I beg to move,
That this House
believes that the current process for claiming War Pensions and Armed Forces Compensation payments is not fit for purpose and urges the Government to launch an independent inquiry into the system’s failings.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this subject for debate and the Leader of the House for arranging time tonight in a timeslot that is not normally allocated for Back-Bench business. That is very much appreciated after the debate was moved from last Thursday.
In recent years, many of us have become disconnected from the idea of war. It is becoming something that happens far away to people we do not know. We might try to keep on top of the news, but the human stories are often lost. However, the war in Ukraine has reminded us that armed conflict is not just something remote and abstract; the sad truth is that it can happen anywhere when political processes break down or when leaders put their egos above human life. Ukraine has reminded us of another truth: wars are not fought by armies; they are fought by individuals each with a life as complex as our own. When we hear the stories from Ukrainian civilians leaving behind their careers and families to take up arms to defend their country, we see the human face behind every member of those armed forces. When we hear the stories of teenage Russian conscripts surrendering in tears, we see that under each helmet is a complex and unique individual.
Whether or not we agree with the motives of a conflict, or disagree with the concept of war in principle, that all takes second place to our ability to recognise the humanity in every individual, and veterans are central to this. Many veterans have seen the very worst of humanity, so it seems only right that when they return home they should be greeted by its very best: compassion, recognition and respect. They have given all for their state and it is only right that the state, in turn, should give its all for them. That is the key principle in why it is so important to compensate veterans fairly. It is about recognising our duty of care to help them to live a full and dignified life post service, and doing so with respect to their individuality. Schemes such as war pensions and the armed forces compensation scheme are absolutely critical in delivering our duty of care to solidify our commitment to veterans by pledging that whatever injuries, mental or physical, someone receives during their time in the forces, or whatever existing condition was worsened, the burden of that harm should be carried by the state, not by the veteran. It is absolutely correct in its simple recognition that whatever harm was incurred in the name of the state is the state’s responsibility.
That is not asking for much; in fact, it is the bare minimum that we can do to show that we respect these veterans for what they have done to support all of us. Yet the reason we are here today is that at the moment, at least, that bare minimum is not being met. The Government are not yet recognising the duty of care towards veterans. They are not offering to freely and unconditionally carry the financial burden of their injuries. They are not respecting veterans. Yes, war pensions and the compensation scheme exist, but the way in which they are being administered is a national scandal that should have us all hanging our heads in shame. The process, as it stands, operates in a way that discourages veterans from pursuing their claims. It is loaded with presumptions that veterans are not entitled to compensation, making them prove eligibility beyond any reasonable standards. It is a process that is inherently distrustful, presuming that veterans are trying to swindle the system. It is mired with complicated terminology and legalese, with little signposting for those who need it most.
I speak as someone with a one-third war disability pension. When I left the armed forces, I had a medical, and that signposted me to get the disability pension. People do not necessarily have to wait until they get a condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I will come to that point, but we see a lack of transparency and serious questions about conflicts of interest. As a result, the process pushes veterans into poverty, ill health and, sadly, even suicide.
I was first made aware of the seriousness of the issue by my constituent Garry McDermott, a former lance corporal with the Royal Scots who left the armed forces in 2003. As a result of his time in service, he had been diagnosed with complex PTSD, and he suffers from a variety of physical health issues including with his hips and his knees. Those injuries were caused or worsened by his time in the service of his country, but, when he returned home and sought compensation, he found that the country was not willing to serve him.
Garry has been fighting for more than a decade for the Government simply to recognise their duty of care towards him and pay him what he is due under his war pension. Time and again, they shirked responsibility by denying a link between his injuries and his time in service. His physical health has severely deteriorated over the past decade—he now needs a new knee and two new hips—due to trauma induced by carrying 80 kg bags during his time in service. That was confirmed by his Army medical files, yet he has been refused an increased payment. Medical advisers at Veterans UK have denied the link between Garry’s time in service and his injuries time and again. Damage to his teeth from his time in service was noted as “poor dental hygiene” by Veterans UK. Damage to his toes was said to be due to fungus. One time, his ability to go for a run to support his own mental health was held against him. Whenever he put in a claim, he was made to feel like he was trying to cheat the system and not worthy of the Government’s support. He was not claiming for millions of pounds or thousands of pounds—these are claims for an extra £22 a week.
Mistreatment of one veteran is bad enough, but Garry is one of thousands. The true scale of the scandal became clearer when I raised his case at business questions only a matter of months ago and was told:
“It is not always right to draw conclusions about a whole system from one case.”—[Official Report,
The reaction to that statement proved otherwise, as social media exploded with veterans who had experienced the same issues as Garry and were dismayed by the former Leader of the House’s flippant dismissal. Dozens contacted me directly to set the record straight: the problem was systematic and they were the very proof of that. The veterans whom I have spoken to have been in all ranks of our forces, including majors and colonels, and it is extremely widespread.
Let us look at Veterans UK’s recent customer satisfaction survey. Of the 324 veterans surveyed about their satisfaction levels in using the war pension scheme, only 36% noted any level of satisfaction, and 32% gave it a one—the lowest possible rating. For the armed forces compensation scheme, it was even more dire, with only 13% giving any sort of positive rating above five; meanwhile, half of veterans rated their satisfaction at one, which again was the lowest possible option. If war pensions are not bad enough, it seems that the scheme that replaced them is even worse. More generally, the dissatisfaction rate with the Veterans UK claims process is a shocking 80%.
Because of the sheer scale of the issue, it is easy to get lost in the details of individual cases. However, important as those are, they give Veterans UK and the Ministry of Defence the chance to portray them as outliers, which they are not. They are symptoms of a system that is simply unfit for purpose. We need to take a step back and identify the recurring issues among the cases: the common threads that show us that the problem is systematic. I am extremely grateful to everyone who has helped to identify the problems, including campaigning groups such as the Independent Defence Authority and Justice4Troops and, most of all, the veterans who have reached out to share their own stories.
The first issue is that the system of war pensions and armed forces compensation scheme payments operates with a presumption against awarding veterans with their claims. Let us start with the cold, hard statistics. Since April 2009, of the 107,000 disablement claims cleared at initial review under the war pension scheme, 32% have been declined. Only 59% of those whose claims passed forward received a financial award.
Of the 94,000 armed forces compensation scheme claims, 31% have failed at the initial stage, and 74% of appeals have been rejected. Only 57% of claims have resulted in a financial award. The fact that a third of claims fall at the first hurdle and only a minority make it through the appeals process paints a bleak picture of claimants’ chances. That is especially worrying given the fact that the stats date mostly from before Veterans UK took over the assessment processes. According to many veterans, that has worsened the situation.
Interestingly, the MOD does not hold in a collated format stats on how many claimants decided to withdraw or not to take steps to progress their claim—the details are tucked away in the paper files of each case. I have been told that the reason for making the information so difficult to locate is that it is
“not information the Ministry of Defence needs to capture in order to process claims or monitor performance.”
I cannot imagine any reason why holding data on how many veterans give up on the process would not be conducive to monitoring its success, but that is where we are.
Whatever the case, far too many veterans do give up. They are faced with a system that presumes they are trying to swindle it. Many veterans, like my constituent Garry, find themselves struggling to prove that their health conditions were caused by their time in our forces. The slightest ability still to do any physical exercise is held against them and injuries sustained in service are noted down as otherwise. It is the same cruel and distrustful approach to benefits that is embodied by universal credit, with people being made to undergo undignified tests to prove their disabilities.
Even when it clashes with professional opinion, Veterans UK keeps denying claims. Army medical files that prove causation between time in service and injuries are regularly ignored. Similar tests that are carried out for other benefits—such as personal independence payments—and prove unfitness to work are ignored. Veterans are made to feel like they are guilty until proven innocent. In some cases, evidence of a veteran’s disability has seemingly—this claim has been made to me—been doctored to underplay its severity. In one case, a veteran’s medical files stated that they could walk 140 metres with discomfort, but when their claim was rejected, part of the reason given was that they could walk 140 metres—there was no mention of the discomfort.
One veteran, a former major, told me:
“Veterans UK have followed an unofficial policy of ‘Deny, Delay, hope you Die’ in which at the first stage they claim you don’t have that injury, then when it’s proven they insist on a level of evidence that the claimant must provide, despite the fact that they have full access to my medical record, then they attempt to claim that the cause wasn’t service, such as in my case they attributed my deafness to my age, which is currently 49.”
As with universal credit, it boils down to saving money. An ideological dogma of small government has led to starved public resources and a scramble to save money here and there. The ones who pay the price are those who need help the most—in this case, veterans. It is evident that the system is rigged to deny veterans their claims for the feeblest of excuses, at all costs. It should go without saying that no amount of money saved is worth the lives and livelihoods of those who gave their all for all of us. The overarching goal of a body like Veterans UK should be not to save money but to do all it can to repay the debt that we owe our veterans.
Of course, the MOD says that assessments are arrived at through evidence-based professional judgement and that medical advisers seek to advise on the pre-existing evidence rather than to diagnose issues. However, as we have heard, it is not uncommon for existing evidence to be ignored or, allegedly, altered. Medical advisers seem consistently to exceed their remit to pursue a policy of cost-cutting and cover-up.
The role of medical advisers ties into another issue that runs through veterans’ testimonies. Many veterans have raised questions about the lack of transparency around obtaining details of who makes decisions on their claims. Personal privacy is of course paramount—I do not think anyone would question that—but it should be balanced with veterans’ right to know that their assessors are the right people to make the decisions, even if for nothing other than their peace of mind. There is no transparency on that front, and veterans feel completely in the dark about the people who make these life-altering decisions. Medical advisers stay deep in the shadows, even going as far as to refuse to appear on video link at tribunals. The Minister might consider how dehumanising that can be for a veteran—to feel that their fate is in the hands of a faceless bureaucrat. What is so hard about treating veterans like human beings and creating a healthy, open relationship between them and their medical advisers?
In one case, a veteran requested a statement from a medical adviser on why they thought he had PTSD, but they declined to do so, saying that they were not qualified to make such a judgment. However, the same assessor then rejected their claim relating to PTSD deterioration. How can an adviser make a judgment on one, but not on the other? I just cannot understand that. It might be explained by seeing exactly what the assessors do, opening that up and shining a light on it.
Perhaps even more concerning is the reuse of the same medical adviser at different stages in the appeals process. Testimony after testimony has complained to me about the same individual assessor giving their judgment on a claim at the initial stage, the appeal and then feeding into the tribunal. Separate advisers should be used to ensure impartiality and a range of opinions. Surely the whole point of appealing is to get a second opinion to reassess the claim from a new point of view. If the adviser used at the initial stage is then brought in for the appeal, how can a veteran be assured that their claim will not just be subject to the same opinions that rejected it in the first place? Where is the fairness and where is the impartiality? At best, it is serious neglect in the system design, leading to a conflict of interest. At worst, it is a deliberate choice to cut costs by rigging the system against veterans. It is little wonder that so few appeals get anywhere. All of this contributes to a feeling that there is a huge power imbalance between the veterans and those assessing them.
The picture painted of Veterans UK is that it puts cost-cutting above its duty to protect veterans’ lives and livelihoods; it perpetuates a culture of distrust towards veterans, and sees many as dishonest and unworthy of compensation; it operates under an assumption that veterans will not get their compensation—a case of “guilty until proven innocent”; it overrides medical and professional opinion to claim that injuries were not caused by time in service; and it hides behind a lack of transparency around its medical advisers. Most of all, however, it completely disregards the debt that society owes to our veterans.
Of course, there is a serious human cost to this. According to Lisa Scullion and Katherine Curchin, writing in the Journal of Social Policy,
“it is evident that there is a lack of understanding of the impact of trauma on people’s psychosocial functioning and, as a result, veterans are treated in ways which are variously perceived as disrespectful, unfair or disempowering and in some cases exacerbate existing mental health problems.”
Returning from the unimaginable conditions of war, physical and mental trauma leaves many feeling vulnerable, isolated and financially unstable. PTSD is rife, and the risk of self-harm and suicide can be high. Subjecting this community to complex, lengthy and demeaning processes to claim the money they need to support themselves does nothing but exacerbate mental health problems. They are forced to relive trauma and put their mental health on the line.
For some veterans, their lengthy fights to claim their money is simply too much to bear. Many simply give up and some, tragically, take their own lives. They simply cannot bear the mental strain of fighting for years—sometimes decades—to be told that they cannot be recognised as worthy of help. One veteran told me:
“In September last year, I had a full physical and mental breakdown because of all these accusations that I’m not as injured as make out, and again tried to hang myself. I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD directly because of the MoD.”
Yet Veterans UK is ill-equipped to deal with this. It even admitted in a written statement that it has no policy in place to deal with veterans suffering from mental health issues. I welcome the Minister’s pledge to start publishing veterans’ suicide rates in England and Wales, starting next year. It is important that the MOD does understand the scale of the problem across the UK as a whole.
I have been delighted by the level of support from across the Chamber in bringing forward this debate, and I am certainly not here seeking any kind of political scalp. This is not about point scoring; this is an entirely cross-party issue. We are united by wanting to do the very best by our veterans. We simply want the Government to hear the pain veterans are in and address it. That is why we need an independent inquiry into the failures of Veterans UK. It is evident that a few tweaks around the edges will not be enough to fix the system.
Root-and-branch reform is needed to build the foundations of a system informed by different philosophies and following different priorities. An independent inquiry should investigate how Veterans UK arrived at the culture of cost-cutting. It should give veterans an opportunity to air their concerns and feel listened to. Most importantly, it should lay the groundwork for a new approach. For instance, there would be huge benefits in creating a system using the principles of trauma-informed care. Again, in the Journal of Social Policy, Lisa Scullion and Katherine Curchin write that
“the application of trauma-informed care principles to the UK social security system could improve interactions within this system and avoid re-traumatising those experiencing on-going or unresolved trauma.”
In the meantime, we could take actions right now that could save lives. Untimely payments cost lives; target times should be reduced as far as possible. War pension payments that exceed their target by a fortnight must be brought into line with it. On top of that, the Confederation of Service Charities, or Cobseo, has raised concerns about the backlog of appeals awaiting resolution. Immediate steps could be taken to progress that. Veterans UK’s policies around the consideration given to previous health assessments undertaken during a veteran’s time in service must be taken into account fully and properly.
This is the right time to make changes. The armed forces compensation scheme will be reviewed this year, and major work is being done to digitise the schemes. Now is the time: the opportunities are there to lay the groundwork for a better system, including by addressing the recommendations of the previous five-yearly reviews in 2010 and 2017.
All these actions are necessary, but without an independent inquiry to lay the foundations of a new approach, the MOD risks tinkering around the edges. I appreciate that not all these issues can be fixed with the wave of a magic wand; I do not think anyone would expect that. Reforming the treatment of veterans will be a long process. But that could start now with an inquiry, simply to recognise what has gone wrong, learn from the mistakes and understand how we can do better.
I urge the Minister to take this call seriously and bring forward plans for an inquiry. Our veterans deserve our respect. They deserve better than what they are currently receiving. They deserve an independent inquiry, and a new system that recognises their humanity. I urge hon. Members to support this call.
I commend Owen Thompson for securing this debate. When he asked me to speak, it was hard to refuse. There are reasons for that. First, I am a veteran myself, along with my good and right hon. Friend Bob Stewart. I am a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on veterans and also have the privilege of chairing the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee. I have a vested interest in this important issue.
The first thing I want to say is that there are 2.2 million veterans or thereabouts in the UK. The fact is that they are not all mad, bad or sad: the vast majority live life perfectly successfully and happily, and are doing very well indeed. I do not know many officers or soldiers who are sleeping under Waterloo bridge, but we cannot deny the problem because we know that there is one.
My point is that although the vast majority of veterans are being looked after and doing really well, a percentage of them have an issue. Whether that is 5% or 8% depends on what we read, but some among us are identified as being in bad health and there is no question at all but that we have a moral responsibility to help those who have served in our armed forces. That is a no-brainer, and it must happen. But maybe there is a disconnect in respect of what they expect of us in society and what they are not getting.
The armed forces compensation scheme is a good scheme that has much to be commended. It is a great scheme, and I commend those volunteers who work within it—the assessors, medical staff, and all those who make it happen and do the best they can to improve the lot of our veterans. Yes, there are some examples of where the scheme has not provided sufficient care for those in need. We heard a bit about that earlier, and inboxes for all MPs are a barometer of what might be lurking out there. I feel fortunate in Bracknell, but I know other colleagues are not so fortunate with what they get in their inboxes. That encourages us to action, as we have to make the appropriate interventions.
There are situations where veterans can be penalised if they are getting better, and a lot of the assessments come down to the day on which someone is assessed. Are they having a good day or a bad day? Are they showing an improvement this week? There is an inconsistency with the assessments, and we know that some veterans have been wrongfully assessed. Mental health problems can go under the radar. Some veterans do not want to present with mental health problems, and they keep things to themselves. I commend Op COURAGE, the fantastic new initiative being led by the MOD and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. It is brilliant. We had a read-out last week at the all-party group on veterans, and the stuff that is happening is really good. We are moving in the right direction.
There is no question in my mind that in the main, MOD pensions, war pensions and armed forces compensation scheme payments are generous and fair. It is a good scheme that befits those who have undertaken armed service. Anecdotally, as we have heard, there may be an issue, and that is what I want briefly to scratch now. I find myself in the strange predicament of suggesting that we may have a problem and that there may be a solution, but that we do not know what that solution might be because we have not defined the problem. That is our first task: what is that problem, and how deep does it go? It is easy to admire the problem, but as politicians we should be focused on the solution.
Veterans UK fulfils a vital function for the MOD, but it assesses and it awards, and it may be that marking one’s own homework brings its own problems. Is the problem systematic? It may be—we do not know. About 2,500 veterans are believed to be in this trap—let us call it the assessment and award trap. Are they presenting better? Are they presenting worse? Once again, it depends what day we look. Can we separate out those functions? When the next armed forces Bill is discussed in 2026, perhaps it could include a clause on that. Perhaps, as the hon. Member for Midlothian said earlier, we need to appoint an independent assessor versus Veterans UK. Perhaps there is an enhanced role for our service charities, such as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, the British Legion, and Combat Stress. Perhaps we could do a lot more with our armed forces champions. Perhaps local councils could intervene.
Perhaps, however, we need another solution altogether, such as veterans advisory and pensions committees. Hon. Members might recall that during the passage of the Armed Forces Bill in 2021, Lord Lancaster tabled an amendment in the other place to get the Bill to incorporate the functions of veterans advisory and pensions committees, to include all functions covered by the covenant, and to get a change to the current statutory instrument. He withdrew that amendment because the Government offered a concession to draft a Government-sponsored hand-out Bill—perhaps a private Member’s Bill—in the next Session of Parliament. We may face that in due course, which I would welcome.
What does that actually mean? In brief, VAPCs are regional statutory committees—nine in England, two in Scotland, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland—that have been established by a statutory instrument under section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989. It seems perfect—social security Act, statutory body, one can see the connection straightaway. The VAPC handbook, published by the MOD, states that each VAPC is an advisory non-departmental body that acts independently of its sponsor department, the MOD—you can see where we are going with this. Currently, VAPCs cannot be given functions relating to all veterans, because that is outside the extent of the enabling power which limits the functions of VAPCs to war pensions, armed forces compensation scheme benefits, those claiming and receiving them, and their families. Well, guess what? That is what we are talking about, so it may be that the VAPCs are perfectly placed to do that bit of work within their existing statute, or it might be that an amendment, such as the one proposed in 2021, would give VAPCs a power to be given functions relating to all veterans. It is a neat trick and an easy one to amend, so again I commend it to the House.
Importantly, VAPCs could be given a statutory role, subject to resources and perhaps supported by the charities and the NHS, to provide a voice of reason for Veterans UK, perhaps as some kind of independent assessor, critical friend or voice of conscience. I regret that at this point in time I do not have a ready solution in terms of the mechanism by which that might take place, but it stands to reason from what we said earlier this evening that it is worthy of consideration. I believe that VAPCs could be really important in this particular area to provide that link and that voice of conscience with Veterans UK.
Ultimately, before I finish, anything that resolves the loose ends and allows us to get granularity on what veterans are currently facing, and anything that allows us to dig deeper and understand that there is an institutional systemic problem, is to be welcomed. Anything that we do in this country in support of veterans is to be applauded.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Owen Thompson on securing this important debate, and I start my contribution by paying tribute to the veterans from my constituency of Airdrie and Shotts, which has a long military history. We must do all we can to support those who have made immense sacrifices.
As my hon. Friend stated, the current process for claiming war pensions and armed forces compensation scheme payments is simply not fit for purpose. It drives many veterans to give up on their claims. The process is complex, there is a lack of transparency, and they are very often faced with extended delays. Those issues have led to a severe deterioration in the mental health of many veterans. They have driven many into poverty and increased the risk of suicide. It is currently believed that there are thousands of individuals suffering such issues while awaiting a final decision. This issue is not an isolated factor impacting the mental health of our veterans. In fact, it raises wider issues around the military’s treatment of the mental health of veterans, along with occupational wellbeing such as pensions.
There is an issue very specific to one of my constituents. Over a significant period of time, she has been writing to her elected MP—me and my predecessors—for Airdrie and Shotts. She spoke to me recently about her son. She told me that her son joined the trade and supply branch of the forces in May 1988 and remained in service for a number of years. He was in consultation with doctors over his back pains. However, doctors repeatedly dismissed his pains and appeared unsympathetic. Despite protesting that he was unwell, he was placed back on to normal duties. He was deployed again and took part in a number of exercises with full kit, despite those back pains. When he arrived back in the UK and spoke to doctors, they again dismissed his claims that the training had exacerbated his pain and said that a previous car accident was to blame. At that time, my constituent’s son was unable to sleep without prescribed medical treatment. This specific case goes further and I am short of time, but the story of my constituent and her son really does get to the heart of how we treat our veterans in terms of their wellbeing, be it their mental health or their occupational wellbeing, such as receiving pensions.
My constituent’s son sadly died in 2011, despite his specific case being raised a number of times on these very Benches by four different MPs for Airdrie and Shotts. What is still abundantly clear is that despite veterans sacrificing so much for this country, the UK Government are simply not ensuring that mental health and occupational wellbeing, such as pensions for veterans, are a priority.
In the Scottish Parliament, the SNP has established a £1.7 million Scottish veterans fund to support projects that provide a wide range of advice and practical support to veterans across Scotland. In Scotland, we have also appointed a Scottish Veterans Commissioner, who is the first person to hold such a position across all four nations.
We in the SNP believe that veterans are an asset to our society and deserve the best possible care. I applaud my Airdrie and Shotts veterans for their immense sacrifices, and I believe that all veterans deserve to be fairly compensated for injury, illness and death caused by their time in the armed forces.
I congratulate Owen Thompson on his tenacity in campaigning on this issue for some time. I also congratulate him on securing this debate and on his introduction to it, which exposed the injustices and the flaws in the current system. I have had experiences of the system through one constituent in particular, but it is clear that he has uncovered a whole range of systematic flaws. Those who have served our country and made sacrifices deserve a system that is fair and supportive to them. He was right to say that we should consider it a matter of shame that we do not have that, and I pay tribute to his work in this area.
I want to talk about my experiences with the system—particularly in relation to a constituent of mine, David Cottrell, whom we discussed in an Adjournment debate more than three years ago—and why there are still issues today. I recognise that covid-19 has caused delays in dealing with claims, but that does not excuse the delays and the errors that have been made by Veterans UK in losing documents on two occasions and taking more than six months simply to copy paperwork. My constituent does not feel as though his claim and subsequent appeal are being treated fairly when he sees that happening regularly.
I know that the Royal British Legion is calling for the direct lodgement process, which is available in Scotland, to be extended to England and Wales. That would allow appeals to be sent directly to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, rather than having to go through Veterans UK. In the legion’s experience, direct lodgement is more efficient. That is of little surprise given that the customer journey, as it is called, via the current route represents a 13-stage process with the involvement of Veterans UK. Direct lodgement would also provide reassurance about the independence of the tribunals service, which is currently lacking, particularly for my constituent.
When we consider that over the last 10 years, more than 60% of war pension appeals have been unsuccessful—in comparison, 37% of personal independence payment appeals are unsuccessful—we can begin to see why veterans feel as though the process is not working for them. Essentially, we ask people to apply to Veterans UK and then, if that decision is wrong, to go back to Veterans UK to appeal and wait for it to decide whether a review is possible. At that stage, if there is no change, the case worker at Veterans UK must have prepared appeal papers, which are then passed on to the reprographics department. Only at that point are they sent to the tribunals service. I think anyone can see how the appeal process is overly convoluted.
The involvement of Veterans UK, which is the subject of the appeal, risks, at the very least, the perception of a conflict of interest. Of course, it is reasonable for a mechanism to allow review without the need for a tribunal hearing, and of course it is necessary for Veterans UK to provide its response to the appeal. However, both those matters could be dealt with under a different system. It seems plain to me that introducing direct lodgement would be at least a step forward for veterans in England and Wales, and I hope the Government will take that request on board. I struggle to think of any truly independent appeal process in which an appeal must first go through the body that is being appealed against. I really do not know what that adds to the process and, as we have heard, it creates more concern and problems.
There is a focus at the moment on ensuring that those waiting get their cases to tribunal can do so with as little delay as possible, following the closure of the service for a significant period during the pandemic. I am pleased that the Government have committed to reducing waiting times, but the Royal British Legion has said that it is essential that, as the default provider of representation, it has the capacity to deliver its services to those who need support. I understand that following some discussions, there has been a little slowing down to enable hearings to match the legion’s capacity. However, there is a question mark about how long that arrangement will last, so I ask for some assurances that any attempts to clear the backlog are done with the welfare of veterans at heart to ensure that they are properly represented.
Clearly we all want veterans’ appeals heard as soon as possible, but it is vital that they come out of that process feeling that they have been properly represented and their cases have been properly heard. In the context of the repeated concerns about independence, it would be a cause of concern if the acceleration of the clearing of the backlog hindered the legion or any other provider from providing the representation that veterans need.
On a slightly tangential point, I am sure that many Members will, when contacting organisations, have had challenges about whether they have their constituents’ consent. As we all know—indeed, we commonly quote it—statutory instrument No. 2905 of 2002 covers the authority of MPs to act on behalf of their constituents. It has therefore been a source of frustration that Veterans UK seems to be unaware of that provision. We have managed to get that resolved, but it does not show an organisation that is particularly customer-focused.
It is accepted that the pandemic has caused delays to the normal functions of the application, assessment, and appeals process, but I was concerned to see that the number of claims made to the war pensions and armed forces compensation scheme dropped by almost 40% from 2019-20. While we must acknowledge the impact that the pandemic had on that, it is notable that the decrease in personal independence payment applications for the same period was much less at around 27%. Perhaps the decision to prioritise PIP assessments by alternative means, while the war pensions process ground to a halt, offers some explanation, but it feels to many that the system for war pensions was simply closed for a period of time.
From April to August 2020, there were 200,000 PIP assessments, yet not one war pension medical assessment took place. In Mr Cottrell’s case, that meant a decision was made on his claim without a medical assessment report, and the decision maker specifically referred in the decision notice to having to decide on the claim in lieu of such evidence—the inference being that the decision may have been different if an assessment had taken place. Mr Cottrell certainly believes that to be the case.
The feedback I have received from those navigating the war pensions process is that veterans feel they are an afterthought, and the comparison with how PIP is dealt with certainly makes them feel that way. The DWP does not apply a target time for the clearance of war pensions claims. My understanding from the last question on the subject is that the average time is 127 working days, or six months. For Mr Cottrell, who was also claiming PIP, the difference in approach was stark. His PIP renewal claim in 2020 was dealt with within 18 days. It is reasonable to ask why the same standards cannot apply to war pensions.
I am told that the vastly different timeframes are based on the long-term performance of the war pensions scheme, and that will remain
“until the digitisation and transformation of the WPS is complete in 2023”.
That essentially means there will be little improvement for veterans for at least another year while that digitisation process takes place. It is perhaps unsurprising that veterans do not feel they are being given much priority and that they feel like an afterthought. The schemes designed to ensure they can access the financial support they need through their pensions are lagging behind numerous social security benefits, and that is together with the fact that we are now in the third year of waiting for the digital answer to the veterans ID card. That is another example of how veterans feel they are not being treated as a priority.
I would like to conclude with Mr Cottrell’s own words. He asks that the Government
“meet some Veterans and ask them what they think of the service Veterans UK provide to people who have served this County and have been damaged either physically or mentally by their service”.
As we have shown and heard today, it is not possible to discuss the war pensions and armed forces compensation scheme without looking at the role and performance of Veterans UK, so I would like the Minister to commit to listening to constituents such as mine, veterans such as Mr Cottrell, and to addressing their concerns, in order to drive some improvements in the service, because we all believe that veterans deserve the very best service in these areas, as in every other service they use, as a thank you for their service and duty over many years.
It is good to follow Justin Madders. Perhaps there will be a certain type of reply to his final question, because I asked the Minister this morning about the Army’s future soldier programme and how it engages with those in what we weirdly call the “ordinary ranks”. I think the answer to him will be the same as the one to me about veterans engaging in this process—I got a less than effusive response this morning.
The reason I wish to speak in this debate and congratulate my hon. Friend Owen Thompson is because I know the case of his constituent Garry and because, having been on the Defence Committee for a number of years—it is always good to see its former Chair, Dr Lewis, with us—I wish to follow up on a couple of issues. Not only that, but my nephew is a member of the Royal Engineers and is now extending his time in the armed forces, and I am delighted for him. As the Minister will know, he was my brother’s commanding officer for at least one of his tours of Afghanistan, my brother being a reservist; so much of the backbone of the armed forces is in the reserves, but we will come on to that in a wee minute. I may also take up the points made by James Sunderland about chairing the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill last year. Was it last year?
It was 2021, yes. The hon. Gentleman had to do that online, and I congratulate him on that. A range of issues similar to those faced by Garry, the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian, consistently came up; here we are in the 21st century and members of the armed forces of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland require us to stand and have these debates. They require us to stand and say how wonderful it is for charities to support them—charity! I find that extraordinary. I am more a fan of the Danish model, where a member of the armed forces, no matter their rank and how long they have been in the armed forces, receives the same treatment as every other citizen, because the treatment is that good that they do not need anything different and they do not need to rely on charity.
I know that many of the charitable organisations that support members of the armed forces—there are a lot of them—do a power of work and have done for a number of years. Many of them have done this for a very long time, such as the Royal British Legion, Poppyscotland and others. When it comes to issues such as war pensions and armed forces compensation pay schemes, I wonder to myself, “Is it really up to charities or even the body itself, the war pensions armed forces scheme, to be part of this process, to the exclusion not only of veterans, but members of the armed forces themselves?” That comes back to the crux of the matter.
I know that Conservative Members will disagree with what I am about to say, but I am glad that the Labour party decided at the last election to agree with the SNP on the requirement for an armed forces representative body. That is the missing cog in this wheel. We see that time and again. For example, if we go back to the extraordinary report led by Sarah Atherton, through the Defence Committee, on women in the armed forces, we see that a clear clarion call about the treatment of women was that women in the “ordinary ranks” were not being listened to. We see the exact same thing when it comes to terms and conditions or the future armed services programme: no one is listening to the ordinary ranks. I am in disbelief that we are still going through old conundrum.
If we look at so many of the armed forces across the NATO alliance, we see that because they have independent armed forces representative bodies like a police federation, without the right to strike—apart from in the Netherlands, where people have that right—they are able to move forward in agreement, in negotiation with their Governments. In the Scandinavian model and, notably, in Denmark, we see that this also comes with the vast majority of Parliament agreeing a set out programme over a period, for example, a parliamentary term. So there is engagement, discussion, debate and agreement about treatment and terms and conditions, including pensions.
It beggars belief that nearly 80 years after the second world war, we are still talking about veterans as though they were charity cases. It is extraordinary that 21st-century parliamentarians are still having this type of debate, no matter how good or well intentioned the charities are that provide so much support. However, as someone who worked in charities before coming to Parliament, I was always trying to do myself out of a job. I know, frankly, that that will go down like a lead balloon with some, but the reality is that the failure to move forward with engagement, discussion, deliberation and agreement continues to fail veterans. It will continue to fail veterans now, as well as people such as my nephew who will be veterans at some point. I hope that, by that time, we will have moved forward and will have an independent armed forces representative body.
I congratulate Owen Thompson on securing this debate. It is a pleasure to speak in it, just as it is to follow Martin Docherty-Hughes, who is certainly the soldier’s champion on union issues. It is very important to have the ordinary soldier represented in this place. It is nice to see in the Chamber the chair of the all-party group on veterans, James Sunderland, and I thank him for all he does for veterans. I also look forward to the Minister’s response. I know that, deep in his heart, he has a love for and an interest in veterans, and he is in post because he does it well. However, we have to highlight the issues that need reiterating and we look to him for a helpful response tonight, as we always do.
I declare an interest as a former part-time soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Artillery for some 14 and a half years. I also pay special tribute to my Strangford constituents, who have always been strong supporters of all the services—especially the Army, as well as the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy.
Members will be under no illusion about my view on our armed forces. I am supremely proud of them and supremely embarrassed about their treatment by this so-called grateful nation. It is critical that we remember the importance of the armed forces compensation scheme, which was born out of the need to support large numbers of service personnel and their families as a result of the fatalities and injuries sustained in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thankfully, the military are not as exposed operationally now as they were then, although if Putin continues as he has started, we may find that we have a need for their training, services and sacrifices once more. Regardless of the machinations of that despot, however, the scheme is still critical.
The lasting impact on soldiers is incredibly clear, and I have many constituents who have post-traumatic stress disorder. I know them all well but I know one particularly well, and he is absolutely on edge with the talk of war and in regard to whether he would ever be called back into service. How many more are retraumatised with the scenes on our screens at present, reminding them of the last war on terror that we entered into and the dreadful price that they still pay for their service?
I do not know whether hon. Members had chance to see the programme on Channel 4 last night on the Falklands war. If they did, I gently remind them that even though the war began 40 years ago on
I thank my good friend for giving way. Although he has not mentioned this, I remind the House that one heck of a lot of people were damaged in Northern Ireland. It was more than all the other wars put together, actually, and we must not forget the Northern Ireland veterans who are still suffering. They need to be looked after just as much as someone from Iraq or Afghanistan.
The right hon. and gallant Gentleman reminds us all of the conflict and the 30-year war against the IRA in Northern Ireland, where he and others in this Chamber served gallantly and expertly for us. He is right that there are many in Northern Ireland who still live those battles every day and fight the demons that attack them. I served alongside many people on whom the trauma of what they saw, what they endured and the friends they lost left a lasting impression; unfortunately, some took their own lives. That is a salient reminder of what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, and I know that from his own experiences he can confirm it better than most in this Chamber. I thank him from the bottom of my heart for all that he did for us in Northern Ireland.
One of my concerns is that when the scheme was envisaged, the number of beneficiaries was not accounted for in the mechanisms designed to deliver the scheme, which has resulted in unacceptable delays in sorting out payments. The additional pressure of trying to jump through the hoops is putting more strain on those who are already physically and mentally suffering. That needs to be addressed completely.
I thank charities such as SSAFA, the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes and particularly Beyond the Battlefield, a charity in my constituency that will have the first centre in Northern Ireland dedicated especially for veterans to go and stay. I have invited the Minister to come along and open it, probably in May, and I very much look forward to that.
The scheme appears to focus on one-off payments, but the reality is that many who have suffered life-changing injuries have conditions that are evolving and deteriorating and that necessitate coming back to the scheme for additional payments. That has not been well handled; reassessments appear to be taking too long and are often hamstrung by an over-complex process in which veterans and their families have been placed at the periphery, not the heart. Instead of being about the outcome, it is all about the process, which is the wrong way round.
That leads me on to another concern, which is that the process is not independent enough. In effect, medical professionals funded by the MOD through Veterans UK are marking their own homework, with insufficient scrutiny applied to the process, the outcomes and the appeals. To be clear, my main concern is that Veterans UK is insufficiently resourced to manage the scheme effectively and that veterans and their families are suffering directly.
It is clear that Veterans UK is being asked to do too many things at once, with insufficient staffing, an outdated IT system and an over-reliance on paper-based records. It is not networked up with other agencies such as the NHS, the Department for Work and Pensions or the judiciary overseeing appeals, so paperwork, medical reports, appeals and so on are all taking far too long. The much-heralded digitisation of Veterans UK is underfunded, unambitious and already running well behind. The likelihood is that by the time the process is complete, long backlogs will have built up with veterans waiting needlessly for outcomes: the technology will have moved on, but yet again veterans will be lagging behind.
I further point out to the Minister that Veterans UK is operating without defined priorities, so veterans awaiting the outcome of the armed forces compensation scheme are competing with veterans awaiting that of the war pensions scheme. Both groups are up against myriad veterans who are appealing previous outcomes or making complaints about poor processes or medical diagnoses from Veterans UK that are at odds with their own NHS consultants’ reports. They, in turn, are in the same queue as veterans waiting for the long-promised veterans’ ID card, which is being issued only to service leavers, not to veterans.
I am conscious that the three Front Benchers need to wind up, so I will conclude. The very existence of Veterans UK at its HQ at Norcross, where all these schemes and complaints are supposed to be managed, has been subject to a review. I support the scheme, as I think we all do, but we want to see it doing better. Like other hon. Members, I have only briefly been able to highlight the practical operational issues that show that change is needed, and needed soon.
It is time to get it right. Improvement is needed, and our veterans deserve better. These men and women have offered their all. There is no excuse for such treatment under a scheme that is designed only to help. I look forward to hearing how the Minister and his Department will address my and all our concerns and, more importantly, how they will provide the resources that are critical to doing better, enabling the scheme to work and operate well, as it is supposed to.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Owen Thompson on securing this important debate. I think that most of us who have spoken this evening understand that the system needs some reformation.
It is of course at times like these, when we see the desperate scenes of the war in Ukraine, that we realise that conflict is never very far away. I wish to pay tribute to the efforts of our armed forces, in the knowledge that military service does not come without cost. It can mean life-changing injuries, it can mean complex mental health issues, and it can, sadly, lead to death. It is for that very reason that the war pensions and armed forces compensation schemes exist. The state has an undeniable responsibility to care for those who have protected it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian made clear when he said that the burden of the harm should be carried by the state and not by the veteran. Providing compensation is the very least we can do for those who have given so much.
My hon. Friend Ms Qaisar highlighted the issues experienced by her constituent, whose son sadly took his life. She also talked about the Scottish Veterans Fund, which the Scottish Government have set up. This is an important commitment to the health and wellbeing of our veteran community. My hon. Friend Martin Docherty-Hughes said that he found it extraordinary that charities were still filling in the gaps where the UK Government were missing. He never misses an opportunity to talk about the armed forces representative body. Jim Shannon described it as a union, but with the specific difference that members of this body would not have the ability to strike that we see in many other countries. In that respect, it would be much more like the Police Federation. It would, however, allow members of the serving and veteran communities to raise issues, although not through their superiors or those in their immediate line of duty.
The hon. Member for Strangford talked about his pride in the armed forces community, but he also talked about post-traumatic stress disorder and how it could be escalated by the scenes that we are seeing in Ukraine. We have to be aware of the fact that re-traumatisation can happen, and it can be caused by the processes of application for war pensions and subsequent appeals.
The UK Government continue to fall short, and stand guilty of putting cost cutting ahead of compensation. The stories that we have heard this evening are not isolated. Thousands of veterans have been affected by a protracted claims and appeals process. Justin Madders talked about the time that these claims were taking, and said that we owed it to our veterans to speed the process up. Some veterans have sadly taken their own lives during the long wait for a decision from the War Pensions and Armed Forces Compensation Tribunal.
It is concerning to hear reports that Veterans UK and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service have been prioritising reducing waiting times over the experience of those undergoing an appeal. Of course we agree that waiting times must be reduced, but that must be done in a considered manner that does not further disadvantage those who are going through the process. The Royal British Legion, which is the default provider of representation for veterans at tribunal hearings, has said:
“early this year, in order for the Courts and Tribunals Service to meet their existing Key Performance Indicator of 75% of cases disposed of within 20 weeks, cases were being listed at an ever-increasing rate, outstripping the Royal British Legion’s capacity to provide representation and leaving us unable to represent vulnerable injured veterans and bereaved spouses requesting support.”
This is a pertinent issue, given that there is no legal requirement for an appellant to have representation. Questions must be answered with regard to the impartiality surrounding Veterans UK’s medical assessments.
I want to highlight three issues this evening. The first is the practice of the same medical assessor assessing a veteran’s claim at three separate stages of the process, instead of separate or different assessors being used to ensure the impartiality of opinions and a range of opinions. The second is the ability of medical assessors to overturn medical specialist diagnosis in order to deny claims. If an individual has medical specialist information and reports, they should take priority over the opinion of a medical assessor who does not have a knowledge of that individual. The third involves the concerning reports of medical evidence and paperwork being removed from veterans’ evidence bundles during the tribunal process.
Specific groups of veterans have been neglected, and I want to speak briefly about the British nuclear test veterans. My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian spoke extensively about the trauma-informed approach. The nuclear test veterans, in their struggle for recognition and compensation, have experienced a system that is re- traumatising, rather than trauma informed. The ongoing issues that veterans have experienced on a broader scale are reflected in the Veterans UK customer satisfaction survey, with the majority saying that they could not rely on the Veterans Welfare Service or the Defence Transition Service to do what they said they would do. James Sunderland talked about Veterans UK marking its own homework, and I think that is a phrase many of us would recognise.
What would we like to see? An independent inquiry is needed into the failings of the current system, which is pushing veterans into poverty and into mental health crisis. This must be a starting point towards implementing a trauma-informed approach to compensation. The review should include introducing a requirement that each veteran has access to a professional advocate to assist them through the application and the appeals process, and implementing a process of direct lodgement in England and Wales, as is already the case in Scotland.
Finally, there are other unresolved issues surrounding pensions and compensation that require urgent attention, from the LGBT veterans who were impacted by the historical ban on LGBT people in the armed forces to the veterans living abroad who are affected by the injustice of frozen pensions. I appeal to the Minister to make the necessary reforms to ensure that no veteran is disadvantaged as a result of their service and that all veterans have access to the financial support to which they are entitled.
I congratulate Owen Thompson on his campaigning on this issue and on securing this important debate. As a country, we are all incredibly proud of our ex-servicemen and women. They have performed the ultimate public service, and if this has caused serious injury, illness or death, veterans and their families deserve to be fairly compensated. At the moment, however, far too many veterans are being denied the payments they are entitled to, leaving them at risk of poor mental health, poverty and the feeling of being let down by the country they have served with distinction.
At the heart of this issue is Veterans UK, which is in charge both of war pensions and of the armed forces compensation scheme. It is allowed to mark its own homework, as James Sunderland said, because it is responsible for both assessing claims and awarding any payments. Indeed, according to its own customer satisfaction survey, 80 % were not happy with the service, as was highlighted by the hon. Member for Midlothian. So building on the contributions of hon. Members today, I am going to address the delays in the process, the burden of proof that the system places on our veterans, and the reasons that current Government plans do not go far enough in solving these problems. Since 2009, successful applications to the armed forces compensation scheme have fallen from 62% to 46%, while rejections have risen from 30% to 40%. At the same time, average clearance times for claims have risen to more than 100 days for both the AFCS and war pensions, with war pension wait times missing the Government target since 2011. This means that, over the last decade, our veterans have been forced to wait longer by months, not weeks, only to be more likely to be rejected by their compensation schemes.
The first stage of the application is just the beginning, however. For veterans who feel they have been unfairly rejected, a lengthy and difficult appeal system awaits. Here, rather than Veterans UK having to prove an injury or illness is not related to service, veterans are tasked with the burden of proving it is. Too often, veterans have to rely on forces charities. As brilliant as they are, this should not be necessary, as Martin Docherty-Hughes said so passionately.
In a document that was also submitted to the Select Committee on Defence in 2021, the forces organisation Justice4Troops shared with us the following examples. Bruce Menzies was medically discharged in March 2020 with complex PTSD. He had a formal diagnosis, but his compensation claim was rejected, stating that his diagnosis was due to his “personality” and “genetics.” Bruce became homeless in May 2020 and faced a sharp deterioration in his health, becoming hospitalised.
Justine Montgomery joined the RAF with no pre-existing conditions. She sustained an injury to her right knee while in service. She was medically discharged, left unable to walk and in need of strong pain and nerve medications for the rest of her life. Her application for compensation was also rejected. She described the process as
“tedious, draining and near enough impossible to complete let alone progress with.”
Roy Shirlaw was an RAF engineer. He was injured on operations in 2011, resulting in surgery on his back. He was discouraged from making a claim, and when he did it was rejected as he was deemed to be “not on duty.” This was later overturned at appeal, but his claim was still only partially accepted and the injuries were deemed to be not severe enough to qualify for compensation. Ten years after his initial injury, he is still stuck in the appeals process.
Each of these three people was medically discharged by the forces, but somehow they ended up unable to prove their worthiness for a scheme designed for injured and unwell ex-forces personnel. Veterans are not medical experts, yet they are forced, over and again, to try to prove the extent of their injuries, with many ending up stuck in the system for years and many forced to give up entirely, as
As has been mentioned, nuclear veterans have an even harder time than most in claiming compensation. The BNTVA and Labrats campaign groups and the Daily Mirror report that they are forced to prove that each and every medical condition is caused specifically by radiation, rather than being a result of service generally. Having flown through mushroom clouds, cleared up debris and crawled through the fallout of nuclear bombs as Britain tested our atomic weapons for the first time, the latest National Radiological Protection Board study on the health of these veterans found they are more likely to have and die from chronic myeloid leukaemia and several cancers, as well as being at a greater risk of self-harm. However, with limited medical records available from the time of the tests, proving their exposure to radiation and claiming compensation is a near-impossible task for these veterans, many of whom died before being able to claim a single penny. It is time the Government properly recognised our nuclear test veterans. We are the only country in the world not to do so. The Prime Minister should meet them, as he promised, and give them the recognition they deserve.
Money to address inefficiencies and digitalise Veterans UK is important but, for the veterans who have had their health, wellbeing and happiness taken from them, an online form rather than a paper one will be little consolation. In the last few days, Veterans UK has updated its site with flowcharts and the promise of bitesize videos to come. This is not a replacement for ensuring the compensation system is transparent, fair, impartial and consistent all the way through. Jim Shannon spoke powerfully about how we need to make sure Veterans UK is properly resourced.
I conclude with these questions for the Minister. What is he doing to ensure that veterans who are already dealing with illnesses, disabilities and injuries do not have to fight for the compensation that is rightfully theirs? Does he support an independent review into how Veterans UK operates and what improvements can be made, and is he considering direct lodgement, as advocated by the Royal British Legion and outlined by my hon. Friend Justin Madders?
It is a question of ensuring that every veteran gets a fair and impartial chance to claim the compensation they are entitled to, having dedicated their lives to serving our country. The Government have a duty of care to our ex-forces personnel. If Ministers continue to ignore those issues, they will be failing in that duty and failing our veterans.
I am very grateful to Owen Thompson for securing this important debate. I thank him for the words he spoke about his constituent, and we thank his constituent for his service; I look forward to continuing that correspondence, which I know to be of long standing.
The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that this is a relevant debate, given events in Ukraine, and pointed out that wars are fought not by armies, but by individuals. That is a very good point, and I agree that we must show compassion, recognition and respect. I must say that I do not concur with his overwhelmingly damning indictment of the system as it stands, but it is important that we are always seeking improvement. We are seeking improvement first in the speed of a claim, but also in customer service. However, I reiterate that this is not about saving money.
The Minister is talking about constant improvements. I rise on behalf of my constituent, who in 2018 received a pension benefit forecast with an annual Army pension and a terminal benefit. In July last year he was told, in a letter from the Ministry of Defence, that he was no longer eligible for an Army pension. I wrote to the Minister in July last year on his behalf, but I have had neither acknowledgment nor reply. I have tried on many occasions to raise this matter, and I am now doing so in the Chamber. Will the Minister commit to meeting me to discuss my constituent’s case?
We will pursue that immediately. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for the opportunity.
We will seek to improve speed and quality. We will not be just tinkering in the way we improve things; we are serious, because we know that we will be judged on our failures in this regard. I will briefly mention contributions by other hon. Members before I get on to putting some of the broader issues in context.
I was grateful to my hon. Friend James Sunderland, who has a long-standing interest in this field. He talked about our moral responsibility to veterans—I agree with him—and his interesting ideas about the role of the VAPCs offer food for thought. Ms Qaisar raised the very concerning case of her constituent, and mentioned the good work of the Scottish Veterans Commissioner. I join her in commending that role.
Justin Madders also raised a constituent’s case, and spoke about the convoluted nature of the process. I accept that that is the case, and that is exactly what we want to change by moving away from the paper process. The hon Member—my honourable friend—for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) mentioned the important role of service charities, but I would argue that they augment the role of the state rather than replacing it, and we should be very proud of that.
Jim Shannon rightly highlighted his concerns about his constituents in Northern Ireland. I look forward to visiting him there soon. Carol Monaghan called for the reformation of the war pensions system, and that is exactly what we are getting after. I was grateful for the variety of comments made by the Opposition spokesperson, Stephanie Peacock, who made a range of points, some of which I will address now.
First, I must set the context. We must bear it in mind that Veterans UK makes 106,000 monthly payments to recipients of the war pensions scheme and the armed forces compensation scheme. Those payments are tax free and linked to inflation through the consumer prices index. There are around 6,500 applications and 1,000 appeals and reconsiderations currently being processed. I am just trying to give a sense of the scale.
All that costs Her Majesty’s Government £736.3 million a year, £652 million under the war pensions scheme and £84.3 million under the armed forces compensation scheme. It is an operation of huge scale, and justifiably so, because it recognises the scale of the service of our magnificent veterans’ community, which comprises more than 2 million people, but in an organisation of that size there will of course be some cases that do not get the appropriate level of service.
Will the Minister find time to update the House on the progress of a small-scale matter but an important one—the cohort of about 250 war widows who lost their pensions on co-habitation or remarriage and did not get them back when the law changed?
My right hon. Friend has been a long-standing campaigner on this. I hope we are making progress and I look forward to meeting him soon to update him.
Of the 106,000 awards, 154 complaints were received, so that is a 0.1% failure rate. Of course any failure is unsatisfactory and we want to reduce that number to absolutely zero, but I am just trying to give a sense of the scale of the system. The staff at Norcross are working their hardest in difficult conditions, and they do receive significant numbers of thank-yous, so I should put that on the record. It is a real problem that they are working with an antiquated system of paper records from many different sources of information that they have to bring together. The armed forces compensation scheme now has an average target time to resolve cases of 90 days, which is being met, and the war pensions scheme has an average target time of 127 days, which is falling short, but that is because they are trying to get rid of the backlog, which we all seek to clear, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston asked. We should do that with empathy and thoroughness. The future will be better. We recognise that we can do more. That is why we are injecting £40 million into digitising both schemes, which will result in a quicker process. The pilot that has just taken place resulted in something that previously took six weeks with the paper system now taking six hours. We hope that the new digital system will launch at the end of 2023.
In tandem with those mechanical and procedural improvements, we are cognisant that we must inject more empathy into the process. Veterans UK is therefore conducting lived-experience roundtables bringing together veterans directly with its staff to hear about their service and adjusting their customer service style accordingly. On that note, I invite the hon. Member for Midlothian, on the back of this debate, if he would like to engage with the staff at Vets UK to try to be a part of the solution. We would be very grateful and I would look forward to affording that opportunity.
We are determined to improve the service to all those in receipt of payments from both schemes because they deserve nothing less than a first-rate service, as they deserve the gratitude and respect of the whole nation.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to this debate. I think there is a very great degree of agreement. I do not think that anyone is necessarily saying anything vastly different from each other. We all want to see the best outcomes for the veterans who have given service to our nations, but sometimes the system is not working, and we need to do everything that we possibly can to make sure that it works right, whatever that takes. I am encouraged by what the Minister says. I will certainly be keeping a very close eye on what comes next, because we have to get this right. We cannot go on like this. There are veterans who have been put in these situations for decades in trying to get the compensation that they should be receiving, and we should all be endeavouring to ensure that they do. Again, I thank Members for their contributions, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
believes that the current process for claiming War Pensions and Armed Forces Compensation payments is not fit for purpose and urges the Government to launch an independent inquiry into the system’s failings.