I wish to bring to the Minister's attention the case of my constituent, Tina Thompson, and her young son Aidan. Tina's husband and Aidan's father, Sergeant Michael Thompson, was a 38-year-old soldier with a 17-year career in the Army. His service included two tours of duty in Iraq, as well as Kosovo, Bosnia and Northern Ireland. He served with the Royal Logistics Corps.
Sergeant Thompson worked at the Joint Service Signal Unit—JSSU—in Ayia Nikolias in Cyprus, although the family was housed at Dhekelia garrison as there had been no suitable family accommodation at Ayia Nikolias at the time. The camps are 11 miles apart.
Sergeant Thompson used often to travel to work on his motorbike. The family was due to move to a house at Ayia Nikolias on
The driver stopped before turning right to allow another vehicle to pass from the opposite direction. When the road was clear, the driver began his manoeuvre to turn right at the same time as Sergeant Thompson began overtaking the pick-up from the right-hand side. His motorcycle collided with the pick-up's offside rear door and then offside front door. As a result of the collision he was thrown off the bike, on to the windscreen and finally under the truck. Sergeant Thompson received fatal injuries. The driver was finally prosecuted for driving without due care and attention in October 2007, and was found guilty and fined £600.
Most of us who value our armed services and the bond between our forces and ourselves would expect the widow and bereaved family to be treated with sympathy, understanding and compassion. From this point, however, sadly this has not been the case. As well as the inevitable trauma and grief that would follow a sudden and tragic accident such as this, my constituent Tina Thompson has been forced to fight tooth-and-nail to receive the full pension normally awarded to service personnel killed on duty.
Mrs. Thompson has said that
"the pain of losing my husband was incredible but fighting the Government for a small allowance to bring up our son is not something that I ever would have imagined having to go through."
I think most right-thinking people would echo those sentiments.
However, The Ministry of Defence has ruled that Mrs. Thompson and her son are entitled to only half the normal pension because Sergeant Thompson was on his way to work at the time of the accident and in its eyes not officially on duty nor responding to an emergency, although he was demonstrating his loyalty and attention to duty by leaving his home some hours before he would normally have needed to do so.
The Service Personnel and Veterans Agency refused to pay the full pension. Mrs. Thompson, in the midst of her grief, was forced to make an appeal against this decision and won a pension appeal tribunal ruling in her favour that she should receive the full pension.
Unaccountably, despite oft-expressed sentiments of the Ministry's support and admiration for service personnel, it appealed against the decision and Mrs. Thompson's pension was reduced by 50 per cent. She now received £388 a month, which I must repeat is a 50 per cent. reduction in that previously awarded. She made an appeal to the pensions commissioner against this decision last year, but it was unfortunately unsuccessful. To heap further insult on to injury, Mrs. Thompson was not officially informed of the final decision, but instead heard about it through her stepson on Christmas eve 2007. We are talking about more than two years of waiting and fighting for what most of us would have expected Mrs. Thompson was fully entitled to receive, and what we as a grateful nation would have seen to be a matter of natural justice.
Ever a fighter, Mrs. Thompson has again decided, with the assistance of the Royal British Legion, to fight on and to take the case to the Court of Appeal, although she could face a bill for legal costs of tens of thousands of pounds if the action fails. She has said:
"I am disappointed and really upset, it's heartbreaking and it's getting harder and harder to make ends meet...I always thought the MOD would be there to help families and people who have lost loved ones while they were serving their country."
She has also said:
"Most single parents find it a struggle and we have been left alone, the only help we have had has been from the British Legion."
Indeed, the Royal British Legion featured Mrs. Thompson and Aidan in its recent poppy appeal in November. To compound Mrs. Thompson's problems, on return from Cyprus, apart from assistance with the funeral, she has been without help from the Ministry of Defence or the Army. She says:
"I felt we had been abandoned. Out of sight, out of mind."
I would like the Minister to look into several points on her behalf. First, apart from one contact from a welfare officer in 2005, there has been no further assistance. Mrs. Thompson found for herself the Army inquiries and aftercare section, and she has had to initiate the contact herself. Secondly, it took almost two years for her to receive a copy of the police report into the accident and she had to obtain that for herself from a solicitor in Cyprus who is pursuing a civil claim for compensation from the other driver.
Thirdly, the black country coroner has requested details of the accident from the authorities so that he can conduct an inquest. However, the authorities in Cyprus are unable to release the relevant papers until the Attorney-General allows it—that is still outstanding. Finally Mrs. Thompson requires advice as to whether she is able to contest the police report, if she will be invited to the inquest, what actions the Army has taken or is taking against the third party, and what has happened to her husband's personal effects, especially the motorbike. Mrs. Thompson has been let down in her hour of need. Surely concern and compassion is called for when unexpected accidents such as this strike service personnel and their families. I put it directly to the Minister that if he has any ministerial discretion, surely this is a case crying out for it to be used.
In summary, Mrs Thompson lost her husband, her son will never know his father and her initial grief was compounded by the fact that she only received half of that to which she was entitled. Mrs. Thompson had the full amount of pension restored on appeal but has once again lost 50 per cent. of the pension to which she thought she was entitled and must now face the trauma and suspense of a further protracted legal battle for which she now may lose her home to pay the fees to receive what most of us would describe as her right.
Finally, the military covenant states:
"This mutual obligation...between the Nation, the Army and each individual soldier; an unbreakable common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility which has sustained the Army throughout its history."
I stress the phrase "mutual obligation". Surely as a nation we are obliged to treat our service personnel and their relatives with respect and compassion. Alas, those sentiments appear to be sadly lacking in this case.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Lynda Waltho on securing the time for this important debate and wish to place on record my appreciation for the support she gives to service personnel, and veterans and the interest that she takes generally in these issues. I know that she has a good relationship with her local veterans' organisations. I know that that is part of her general approach to supporting service personal.
The pensions and compensation awarded to sailors, soldiers and airmen and women who are injured in the service of their country, and to the families of those who sadly lose their lives, are an important topic. I am sure that the House will pay tribute to the sterling work of the armed forces and their courage, sacrifice and professionalism. Families, of course, play a vital role in supporting them, particularly through some difficult times.
The Government are fully committed to meeting their duty of care to serving personnel, veterans and families. That is recognised by many, including the Royal British Legion, which has acknowledged the number of improvements that we have made over recent years. We have, for example, seen a number of improvements in the programmes governing service pay, accommodation, health and welfare provisions, force protection and personal equipment. We recognise, however, that there is still scope for improvement and we continue to work on that, which is why we have announced a cross-Government personnel Command Paper, which is due to report this spring.
I accept that things could be improved and that they have gone wrong in the past. We are working continually to improve the overall support that we give our service personnel, their families and veterans, because providing the correct level of support to bereaved families is a crucial part of supporting our armed forces. I was sorry to hear the issues raised by my hon. Friend this evening, and I assure her that I will get back to her on them and will find out what happened in this case.
The Ministry of Defence assists in a number of ways, including through the work of trained in-service visiting officers who are appointed to act as a liaison between the bereaved family and the services for as long as the family require it. Again, I am disappointed to hear that Mrs. Thompson has not heard anything since 2005.
Of course, the MOD has made a number of improvements to the support that it gives to bereaved families. The number of family members who receive travel and accommodation expenses to attend repatriation ceremonies has been increased from five to seven. Two family members are able to reclaim the costs of their attendance at pre-inquest hearings and funding is already provided for two family members who wish to attend the full inquest. A tax-free funeral grant is offered to families. If the family wishes to hold a service funeral, arrangements and funding are provided by the MOD. A further tax-free grant of £500 will be introduced for the next of kin to meet any personal costs that they might occur as a result of their bereavement.
My hon. Friend raised specifically the case of Mrs. Tina Thompson, to whom I offer my condolences, and I am sure that the rest of the House will join me in that. I cannot imagine what a traumatic and difficult time it has been for Mrs. Thompson since the loss of her husband due to his death in a motor accident in Cyprus in 2005. I pay tribute to him for his service in a number of military theatres and operations with the armed forces.
As my hon. Friend said, Mrs. Thompson has sought permission to appeal her case to the Court of Appeal. I ask my hon. Friend to understand that my remarks will therefore focus on the general provisions of the armed forces compensation scheme and pensions scheme, rather than on the particulars of Mrs. Thompson's case. It is important to put what the schemes provide on the record.
I want to draw the attention of the House to the decision of the independent pensions appeal commissioner, and his findings that
"service was not the predominant cause of"
Sergeant Thompson's death, that
"at the time of his death, he was not on duty" and that
"at that time, he was not responding to an emergency."
I appreciate the point that the Minister has just made. The question of what constitutes an emergency was a large part of the inquiry. Sergeant Thompson believed that he was responding to an emergency at his place of work, and so he left home two hours before he would normally have done so. He believed that it was an emergency. It appears that the letter of the law defines an emergency as something different. I feel that it is possible that the MOD is hiding behind that point of law. That is one issue that I want the Minister to address when he can.
I can assure my hon. Friend that we are not hiding behind a point of law. I have drawn the House's attention to the decision of the independent pensions appeal commissioner and his findings on this case. I cannot go into the details of the case because there is an appeal pending, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that.
The award under the armed forces compensation scheme, which came into effect in April 2005, compensates for pain and suffering and is made under a tariff-based system, which is informed by existing established models such as the Judicial Studies Board's guidelines for the assessment of general damages in personal injury cases and the criminal injuries compensation scheme. The most seriously injured are also awarded a guaranteed income payment. This is a tax-free, index-linked payment made every month from discharge. Between the lump sum and the GIP, individuals can receive hundreds of thousands of pounds over a lifetime. Unlike other compensation schemes, the armed forces compensation scheme has no monetary cap.
We have monitored the scheme closely in the light of experience and the scheme is due for a full review in 2010. At the end of last year, we recognised that the scheme was not fully meeting its policy intent of focusing resources on the most seriously injured. We have made changes to the rules relating to those who have suffered multiple injuries from a single incident to reflect better the serious and complex nature of some of the injuries that servicemen and women were receiving on operations. Because of improvements in body armour and medical care, people are surviving injuries that they might not have survived just a few years ago.
The scheme also provides for the families of those who lose their lives due to service. In such cases, a survivor's guaranteed income payment is made to the husband, wife, or civil partner for the rest of their lives—regardless of their own financial position or any future changes. This payment is based on 60 per cent. of the guaranteed income payment that the spouse would have been eligible to receive. There is also a child's payment awarded to the deceased's children and paid until the child is aged 18, or 23 if they remain in full-time education. This is set at 25 per cent. of the guaranteed income payment if there is one child, or, if there are more, the remaining 40 per cent. of the GIP is split between them. There is also a lump sum bereavement grant of up to £20,000 paid to the surviving spouse.
I am sure that the House will agree that while no amount of money can adequately compensate a family for the premature death of a husband or wife, a father or mother, the armed forces compensation scheme provides an appropriate level of no-fault compensation both for those injured and for the families of those killed as a result of their service in the armed forces.
Of course, the armed forces compensation scheme is not the only scheme to provide financial support for the family of deceased servicemen and women. Provision is also made under the armed forces pension schemes, and this is particularly relevant for those whose family members die while serving in the armed forces but not actually due to service.
Under the rules of the armed forces pension scheme 1975, for those cases where death occurs while in service but not due to service, a pension is paid to the surviving spouse or civil partner. Initially this will be a short-term family pension equal to the daily rate of pensionable pay. This is paid for the first 91 days, or for twice that if there are children. Thereafter the surviving partner receives a pension set at 50 per cent. of the level of pension that would have been payable to the serviceman or woman had they survived, but instead left service on the date they died. Any children receive a share of the remaining 50 per cent. of the pension, up to a maximum of 25 per cent. for a single child. The surviving spouse will also have received a lump sum payment equal to either three times the member's annual pension or twice the full invaliding rate of pension applicable to the rank of the individual involved, whichever is greater.
In 2005, the 1975 pensions scheme was closed to new entrants, and a new, more modern scheme introduced. All existing members of the 1975 scheme were given the opportunity to transfer to the armed forces pension scheme 2005, which remains the extant scheme. This provides for a tax-free lump sum payment of four times pensionable pay—an increase in what would have been payable under the 1975 scheme. It also provides for a pension based on the pension that the individual would have received had they been medically discharged, enhanced by half the remaining time the individual would have been expected to serve up to the typical pension age of 55. Dependants can also receive a pension.
It is important to understand that these substantial death-in-service benefits are available to surviving spouses, irrespective of the circumstances in which the serviceman or woman died. This distinguishes them from the additional payments available under the armed forces compensation scheme, which are only payable if a death is due to service, but ensures that no family is left without a means of support.
To give an illustration, and depending on earnings and age, for a sergeant that could equal a tax-free lump sum payment of more than £100,000, and a taxable pension in the region of £6,000 a year. In addition, the monthly payment to any children would further increase the size of the total award. To reiterate, these awards are payable to the family of any individual who dies in service, regardless of whether they are eligible for additional awards under the armed forces compensation scheme.
No amount of money can adequately compensate for the loss of a loved one. Additional awards are made to those families whose loved ones die while they are on duty, or for whom their service is the predominant cause of death. That is only appropriate, but the Ministry of Defence can and does ensure that any family left behind have some time and space to adjust to their loss without financial worries. It also provides ongoing support to any spouse or children left behind.
We want members of the armed forces and their families to get the fair deal that they deserve, and we will provide support in all circumstances, especially when the worst possibilities come to pass. I am sure that the House will agree that a lot has been done to support armed forces personnel and their families.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge has raised some important points about what is a very difficult case, with which she has been closely involved. While the appeal that is taking place means that I cannot comment on the details, I repeat that I am concerned to hear that Mrs. Thompson does not believe that she had the support that she should have had from the time of her bereavement. My hon. Friend said that Mrs. Thompson was last contacted by a welfare officer in 2005, and that there are problems to do with the coroner's inquiries and personal effects. I repeat my earlier promise that I will get back to her as soon as possible with the information that she needs for her constituent.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Twelve o'clock.