Clause 5 - Amendments to Pensions Appeal Tribunals Act 1943

Part of Armed Forces – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 am on 24th February 2004.

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Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence) 9:15 am, 24th February 2004

I am sure that Members on both sides of the Committee are grateful to the Minister for his positive response to our expressions of concern. It is significant that three Labour Members made contributions and stated their concern.

I am grateful to the Minister for acknowledging the merit in our case and for undertaking to examine it. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown made a

telling point in noting that there was a 50 per cent. success rate in cases without an advocate while the rate was bumped up to 95 per cent. with an advocate. I am not sure what form of advocacy the hon. Gentleman was offering and whether it was through his parliamentary office or just himself. I am sure that he would not have been on commission for that, but I am equally sure that his constituents, for whom he secured such success, would have been more than willing to have made some contribution towards his office cost allowance, although we know that that is not possible. It was, however a turning point. We welcome the fact that the Minister has taken the matter on board.

It would be helpful to know how many commissioners have had service experience. It would also be interesting for the Committee to know whether the Minister intends to give some sort of instruction that would ensure that those hearing the appeals are familiar with the particular circumstances that affect ex-service personnel. I hope that the Minister will respond to those points.

The Minister also mentioned that assistance was available, and set out the details on accommodation, travel and subsistence. I am not sure what one would get in London for less than five quid for eight hours of attendance—it might buy a cappuccino. The important point, however, is that the information that the Minister gave does not appear to be on the Veterans Agency website. Given that the Minister for Veterans is sitting beside the Minister from the Department for Constitutional Affairs, perhaps the two Ministers might get together during the break in our proceedings, to ascertain whether it might be possible for the website to incorporate some of the information that was given to the Committee this morning. That might help the appellants and the Royal British Legion.

I agree with the Minister's statement that he does not want to encourage legal representation at tribunals. That would be a retrograde step. I am in favour of keeping lawyers out of as much as possible, given the amount that they charge. Having had personal experience of such matters, I believe that lawyers are a very expensive commodity.

I shall declare an interest, although I do not have to, and say that my son has just joined that profession. He has done so only out of affection for his father, however, to ensure that he is able to maintain his father in retirement in the style to which he would otherwise not be able to become accustomed, after having served a number of years in the House of Commons. It would therefore be unfair of me to denigrate the legal profession. None the less, lawyers are expensive and I suspect that there is a degree of common ground on both sides of the Committee that it would be better for the tribunals if appellants did not have legal representation.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving the Committee the assurance that he will look into these matters. I hope that, after discussion with the Minister for Veterans, he will put some information on the

website. I also hope that he will consider the possibility of assisting the Royal British Legion through some sort of specific arrangement, such as a grant in aid. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) made the fair point that we do not want to have a blank cheque, so that everyone is encouraged to lodge appeals because there is Government money available.

As we in the Committee know, there is no such thing as Government money: the money is taxpayers' money to which we and all our constituents have contributed. Ministers might like to consider the possibility of making such a grant in aid, which could be specifically ring-fenced, to assist the RBL and others who are engaged in that charitable work.

On the basis of the constructive response that the Minister has given to the Committee, and bearing in mind that we have tabled other amendments in which such matters will also be addressed, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.