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Lance Corporal Compton (Compensation)

Volume 477: debated on Wednesday 11 June 2008

I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. I also welcome the Minister, who is slowly and surely taking his place, and thank him for taking the time to respond to this debate.

I intend to conduct this debate in five sections. First, I shall make some introductory remarks about my interest in the case. Secondly, I shall be clear about what we want to achieve this morning. Thirdly, I will sketch out the background to the issue. Fourthly, I will run through the key points that need addressing. Fifthly, I shall wrap up with some concluding remarks.

I have two interests in this case—a constituency interest and a regimental interest. The constituency interest is that Lance Corporal Compton lives just—but only just—outside my Faversham and Mid-Kent constituency, in Staplehurst. His Member of Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is, incidentally, fully briefed on this case and is fully supportive. Therefore Lance Corporal Compton and I have the county of Kent in common.

The second connection, which is probably more obvious, is regimental, because we both served in the Life Guards. I served in that regiment from 1982 to 1995, and although three of those years were spent at university, I saw active service in Northern Ireland, with the UN in Bosnia and as adjutant of the regiment during the Gulf war. None of that, it is fair to say, bears comparison with the Army of today, particularly given the intensity of the low-level, hand-to-hand fighting seen in Afghanistan. In a week in which the death toll has reached 100, it is hardly surprising that there have been a considerable number of horrific injuries, such as the one that we are debating today.

I should like, in passing, to pay tribute to the Household Cavalry, which has supported Lance Corporal Compton right through his recovery and will, no doubt, continue to support him in the years ahead. I also pay tribute to Alistair Galloway, a young officer who served with the regiment and who, despite leaving the Army, has continued to help and advise Lance Corporal Compton.

What do I hope to achieve with this morning’s debate? The answer is simple. For reasons that I will outline, an offer of only 57 per cent. of the maximum compensation payable is inadequate recompense for injuries including third degree burns to 70 per cent. of his body, the loss of his ears and nose and complex injuries to his left arm and right leg that will never fully recover. It is inexcusable—I suspect the Minister agrees with me—that Lance Corporal Compton has received no indication whatsoever of the guaranteed income payment, which is effectively his pension, that he will receive for the rest of his life on leaving the Army.

I absolutely do not want to turn this into a party political issue or open up a wider debate about the operation of the armed forces compensation scheme, although that would be a worthwhile outcome. I simply seek to persuade the Minister that he should look again at this case, personally and as quickly as possible, to right what I believe, as a former soldier and current parliamentarian, is a horrible injustice. If the Minister agrees to re-examine this case personally and as quickly as possible, as far as I am concerned that will be a good outcome from this morning’s debate.

What is the background to the case? Lance Corporal Compton was injured in southern Afghanistan on 1 August 2006 while serving with D Squadron of the Household Cavalry Regiment in Helmand province. As the driver of a Spartan armoured reconnaissance vehicle, he suffered third degree burns to 70 per cent. of his body and a gunshot wound to his leg during a Taliban ambush on the vehicle. He was the only survivor of the incident, which resulted in the deaths of three of his colleagues from an improvised explosive device, or IED—I suspect, Dr. McCrea, that you will be familiar with such devices from your own constituency—and a direct rocket-propelled grenade attack. He fell from the vehicle while he was on fire and removed his burning body armour and helmet while coming under fire from the Taliban. He then crawled more than 80 m into cover, where he sustained a gunshot wound to his leg. It is a remarkable story. Lance Corporal Compton was rescued by other colleagues and evacuated to Camp Bastion, where he fell into a coma that lasted for three months, during which time he was revived after “dying” on three occasions. He was then flown to the specialist burns unit at Broomfield hospital in Chelmsford, Essex.

As a result of the attack, Lance Corporal Compton has lost both of his ears and his nose, which have been rebuilt. He has undergone multiple operations to repair his face and body, and he is still having rehabilitation treatment at the defence services medical rehabilitation centre at Headley Court in Surrey. That has enabled him to walk again and to regain the use of his arms and legs, but he will require further surgery and care in the future. It is an extraordinary tale that has clearly resulted in horrific and lifelong injuries.

The case presents two key issues. First and most importantly, the lump sum award made to Lance Corporal Compton under the armed forces compensation scheme does not reflect the severity of the 10 injuries that he sustained or account for the continued requirement for medical care that he will have for the rest of his life, his loss of future earnings—he can never be promoted again within the Army—and the momentous impact that his injuries will necessarily have on his quality of life. In my view, he fully deserves the maximum award, which is capped at £285,000.

Secondly, Lance Corporal Compton has still not received an indication of the guaranteed income payment to be paid annually for the rest of his life, which he is likely to receive on medical discharge from the armed forces—I referred to that point earlier. For fairly obvious reasons, it would be of immense benefit to him to calculate his income for the rest of this life, so that he can plan appropriately for the future.

Those are the two key issues, but the case raises a number of other matters, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on them. First, the Veterans Agency appears to have paid out the lowest amount available for each of the specific injuries sustained by Lance Corporal Compton. For example, burns to the face and neck are compensated as a tariff level 7 injury at £34,500. However, if Lance Corporal Compton were compensated for the loss of his nose and ears—he has clearly lost them—a considerably higher tariff, which runs up to £86,250, would be used. If the Veterans Agency is going to pick and choose between very different tariffs, surely—particularly in cases such as this—it should choose the higher tariff.

Secondly, the revised award to Lance Corporal Compton does not appear to take account of all his various injuries. As a result, injuries to his arms are included in the award, but there is no compensation for the smoke inhalation injuries that he suffered. If the compensation were calculated for all the different injuries that he received—a lawyer has actually done that calculation—Lance Corporal Compton would have come out above the maximum compensation figure.

Thirdly and far more generally, the armed forces compensation scheme is, as the Minister knows, currently undergoing a review. How long will that review take, and will Lance Corporal Compton’s compensation be reconsidered as a result? If the scheme is upgraded, I hope that Lance Corporal Compton will be in a position to benefit. Finally, there is the question whether the capped level of £285,000 is appropriate in cases such as this where the injuries are so horrific.

In conclusion, in Lance Corporal Compton we have a wholly extraordinary young man who saw three of his comrades killed and who then crawled 80 yd under fire while still alight. As a result, he sustained horrific injuries, including third degree burns to 70 per cent. of his body, the loss of his ears and nose, and the loss of full use of his arms and legs.

In fairness to the Minister and the Ministry of Defence, I accept that it is difficult to reconcile injuries on that horrific scale with a standard formula. However, there is a clear case for the Minister personally to call for this file and to reconsider the case as quickly as possible, with a view to awarding Lance Corporal Compton maximum compensation. I also hope that the Minister will undertake not only to carry out an independent review of the case but to arrange for Lance Corporal Compton to receive an indication of his likely pension—the guaranteed income payment—as a matter of urgency.

In a week in which the death toll in Afghanistan has reached 100, it is appropriate this morning to pay tribute to all those who have lost their lives or been injured on operations. It is vital that all our servicemen deployed on active service know that they will be properly, and I hope generously, looked after if they suffer injury, particularly injury of this severity. As I am sure the Minister will agree, they deserve no less.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) on securing this debate on this very important subject. He rightly raises a number of issues relating to this case that I hope to address today. First, however, I want to express my deep sympathy to the family, comrades and friends of the three soldiers—Privates Nathan Cuthbertson, Daniel Gamble and Charles Murray—who were killed in Afghanistan at the weekend. Of course, my thoughts are also with the loved ones of the other members of the armed forces who have lost their lives, both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The amount of compensation awarded to sailors, soldiers and airmen who are injured in the service of this country, and to the families of those who sadly have lost their lives, is a very important issue that matters greatly to individual service personnel and their families.

I know that, as the hon. Gentleman said, he served in the same regiment as Lance Corporal Martyn Compton and I congratulate him on his distinguished service. I am sure that he will join me and the whole House in recognising and paying tribute to the courage, professionalism and commitment shown by Lance Corporal Compton and all members of the armed forces, and by the families who support them. Of course, I congratulate the Household Cavalry on the support that it has shown for its injured service personnel, particularly Lance Corporal Compton.

I want to say at the outset that the Government are fully committed to meeting our duty of care to serving personnel, veterans and their families. As has been recognised by many organisations, including the Royal British Legion, we are making improvements, including to service pay, accommodation, health and welfare provisions, force protection and personal equipment. Of course, however, we recognise that there is still scope for further improvements. That is why we are working on a cross-Government Command Paper on personnel, which will examine a range of issues to see what we are doing well, what we could improve on and what it is possible to achieve.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the review of the armed forces compensation scheme, which I announced recently and for which we had asked. I cannot give him a date at this stage as to when we can say something further, but the fact that we are reviewing the scheme is important in itself.

I of course want to join the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that all hon. Members do—in wishing Lance Corporal Compton the speediest possible recovery from his condition and the injuries that he has received. I met him last week to discuss both his experiences of welfare support and the compensation issues. I regularly meet injured personnel; I make a point of meeting them at Selly Oak hospital, Headley Court or elsewhere.

A number of questions have been raised today about the particulars of Lance Corporal Compton’s case. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that, while I am happy to discuss such issues with Lance Corporal Compton directly, it is only appropriate that I confine my remarks this morning to the support, compensation and welfare available to the armed forces in general, rather than discussing the particulars of one case, as important as that case is.

There are a couple of issues that I will respond to. Lance Corporal Compton raised the issue of the notification of the guaranteed income payment with me last week, and I assured him that we will get him an assessment of what that payment will be, based of course on his current salary, because the amount will depend on what his final salary is. We will carry out that assessment and such assessments will be made for other injured service personnel in the future, too.

The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about medical care and compensation. While Corporal Compton is in the care of the armed forces, that would be provided either directly through the armed forces or through the hospital that we use in his case. Thereafter, responsibility will fall to the national health service, which will be responsible for ensuring that the highest possible standard of medical care is provided. We have been working closely with the Department of Health on these issues over recent months, and, as part of announcements that I made several months ago, a case officer will now be allocated by the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency to work with and help the most seriously injured personnel, certainly in the first two years and thereafter if necessary, if they are discharged. As I said, that is a new initiative.

The armed forces compensation scheme came into effect in April 2005. For the first time, it provides for a lump sum payment to be made to serving members of the armed forces who are injured due to service. I stress that this is the first time that compensation is being paid in-service to injured service personnel. That is an important step forward and an improvement made by this Government.

The lump sum award compensates for pain and suffering and is made under a tariff-based system that is informed by existing established models such as the Judicial Studies Board guidelines for the assessment of general damages in personal injury cases, and the criminal injuries compensation scheme. We review the tariff levels periodically, and, as I announced to the House in April, such a review is under way.

The most seriously injured are also awarded a guaranteed income payment, which we have just discussed. I stress that it is a tax-free, index-linked payment made every month from discharge for the rest of the individual’s life; it does not stop at retirement. That important point often gets overlooked—deliberately so by sections of the press. The guaranteed income payment is part of the whole compensation package.

When we constructed the scheme, we listened to the advice of ex-service organisations to give lifetime financial security, rather than adding to the lump sum in the initial award, as is done in some civil cases. Again, that is an important point. We could have made it all part of a lump sum, but we did not. We thought that income for life was an important aspect of the compensation.

I believe that the guaranteed income payment provides better support for our servicemen and women, but, regrettably, it means that the true value of an armed forces compensation scheme award is not always readily understood. I stress again that the guaranteed income payment is part of the whole package. Between the lump sum and the guaranteed income payment, individuals can receive hundreds of thousands of pounds over a lifetime, and, unlike other compensation schemes such as the criminal injuries compensation scheme, the armed forces compensation scheme has no monetary cap.

To give an example—I stress that this is an example, but one that is worth tabling—a 25-year-old soldier earning £22,000 a year who is very seriously injured may receive up to the £285,000 maximum lump sum. He will continue to be paid while in service, including during rehabilitation, which may last for several years. On discharge, he will receive a guaranteed income payment of around £19,000 per year, which will be tax-free and index-linked. That is an example, but it shows the sort of payments that can be made. By the time the individual reaches the age of 45, he will have received £380,000 by way of a guaranteed income payment. By the time of his 65th birthday, he will have received some £760,000 plus the lump sum. I stress that the guaranteed income payment figures are baseline amounts and are, in fact, uplifted year on year to take account of inflation.

As the armed forces compensation scheme is relatively new, we keep it under review in the light of experience. For example, in common with other injury schemes, the armed forces compensation scheme contains a multiple injury discounting rule to prevent those with a large number of relatively minor injuries from receiving more than someone with fewer, more serious injuries.

That is the nub of the problem, is it not? I entirely accept the logic of the situation, but there is a reverse effect, whereby if the injuries are as severe as they are in this case, the tick-box method on the form may not be capable of reflecting the absolute severity of the injuries suffered by this young man.

That is the nub of the whole debate, which goes slightly wider than that, but I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point and it is an important one to make. At the end of the day, what payment is enough for our injured service personnel? Many people have different views on that—I will probably return to that a little later—but I stress that the point about what would be enough is important. We have to base the scheme on past practice and on other schemes to come to a conclusion about the sort of scheme that we should offer. As I said, we based this scheme on the Judicial Studies Board and on precedents that have been set. No scheme is perfect, but the key issue is whether those with the most serious multiple injuries get the best award. I accept that the point is important, but it is not straightforward.

At the end of last year, we recognised that the scheme was not fully meeting its policy intent of focusing resources on those who were most seriously injured. We therefore changed the rules relating to those who suffered multiple injuries from a single incident, better to reflect the serious and complex nature of some of the injuries that servicemen and women were receiving on operations. That was widely welcomed as a step forward. It is important to stress that the armed forces compensation scheme addresses pain and suffering, as well as the loss of earning capacity.

Individuals leaving the services also have access to all the state benefits that cover the other elements of civil compensation awards such as the NHS, which I have mentioned, for ongoing treatment, the disabled facilities grant for home adaptation, and the disabled living allowance for care. For instance, I know that the homes of some service personnel who are still in service were adapted to take account of disability.

It is worth reminding ourselves that any member of the armed forces injured due to service has access to these awards on a no-fault basis—this is a key point—without there being a need for negligence on the MOD’S part or for a time-consuming and costly legal process.

As I said, there are a variety of opinions about what the right compensation should be for those injured while in service. No amount of money can adequately compensate for some of the more serious injuries received by our armed forces personnel, but the armed forces compensation scheme does deliver no-fault compensation for those who are injured and for the families of those who are killed as a result of their service in the armed forces.

Of course, welfare for injured service personnel is much broader than the compensation. This is an important point: medical care is often caught up in the wider welfare provision for injured service personnel. I want to make a few important points about medical care, which starts with the care that they receive in theatre and, for the more seriously injured, continues with the clinical care that they receive once they are returned to the UK for specialist treatment.

Since 2001, the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, which I visit regularly, based at the University Hospital Birmingham Foundation Trust, has been the main receiving unit for military casualties evacuated from an operational theatre. The clear view of all the injured service personnel and families whom I spoke to during my last visit was that they were being really well looked after. There were no complaints about the care that they were receiving.

In the Birmingham area, military patients can benefit from the concentration of five specialist hospitals, including Selly Oak hospital, to receive an excellent level of clinical care. Indeed, I and many others believe that Selly Oak is at the leading edge in the medical care of the most common types of injuries that our casualties sustain. If there is a need for urgent specialist treatment that cannot be immediately provided in the Birmingham area, we ensure that the patient is admitted promptly to a unit elsewhere in the UK that specialises in the particular injury, such as the burns unit at Broomfield hospital.

The Defence Committee recently described the treatment available to troops injured on operations as “second to none” overall—an assessment that I share, having visited our patients and staff in field hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in NHS hospitals in the UK. All veterans now receive priority care on the NHS after discharge for conditions caused by their service. The NHS recently reinforced that message.

If military patients require further rehabilitation following initial hospital treatment, they may be referred to the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court in Surrey, which is widely recognised as delivering first-class specialist rehabilitation of complex cases. The Government recognise that continuing investment is needed to ensure that Headley Court retains its reputation as a centre of excellence, and have recently announced that they will invest an additional £24 million in the Headley Court site over the next four years to maintain and enhance its capabilities. The new investment, together with current funding for new facilities, means that Headley Court will see an investment over those four years totalling some £24 million, in addition to substantial funding that the charity Help for Heroes intends to provide for the new rehabilitation complex. We also adapt service accommodation, where appropriate, for injured personnel who are able and willing to continue their service career. That is another important point. Many injured service personnel remain in service.

Injured personnel also receive welfare support during their treatment and convalescence. Visiting officers, available on 24-hour call-out duty, maintain regular contact with injured service personnel. The Birmingham welfare office supports the hospitals in that area, there are regular welfare surgeries at Headley Court and the veterans welfare service contacts seriously injured personnel before their medical discharge. In combination, those services provide support to injured personnel and their families throughout treatment. We have also increased community psychiatric and nursing support.

No amount of money can adequately compensate for some of the serious injuries received by our armed forces personnel, but the Ministry of Defence can and does ensure that those injured in service are provided with exemplary health care.

I thank the Minister for his remarks about the armed forces compensation scheme and his commitment to ensuring that Lance Corporal Compton gets a proper indication of his guaranteed income payment. Will he also look again at the file? I accept that no figure could possibly compensate that young man for his injuries, but for better or worse, there is a figure of £285,000. I, as his representative this morning, would like to ensure that he receives the maximum sum possible for his injuries under the scheme. Will the Minister undertake to look again at the file to see whether that is possible?

The straightforward answer is yes. I said to Lance-Corporal Compton last week when we discussed the nature of the injuries and how they were compensated that I would look at it, and I will.

As I was saying, the Ministry of Defence can and does ensure that those injured in service are provided with exemplary health care, a compensation award to reflect the pain and suffering that they have experienced, welfare support and, in the cases of the more seriously injured, a tax-free income stream for life to reflect the loss of potential earnings and pension. I reiterate, because the press often deliberately overlook it, that we provide a guaranteed income payment that can amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds during a lifetime.

I believe that we are supporting our armed forces personnel and their families to a much greater degree than ever before. We can always look to see what can be improved, and we continually review what we do for our armed forces personnel and veterans and their families. That is why we are reviewing the compensation scheme. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a time scale or tell him what the conclusion might be; I can only say that the fact that we are reviewing it indicates that we are not sitting back. We always listen to the contributions and representations made to us. We will make an announcement at the appropriate time.

Sitting suspended.