Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee on 3rd February 2004.

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[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence 2:30 pm, 3rd February 2004

I beg to move,

That—

(1) during proceedings on the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill the Standing Committee shall, in addition to its first meeting on Tuesday 3 February at 2.30 pm, meet—

(a) on Tuesday 10 February at 8.55 am and 2.30 pm;

(b) on Tuesday 24 February at 8.55 am and 2.30 pm;

(c) on Thursday 26 February at 8.55 am and 2.30 pm;

(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order namely, Clauses 1 to 5, Schedule 1, Clause 6, Schedule 2, Clause 7, Schedule 3, Clauses 8 to 12, new Clauses, new Schedules, remaining proceedings on the Bill;

(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5 pm on Thursday 26 February.

I should like to begin our proceedings by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. This is the first time for some years that I have had a speaking part in a Standing Committee, having previously occupied the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). However, I recall the occasion when I was a young Back Bencher, sitting and minding my own business in a Standing Committee, and the Chairman, who shall be nameless, decided to leave for a few moments and summoned that young Back Bencher to sit in your seat. I found myself chairing the Committee for longer than I had expected, including taking through a couple of clauses. My colleague, when he returned, could hardly believe it, and neither could I. I am sure that our proceedings will be similarly in order under your chairmanship.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

May I volunteer for such a duty?

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

No one could be more fitting, Major Swayne.

I know that, as a senior member of the all-party group on ageing and older people, you have a considerable interest in pensions, Mr. O'Brien, and that you have also taken an interest in pensions affairs in the House. I notice that in 1995 you opposed the merger of the 8th Battalion, the Light Infantry, heir to the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, with the Royal Armoured Corps, as a constituency issue, so you also take an interest in defence affairs. It took some time to discover that.

I should like to thank the hon. Members for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) for their co-operation in putting together the programme of dates.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

Calm down at the back. In doing that, I pay tribute to both Whips Offices for playing their roles as the usual channels. We have made provision through the usual channels for the sittings on Tuesday 10 February and Tuesday 24 February to be extended until 6 pm, should the Committee need that time to resolve its discussions.

I should also like to bring to the Committee's attention the intention of the Government that on Tuesday 24 February at 8.55 am, the responses in the morning session will be given by the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy). He will deal with clause 5 and schedule 1, which relate wholly to the pensions appeal tribunal. I am grateful for his support in that programming issue. We regard as important the distinction between the Ministry of Defence, as the employer responsible for armed forces pensions and compensation, and the independent pensions appeal tribunal—hence the involvement of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is responsible for such tribunals. I hope that we shall be able to reorganise his date should that be necessary.

I welcome colleagues to the sittings of the Committee. I am looking forward to a vigorous debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) has already had one attempt on Second Reading. It is always a pleasure to do battle with the hon. Member for Aldershot, and I am looking forward to that.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

I join the Minister in thanking you for chairing the proceedings, Mr. O'Brien, together with your co-Chairman, Mr. Griffiths, who will be sharing that pleasant responsibility with you. We all hope that we will not trouble you too much. However, given that there are one or two characters sitting on the Committee, I cannot guarantee you a wholly smooth ride. Unlike the Minister, I was unable to find any defence interests in your past, but you fought valiantly against the amalgamation of two regiments and that will stand you in good stead. Both you and Mr. Griffiths have many constituents who will take more than a passing interest in the proceedings—as have many Committee members. I am sure that you will follow proceedings with that in mind.

The Opposition side of the Committee is considerably enhanced by the presence of my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), all of whom have served the Colours. They have served Her Majesty in uniform, and may have a vested interest in the proceedings of the next three weeks. They bring welcome expertise to the Committee.

I am pleased that the Minister and I were able to agree a suitable arrangement for sittings through the usual channels, so that we will be able to discuss as much of the Bill as possible. I will refer to that matter in more detail in a moment. We have operated intelligently. He cannot be here on Thursday, as he has responsibilities elsewhere, and it is right and proper that he should be able to pursue those rather than be

artificially detained here. He will be doing important work for the Department elsewhere in the country—at least I hope he will be.

Unless my hon. Friends have any reservations of which I am unaware, we can agree to the motion.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Shadow Minister, Defence

I join in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien, and I look forward to serving under your chairmanship. Although it is relatively short, the Bill contains a significant number of points. I am pleased that we can agree on the programme. It may be tight. There will be much debate over many aspects of the Bill, which will be robustly defended by the Government.

I pay tribute to Conservative Members' wealth of experience, and to a significant number of Government Members who also have considerable experience in these matters. It is important that we have that. As it has been 30 years since the matter was reviewed, the Bill is important to many people. There are many opportunities that we need to explore in the legislation and that I suspect will fully occupy our time, not least because the Defence Committee has produced a valuable and informative report that raises issues that I am sure hon. Members of all parties will want to explore in great detail.

Although I am happy to support the motion, the time that the programme provides will have to be fully used if we are to do proper justice to the Bill.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

I am greatly reassured that you will chair our proceedings, Mr. O'Brien, because I want to introduce a slightly caustic note to the community love fest that has prevailed hitherto. I shall not rake over old ground by saying that I am opposed in principle to programming, because that pass has already been sold. However, I welcome the fact that there is only one knife, namely the one at the end, which requires that we finish the proceedings at 5 pm on Thursday 26 February. There is nothing worse than having knives after each clause or group, or anywhere else, because it limits the flow of the debate. One may well come across a topic for discussion that turns out to be much more productive than one imagined at the outset.

We have already been presented with a difficulty, because the Minister has told us that the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs will take the lead—I have forgot quite when—to deal with clause 5. I am not sure how we can be assured that we shall reach that stage at the appointed hour—not that I ask for a knife to be imposed.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

Let me assist the hon. Gentleman on this matter. We briefly discussed the issue with the Chairman last night. If the Committee has not reached the end of clause 4 in time for us to take clause 5 and schedule 1 on 24 February, we shall return to where the Committee had reached, which will allow my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to use that morning to discuss pensions appeal tribunals. That is a significant issue and people outside will want to know when we are to take it, which is the reason for our proposal. We shall then return to the Bill, but if we need to

reformulate the programme accordingly, we shall discuss that with the Chairman and the Clerk at the appropriate time.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

I congratulate you, Mr. O'Brien, on your flexibility in reaching such an arrangement. I also congratulate the Programming Sub-Committee on arriving at that decision, which strikes me as an eminently sensible solution that avoids the irritations of having to impose knives, which restrict the flow of debate.

I should like to raise a potential difficulty with the final knife that must fall at 5 pm on 26 February. When the original review Committee reported, it stated its view that the armed forces pensions scheme should remain a non-contributory scheme funded by taxation. There was no logic to that. There was no explanation or argument about the alternatives. Given how the Bill has been framed, if we tabled the appropriate amendments, we could fully explore precisely that wide issue and discuss the merits of a fully funded scheme, somewhat like our own parliamentary scheme. If we took full account of the various solutions within that frame, we would surely exhaust the Committee's timetable, which would be regrettable.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I, too, am delighted to be under your chairmanship, Mr. O'Brien. I do not regard as a small matter fighting to defend a fine Territorial battalion; rather, I think that the Minister has flagged up an important matter.

Given the leadership of the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot, I am certain that this will be a good-natured Committee. I therefore hope that I shall not seem to be striking a sour note by raising two issues, the first of which is the provision, by as late as 5 o'clock last night, of material on the early departure scheme. One thing that is clear in the Defence Committee report is that that is at the heart of the Bill. It is one of its two most controversial aspects—together with the compensation arrangements—and it is extremely complicated. It is very unsatisfactory that we were furnished with material on it at 5 o'clock on the night before this sitting.

May I make a point of detail on this matter? The Department has taken the trouble to provide some worked examples on the back of this complicated and lengthy brief. The relevant worked example focuses on somebody leaving the armed forces aged 40. However, as the Defence Committee pointed out, the most vulnerable group is not the people who leave when they are young, at 40, but those who leave at 47 or 48, having given most of their career, who are relatively unemployable. Could the Minister provide us as quickly as possible, in time for our debates, with some worked examples for other ages, particularly for people in their late 40s and early 50s? If—

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton 2:45 pm, 3rd February 2004

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the point that he is raising is not for the programming motion, but for the debates on amendments. I ask him to keep that in mind.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Indeed, Mr. O'Brien. I had finished my point, the relevance of which is that it is difficult for us to debate something when we get to it without the material.

Although, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West said, it is a blessing not to have knives, we do not know when we are going to get to the clause relating to reserve forces. However, I should like to flag up now that when we get to that clause, some of us will be particularly anxious to know what consultations the Minister has had with the Reserve Forces Council and the National Employers Liaison Committee—now SaBRE, which is short for Supporting Britain's Reservists and Employers—particularly with regard to the abatement. The Secretary of State for Health supported me in getting the abatement removed from the provision for those getting payments while they were temporarily injured.

I look forward to our debates. I hope that this will not be a programme for a Committee that will be a battle, and I hope that all Committee members are fully committed to the armed forces, as I know you are, Mr. O'Brien.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill, copies of which are in the Room. I should also like to remind hon. Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any that may be reached during an afternoon sitting. I ask all hon. Members and other people in the Room to switch off their mobile phones. In conclusion, I thank hon. Members very much for their kind remarks. I assure them that my co-Chairman and I will conduct the business firmly, but fairness will apply.Clause 1 Pension and compensation schemes: armed and reserve forces