Fight for our veterans: 'Operation claw back compensation'

Chorus of disapproval greets launch of MoD's legal action to reduce payments made to injured soldiers
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The Independent Online

The Government began its legal battle to cut compensation payments to two injured soldiers yesterday. If successful, the case will limit future payments to thousands of wounded service personnel.

As the proceedings began in the High Court in London, 3,500 miles away in Afghanistan, one of the soldiers, Corporal Tony Duncan, was describing his long and painful journey to serve his country once again after being shot in an ambush in Iraq.

The decision by the Ministry of Defence to take legal action against Cpl Duncan, of the Light Dragoons, and Royal Marine Matthew McWilliams provoked a maelstrom of criticism.

It came on the day that more coffins returned from Afghanistan to RAF Lyneham bearing the bodies of four more soldiers. And the MoD has released the names of two of the latest soldiers to be killed. Warrant Officer Sean Upton, 35, from Nottinghamshire, died in an explosion while on foot patrol in Helmand on Monday, and Trooper Phillip Lawrence, 22, from Birkenhead, was killed while driving an armoured vehicle.

The Independent has campaigned for the welfare of military personnel and for better support for those who have suffered fighting the country's wars.

Yesterday there was palpable anger at the High Court action among people who had gathered in Wootton Bassett, near RAF Lyneham, to pay their respects to the fallen. Tom Robinson, 76, a former Army captain from Banbury, said the Ministry's actions were "disgraceful". "Think of all the money MPs claimed on their expenses, and they're trying to cut the compensation men get for serving the country," he said. Paula Armfield, from Reading, shook her head: "Have these people no shame? Don't they realise how the rest of the country feel? We are confused and hurt by what's going on in Afghanistan. This is not the time for the Government to be so petty."

But in the High Court three judges heard government lawyers argue that the MoD's injury compensation scheme was designed to provide a set sum of money for specific injuries and should not be increased as a result of complications to those injuries.

Cpl Duncan was initially awarded £9,250 after being shot, while Marine McWilliams received £8,250 for fracturing his thigh on a training exercise, before they appealed to a tribunal for further compensation. Both men argued they had suffered a number of subsequent health problems during their treatment and these should not be regarded as separate from their original injuries. Three judges agreed with them and increased their compensation. Cpl Duncan was awarded £46,000 Marine McWilliams £28,750.

The High Court, at an earlier hearing, upheld the higher award. But yesterday Nathalie Lieven QC, representing Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, argued that awards for injuries are made under the Armed Forces and Reserve Forces Compensation Order.

She said the Upper Tribunal Administrative Appeal Chamber had made wrong conclusions about the order and the Defence Secretary was now seeking guidance from the court.

The tribunal set out a number of principles on how the order should be interpreted. "The impact of that decision covers the large majority of cases under the order and is therefore of very great importance to the Secretary of State and to the proper decision-making in many future cases." She said: "The tribunal's approach was contrary to one of the fundamental tenets of the scheme, namely that it focused on injury and not on disablement."

Armed Forces minister Bill Rammell, on a visit to Afghanistan, said: "If what the Ministry of Defence and the Government was trying to do was to absolve ourselves of our responsibility, we wouldn't have doubled the compensation level for the most seriously injured last year. We wouldn't have made it easier for service personnel once they leave the armed forces to get training, we wouldn't have given them better access to housing and better access to healthcare."

However, the shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox said: "It's an essential part of the military covenant that those injured in the service of their country are dealt with in a consistent and coherent way."

In Afghanistan yesterday Cpl Duncan was back on duty in Helmand, four years after being shot in Iraq. The 27-year-old soldier with the Light Dragoons spent nearly two years working with medics from the Army rehabilitation unit, Hedley Court in Surrey. He said: "I was a bit reluctant to come out again but with the training and rehabilitation it was just a case of getting my confidence back. Don't get me wrong – I'm still a bit nervous. But you get through on the knowledge that, from the lowest trooper to the highest ranks, we can all rely on each other."

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