Sunday, July 26, 2009

UK Govt Under Fire for Treatment of its Veterans, including on Gulf War Syndrome

Editor's Note: A July 27 article in The [London] Times written by The Times Home Staff, entitled, "From bomb tests to Gulf War Syndrome: battles the MoD won and lost," summarized the outcomes of several financial battles between the British defense department and its veterans and civilians. The struggles are not unlike those faced by the veterans of Britain's transatlantic former colony, the U.S.

While the full story is certainly worth reading, for the sake of space, only the Gulf War Syndrome portion is below:

Gulf War Syndrome. Up to 6,000 British troops complained of illnesses ranging from violent mood swings and extreme fatigue to blood disorders. Despite many studies the MoD found no evidence to support the existence of the syndrome. That stance was criticised in a pensions appeal in November 2005, forcing the MoD to acknowledge the term and award thousands of war pensions.

The full text of a parallel, same-day Times story written by Suzy Jagger and Deborah Haynes, entitled, "MoD under fire for trying to cut compensation for wounded soldiers," follows:

(London - July 27, 2009) - Critics said that the MoD’s treatment of wounded servicemen, some of whom have returned home injured only to start fighting the ministry over compensation, was “unseemly”.

The response followed a series of misjudgments by the MoD over its duty of care to troops and those working with them, spanning secrecy at inquests for soldiers killed in friendly fire incidents, help for Iraqi interpreters who worked for the British and settlement rights for Gurkhas to Gulf War Syndrome and exposure to atomic bomb tests in the 1950s.

Sir Malcom Rifkind, who was Tory defence secretary from 1992-95, told The Times: “This problem is not new. When I was defence secretary, medical advice given to the MoD was that post-traumatic stress disorder did not even exist. While that debate is behind us, the issue of how to compensate personnel who have suffered physical or mental injury is still on-going.”

He added: “Part of the problem is that there are two different cultures rubbing alongside one another within the department — a Civil Service culture and a military one. While they worked pretty well together most of the time, problems arose when there was a non-military phenomenon which had to be established as being caused by military experience — such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The real issue here is scale — how much should be paid in compensation for injury. Of course, such payments should be generous. Awards always used to be made and the system existed for many years, but problems arose when courts began to award very high settlements in civil cases.”

Currently, soldiers who are injured in the course of duty are compensated under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme, set up in 2005. But recent generous civil payouts have exposed the shortcomings of the arrangement. This week’s case centres on compensation awarded to Anthony Duncan, a soldier with the Light Dragoons, and Matthew McWilliams, a Royal Marine. Both men sustained severe leg injuries, one in training and the other in Iraq, and managed to increase significantly the sums awarded to them by appealing to a tribunal.

The MoD, concerned at the prospect of a big rise in the level of payouts, went to the High Court to try to overturn the ruling and suspended disbursements for three months for all but the worst injuries.

Robert Key, the Tory MP for Salisbury and a member of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said: “The MoD is in an extraordinary situation. Their keenness to avoid any overpayments is pretty unseemly and the public is up in arms against them because of the way they have treated the injured when they come home. A lot of public support for the MoD and the Government has been lost over this.”

He added that there were tensions within the MoD about how to handle the crisis. “The MoD is a hybrid of military people and civil servants. There is a complete lack of direction within the department about how to handle this and they also have the Treasury breathing down their necks the whole time making sure they have a tight rein on spending.

“But we will see a lot more of this because it is all getting much more litigious. The real issue is that the MoD have a duty of care, an obligation to the Armed Forces and they need to work out how they meet that.”

Jerome Church, a retired colonel and secretary-general of the British Limbless Ex-Service Men’s Association, said that a forthcoming review of compensation should be opened up to involve outside experts rather than be kept within the MoD.

An independent review would help to establish confidence in the scheme, he said, adding: “It will also have the effect of demonstrating that the Government of the day really does value our Armed Forces.”

Richard Younger-Ross, the Liberal Democrat MP for Teignbridge who is also a member of the Defence Select Committee, said: “The MoD has failed to recognise a proper compensation structure. Unfortunately, this issue has blighted Britain for generations — it has never been adequate.

“At the end of the First World War there was a campaign called Homes Fit for Heroes. It was a big issue then, too.”

An MoD spokesman said: “We are committed through the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme to paying appropriate compensation to wounded service personnel.

“It is not appropriate to compare the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme to civil negligence awards. The Armed Forces Compensation Scheme is a no-fault scheme. This means it is not necessary to go to court or prove negligence in order to receive an award, unlike civil damages cases.”

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