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Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees Bill

Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2023



Moved by

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton and at his request, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into a Committee upon the Bill.

Motion agreed.

Clause 1: Veterans advisory and pensions committees

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 2, line 3, at end insert—

“(i) advising on revisions to or the restructuring of the War Pensions and Armed Forces Compensation Chamber.”

My Lords, I wish to speak to my probing amendment. I had thought to speak in the gap during this Bill’s Second Reading when I suddenly realised that there was a connection with an issue that I had dealt with some 15 years ago. However, regrettably, I arrived too late, having missed the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster. I am therefore most grateful for the indulgence of the House to my tabling a probing amendment about possible VAPC responsibilities in this excellent Private Member’s Bill.

I have intervened a number of times in the past over proposed changes to the arrangements for the PAT— Pensions Appeal Tribunal—in England and Wales. In 2008—15 years ago—following the passing of the Tribunals Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, the Government intended by secondary legislation to do away with the long-standing PAT in England and Wales, first introduced in 1919, and allocate its work to a social entitlement chamber of a First-tier Tribunal. This was part of a wide-ranging government restructuring of tribunals. This change seemed totally wrong and at odds with treating the affairs of serving personnel and veterans in an appropriate manner. The outgoing PAT team—the experts—to a man was against its work passing to a civilian-type tribunal dealing with social benefits and other civilian claims.

So too were noble Lords on all sides of this House, the Royal British Legion, COBSEO and other interested charities. Meetings with Ministry of Justice Ministers were quite fruitless. The Senior President of Tribunals elect assumed that the relevant SI, which at that stage had not even reached this House, would be nodded through, so he circulated a descriptive note to the Royal British Legion and other charities about the new tribunal structure, based on the SI being agreed, asking them to give it wide publicity. I was so incensed by all this, by the Ministry of Justice disregarding all advice and by the cavalier way this change was being handled, that I tabled a fatal amendment to the statutory instrument just before the start of the Summer Recess. I am glad to say that this encouraged the reconsideration by the Government during the recess before the change was debated on 14 October that year. By then, the rearrangement proposed by the Government was acceptable. Therefore, in place of my fatal amendment, I simply asked why the Government intended to abolish the Pensions Appeal Tribunal. As agreed beforehand, the Minister announced that a separate chamber in the new First-tier Tribunal would be set up to deal with PAT England and Wales claims. Some years later, the Government of the day decided that there should be changes to the composition of the tribunal panel. I was informed, and these economies were eventually agreed.

My purpose in rehearsing these experiences is to seek clarification on what role the strengthened VPACs might have in advising the MoD and other government departments on similar or other changes to this Armed Forces and veterans’ chamber that might be proposed in future. The British Legion, COBSEO and other charities were very supportive of the original objections, as indeed were noble Lords on all sides of the House.

Is there a need for an official body—not just the interested charities—to be a guardian of this vital support for service personnel and veterans? Should VAPCs have that role specifically given to them? Alternatively, it may be that this Bill, when passed, would give the Defence Secretary the freedom by SI to add this duty to VAPCs or, once their responsibilities pass to the Armed Forces Act 2006, the duty could be introduced during a review or re-enactment of the Act. However, a disagreement between the MoD and the Ministry of Justice might arise because the work of the Armed Forces chamber will further diminish and its distinctive responsibility may need safeguarding. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, for his contribution and for explaining his reasons for tabling an amendment to this Bill. His interest is long-standing, and I can understand why he is probing for greater clarification.

This Bill is fully supported by the Government. While I appreciate the noble and gallant Lord’s concern regarding the War Pensions and Armed Forces Compensation Chamber, the purpose of this Bill is to reform the statutory role of the VAPCs, moving them on to a more stable footing and bringing their statutory functions into line with how they have been operating in practice in recent years. The MoD has been careful to ensure that any proposed extension to the scope of the delegated power moving to the Armed Forces Act 2006 is similar to the existing power in Section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989 and that it is limited to only what is necessary to achieve its policy outcomes in relation to MoD functions and services rather than the wider issues that are embraced by the amendment.

The amendment tabled by the noble and gallant Lord would extend the power to make regulations that give VAPCs functions, to include advising on changes to the War Pensions and Armed Forces Compensation Chamber, which is actually a tribunal with separate governance arrangements. It therefore extends beyond MoD functions and service and into the realm of tribunals, which are a matter for the Ministry of Justice. As one would expect, there are separate rules and processes that govern tribunals. Indeed, the advisory steering group was established by the Lord Chancellor to pursue a consistent approach to war pensions and compensation appeals across the whole of the United Kingdom for this very reason. It considers matters relevant to the Scotland and Northern Ireland Pensions Appeal Tribunals as well as the War Pensions and Armed Forces Compensation Chamber. The advisory steering group meets every six months to raise and discuss tribunal issues and ensure that tribunals’ decision and outcomes are fair, transparent and consistent. It is for these reasons that the Government cannot accept this amendment to the Bill as drafted.

The Bill has been carefully drafted in relation to the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees—and they are different to tribunals—to retain some flexibility in how the regulations are framed. This is important, given the recent independent reviews. The reviews in question are the Independent Review of the UK Government Welfare Services for Veterans and the reviews of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme and Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees, and copies of these reviews have been placed in the House Library. These reviews will help to determine how the VAPCs could be fully developed and aligned to the wider welfare service effectiveness and delivery, so that they can continue to contribute to the veterans community across the whole of the United Kingdom. The Government are considering the recommendations of these reports in full, with responses to be published later in the year. Changes to the VAPCs resulting from these reviews could be implemented via secondary legislation made pursuant to the enabling power in this Bill, and this Bill will ensure statutory backing for the VAPCs to formally engage with all former members of the Armed Forces and their families. When issues relating to the Chamber, embraced in the amendment, are brought to the Minister’s attention, of course the MoD would be able to consider such usage with the Ministry of Justice.

I conclude by thanking the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, for the opportunity to discuss the separate issue of the chamber, which in law is a tribunal, as I have said. I hope that, following these assurances, the noble and gallant Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I thank the Minister very warmly and sincerely for a very comprehensive response. It will need reading again in Hansard to take the full strength of it. She has been very courteous and kind, and I appreciate the effort that has gone into making this response. I am well aware that any amendment to a Private Member’s Bill could lead to its death before Prorogation. This Bill, under the excellent efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, has been in progress for some years, and it is right that it should go on. I will have no difficulty at all in withdrawing my amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed.

Clauses 2 and 3 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.