Leading Article: The wrong values for compensation

ADRIAN HICKS of the Grenadier Guards lost both legs during an exercise in Canada in 1988. After fighting his case in the courts, he received pounds 105,000 compensation. Last week Debra Colley, a former flight lieutenant in the RAF, was awarded pounds 150,000 because she was dismissed after becoming pregnant.

Such contrasts are becoming increasingly common. Compensation awards to women who had to leave the armed services after becoming pregnant have become so high that injured servicemen are protesting. The Ministry of Defence is now beginning to contest the awards, partly in response to the growing protests and partly because the total bill could eventually rise as high as pounds 200m.

The problem arises only with servicewomen dismissed between 1978 and 1990. Thereafter, the Ministry started granting maternity leave. The 1975 Sex Discrimination Act had excluded members of the armed forces from the principle of equal treatment for men and women. When the European Community directive on the subject came into force in 1978, the government believed that British legislation met its requirements.

This assumption was overturned by a court ruling in 1990 that opened the door to about 5,700 claims from dismissed servicewomen. The awards were relatively low until the European Court of Justice lifted the ceiling of pounds 11,000 for sex discrimination cases. Some women who previously settled are now going back for more.

This is not an area in which gross injustice has been done to women. The armed services were being inflexible but not absurdly chauvinistic in taking the position that pregnancy was a more difficult problem for them than for private industry because of the special demands and risks imposed on their personnel. Moreover, during the period in question, female recruits were clearly told that pregnancy would result in dismissal, so they had accepted this as a condition of employment.

Now that the battle for equal rights has been largely won, the issue is only how to make up for past errors. Doubtless there were cases of special hardship for which the law now rightly demands substantial compensation, but most taxpayers would probably prefer their money to go to the disabled. Whatever the travails of pregnancy and parenthood, they are not as bad as losing two legs.

Compensation must always be paid where due, but there is a strong case for bringing more flexibility, realism and common sense to the problem, and for being more generous to the disabled.