HC Deb 08 March 1999 vol 327 cc15-6
10. Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

If he will make a statement on his plans for war disablement pensions. [73047]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley)

I would like to pay tribute to all those members of the armed forces who have been disabled or whose partners have been bereaved as a result of their service. It is only because of their courage and sacrifice that Members of this House have the democratic liberty to stand for election, and freedom of speech when we get here. We will ensure that the war pensions scheme remains available to them and to future generations of service personnel.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Just before the election, the then Leader of the Opposition described the Conservative Government's policy on disablement pensions for those suffering from deafness as shabby and mean-minded. We now learn from a press release—issued eight days after this question was tabled—that the present Government have no plans to change that policy in respect of deafness on medical grounds. Is that because the Government, too, now regard themselves as shabby and mean-minded, or is it a vindication of the policy of the previous Government? Is it not truly shabby and mean-minded to raise false hopes among war veterans a few months before an election, and then to take two years to come to grips with the facts, during which time many of those veterans— including some constituents of mine—have been waiting for their appeals to be heard?

Mr. Bayley

When in opposition, we pledged to undertake a review of the changes introduced by the Conservatives to the war pensions scheme. That review took place immediately after the election, and was timely.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)


Mr. Bayley

I can tell the Opposition spokesman that that review came up with two conclusions. First, that the deafness attributable to war service and the deafness later in life attributable to ageing was no more than additive. Secondly, it was decided that a further review would take place within a year. The further review was delivered to the Department 10 days ago, and we made its results available to the House last Tuesday.

Mr. Peter L Pike (Burnley)

My hon. Friend rightly paid tribute to the sacrifice made during the war by many

people who fought for democracy and freedom in Europe. Does he recognise that many of those people, for various reasons, failed to make early claims to get the pensions to which they were entitled? Is he aware that the Royal British Legion and many other organisations are fighting for those people, who are getting older? Many veterans and their widows die before their cases are heard. Will he do everything possible to expedite these cases to ensure that people get the payments to which they are entitled as speedily as possible?

Mr. Bayley

My hon. Friend raises an important point. There has been a serious backlog in appeals for war pensions. On 31 March 1997, there were 9,619 appeals outstanding. By April last year, we had managed to reduce that to just over 5,000. At that stage, we introduced a number of additional measures to speed up the hearing of war pensions appeals. As of 28 February 1999—the date on which the latest figure was available—the total was 2,917. We recognise that, although much lower than the figure that we inherited, that is still too many. The War Pensions Agency has commissioned Ernst and Young to undertake a review of the overall decision-making and appeals process, and we will announce the outcome when the review is completed.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I am sure that all hon. Members greatly respect those who have been disabled as a result of service in the armed forces. Is the Minister aware that many people—including, for example, members of the British Legion—feel aggrieved because their pensions are at nowhere near the levels paid in other European countries? Is a review being conducted of the level of pensions?

Mr. Bayley

The payments under our war pensions scheme are considerably more generous than those in other parts of our social security system. For instance, a single man who is severely disabled and is in the war pensions scheme will receive just over £400 a week, which is substantially more than would be paid under the industrial injuries arrangements, and substantially more— more than twice as much—than what would be paid in basic non-income-related state benefits. We believe that the scheme is generous and that its generosity must be maintained, because those who are injured as a result of service to our country should be generously rewarded.