Monday 16 March 2015
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the petition relating to veterans’ pensions.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies, and to have secured this debate on an issue that affects many of my constituents and, indeed, constituents in every part of the UK.
I asked for the debate as a result of a petition that was signed by more than 300,000 people. Organised by the Equality for Veterans Association, the petition recognised the commitment and service given to the UK by our armed forces and said that all those who had served should be recognised by the Government, but it drew attention to those who left the armed forces with less than 22 years’ service before April 1975, who currently receive no pension at all from the military. The petition called on the Government to address that injustice.
Today, I am asking the Government to bring forward proposals to recognise the important contribution made by service personnel in the position that I have described. I have been involved with this issue for a number of years as chair of the all-party group on armed forces veterans’ pensions. The injustice continues to affect hundreds of thousands of former service personnel in this country. Through the equality for veterans campaign, I have met many of those veterans, and they say to me that this is not about money, at this stage in their life, but about recognition of the service that they gave. They are asking for action to put right an injustice that took place many years ago but still has an impact now.
The veterans are disadvantaged by legislative changes brought about by the Social Security Acts of 1973 and 1975. Those Acts of Parliament created preserved pension rights for those who served for less than the full pensionable period of service of 22 years. That allowed people in that position to transfer their years of service into other pension schemes, or rewarded them with pro rata pensions on reaching the age of 60. Those legislative changes came into effect on 5 April 1975. Service personnel who left after that date received the full benefit of the new pension legislation. However, those who left before that date received nothing, unless they had completed the 22 years.
The veterans and I believe, and I think that most politicians accept, that retrospective changes to pension legislation are unlikely at this stage. It is also most unlikely that any retrospective change contemplated would be made in a timely manner, given that most of the veterans affected are now in their 70s or 80s and time is running out for them. As time goes on, the problem goes away, as those affected will no longer be around.
At the moment, however, about 250,000 veterans are affected. Those veterans have a number of grievances concerning the way they were excluded from the benefits of the 1973 and 1975 legislation. Despite campaigns over many years and overwhelming public support, Government have ignored them. Many of the 250,000 veterans who are affected by the legislative change and still receive no pension survive on only their state pension and pension credit if they claim it. Despite a huge amount of warm words and successive Governments and politicians of all political persuasions continuing to praise the commitment of our veterans, including with the introduction of the armed forces covenant, the case of the pre-1975 men and women and the way they have been treated has never been satisfactorily addressed.
The veterans have the following grievances. First, pre-1975 military service personnel were forbidden from enrolling in or contributing in any way to a pension scheme from a conventional pension provider. The Ministry of Defence deemed that service personnel were, by nature of their service, entitled to a military pension only if they completed 22 years of service—that was conditional on rank—and it did not allow individuals to make personal pension arrangements. Obviously, that restriction unfairly impeded those individuals minded to do so from having the opportunity to make personal choices regarding financial provision in later life.
Secondly, the 1973 Act mandated employers, including the Ministry of Defence, to inform employees about forthcoming changes to the legislation that would affect their pension rights, and that took effect on 5 September 1973. However, the questions of how and when the preserved pensions should be introduced for the armed forces remained unsettled until July 1974, when the date of 1 April 1975 was set for their introduction. Despite that, the changes to the armed forces pension scheme 1975 to accommodate preserved pensions were not formally agreed until January 1975. In March 1975, the MOD produced a leaflet that explained the main features of preserved pensions and gave notice that they would apply to those who served on or after 6 April 1975. Therefore, notwithstanding that the MOD had, from September 1973, to begin informing service personnel of the impact of the new legislation, it waited until one month before the implementation date before taking steps to do so. I know from my involvement with the equality for veterans campaign that many of those actively engaged on this issue are people who retired around that time. Perhaps if they had continued in the armed services for only a few more months, they would have received a pension, but because they were unaware of the changes, they did not consider that and they left the service, thereby getting no pension of any sort.
I am told that the leaflet was not widely circulated, nor were personnel properly informed of the changes. That is attested to by hundreds of veterans, many of whom are actively involved in the equality for veterans campaign and who state that they were not informed of the changes. They say that they might well have taken different decisions if they had been aware that there was due to be a change in their pension entitlement, and many who left shortly before the change say that they feel they have been treated very unfairly by the Ministry of Defence, which knew that there were due to be changes. Despite the fact that the goalposts were about to change, the information was not passed on and military personnel were not informed that if they stayed a little longer, they would receive a pension on retirement. I have attended a number of the equality for veterans meetings as chair of the all-party group, and a number of individuals who fall into that bracket have explained their circumstances.
I will, however, use the example of a constituent. He is a very good comrade, a very good friend of mine, an active trade unionist and someone with whom I have been involved in many campaigns. Through chairing the all-party group, I found out that he is affected, as are quite a number of other constituents. Jimmy Miller was called up to the Army in 1958 and signed on as a regular soldier. He spent six years in the Army until 1964. From 1964, he was on reserve for a number of years, but he then re-enlisted and served in the Army again from 1969 to 1974. He served in Cyprus and Aden and did four tours of duty in Northern Ireland. He advises me, as have many others affected by the change, that at no stage was there any discussion with them about pension entitlement, although they were aware that if they served the full 22 years, they would receive a pension. Jimmy Miller purchased his release and came out of the Army in November 1974. He found out in 1975 that if he had stayed longer, he would have been entitled to a pension. He says that had he known that he would have received a pension if he had stayed in longer, he probably would have done so. Indeed, he believes that most people, given the same choice, would also have decided to wait longer to get a pension. His situation is similar to others that veterans have described to me.
I am told that the Ministry of Defence discussed pension changes from 1970 onwards, but armed service personnel from that time say that the MOD withheld from them information about forthcoming pension changes. Meanwhile, not only did thousands leave the armed forces between 1970 and 1975, but they were actively encouraged to do so, because the Government were implementing a policy of radically reducing the number of armed forces personnel. Had service personnel known about the changes, many of them, such as my constituent Jimmy Miller, may have chosen to remain in the services until after April 1975 by retraining to meet skills shortages that were caused by the restructuring. Had they done so, they would have received the benefits of the legislative changes.
At the request of the all-party group, EFVA has canvassed veterans to establish the likely reaction to a one-off, ex gratia payment. There have been a number of discussions in this place about the veterans who are affected, and much of the discussion has been about the cost of providing them with retrospective pensions. However, of the random sample of 100 veterans chosen by EFVA from among its membership, 94 said that they would accept a one-off payment. The average length of service for that group was something in the region of 10.27 years. Successive Governments have argued that to address the injustice would cost a massive amount of money. As time goes on, however, fewer and fewer veterans are affected, and the cost goes down.
Approximately 250,000 veterans remain in that situation, and they say repeatedly that they are concerned not simply about the money, but about ensuring that an injustice is recognised and righted. The time has come for Government to come forward with proposals to address the matter, which is so important to those individuals. Many of those affected will be in receipt of benefits, so any payments would probably not make them better off. Such payments would be taken into account in the benefits system and might result in the loss of some of those benefits, such as pensions credit.
I call on the Minister to look at the matter afresh, and to bring forward proposals in recognition of the important contribution that the veterans affected have made and the genuine feeling of injustice among those who have given valuable service. I ask that she seriously consider recognising the contribution that they have made to this country.
It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), who is a good friend, on introducing this debate on a complex aspect of pensions. She has done a lot of work over several years on behalf of individuals in the armed forces who have been disadvantaged by past errors, some of which she outlined in her speech. At the outset, it is right for us all, across the House, to restate our recognition of the huge debt of gratitude that we owe our servicemen and women, their families and our veterans. They have made, and continue to make, huge sacrifices in defence of our freedom and in the service of the nation.
Those who served before 1975, as we heard from my hon. Friend, spent a great deal of effort in service of the nation, in exactly the same way as did those who have served since. However, the difference in provision made for those two groups is striking. It is right to single out the 250,000 people who made such a commitment to the service of our country but who have not received the same level of provision and support from the state as others. They deserve no less recognition than those who have received benefits since 1975 for making the same commitment.
I am proud of the work done in recent years by Governments of all colours. I am particularly proud of the work done by the Labour party in government and, more recently, in opposition to advance the rights of, and protections for, our armed forces community. Hon. Members across the House are proud of the work that they do in their local communities with veterans’ organisations, which are respected and valued in those communities. Wrexham, which I have the honour of representing, is an Army town that has the great tradition of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. One of the most satisfying aspects of my job is meeting, through the armed forces and through veterans’ organisations, service personnel from different generations. I thank them for being so generous in sharing their experiences and knowledge with me, and helping me to do my job better.
The development of the veterans’ movement, if I can call it that, over the 14 years in which I have been in Parliament has been one of the most positive aspects of the relationship between communities and the armed forces. The active service of our service personnel in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq has led to strong support for our armed forces and a greater understanding of the commitment that they show. We are considering the question of veterans’ pensions in that context.
The Labour Government before 2010 sought to modernise and develop services for veterans, and successive Labour Ministers with responsibility for veterans worked with the armed services, with veterans’ charities and support groups, and with local communities to offer practical help to veterans and their families. That work led in 2008 to the Command Paper entitled “The Nation’s commitment: cross-government support to our armed forces, their families and veterans”. That was the precursor to the armed forces covenant, for which we campaigned long and hard, and which we welcome. As a result of that covenant, we all recognise that we have a moral obligation to the members of our armed forces, to veterans and to veterans’ families. We recognise that no serving or former member of the forces, or their families, should be disadvantaged as a result of the service that they give our country. I am proud of the Labour party for holding the Government to account, when it comes to enshrining the rights of our armed forces and their families in law. A future Labour Government will build on that work, and I am certain that hon. Members will hold them to account for it.
There are estimated to be 4.5 million veterans in the United Kingdom, and some 250,000 of them are disadvantaged because they left the forces before 1975 and did not have the kind of pension provision that exists today. Several of those veterans, and organisations working on their behalf—such as EFVA, which my hon. Friend mentioned—have spoken out about the pension arrangements for those who served before the establishment of the armed forces pension scheme. As we have heard, those who left before 1975 and who served for fewer than 16 years as an officer, or 22 years for all other ranks, were not entitled to receive a service pension. That gives us some indication of the perception of pensions before 1975, because those figures represent a substantial period of service for which to make no pension provision. When the armed forces pension scheme was introduced in 1975, servicemen and women were required to have completed only two years’ reckonable service to be entitled for most pension options.
Pensions legislation for our armed forces has been updated several times since then. The armed forces pension scheme 2005 provides access to pension benefits for servicemen and women with two years’ service. Next month we will see the introduction of the armed forces pension scheme 2015, which will create one pension scheme for all, including reservists. I very much sympathise with anyone who retired from the armed forces prior to the qualifying period for the armed forces pension scheme of 6 April 1975, because since then, there has been such substantial development of pension provision for individuals within the armed forces.
Some 250,000 veterans have been disadvantaged by leaving the armed forces before 1975. Concerns have been raised not only because serving personnel were not allowed to invest in occupational pensions prior to 1975, but because when legislation was passed in 1973 to pave the way for the armed forces pension scheme 1975, serving personnel were given poor information. My hon. Friend referred to that information, and to the short period allocated for providing information to individuals who were making important decisions about their future and their future provision, and who have been disadvantaged for many years because they were not given sufficient information. I am sure that would not happen nowadays, but it happened then, and there has been a substantial impact over a substantial period.
It has been the policy of successive Governments that changes to public sector pension schemes cannot be made retrospectively. My hon. Friend recognises that it is highly unlikely at this stage, so many years later, that any retrospective change will be made by any Government. It would be difficult to devise a legally sustainable arrangement for retrospective pension entitlements purely for the armed forces. The Equality for Veterans Association has, in light of that argument, been making the case for lump-sum payments for those affected in lieu of retrospective pension payments. My hon. Friend’s request is for the injustice to be recognised, and for steps to be taken to enable those who are suffering hardship to deal with their financial pressures, which have been exacerbated by the poor arrangements that were in place because of the failure to introduce an adequate pension scheme.
In 2012, the Chancellor transferred £35 million from fines levied on the banks to the Ministry of Defence to support the armed forces community. That LIBOR fund is one example of funds from a particular source being used to support charities, good causes and organisations that work to improve life for our armed forces community. If there is injustice and particular need in individual cases, it is right and proper that we, as a community, recognise the spirit of the armed forces covenant by trying to introduce a scheme to support individuals who are under financial pressure, and who are disadvantaged by previous errors, or the failure to give notice of legislation that was being introduced.
I encourage the Minister to consider options for allowing veterans to apply to the LIBOR fund, or for introducing, in some other way, access to funds for individuals who are under financial pressure and who have been affected by the pensions issue. That could provide a suitable means of financial support for veterans who left the armed forces before 1975 and their families.
Our armed forces community have worked tirelessly for decades to keep the nation safe, and to enhance the rights of others across the world. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who served before 1975 and after. Those who served before 1975 and who did not get adequate pension arrangements deserve our respect and support, so I hope that the Government will look at this genuine case, consider it closely and take steps to try to support those individuals by addressing the issue that my hon. Friend has raised today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Davies. I thank you for the way in which you have chaired this extremely short but nevertheless important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing this debate and on raising this important matter. It is only right and fair that I, too, begin by honouring the great debt that we all owe to all those who have served and, indeed, their families.
Through the covenant, the Government have set up a way of recognising the unique service made by all those who served in the past and those who continue to serve. Many of them would have been unable to serve without the support of their families, which we also recognise. In short, all those who serve are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice of laying down their life on behalf of their country. It is right and fair that we have the covenant because it recognises the particular contribution, service and sacrifice made by all those who serve.
It is timely that I remind everyone of what the covenant actually confers in law. The covenant states that there should be “no disadvantage” for anyone who has served or is serving, which extends to their families—their fathers and mothers, their sons and daughters—by virtue of their service. The second part of the covenant states that, in certain circumstances, most notably for those who have been bereaved or who have been particularly seriously injured—there is the caveat that clinical need must always take precedence—the covenant may confer an advantage because of the sacrifice that that individual or his or her family have made and suffered accordingly.
As the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) agrees, it is important to recognise the principle of non-retrospection. In short, departing from that principle would break the long-standing and essential principle of public service pensions policy, and it would lead to widespread, long-term and unmanageable consequences for both this Government and future Governments. As he said, retrospection would cause not only legal difficulties but enormous financial difficulties. The principle of non-retrospection means that no retrospective improvement can be made to pension benefits for those who are no longer active members of a pension scheme. That principle has been upheld by successive Governments, and I am confident he is saying that, should there be a Labour Government or a Labour-led Government after 7 May, the principle would remain intact and there would be no retrospection. For this particular group of people who have served, the principle has been repeatedly tested and supported by court decisions at all levels. It is a principle that we must defend, for three good, solid reasons.
First, breaking the principle would open the floodgates for a raft of unaffordable claims from across the public sector. As we know, before the Social Security Act 1973, there was no entitlement to a preserved pension for any public servant; members of the armed forces were treated exactly the same as anyone else in the public sector. If someone had not served the necessary length of time and reached the right age, whatever their job was and whether they were in the armed forces or not, they were not entitled to a pension. Thus, any change for the armed forces would be used as a precedent for other groups to benefit. Despite the great service of all those who have served and despite their willingness to lay down their lives for their country, the cry would go up, “If we do it for them, why not for everybody else?”
An interesting comment was made—I think Members on both sides of this House would agree—that it is astonishing to look back at how workers were treated. My own mother worked as a radiotherapist, although not in the armed forces. She worked in the NHS, and for part of her working life she was paid less than a man doing exactly the same job. At the time, eyebrows were not even raised. Now, of course, we find it astonishing that someone should receive less money for doing the same work, for no other reason than that they are a woman. Likewise, when we look back at the pension policies of the past, we all raise our eyebrows in shock that members of the armed forces had to serve 16 years as an officer or 22 years as a non-commissioned member before they could receive a pension. It was the same in other public sector jobs; people had to work long stretches before they got a penny piece.
Does the Minister not accept that the position of the armed services is unique, and that their relationship with the state is unique? Does she not therefore think that if an injustice has been recognised, her Government should be doing what they can to recognise the contribution of the armed services in the way that I described when I presented the petition?
The difficulty is that although the hon. Lady takes the view that there has been an injustice, I do not think her party takes that view. I think that we all take the view that an unfortunate set of circumstances prevailed right across the public sector. In considering the “no disadvantage” principle in the covenant, we would have to consider whether that particular group of people have suffered a disadvantage by virtue of their service. I am afraid that the answer comes back that they have not suffered any disadvantage by virtue of their service relative to any other members of the public sector, because effectively the same set of rules worked across the sector. Of course, should her own party come into Government, it will not go behind the principle of no retrospection—it has not done so in the past—so it is not proposing anything special in the way of legislation for the armed forces over and above any other part of the public sector. It is important that that point is made clear.
I will come to the money, but although no cost estimate has been made, given the number of former public sector employees who would be affected—if it were done for one group, it would have to be done for all—it would run to tens of billions of pounds. It would cost an astonishing amount of money. Even if an objective argument could be made to limit provision to the armed forces, and I am not convinced that it could be, it would still cost defence several billion pounds, which we know we simply do not have. The second reason why we cannot do it is that breaking the principle would prevent future Governments from making any further meaningful improvements to existing pensions, because the prospect of extending those benefits to former as well as current employees would simply be untenable.
Thirdly and perhaps more prosaically, it is a question of practicality. On top of prohibitively large costs, breaking the principle would entail a raft of potentially insuperable practical, administrative and legal problems. For example, it would require creating precise service and pay records and calculating pension awards for people who served up to 50 years ago, or for their surviving dependants. Furthermore, creating a modernised but retrospective entitlement now would in all likelihood involve revisiting the pensions already awarded to those who met the criteria for getting a pension at the time.
Having spoken of the practical imperatives at play, I now turn to our moral and legal obligations under the covenant—
The Minister says that she has addressed the practical issues, but she has presented responses to a range of scenarios that I did not put to her. I asked her to come forward with proposals for recognising this group, yet she seems to have failed to do so. Surely that is the practical proposal that she should be making. It is not as though the Government have not been asked previously. They have been asked in writing on many occasions.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention, but I have not finished my speech. I am explaining why. She may take the view that it need not be done retrospectively; she may and does take the view—I think that it is the view of the Opposition—that there should be some special arrangement involving application to the LIBOR fund. I will come to that, but there are others who do not share her view, and who do not take the view that an individual should have to go cap in hand to a Government fund. Some argue that it should be done retrospectively, so it is only right and fair, given the terms of the debate, that I respond to their arguments as well as to the arguments quite properly advanced by the hon. Lady, as I shall do in due course.
I have dealt with the covenant and what it does. The two key principles are no disadvantage and, in some instances, an advantage. This is why I do not believe the covenant applies to that group of our former servicemen and women. Before the Social Security Act 1973, there was no entitlement to a preserved pension for any public servant. Officers in the armed forces who had not served for 16 years from the age of 21, and soldiers who had not served for 22 years from the age of 18, were not entitled to a pension.
As I said, it sounds astonishing, but those were the rules then. They are stringent terms compared with today’s status quo, but although it sounds perverse, they compared favourably with other public sector schemes at that time; they were not that onerous. A civil servant, for instance, had to serve for at least 10 years and be over 50 to be eligible for a pension. Furthermore, members of the armed forces had access to other benefits. Although it did not constitute a pension, officers leaving after nine years and other ranks leaving after 12 years qualified for a gratuity to ease their transition from service to civilian life. Additionally, veterans who suffered illness or injury as a result of their service were entitled to what was called a war pension, although I am not sure that “pension” was ever the right word. It matters not—the point is that they were rightly and properly entitled to a sum of money that they received for life, no matter how long they had served.
One common misunderstanding is that the veterans we are discussing today somehow paid for their pensions but never received them. That is not right. Armed forces pensions are non-contributory. That was true of the armed forces pension scheme 75 and remains so for our new scheme, which will be introduced later this year. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body takes the pension provision into account as one of a range of factors when considering broad pay comparability for the armed forces, but armed forces pay is not abated as a direct consequence.
Taking into account all of the above, I think that it is clear that in terms of preserved pensions, members of the armed forces who left before 1975 were not disadvantaged compared with other groups of the time. So there is no case to answer under the terms of the armed forces covenant.
That said, the hon. Lady can rest assured that where we find clear disadvantage, we act. Of course, a recent high-profile example of that was the issue of pensions for life for surviving spouses and civil partners of personnel—a subject that she, like Members from all parties, has shown considerable interest in and campaigned on for many years. In that case, given the unique nature of service life, the widow or widower would have been prevented from earning an occupational pension of their own, which would have put them at a distinct disadvantage when compared with the rest of society. It has to be said that we are talking primarily about women, especially with regard to that generation. Service life meant that they married not only the man, but whichever part of the armed forces he served in, and often followed them around the world. They went from place to place. It was just often the way that they did not have a job of their own, and therefore were not able to build up their own pension pot or contribute to any pension scheme. We rightly identified that as a clear distinction that put them at a clear disadvantage, compared with others.
Consequently, from 1 April this year, all war pension scheme and AFPS75 widows and widowers will be able to retain their partner’s pension for life, and rightly so. That is one of the great achievements of this Government.
I must declare an interest: I have a preserved pension, having served in the Royal Air Force as an officer.
I commend the Government for the work they have done on war widows’ pensions. However, on veterans’ pensions, the Minister talked about the billions of pounds that a change to the system could cost. Have actual costs been calculated, and are there any firm proposals about giving some kind of due acceptance and acknowledgement of the service that these veterans gave to our nation, at home and abroad, pre-1975?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I hope that he will forgive me; I had not realised that he had served in the RAF, and under a scheme that means he receives no pension because of the rule that pertained at that time.
My officials will provide me with any details during this debate, but it is my understanding that no costings have been made for the proposed change. However, I said earlier that we believe that it would require an astonishing amount of money; some say that up to billions of pounds would have to be found if we were to set up any new scheme. [Interruption.] I am right that there is no firm figure, but it is thought that it would cost billions of pounds if we were to make good on this—if I can use that expression—in the way that my hon. Friend, and indeed the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, have suggested.
Let us now look at the idea that is being advanced of using LIBOR funding, so that people can apply directly. A lot of money has been recovered by way of LIBOR fines. We have been able to allocate £10 million each year, in perpetuity, to fund military charities and to continue the work to advance the armed forces covenant, but I stress that it is only £10 million each year, which, frankly, would be a drop in the ocean compared with the sums we have talked about today. I am also slightly confused as to whether or not the idea is that individuals would be able to apply to some fund that would be funded from the LIBOR funds, on an individual basis. I would be grateful for any assistance on that.
I did not advance that argument; my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who is our Front-Bench spokesperson, did. What I asked the Minister to do is come forward with proposals for how she would provide some kind of recognition of this group. I am still waiting to hear any proposals from her. All she says is that there is no serious work being done, and that there are no serious costings; nevertheless, she says it would cost a huge amount of money, and she advances the case that there would be all sorts of repercussions for other groups. I ask her to focus on the group that I have talked about, which is a unique group.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. It always helps when one has some advance notice of exactly what will be put forward; that would have been helpful. I am more than happy to write to her if somebody can come up with suggestions, but I have to say that she is really whistling in the wind on this one. That is because any group of people who have served and who then find themselves in dire straits are always a concern to any Minister in the Ministry of Defence. However, the idea that we can suddenly rustle up some scheme that would enable people to apply on some ad hoc basis, and can find some magic pot of money, is very difficult. No doubt that is why her party, in its 13 years in power, did not do something similar to what she is proposing, because the argument was just as strong then; it is difficult to see how such a scheme could exist.
We have outstanding military charities that are always there to help and support those in particular need. There is the work of the Royal British Legion, SSAFA, and a whole raft of military charities, especially as that work relates to those who served some time ago, to help them as they move into the autumn and winter of their life, if I can put it that way. We should not underestimate the work those charities do, much of which is long-standing.
Also, we should not underestimate the resources that we have made available through LIBOR funding to help a number of those charities, including the Royal Hospital Chelsea. That is an outstanding example of the assistance and support provided to those who have served, often many years ago, and who are coming towards the end of their life. Such charities do great work and I am very proud of the fact that we have managed to make so much funding available. By way of example, veterans’ accommodation received somewhere in the region of £40 million last year. There were a series of projects to improve such accommodation. In some instances, there was brand new accommodation; in other instances, charities—such as the one just outside Brighton for servicemen and women who have lost their sight or had it damaged—were helped to improve the accommodation that they provide.
Again, a large amount of money has been provided, but it delivered huge benefit for all those who have served in the past, from the older veterans right through to those who have served in more recent times. I would say—with some passion, if I may—that this coalition Government should be extremely proud; I say that as I see that the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) has appeared in Westminster Hall. This coalition Government have really made a significant improvement to the welfare of all those who have served, and their families, because of the way that the Chancellor has taken the LIBOR funding and put it to great use.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene on her. I should explain that I have been on a Statutory Instrument Committee, and then I had to discuss road safety in the main Chamber. Even I cannot be in three places at the same time. Nevertheless, I certainly support the thrust of this debate, and I recognise what the Minister has said about this Government; they have contributed significantly, not least in taking forward the armed forces covenant. However, I hope that the Minister will agree that some of the pieces still need to be put into the jigsaw of military life for those who have served.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; we are far from being in a perfect world, and there is a great deal more that can be done.
Let us turn our attention to mental health. We know that the rates of incidence of poor mental health among veterans are no greater than for the rest of society. Equally, however, we know that for each individual who has served, suffering in any way from mental health issues is an absolute tragedy, for them and their families. Too many slip through the net.
On a point of order, Mr Davies. This debate is on veterans’ pensions, but the Minister does not seem willing to address the issues that have been put forward. Could you make a ruling?
As far as I am concerned, the Minister is within the scope of the debate. I confess that I have given her a bit of latitude to talk about accommodation and things like that, but given that we have had plenty of time on our hands I did not think that was too much. As far as I am concerned, the Minister’s comments have addressed the subject of the debate. Whether they have been to the taste of the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran is a different issue altogether. If the Minister goes out of order, the hon. Lady can be assured that I will bring her back to order.
I must say, Mr Davies, whether or not I was out of order, I thought that identifying certain matters might assist colleagues. In fact, I was saying that there is always more to be done. If I am not allowed to talk about mental health in relation to all those who have served, then so be it.
I conclude by saying that the Government take this matter seriously. Military charities do an outstanding job and we have made funds available. I am not convinced that a separate scheme should be set up. I think it would be fraught with complexities. Goodness knows on what basis people could make their applications. The bureaucracy that would be needed and that would be involved would be extensive. It would cost an enormous amount of money and, at the end of the day, the money has to come from somewhere. Although we have been successful in ensuring that the LIBOR funding is going where it should go, not even that funding would be able to satisfy a fund that is thought at the moment to be somewhere in the region of billions of pounds.
This has been an important debate for those affected. A quarter of a million people are still affected in that category. Many of them will be disappointed with the lack of response from the Government today, despite the fact that the issue has been taken up by politicians of all political parties over many years. Correspondence with the Department has been wide-ranging; parliamentary questions have been tabled; there have been meetings with Ministers; and there have been previous debates on the matter. The Government still seem not to have done any detailed work or made any proposals about veterans who are affected having some kind of recognition. That is unfortunate, but I am grateful that we have had the opportunity at least to get an update from the Government on their thinking.
Question put and agreed to.