Ex-servicemen's Welfare (Hansard, 16 January 1997)
HL Deb 16 January 1997 vol 577 cc340-56

7.25 p.m.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will consider the case for establishing a special unit within the Ministry of Defence, with a designated Minister, responsible for the care and welfare of ex-servicemen and women and their dependants.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, noble Lords taking part in the debate may wonder why I, with my trade union background, and certainly a non-service one, feel so strongly that I have put this Question down on the Order Paper this evening. I declare an interest. Until a few years ago I knew very little about the Armed Forces. But I was appointed to the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, a position that I held with some pride and increasing interest for just over two years. I experienced an increasing respect for the service personnel that I came to meet in my work as a member of that body.

There was a debate in this Chamber on the issue in May 1994 initiated by the noble Earl, Lord Haig. Noble Lords who spoke in that debate have put their names down again this evening. I am indebted to them and to the new speakers in this debate.

This is an issue whose time has come. It is the right time for the Government to review their position and to accept this proposal which has now been discussed quite widely, not just in this Chamber, for some time. It is not a party political issue but one which unites noble Lords across the parties. It is also one which united Members of another place, some 280 of them, in signing an early-day Motion.

I regret that the Government have continually stonewalled the claim for a single unit, a focal point within the Ministry of Defence, with a Minister responsible for our ex-service personnel and their families. I do not know why they have stonewalled. I can only believe that they have some belief in the view that they put forward that the present procedures are quite sufficient. I reject that view, if indeed the Government hold it. I do not believe that the right way to treat our ex-service personnel is to give them the run-around around Whitehall on the problems that they face.

Having a central focal point would be in the Government's interests also. Indeed, it is not a unique or new idea. There are single focal points in Whitehall for other area of public policy and, by and large, they work. For nearly 18 years the Royal British Legion and other bodies representing veterans and service personnel have tried to press home the need for a single focal point. Other countries have similar departments. There is a special government department in the United States. However, I stress that that is not what we are pressing for. Particular factors in the United States relating to healthcare and its funding have called for other arrangements. But Canada, Australia and New Zealand have such departments, and veterans in France, Holland and Germany enjoy a better co-ordination of services than happens in this country, with special sections or subsections in their defence ministries.

The Government here, however, have repeatedly fobbed off veterans with regard to this proposal. They have sometimes implied that to establish such a unit would be to confer a special privilege. I totally and utterly reject that argument. Special privilege indeed! But yes, we do have a special responsibility. The nation has such a special responsibility and it is up to the Government to take the nation's responsibility on board and ensure the future of those within our community who, at the core of their service, knowingly put their lives at risk. As part of their commitment to this country, our ex-service personnel were knowingly prepared to pay the ultimate price that anyone could pay.

Survivors of the Second World War and the Korean War spent years away from their families. Many of them spent many years in hospital and, when their service commitment was over, were often unable to return to a full and active life as a result of the damage that had been done to their health. How many families and how many lives have been torn apart in that way? The Government, however, have consistently argued that a single focal point is not necessary. Our argument is not based on emotion. Our case is supported by arguments of efficiency and because we have a duty and a responsibility as a nation to treat our ex-service personnel honourably. That responsibility must be honoured.

Some say that we are talking about a diminishing group of people. I question that and ask whether the issues have gone away. Looking back over the past three or four years, I would say that the issues have become more complex. Who could have imagined the long-term fall-out of the Gulf War in terms of the health problems which, it is contended, have been caused to our service personnel who took part in it? That issue was long denied by the Government, including in this House, leading to a government apology being issued both in this House and in another place—but too late, in my view. In fact, the apology was dragged out of the Government line by line by Members of both another place and this House. Notable among them has been the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for her unstinting work. For how long did the Government assert that there was no such thing as what had become known as "Gulf War syndrome"?

What about the veterans of Northern Ireland? I have been there as part of my work on the pay review body. I have spoken to those veterans and to their families, who feel isolated from the mainstream of British life. I am talking about an area that is close to these shores and yet one can think of few more inhospitable places in which to do one's duty, with the possibility of a bullet or a bomb around the next corner to end one's life. That is not emotive; it is a fact.

Another argument that is used against establishing a special unit is that it would create bureaucracy. I do not accept that. In fact, I suggest that such a unit would help government by bringing together those involved.

I suggest that events since our last debate on this subject have undermined the confidence which many ex-service personnel, their families and organisations have long had in the ability of the centre, Whitehall, to look after their affairs. The pensions issue is but one such example—the allegations in the media derived from the so-called Red Book and the Budget. There are reported to be planned savings of £15 million in pension payments to ex-service personnel. I do not know whether that is a fact. I know what I have read, however, and I know what our ex-service personnel feel about it. They no longer have confidence that the Government will meet their responsibilities in this area.

We have read that ex-service personnel will no longer be issued with reminders to claim their benefits. We have read allegations that those who appeal will no longer be referred to the Royal British Legion. That is perhaps because the legion has been so successful in helping people to claim benefits. I hope that in his reply the Minister will categorically deny that there will be any reduction in pensions funding and that he will deny those two allegations. I hope that he will say that people will continue to be referred to the Royal British Legion and that they will continue to receive the reminders that they have received in previous years.

As I have said, I am grateful to noble Lords who are to participate in this debate. Perhaps I may say in conclusion that we all know—this has often been demonstrated—that the Government do not always know best. This is one such occasion. In refusing to establish a single focal point, I suggest that they are standing on an island by themselves. The case is supported by Members of this House, by a record number of Members of another place and by representatives and organisations of ex-service personnel—all of whom base their support on their practical knowledge and experience and as a result of having spoken to the many thousands of ex-service personnel who all feel strongly that the best way to deal with their case is to establish a single focal point, with a Minister to oversee the issues affecting them. That does not mean that the issues will not be discussed across Whitehall. Of course that will happen, as is the case with other special units such as those for the regions or issues affecting women.

Ex-service personnel need a single focal point to which they and their representatives can go. I think that establishing such a unit is a small price to pay for the fact that, while in the services, those personnel faced a reduction in the democratic rights that we all take for granted. I am proud to have tabled this Unstarred Question.

7.36 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, for raising and for introducing so clearly a subject of concern to many of us. My name was the first and only one on the list of speakers—along with that of the noble Baroness—four weeks ago, but this week the wide interest in the matter was demonstrated by the addition of so many other Members' names that we are all limited to three minutes each.

I spoke in the debate two-and-a-half years ago and have studied carefully the reply given then by my noble friend Lord Cranborne. Today in a brief speech I must limit myself to one point together with a strong recommendation.

I must declare interests. I am a war pensioner having been severely wounded 52 years ago and have been involved since in disability organisations which include many ex-service people. I also succeeded the late Lord Lovat in his position in the Normandy Veterans' Association.

Much misunderstanding arises from the description "war pensions". A large proportion are compensation payments for injuries during service with no connection with a war. In a Written Answer to me, the Government recently stated: The War Pensions Agency does not maintain a statistical breakdown of awards due to war and other service".—[Official Report, 13/1/97; col.WA 3.] So, I can only guess the proportion. From my own knowledge and experience I suggest that it is now about half the total number being paid. The media and the public do not know that. I have tested them by asking many in recent weeks, and in reply they assume that all war pensioners were damaged by the enemy in a war. Misleading impressions have thus been given to the detriment of various categories of ex-service people. The term "war pension" is inaccurate and misleading in its present use. My recommendation is that it should be changed to "armed forces disability pension" with a similar change to what is now called the "War Pensions Agency".

The term is also emotive, as it was on 5th December last in the episode started by the Guardian. That morning I received telephone calls from national newspapers seeking my comments; one asking me to contribute an article. In the event, I was able to brief them and so cool down uninformed reactions. Some of them thanked me for my briefing on the following Monday and for my explanations which had saved them from a wild goose chase. The Guardian was good enough to publish a letter from me only five days after its original report. Some of the letters that I then received from the public were from people who were in receipt of war pensions. They had served for short periods in peace time only and in Britain. They thanked me for pointing out in my letter that their pensions had rightly been awarded as compensation for injuries. They had suffered impaired hearing from firing their weapons on practice ranges. This damage was caused by our own friendly cordite propellant, not by high explosive or enemy action.

In 1942, half-way through World War II, as a battery commander I insisted that the relevant soldiers who manned my field guns wore ear plugs. After the war I was told that I was among the first, if the not the first, to do so. Later it became compulsory. That kind of ear injury is different from the serious damage that can be inflicted by high explosives. The blast from enemy shells bursting very close by sometimes broke or perforated ear drums. The effect was serious because it could also expose the brain to damage.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I must tell my noble friend that he has been speaking for over four minutes. I am sorry but I must interrupt him.

7.43 p.m.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, the Green Paper entitled Government Direct describes a vision of a one-stop shop for the delivery of government services. Can we press the Government tonight through that open door for a one-stop shop for veterans? Current policy which deals with veterans on the same basis as other members of the community fails to acknowledge the debt we owe to those who have taken up arms to fight and, if necessary, to sacrifice their lives. Government and the nation should never cease to treat servicemen and women in later life in a special and privileged way. We rely on volunteers to man the Armed Forces.

Recruiting and early retirement figures indicate that the forces no longer attract the same degree of support that they once did. This is a worrying and damaging trend. If it is allowed to develop further, there may come a day when the only way to find people to man the services will be to return to a form of compulsory service. We have a worrying example of this trend in the defence medical services. There was a time when the services took great pride in the commitment and calibre of their medical services. They may not have been as stretched in peace time as their equivalents in the NHS, but they were always there in emergency and war, giving marvellous care and attention to those who were wounded or traumatised in battle. In peace time they helped veterans and their families. What the services once had but have no longer was a form of private medicare which was responsive and directed to services' needs. The NHS with its wider community responsibility cannot match that. Servicemen, and the medical services themselves, recognise this departure from a standard and a lowering of clinical services. Other examples of less than special consideration for veterans and their dependants abound. For example, post-1973 war widows do not retain their Armed Forces family pensions for life if they remarry.

On its own, each step that further integrates servicemen and women, and their longer term interests as veterans, within the wider community may seem insignificant. But, like a straw on the camel's back, there comes a point when the collective impact is so clear and detrimental that it can be recognised by all. Then it is too late. We need a constant stream of able-bodied and committed volunteers. If we no longer give them and their forebears special recognition, they will not come forward. Those in mid-career will not stay. We now see this in the medical services. They are in danger of losing their minimum critical mass as a regular service.

I hope that the Government will take heed of these warning signs. A willingness to treat veterans in a special way would be a welcome change to a worrying policy. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and others who are unable to contribute to this limited debate, feel as I do. I thank the noble Baroness for raising this issue.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Dean on her fine speech. I am delighted to follow the noble and gallant Lord's speech. It has all been said by my noble friend Lady Dean and the Royal British Legion in its splendid briefing, which no doubt the Minister has read. I should like to make two short points. First, I believe that account must be taken of the changing nature of war. We are all aware of the injuries to soldiers in past wars that are exacerbated by age. We are now becoming aware of the injuries sustained in the recent Gulf War. Goodness knows what lies ahead given the changes in the method of war. We do not know what other kinds of injuries our forces will suffer in future. What we do know is that knowledge, expertise and understanding are required. Without that, we will not be able to deal with either the old injuries or the new ones.

Secondly, whenever in the past I have campaigned against the Ministry of Defence I have found it to be ambivalent. Sometimes it is wonderfully co-operative; at other times it is rigidly dogmatic. On too many occasions it opposes progress. On Tuesday we shall be discussing in this House at Question time the issue of war pensions and deafness. In reply to my request to the Minister a few weeks ago for a veterans' association the Minister said "No thank you". He said that it would create bureaucracy. That argument is bogus. I am sure that it will be raised this evening, as my noble friend Lady Dean has anticipated. In this debate, we do not seek bureaucracy but the very opposite. Bureaucracy arises when people do not understand and are not aware of the facts. If the institution that we ask for is set up it will be the opposite of bureaucracy.

I hope that the Minister will be able to accept this small and constructive suggestion. I remind him that the "bureaucracy" argument was used when it was suggested that there be a Minister for disabled people. It was then a false argument and it is an equally false argument today. I hope that the Minister will be able to accept our suggestion.

7.48 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I declare an interest as President of the Earl Haig branch of the Royal British Legion and also as an ex-serviceman and recipient of a disability payment for noise-induced deafness. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, for raising this question. I also compliment my noble friend the Minister upon his personal sympathetic and conscientious interest in the whole subject of the welfare of ex-servicemen and women.

I believe that a strong case can be made for setting up an ex-service affairs unit. It need be composed of only a small number of civil servants and can be situated in an existing department of the Government's choosing. As a focal point it would co-ordinate government policy and be a point of reference for ex-service people and organisations which represent them in relation to the more than 20 government departments and agencies and local authorities with whom they now have to deal. That will prevent them from being given what is often a very lengthy run-around.

As I understand it, the Legion seeks a partnership with Whitehall. This would entail access to an informed Minister with overall responsibility for ex-service matters. I believe that this would encourage an exchange of views and information on matters of concern to both sides. I also believe that it would be helpful to the Government in formulating measures and legislation. It would reassure the ex-service community, which, after all, forms about a quarter of the population, that its interests are being heeded. And, what is most important, it is likely that real savings in administrative costs could be made and a better service provided. In the light of that, I very much hope that my noble friend and his department will look at this matter again.

7.50 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing this Unstarred Question. I declare an interest as a serving officer in the Territorial Army, although the matters in question do not affect me.

When talking to regular soldiers, one common concern is aired frequently; that is, what happens if they are killed, seriously injured or medically discharged as a result of an injury sustained during operations or training? It is important to remember that an awful lot of very nasty injuries are sustained during training as opposed to on operations. I became aware some time ago of an incident in which a serviceman and a civilian were both injured in the same preventable accident. The civilian was promptly compensated but the serviceman was not. Thankfully, recent changes have alleviated that problem.

I have never been involved in a military operation, but I have worked as a civilian aid worker in an operational zone. One is prepared to take risks but one wants to be confident that one will be looked after if one comes to grief. The noble and gallant Lord referred to the defence medical services, with which there is a bit of a problem. Confidence in assistance is vital if morale is to be maintained, whether one was wearing a green suit or a white one.

The duty of the MoD, however, is to defend the UK's interests. I am not convinced that it should be responsible for these welfare matters. What is important is that our ex-service personnel are looked after properly. Sadly, I expect that we shall never be completely satisfied with the provision of support, whatever the colour of the Government.

7.53 p.m.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I wish, first, to thank the Minister and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. On the many occasions when I have had to raise issues concerning the Royal British Legion, they have always given of their best and helped me and the Legion enormously. I felt it only right to put that on the record.

The Royal British Legion is concerned for the welfare of ex-servicemen and women and their families. We are considering the possibility of creating an ex-service unit to care for these people. That new department would be located within the MoD or the DSS. If created, it could take over all the work carried out by other ministries which deal with ex-servicemen and women and their families.

A unit to co-operate with and advise all departments is a sensible idea. We believe that ex-servicemen who have given of their best to their country should receive the best from it. Appeals for help from the wartime generation are growing and will do so for some years to come. It is difficult for people to understand the difficulties of people who lost their entire homes. They were blown to bits. When I was working on bomb disposal in the East End of London it was not only frightening to have to be there, the most terrifying thing was watching the women defending their children under their skirts while the bombs were falling. The nation does not intend to forget the East End cockneys and their equivalents in other parts of the country. I will not. I shall always mention them whenever I have the chance.

Ex-servicemen and women make up about one-third of today's voting population. I ask the House and the Minister to bear in mind that their wants and needs will increase as they grow older. The wounds they sustained when they were fighting for their country when they were 21 or 30 and which then were not too serious are altogether different when they are 60 or 70, when the wound starts to play them up. Our ex-servicemen and women gave of their best for the land they loved. Let us give our best to them through our Parliament.

7.55 p.m.

Lord Freyberg

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, for initiating this debate tonight. The Royal British Legion has drawn attention to the serious difficulties some ex-servicemen and their dependants experience in dealing with the various ministries in charge of their welfare.

There seem to be three core problems. The first arises because the Ministry of Defence is quite naturally more concerned with the urgency of the Armed Forces' current activities and the importance of shaping the military's future. Veteran affairs relate to the past, so quite understandably—and not because the MoD wishes it so—ex-servicemen's issues are inclined to be given a lower priority.

The second problem is the diversity of government departments involved in the affairs of ex-servicemen. At present there are 17, ranging from the MoD itself to local authorities. For example, in relation to their war-disabled pensions, an ex-soldier or war widow will have to deal with, first, the War Pensions Agency; secondly, the Ministry of Defence; and, thirdly, the Department of Social Security. This can become confusing, especially for older people; there is no obvious focus of attention.

The third problem is the over-secretive and over-protective nature of the Ministry of Defence (and therefore the Government). The MoD has been extremely unresponsive to a number of unresolved and distressing issues, such as Gulf War syndrome, which it is only now addressing, and only because it has been forced to by publicity and weight of evidence. This is not how serious problems should be addressed.

What is needed is an independent body that can not only consider the merits of ex-servicemen's problems but have the authority, and ideally, the resources to deal with them. A Minister who was nominally responsible for the welfare of ex-servicemen, would just be a "front" man, a post box to whom everyone went, with no power to do anything except listen, because he would have no authority for policy, and he would have no money. Indeed, he would act to the disadvantage of service and veterans' organisations by acting as a buffer and holding these organisations away from the Minister or person responsible. Moreover, if the unit called for by the Royal British Legion were part of the Ministry of Defence, it would be briefed by exactly the same civil servants as now brief the ministry, and the same stereotyped approach and over-defensive arguments would continue.

What might better serve veterans' interests is an ombudsman: an independent regulator, someone who understands and has a degree of expertise in service affairs. Everyone would recognise the function of such a new focus, as we are all now familiar with this type of body, through such examples as the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Oftel and Ofgas.

The advantage of this scheme is that it would be independent of the Ministry of Defence and central government, and it would be approachable. It would also be free of a cumbersome bureaucracy, and therefore of excessive cost. It would look at the fairness and justice of a particular issue in the context of military practice, and then, importantly, call for appropriate action.

7.58 p.m.

Earl Haig

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness for enabling us to debate this important question. In 1994 I asked a somewhat similar question. Hers is more modest in that she seeks a unit within the MoD rather than a sub-department. A co-ordinating point is proposed with a Minister responsible for co-ordination, not for handling cases which would only add to bureaucracy. A Minister would be able to guide cases in the right direction.

The aim would be to improve communications and enable ex-service personnel to know where to go. There is a need to provide sympathetic guidance to help people through the right channels. That need for co-ordination has emerged because few Ministers and few civil servants have ever worn uniform. In some cases there is an unawareness and even a lack of sympathy on the part of officials called upon to deal with the problems of ex-service personnel.

After the first war my father was keen to appoint men who had suffered or been wounded to fill administrative appointments relating to pensions and the welfare of survivors of that war. According to The Times of 2nd July, 1919, in his evidence to the Select Committee on Pensions he asked that the medical boards be reconstructed so that an officer could be appointed to each board as an assessor. He asked for greater generosity on the part of the state. He asked for the appointment of a single authority to co-ordinate the work of Ministers. He asked for improvement in the machinery that has been set up and is now working laboriously but too slowly, and in many cases unsympathetically.

Since that time a complex and efficient system linking government departments with ex-service organisations has evolved. Any alterations to that system should be made only provided that they do not endanger the present system of co-operation between the Government and voluntary organisations. There have been misunderstandings by the Government about difficulties suffered by ex-service people. It is for us to improve the liaison so that difficulties are overcome rather than undermine the structure. I agree with the Government that it would wrong to change the system by channelling too many problems directly to one Minister.

There is a need for improvement and to that end it is important to support the idea of a special unit in order to bridge the communication gap for ex-service people, used to the warmth of service life, returning home after years spent outside Civvy Street. They are men and women who are suffering withdrawal symptoms which are made more painful when they face housing or other difficulties. I know ex-servicemen who are wandering the streets unable to find the help which is available if only they knew where to find it. I support the plan and I hope that the Government accept it.

8.1 p.m.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, there should be no greater respect in life than that accorded to those who served this nation and fell in time of war fighting for the just cause of freedom. This respect must be extended to their spouses.

This evening has touched on differing matters relating to the Royal British Legion. I hope that I might be forgiven for saying a few words about the War Widows' Pilgrimages Programme. In 1984 the Legion was asked by the Government whether it would administer the scheme with Ministry of Defence funding. The programme serves those who lost their spouses during the two world wars or subsequent campaigns by enabling visits to graves abroad, once, at a cost of one-eighth of the market rate. Even then, should that amount not be possible to fund the Royal British Legion will assist further.

The first group left the United Kingdom in 1985. Since then more than 3,000 have visited the graves of their loved ones in more than 43 countries.

Arrangements have been made also for visits to places where tourists are strongly discouraged or denied access; for example, to South Burma or Kohima in North East India. Furthermore, it has to be said that three widows have visited graves from the Great War, those visits taking place some 70 years after their bereavement. The majority will confirm that the visit represented the single most important event of their lives. Indeed, firm bonds of friendship have been forged out of these unique visits. One issue is abundantly clear; they are all grateful for the opportunity and the grant in aid.

I shall turn to my concerns. The level of funding has varied and recently reached its lowest level at approximately £90,000 a year from a peak of £220,000. In December 1995, the Prime Minister in addressing a pilgrims' reunion spoke of the courage of relatives, especially widows, and announced a fourth and final extension of the programme to March 1999. It is with regret that there is no extra money to fund the period 1997–99 so the MoD merely reduced the current level by 50 per cent. to pay for future expenditure.

It is nigh on impossible for the devoted and compassionate team in the War Graves Pilgrimage department to remain within budget. Any overspend is borne by the legion with the effect that fewer widows will have the chance to visit final resting places. I understand that additional funding has been considered. Is the Minister able to offer positive news in that regard? To what degree has allowance been made for those whose names are on the list to travel but have not been called? What if 1999 arrives and they have not travelled? Equally relevant are those who have not travelled to Libya due to circumstances beyond their control. What is to happen to them? If the Minister is unable to respond, will he undertake to give the matter his attention?

8.4 p.m.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I apologise to the House and to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, for speaking in the gap. Although in the Whips Office on Monday I put my name down to speak, for some unaccountable reason it was left out.

I should like to thank the noble Baroness for initiating the debate and for what she said. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, who have so kindly spoken on behalf of the war widows.

The War Widows' Association of Great Britain, and all its splendid ladies whom I am so proud to represent, does have difficulty in some cases under the present system. This is nothing to do with the extremely warm and friendly relationship which we enjoy with both my noble friends Lord Howe of the MoD and Lord Mackay of the DSS and their helpful and friendly staffs. It is just that we do not always know to whom we should apply. Pre-1973 war widows apply to the DSS; post-1973 war widows apply to the DSS and the MoD. It can be most confusing for those ladies.

The War Widows' Association has also from time to time found itself in a similar maze, wondering to which lucky Minister it should apply. The amendment brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, on the forces family pension under the Armed Forces pension scheme, though not alas moved, is an issue about which we have been arguing with Ministers from various departments for some years. We believe that because the pension is attributable it should be paid for life, regardless of future marital status. We now know that it comes from the Ministry of Defence. We also know that the Bett Report fully supported what we have been arguing for years. The Bett Report came out two years ago. We are still waiting and hoping for implementation of this issue.

On the question of a separate ministry for ex-servicemen's problems, there are as I see it two very important points. The first is the importance to the nation, and the supreme importance to all our ex-servicemen and women, of their wives, of their widows, of their children. We all owe them much. The second is that there can be confusion with the multiplicity of Ministers. It would be nice to have someone somewhere where the buck stopped.

8.7 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I welcome the debate and modest proposal which I hope that the Government will be able to accept. We are not asking for extra Ministers, thank goodness, but for a reorganisation of responsibilities which will ensure that there is a unit which deals specifically with issues relating to ex-servicemen.

We know that in recent years in the Ministry of Defence there have been problems in dealing with ex-servicemen and with serving soldiers and airmen. The question of Gulf War syndrome has clearly shown all the problems of over-secrecy and a resistance to accepting that there are problems which date from an involvement in military service. Perhaps I may speak briefly about the second of the two problems with which we are dealing.

Previous speakers have concentrated mainly on those who served in the last war. I believe that important issues relate to those who are moving in and out of peacetime services, often for short periods, necessarily as volunteers and some as reserves who are called up. Many reserves have been called up to help in Bosnia, and I see many of them when they return to education. The peacetime services will need such people. Recruitment is not as good as it should be and a servicemen's unit must consider encouraging young people to give short service and then to carry on as reserves, which we shall continue to need. They will risk their occupations and their health in the number of limited military occupations which are likely to occur.

If we are to maintain such military capacity on a necessarily highly flexible basis we shall need to be able to guarantee to people who move in and out of the services and who are exposed to risks in training and in operations that they will be well looked after in the period after service. Therefore, on behalf of my party, and personally, I support the argument for an ex-servicemen's unit, and the Government will do so too.

8.10 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House will be most grateful to my noble friend Lady Dean for raising this question at this particular time. It is important and I have no doubt that the noble Earl has studied all the papers that have been produced by the Royal British Legion to that effect.

I do not wish to go into the matter of war pensions which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, raised. That is an issue which I prefer to leave. Nevertheless, it is true that ex-servicemen and women have to deal with 17 different departments, as the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, pointed out. That does not seem to us to be really quite right.

I am not convinced by the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, about an ombudsman but I am convinced by the Royal British Legion's campaign and we are committed to establishing a unit with the Ministry of Defence under the responsibility of a single Minister to co-ordinate matters relating to veteran affairs. I am simply announcing something that my honourable friend in another place announced on 7th November last.

There has been inadequate consultation between the MoD and voluntary organisations on matters affecting ex-servicemen and women and we should like to see that all concentrated into one unit within the MoD, responsible to a single Minister, in order to co-ordinate all matters relating to veteran affairs.

I have now spent two minutes explaining what is my party's policy. I have only another 30 seconds but I hope very much that, before the Government change, they will adopt the suggestion advanced by my noble friend Lady Dean.

8.13 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I begin by commending the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, for bringing this important issue to the attention of the House. It has provided me with the opportunity to explain the Government's position.

I am aware that provision of welfare and practical support to the ex-service community as a whole has received a justifiable high profile in recent years. The Royal British Legion, in common with ex-servicemen's organisations, such as the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen and Families Association, the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations, the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association, the Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society and others, have carried out sterling work on behalf of their members, many of whom are now elderly. The Royal British Legion has been successful in gaining widespread support from many influential people, including a number in your Lordships' House and in the other place.

Before I respond to some of the points raised by noble Lords, perhaps I may emphasise to the House that the Government continue to place great value on both past and present service given to the United Kingdom by members of our Armed Forces. The fact that our country has been untouched by major conflict for over half a century is a direct result of the efforts of those who have served as members of the forces, whether as regulars or as national servicemen.

They are owed an immense debt of gratitude by the society they protected during their time in the forces. It would be wrong to suggest that their efforts have been forgotten. The commemorative events which took place in 1994 to mark the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and those which took place in 1995 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War were visible demonstrations of the appreciation of the whole nation, albeit that they centred on the events of the Second World War.

Those commemorative events were, by their nature, transitory affairs. In contrast, the welfare of the ex-Service community, and of their dependants, is a permanent concern of the Government.

In recognising the country's considerable debt to all ex-servicemen and women, the Government acknowledge their particular needs. I believe this is demonstrated by the administrative arrangements which the Government already have in place. The Government take the welfare of the veterans' community most seriously.

The various existing arrangements available to war pensioners and those leaving the Armed Forces are both comprehensive and adequate. It may be helpful if I outline some of the major elements of what is already available.

First, there is the War Pensions Agency. The special needs of the war disabled and war widows are catered for through the war pensions scheme, the War Pensions Agency and its dedicated welfare service. Through a network of offices around the UK, the welfare service provides disabled war pensioners, war widows, their dependants and carers with personal confidential advice, help and support. Whatever the problem facing the client, the welfare service will try to help that person cope better and ensure that they are receiving all monies to which they are entitled in terms of pension, allowances and other benefits and the necessary help from other statutory or voluntary bodies. Staff work closely with ex-service organisations such as the Royal British Legion and SSAFA. I should explain that the War Pensions Agency is an agency of the Department of Social Security, and not of the Ministry of Defence.

My department fully supports the work of the War Pensions Agency to provide an even better service for all those who have need of it. I am aware that to this end, in 1995 the agency undertook a major restructuring exercise. There are now dedicated teams dealing with nearly all aspects of cases from the initial claim to the implementation of a pensions appeal tribunal decision. This means that there is no longer a need for case files to be passed from one group to another for different actions to be taken. The agency has also moved into purpose built accommodation and has introduced a new computer system. Those steps will enable the agency to provide a better service, which is more integrated and easier for war pensioners to use—a concern raised by a number of noble Lords this evening.

Information about war disablement pensions and war widows pensions, and the procedure by which these can be claimed, is contained in documents issued under standard procedures to all service personnel on discharge from the Armed Forces. The service records of those invalided out of the Armed Forces are forwarded to the War Pensions Agency so that entitlement to a war pension can be considered automatically.

It is important to remember that all war disablement and war widow's pensions payable under the very preferential war pension scheme are completely tax free. All pensions and allowances are paid at preferential rates in comparison with their social security counterparts. A severely disabled single ex-Serviceman could be entitled to a total war disablement pension of almost £380 a week. A 70 year-old war widow is currently entitled to over £148 a week. Provisions under the war pension scheme compare more than favourably with those of other countries. Per capita expenditure under the UK scheme is greater than that of Germany.

The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, referred to the War Widows' Pilgrimage grant-in-aid scheme. As I believe he mentioned, that scheme has been extended to 31st March 1999, and I can tell him that the Ministry of Defence is actively considering a request from the Royal British Legion to increase funding over the next two years.

My noble friend Lady Strange referred to the Bett Review and its proposals for widows' pensions. The Government are considering the recommendations made by Sir Michael Bett for a new Armed Forces scheme. All his recommendations are being given careful consideration and detailed evaluation before any conclusions are reached about them. My noble friend will know better than most how complicated an exercise that is but we hope that we shall reach a conclusion before too long.

Another aspect of our continuing concern for those in receipt of War Pensions, is that they are entitled to priority treatment under the National Health Service for pensioned disablement, subject only to the exigencies of emergency cases or others demanding greater clinical priority. Where beds are available, admission to a service hospital or facility can be arranged. I should stress that those are advantages not available to any other group of pensioners. From time to time, this matter has been brought to the attention of my noble friend Lord Mackay. He has therefore arranged for the NHS to issue periodic reminders to the medical profession to ensure priority treatment is available.

As noble Lords will know from our debate on the subject last month, extensive support is given to those leaving the Armed Forces to help them make a smooth transition to civilian life, and support continues to be available after they are discharged. The Services Employment Network maintains a "SkillBank", which provides a comprehensive job-matching service and a weekly jobs bulletin. After leaving the Armed Forces, eligible personnel may remain on the SkillBank register for up to 12 months. A full range of Employment Service training and job finding provision is also available to them, and some qualifying requirements are waived for ex-servicemen and women.

Finding accommodation is also an area of concern for those leaving the services as my noble friend Lord Haig pointed out. In making the break from service life back to the civilian world, they need support and advice. For that reason we have taken a number of initiatives to encourage home ownership within the services and to help with the needs of those leaving. Advice and information on the complex range of housing options open to service leavers is provided by the Joint Service Housing Advice Office. Its role is to act as a focal point for a huge range of housing information to all service personnel, in particular those about to return to civilian life and to ex-service personnel who are still in service family accommodation.

In those brief remarks I have tried to describe some of the ways in which the Government care for the needs of the ex-service community. My department and that of my noble friend Lord Mackay have, however, been aware of proposals made by the Royal British Legion for an ex-service affairs unit, for some little time. Indeed, in September 1994 the Prime Minister wrote personally to the national chairman of the Royal British Legion explaining the Government's position. Shortly afterwards, in November that year, Ministers from the MoD and the DSS met legion representatives to discuss proposals which envisaged a separate department or sub-department assuming direct responsibility for all welfare provided to ex-servicemen and women by the public sector, including healthcare and social security. We came to the view then that this would be unnecessarily bureaucratic, as well as socially divisive.

I am aware that in other countries veterans departments exist. Such special provision tends, however, to centre on medical programmes for veterans and is intended to ensure that veterans have access to facilities which would not otherwise be available. That is particularly the case in Australia and in the United States where there is no National Health Service as we would recognise it. In the United Kingdom ex-service personnel and their dependants have access to the full range of healthcare and social security facilities available to the population at large.

Despite what many British veterans believe, as I have already indicated, provision in the United Kingdom for war disablement pensioners and war widows compares favourably with that in other countries. Often it is much better—UK expenditure per capita exceeds that of Germany, France and Italy. We continue therefore firmly to believe that welfare provision for the ex-service community should continue to be integrated with that of the rest of the nation.

Similarly, the establishment of a special unit to deal with inquiries from individual ex-servicemen and women, and their dependants, would merely add a new and unnecessary tier of bureaucracy to the current arrangement whereby individual departments handle inquiries within their areas of responsibility. The War Pensions Agency already has a special unit to assist war pensioners with any welfare matter, including directing them to any statutory or voluntary body which may be of assistance in working towards a lasting and constructive solution.

It is our understanding now that the Royal British Legion does not see the proposed ex-service affairs unit being established to deal directly with the specific problems of particular individuals, but rather that it would be available to its representatives, and to those of similar organisations, as a co-ordinating point on behalf of appropriate ministries, enabling them to raise and discuss problems.

I stress that to a large extent this already happens. Ministers do consult ex-service organisations on a range of issues. My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish is the Minister responsible for war pensions and meets regularly with organisations which represent the interests of former servicemen and women who raise a wide range of issues with him in addition to the war pensions scheme. The views of ex-service organisations are always given the fullest consideration.

The latest proposals of the Royal British Legion are, however, of a different kind from earlier ones. I am happy to tell the House that, as a result, the Government are considering the matter further. Naturally we will consult the Royal British Legion, and other service organisations, as part of that process.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, can he say whether he is able to respond to the three specific points that I made in my contribution relating to pensions? I asked, first, whether it was the intention to cut back on £15 million in pension payments, as has been reported. Secondly, I asked whether it was the intention not to send reminders for claims. Thirdly, I asked whether it was the intention no longer to refer pensions matters directly to the Royal British Legion so that it could represent individuals. If the Minister is not in a position to answer those questions tonight, I would welcome a later response in writing.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I did of course note her points. However, because of the time, I do not feel that I can answer them this evening. Nevertheless, I shall write to the noble Baroness with the answers to those questions.