Leading article: The wrong battle to fight

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The Independent Online

The issue of compensation for wounded soldiers is an emotive one at the best of times. When a significant proportion of our troops are on active service abroad and coffins of soldiers are being flown home from a foreign warzone, it is doubly contentious. So, from the Government's perspective, the timing of its appeal yesterday against the award of compensation to two injured soldiers could not have been worse. Even if the Ministry of Defence wins its appeal, it loses in the court of public opinion.

But, putting emotion on one side, does the Government's case have any merit? The Armed Forces Minister, Bill Rammell, argues that the Ministry of Defence is trying to preserve the principle that the most compensation should go to the most seriously injured and that the two soldiers in this test case should not be eligible for compensation for injuries they did not receive directly on the battlefield.

They will not win any applause for it, but ministers are right to ration injury compensation payments. One of the functions of a government is to make decisions that, while unpopular, are in the broader public interest. And there is also something in the argument that state resources should be concentrated on improving care for the injured, rather then diverted into compensation.

Yet the Government is still wrong to fight this particular case. With compensation payouts already capped, fears of bills running out of control seem overblown. This case also needs to be seen in the context of an army that has traditionally not taken its duty of care towards its soldiers as seriously as it ought to have (particularly where the mental health of ex-servicemen is concerned) and of a government widely regarded as failing to live up to its side of the military covenant.

The signal this appeal sends to existing troops and potential recruits is of a Government trying to shirk its responsibilities. Any future savings the Government might make through this stance must be set against the damage it is inflicting on army morale and the negative effect it might have on troop retention and recruitment. For the Ministry of Defence to persist with this case is politically inept. Worse than that, it is likely to prove militarily and financially counterproductive.