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Armed Forces: Pensions

Volume 704: debated on Tuesday 14 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Why they intend to abolish the Pensions Appeal Tribunal in England and Wales, which hears appeals from Armed Forces personnel, their dependants and veterans.

My Lords, we are abolishing the PAT, as its functions will be transferring into the first-tier tribunal established under the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. It is proposed that the jurisdiction will move in its entirety into the war pensions and Armed Forces compensation chamber, a stand-alone chamber in the new tribunal. Members of the existing tribunal will be transferred into the chamber in the first-tier tribunal to continue their work in the same way as at present.

My Lords, I thank the Minister. During negotiations with the Ministry of Justice, Bridget Prentice, the Minister, while proposing the setting up of the Armed Forces chamber, strongly wished it to be recorded that the functions of the PAT England and Wales should be transferred to the social entitlement chamber. This was widely rejected by the PAT membership, the experts and by the service charities—those who support the appellants. Given this, and the fact that PATs in Scotland and Northern Ireland continue unchanged, why have the Government decided that they should not retain the major part of the PAT, which, since 1919, has been the statutory independent body serving those who appeal against awards for injury and trauma?

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Lutterworth and District branch of the Royal British Legion. I pay tribute to both the noble and gallant Lord and my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester, in particular, for they way in which they have approached this subject up to now.

I say to the noble and gallant Lord that the Government’s position is solidly that the tribunal should move into the first-tier tribunal, but that it will be in a stand-alone chamber: the war pensions and Armed Forces compensation chamber. That is, as I understand it, what the noble and gallant Lord was arguing with some force over the past months. That will give it its own rules, procedures and expertise. Its membership will of course always include someone who has been in the services, as at present.

My Lords, perhaps I should declare an interest as member of the Bridgwater branch of the Royal British Legion; it had not occurred to me previously that it was necessary to do so. The Minister may be aware that many noble Lords have, I suspect, received an urgent letter from the Army Benevolent Fund, expressing its concern about the continuing stream of casualties coming out of Afghanistan, in particular, and the challenges that they will face in their aftercare after their initial treatment has been met. Many of these cases will end up in front of what would have been the much-respected Pensions Appeal Tribunal.

I know that the Minister, with his previous experience in the Ministry of Defence, will wish to approach these issues with great sympathy and understanding, but I do not think that this could be a worse time at which to change the previously well respected arrangements. I ask the Government to think again on this issue.

My Lords, we are not changing the arrangements. The PAT will be exactly the same tribunal, but it will be inside the first-tier tribunal. It will have the same make-up each time. It will have its own rules and procedures. It will not be part of a social entitlement chamber. It will continue to do its excellent work. The Government have made a number of concessions on this, owing to the strong representations that have been made. It is quite wrong to suggest that the PAT will be in any way lessened or less effective when it becomes part of the first-tier tribunal.

My Lords, for parliamentarians there is surely no more compelling duty than to act justly to the men and women who, alone in this country, contract with the state to lay down their lives in its service. Is my noble friend aware that this is the motivation of those, most notably the noble and gallant Lord, who have worked so hard radically to improve the statutory instruments as first proposed? Is he aware that they were drafted and in print even before the period for consulting the war disabled and bereaved had expired?

That we have come so far since then is due not least to the constancy of my noble friend Lady Royall in working to facilitate a just outcome. To that end, can we be assured now by my noble friend Lord Bach that the department will be resolving the still outstanding points with all possible dispatch?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for what he said, in particular in relation to my noble friend the Leader of the House, who has, indeed, played an important role in these discussions. I agree with him completely that nothing can be more important than properly looking after and compensating those who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for the rest of us and for our freedoms. I can give him the assurance that he seeks; we are striving to find a way whereby the great services that the PAT has performed for ex-servicemen continue to the satisfaction of both the ex-servicemen themselves and the bodies, including the Royal British Legion, that represent them.

My Lords, one is tempted to ask, “If it ain’t broke why fix it?”. May I ask the noble Lord whether the Administration will benefit from the proposed name change—that is how it sounds—or will it be exactly as it was before?

No, my Lords, the users will benefit. Moving to a unified tribunal means that users will be able to appeal both against the entitlement to an award and against the assessment of an award. In the present PAT there is a right of appeal only against entitlement. Challenges to assessment have to be made by way of judicial review. That is one way in which users—they are, after all, the people who matter—will gain by this change.

My Lords, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, has said, the Pensions Appeal Tribunals in Scotland and Northern Ireland will remain. Is there any danger of discriminatory treatment with cross-border bases and deployments?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the PATs in Scotland and Northern Ireland have always been legally and administratively different from the PAT in England and Wales. We accept that there is concern that the new arrangements may somehow change that balance. The appeal rights will be the same in all jurisdictions. Because of the concern the tribunal service proposes to establish an advisory steering group within three months of the jurisdiction being transferred to the unified system. This will not only help to ensure the identity of the jurisdiction is retained; it will also enhance and strengthen it. We hope that members of that group will come from the PATs in Scotland and Northern Ireland and from the new unified tribunal.