These were the words of a constituent of mine in a letter to me. That idea will form the crux of the debate today, and I hope that no one in this Chamber would dispute the sentiments of my constituent. Instead, we need to discuss whether we are meeting our obligations to our armed forces, and, if we are not, what we must do to remedy this.
It is important to note at the outset that significant efforts have been made in recent years by the Government, and where Ministers have made positive changes, I commend them. However, that ought not to disguise the fact that certain aspects of the military covenant are not being delivered. I believe that we need to make some real and substantive changes if we are to say honestly that we are meeting those obligations.
I pay tribute to the work of the British Legion, which has done so much to raise the profile of the issue and to focus this debate. I shall make an effort to keep my remarks relatively brief because I want to give the Minister as much time as possible to answer the points that I shall raise. I pay tribute also to a number of my constituents, including Sarah Benett, Tim Gregory and Philip Howard, who have written to me, along with many others, on this subject.
I shall focus first on the issue of fair and just compensation for injuries or illnesses caused by service in the armed forces. This is a key area of concern raised with me by my constituents. As hon. Members will be aware, the armed forces compensation scheme introduced a fundamentally different method for compensating those who have suffered injury or illness as a result of service. When the Government introduced the compensation scheme in April 2005, few people would have said that the system was not in need of an overhaul. Many of the changes are positive and have made a real difference, but in too many respects introduction of the AFCS has resulted in an erosion of the support provided through the military covenant.
For me and many of my constituents, the most pressing of those changes is the way in which the burden of proof in a compensation claim falls at the door of the claimant and their family. Instead of giving the claimant the benefit of the doubt, cases are decided on the balance of probabilities. Hon. Members will be aware that before the compensation scheme was introduced, the burden of proof in such cases lay—quite rightly—with the Secretary of State. I have yet to hear a convincing argument for why it is right that soldiers should have to prove that their injuries were a result of service. I find it quite extraordinary that the Government should take that position, and I look forward to the Minister’s explanation.
In 2003, the House of Commons Defence Committee commented:
“Because of the special risks that Armed Forces personnel are required to run, and because they are likely to be involved in situations of great uncertainty, with uncertain effects on their health, we continue to believe that the onus should remain on the government to prove that service was not responsible for causing or worsening a condition for which a compensation claim is made.”
I doubt that many people here today believe that that is asking too much, and yet earlier this year, the Ministry of Defence said:
“The ‘balance of probabilities’ standard of proof is the accepted approach in other occupational schemes as well as in the civil courts.”
I am afraid that the accepted standards of the civil courts cannot simply be transferred to a military context. For example, how are soldiers supposed to provide “reasonable, reliable evidence”, especially following involvement in a battlefield situation? I would like to know also what service personnel ought to do, given that very often they cannot provide full medical records.
My second point was articulated ably by the Defence Committee in 2003:
“Armed Forces personnel are also put in an unusual position by the fact that their medical records are in the hands of the employer against whom any claim for compensation will be made. There is no doubt about military doctors’ honesty, but it is wrong in principle that they should be put in the position of creating the documents on which compensation claims will be based while at the same time relying for employment on the very employer against whom those compensation claims will be made.”
This is set against a backdrop of military record keeping that even Ministers have acknowledged is less than perfect.
I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on a number of other issues related to the compensation scheme. Members will be aware that the compensation scheme allows for three injuries only to be claimed if all of the injuries have resulted from the same incident, and that the lump sum awarded for each injury reduces with each one claimed. That effectively means that people are suffering from injuries, but are not being compensated for them, for which the only reason is that they were more seriously injured than the compensation scheme allows for. I simply cannot see any principled justification for not fully compensating armed forces personnel for each and every injury sustained in a single incident.
I take issue with the time limit imposed on service personnel’s claims for compensation. The time limit for an initial claim under the compensation scheme is five years from the date that the injury occurred, or from the date that medical treatment for an illness was first sought. There can be no justification for setting time limits for claims. The military covenant outlines a lifelong duty of care, and, therefore, all time restrictions should be removed from the scheme. Again, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on that point.
On access to health, the military covenant states:
“Only on the basis of absolute confidence in the justice and morality of the cause, can British soldiers be expected to be prepared to give their lives for others. This unlimited liability on the part of the individual in turn demands collective responsibility of the nation for the welfare of all servicemen and women, serving and retired, and their dependants.”
More recently, in April 2007, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, confirmed that this
“means a continuous duty of care. Once a soldier, always a soldier”.
Again, I am sure that no one here would dispute the sentiments behind that statement, and I am aware that great strides have been made in recent years. However, there is more that we have to do in this respect. For example, the often misdiagnosed mental health problems that are an ever-growing issue will have to be tackled. I am aware that the Government are supporting a number of initiatives in this area, and I would appreciate an update on those from the Minister today. It is vital that we pay particular attention to the provision of mental health services for veterans, and greater investment will be required if veterans are to receive the care that they deserve.
It is not only in this country that veterans feel that they have been left to their own resources. Some years ago, I was involved in a project in the United States in which I had to interview a number of homeless people, including former military personnel who felt that they had not received the support to reintegrate into everyday life. They had mental and physical health problems, and a number of them felt that they had been left on the scrap heap. We must ensure that that does not happen in this country.
A number of constituents who have contacted me referred to apparent mistakes that were made in the weeks and months following the death of a friend or family member in the services. Although the death of a family member will always be an impossible time for the families involved, there are things that we can do to ease hardship during this time. Some time ago, the family of a young soldier who had died in Iraq contacted me to say that the information had leaked early from the Ministry of Defence to the press; under normal circumstances, they would have been given 24 hours before the name of the young soldier was released. That information had leaked out and the mother and father, who were constituents of mine, were doorstepped the next morning by the tabloid press. I raised that issue at the time.
I am not implying that that was a deliberate move, but mistakes are made and families suffer. When parents, wives, brothers and sisters have lost loved ones, all efforts must be made to ensure that they are given the support that they need. Sometimes the system breaks down and nothing can be done about it, but I think that there are too many examples in which, after the event, people feel that greater support could have been given.
Again, owing to the nature of death in service, many cases are referred to the coroner for an inquest. However, it is not acceptable that 121 families in the UK are still awaiting inquests, 21 of which are for deaths that occurred before May 2006. The inquest into the death of Corporal Allbutt, which occurred in March 2003, was heard on 9 June 2007—more than four years later. That is plainly unacceptable, and I hope for a detailed update from the Minister on the backlog and on any progress towards reducing it.
Inquests can be very confusing for the families of service personnel, particularly for those without knowledge or first-hand experience of the legal system or the military, because deaths in service can, by their very nature, be very complicated. In 2006, in the conclusions of the review into the deaths at the Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut, Nicolas Blake QC made the following recommendation:
“As part of the Military Covenant with the soldier, the MoD should ensure that the family of a deceased soldier have access to legal advice and, where appropriate, legal representation prior to, and during, the inquest or fatal accident inquiry.”
I should like to hear from the Minister today that we are on our way to providing a system of legal support that families can rely on if they need it, not merely a system that they can access in “exceptional circumstances”, as is currently the case.
Every Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister reads out the names of soldiers killed in combat. When men and women are prepared to put their life on the line for their country, the least that we can do is to ensure that there is a proper support system in place for them and their families. My constituents, the Royal British Legion, service personnel and their families up and down the country and beyond will have listened to this debate. They will want the Minister to leave them in no doubt that he and his Government are prepared to honour the military covenant, and to commit the resources required to give people serving their country what they deserve. All that they are asking for is what is fair. They will settle for nothing less.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) on securing this debate on the important topic of the military covenant, following the launch of the Royal British Legion’s campaign. Of course, I pay tribute to our men and women in uniform, who are an absolute credit to the nation and to their families. People who have paid the ultimate price or have been injured, and their families, should always be in our thoughts. I hope to be able to give the hon. Gentleman a clear statement about our commitment to, and efforts to support, our serving personnel and veterans.
I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion and the other ex-service organisations, with which I, both as a constituency MP and as a Minister, have had a long relationship, for their work in supporting service personnel, their families and veterans. The well-being and support of our serving and former personnel is a top priority for the Government. This is a good opportunity to hold the debate, because I can set out what the Government have done. At the Royal British Legion campaign launch, it was almost inevitable that the press would focus on what it considered to be the negative aspects of our support and differences of opinion, rather than give a fair wind to the overall support that we give our service personnel.
There is not enough time to set out all the improvements that the Ministry of Defence has made to the way in which we look after our people, so I shall focus on the Royal British Legion’s “Honour the Covenant” campaign. Before I do so, I shall spend some time setting out in detail what the MOD and the Government have done in recent times, especially the past year.
We have seen the best pay rise in the public sector— 3.3 per cent. for everyone—with the lowest-paid private soldiers receiving more than 9 per cent. The operational allowance, which was introduced last October and backdated to April 2006, has been raised to £2,320 for a six-month tour. There is an improved operational welfare package for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, with more free telephone calls—30 minutes a week—and better internet access, including another doubling of terminals, which was announced last week, and the introduction of a wi-fi service. There is also a welfare package, both for injured staff who are back in this country, and for their families during their stay in hospital.
Service personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan will benefit from a tax-free rebate of £140 on the cost of their council tax, and we will make further improvements. We have announced a comprehensive modernisation of terms and conditions of service for Gurkhas, and financial retention initiatives for the hardest-pressed groups, in which there are pinch points, were awarded this year: £10,000 for the Royal Marines, £4,500 for the infantry, £50,000 for air crew and £20,000 for nurses in return for agreed lengths of extended service.
Our resettlement package, on which, again, the press do not want to focus, for service personnel returning to civilian life has been improved, and the National Audit Office this year said that the package was at the forefront of the best international practice, with about 94 per cent. of service leavers finding work within six months. There has also been significant investment in new equipment. We have just announced an extra 140 Mastiff vehicles for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In total, we have spent more than £1 billion on force protection such as new weapons, body armour and helicopters. Having just returned from a visit to Afghanistan, the clear and overwhelming message from our armed forces personnel is that their personal equipment is the best that they have ever had. We therefore do not pay lip service to the principle of the military covenant. We recognise, support and reward those people who put their lives on the line for the security of this nation.
To address the issue in more depth, the armed forces compensation scheme, which was introduced in 2005, provided for lump sum payments to be made for the first time. In addition, injured service personnel receive a tax-free, index-linked income for life when they leave, which, in the case of the most seriously injured individuals, can amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds over a lifetime. If an injured member of the armed forces is not expected to work again, the income is based directly on their service salary. The scheme is relatively new, and we need to learn from our experience of the cases that arise today. I have made it clear that we will keep the scheme under constant review, but we have already reviewed the rules that apply when an individual suffers more than one injury in a single incident—the most serious multiple injuries, on which there has been much focus recently. As a result, we propose to increase the lump sum benefits that are paid to the most severely injured personnel. Although we need to consult more widely, that would mean that the most seriously injured individuals, such as Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson, would receive the full award of £285,000. I stress that the lump sum is only part of the overall package of financial support. There has been a lot of focus on the lump sum, but it is just one part of the overall financial support. It includes a guaranteed income, which will, for those who receive the full lump sum, amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The scheme is not capped like the criminal injuries compensation scheme: it is important to clarify that point. For example, one of our personnel who suffers the most serious injuries and receives the maximum amount of £285,000 will receive a significant income for the rest of their life. Someone on £25,000 would receive a guaranteed income payment of £21,725 a year, index-linked and tax free for life. Again, that is a substantial package, and it is not capped in the same way as payments under the criminal injuries compensation scheme. Subject to consultation, we aim to bring those changes into force before the end of the year, which demonstrates our commitment to our most severely disabled service personnel.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West made several points about the burden of proof. The standard of proof is based on the balance of probabilities, which is the accepted approach of schemes such as the criminal injuries compensation scheme. The work is not particularly onerous for the claimant, because the MOD undertakes most of the tasks by gathering evidence. No case should fail when there is reasonable, reliable evidence that the injury is due to service. More than 70 per cent. of in-service claims were successful in the first year, and we keep the scheme under review. I told the Royal British Legion that if it gives me examples of people who fail to secure the compensation payment to which they are entitled, I shall consider those cases. We were recently given a small number of cases, which we shall consider to see whether there is any problem in the scheme itself. We will continue to review the scheme.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the issue of time limits—again, the scheme is more generous than civil litigation cases—and spoke about the special nature of our armed forces. The armed forces compensation scheme sets a limit of five years for claims, compared with three years in civil cases. The five-year limit can be extended for certain late-onset illnesses, including cancer and mental illness. Additionally, time limits can be extended when the claimant cannot submit a claim within the time limit because they are suffering from a physical or mental illness. Again, we shall keep that under review.
We provide expert medical treatment and care to injured personnel on the front line, as I recently saw for myself when I visited Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. In the UK, the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at Selly Oak in Birmingham and the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court in Surrey are models of clinical excellence. The military-managed ward at Selly Oak is now operational, and I visited it a few weeks ago. The overwhelming feedback that I had both from patients—the armed forces personnel—and their families was that excellent treatment and care was being provided. As the Chief of the General Staff said, there is nowhere better than Selly Oak, and Headley Court has a world-class reputation.
We recognise the vital role that families play in patients’ recovery, so the MOD provides both family accommodation and funding to help with accommodation and travel costs for families visiting injured personnel. I welcome the help provided by Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association Forces Help with family accommodation at both Selly Oak and Headley Court. I believe that our forces are best supported by the long-established partnership between the Government and ex-services organisations in the charitable sector, with each partner contributing what it does best.
We ensure that there is a proper transfer of care when personnel are medically discharged, we manage individuals’ resettlement, and we provide welfare support from a case officer who monitors the most seriously disabled personnel for at least two years after their discharge. That is a fairly recently innovation, but we need to do more and improve the provision, because many people are involved in care and resettlement, and we need to ensure that the co-ordination works well.
One issue that has been given particular focus is mental health. We recognise that mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder, are serious and disabling conditions which can, however, be treated. Research that we commissioned showed no significant difference in health problems faced by personnel on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and personnel who are not on deployment, but it showed a slightly higher level of mental illness among reservists, which we are addressing. Our focus is on prevention, recovery and rehabilitation. We have measures in place to increase awareness and mitigate disorders, including pre-deployment and post-deployment briefings, support, assessment and, if required, treatment during and after military operations. We also arrange a period of decompression to help service personnel unwind after an operational tour.
All service personnel who are injured on operational deployments are entitled to the same level of medical treatment and support, whether they are regulars or reservists. The recently introduced reserves mental health programme provides assessments for reservists and, if they are diagnosed with operational mental health conditions, they are offered out-patient treatment at one of the MOD’s 15 departments of community mental health. The mental health of veterans has been a focus for both the public and the press in recent months. Successive Governments have shared the view that the NHS should be the main provider of health care for veterans, but we recognise that many health professionals have limited experience of dealing with symptoms resulting from military experience. We commissioned important research into delayed-onset post-traumatic stress disorder and, separately, into suicidal behaviour among discharged personnel. Both projects are due to report early next year.
My Department and UK health agencies, with the help of Combat Stress, have developed a new community-based mental health service, which will be piloted across the UK from this month onwards. The service will provide GPs with regional NHS networks of expertise in military mental health, helping them to respond to veterans’ problems locally. The pilots will run for two years before they are evaluated and rolled out nationwide. In the interim, we have expanded our medical assessment programme, which is based at St Thomas’s hospital in London—just across the river from Parliament—to include an assessment of symptoms acquired by veterans in operational service since 1982, and to provide help, where appropriate, for service personnel in prison. That is a major step forward in support. The clinician in charge, Dr. Ian Palmer, served as a military medical officer, and is a consultant psychiatrist. He is therefore well qualified to provide service both to any veteran who is seeking expert advice and to their GP. The MOD also funds war pensioners undergoing remedial treatment at homes run by the charity, Combat Stress. We have agreed a phased increase in the fees that we pay—the overall figure will rise to 45 per cent. from 1 January 2008, which is a significant rise in support—to enable those homes to enhance their capability to treat veterans.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned inquests, and I am well aware of the distress, discomfort and upset that delays cause families. Of course, inquests are a key part of the process, as relatives want to know what happened to their loved ones. They are intended to establish who died, when, how and why. They are not adversarial, and legal representation is not usually necessary. If families want legal representation but cannot afford it, they can apply to the Legal Services Commission, which is part of the Ministry of Justice, for financial assistance. We give as much information as possible to families, but we redact information to ensure the security of personnel deployed on operations and to protect personal data. However, we provide non-redacted reports to coroners to help them decide which witnesses to call. The Oxford coroner has praised the MOD for the high level of support that he receives.
The timing of inquests is a matter for individual coroners, who are appointed and paid for by local authorities. My Department has a dedicated team to improve liaison with local coroners and to avoid delays. We provide payments for two members of the family to attend pre-inquest hearings as well as the inquest itself. We recognise how upsetting the delays caused by the repatriation of all service fatalities through RAF Brize Norton were for the families. We have therefore funded the appointment of deputy coroners to clear the outstanding inquests and, from 1 April 2007, repatriations have taken place via RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, where there is no backlog. We continue to make quarterly statements to the House on progress and provide significant funding to the Wiltshire coroner for the task.
Accommodation is another matter on which there has been a great deal of focus, and of course we accept that some accommodation is just not good enough for our service personnel. However, we have plans to spend a significant amount of money—£5 billion—in the next 10 years. We have invested £700 million in accommodation in the past year alone, and more than 1,200 quarters were upgraded to the highest standard last year. A total of 20,000 new en-suite single bed spaces have been delivered in the past five years, and a further 20,000 will be delivered in the next three years.
As an example of the progress that we have made on family accommodation, this financial year, we will make improvements to 5,000 service family homes, including substantial upgrades to more than 600 of the poorest properties. We have also achieved key worker status for personnel in the south-east, and the MOD has introduced other initiatives to help the armed forces with house purchases. Service personnel may need access to social housing, and we have announced our intention to change the relevant legislation to ensure that they are not disadvantaged by the usual requirement for a connection with the local area, which has been the subject of much discussion. We recently announced another £80 million to improve our housing stock.
I have focused on the role of the MOD in upholding the principle of the military covenant, but I am often asked about the contribution of other Departments, such as the contributions of the Ministry of Justice on inquests, the NHS on the care of both serving personnel and veterans, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills on training and the Department for Communities and Local Government on the provision of key worker housing. I am determined to develop even closer co-operation with those Departments to ensure that we provide an effective response to needs.
Beyond Government, society as a whole has a part to play. We should be imaginative and do what we can to encourage tangible acts of support rather than mere words. All parts of society have a role to play: commerce and industry, local government, charities and the public at large as well as the Government. Some organisations have already risen to the call to recognise the bravery and commitment of our service personnel. Local authorities and councils, the Royal Mail, football clubs and the City of London have offered their support. The Royal British Legion plays an important role in Project Compass, which helps homeless ex-service personnel to find work placements. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will join me in promoting the need for greater public recognition of the huge contribution of our armed forces in often very difficult operations.
The Government take seriously their responsibility for caring for the needs of our armed forces personnel and veterans, as I hope I have outlined today. The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, agrees and has said that the military covenant “is not broken.” I accept that there are areas in which we can improve our performance, but I believe firmly that the support that we give our armed forces is better than it has ever been. I look forward to continuing our close working relationship with the Royal British Legion and the other ex-service organisations so that we can build on our work and what has already been achieved.