MINISTERS were accused of "shameful" insensitivity yesterday as they launched a legal challenge to slash the compensation of wounded soldiers on the same day as the bodies of four men killed in action in Afghanistan were repatriated.
As the Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett gave a guard of honour to a cortge containing the remains of the men, those paying their respects said they were "disgusted" that the Ministry of Defence was trying to slash payouts given to victims.
In London, MoD lawyers went to court to argue against the sums given to two injured soldiers, whose compensation was raised on appeal due to complications. The MoD says they should only be compensated for their "original injuries".
One of the soldiers, Light Dragoon Anthony Duncan, is now fighting in Afghanistan on his first tour of service since being shot in the leg in Iraq in 2005. But back in the UK, his employers were fighting to cut the compensation he received for his injuries in Iraq from 46,000 to the 9,250 he was originally awarded.
Opposition parties said it was "frankly offensive" that the MoD should be seeking to reduce payouts awarded to soldiers while they were risking their lives in Afghanistan and as more bodies were returned home.
But the MoD said it wanted to protect the principle of giving the most money to those with the worst injuries.
The cases, being heard in the High Court, were brought by Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth over awards to Corporal Duncan and Royal Marine Matthew McWilliams, who fractured his thigh in an exercise. Both had the original payouts increased by an appeal tribunal after they argued they had suffered complications during their recovery period.
Mr Ainsworth's lawyers say the tribunal ruled wrongly and are seeking a decision from the Appeal Court judges, on the grounds that money should be awarded only for the injury, not for subsequent problems.
Nathalie Lieven, QC, representing the Defence Secretary, told a panel of judges: "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."
An MoD spokesman added: "We have doubled the maximum tax-free lump-sum payment for the most seriously injured to 570,000. This is in addition to the tax-free, index-linked monthly Guaranteed Income Payment, paid for life, which can be worth several hundred thousand pounds."
But the timing of the MoD's appeal prompted widespread disgust. It came as the bodies of four British soldiers were flown home: Rifleman Aminiasi Toge, Corporal Joseph Etchells, Captain Daniel Shepherd and Guardsman Christopher King. They were killed by explosions in separate incidents in Afghanistan.
At Wootton Bassett, those gathered to pay their respects to the dead soldiers said the legal challenge was "disgraceful".
Tom Robinson, 76, a former captain with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, said: "Think of all the money MPs claimed on expenses, and they're trying to cut the compensation men get for serving the country."
Retired soldier David Hughes, 49, of Blackpool, Lancashire, who raises money for injured servicemen through disability charity Radar, said the appeal was "infuriating".
He said: "I deal with so many cases where injured soldiers are not getting the care they need. I've recently had to provide a wheelchair to a Fijian soldier who couldn't get one from the NHS. On a day when four soldiers are being repatriated from Afghanistan, to hear the MoD is trying to claw back compensation is just terrible."
Diane Dernie, 51, mother of Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson, who was blown up in Helmand in 2006, said: "It is very, very sad that on a day like today, when all the news is as bad as it is, the MoD can still think to cut what are not overly generous payments. It proves yet again they don't understand how people feel about our troops."
SNP defence spokesman Angus Robertson said: "It is frankly offensive that when our servicemen and women are risking their lives, engaged in fierce fighting in Afghanistan, the MoD are attempting to slash the compensation levels awarded to those wounded in battle."
Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said: "We now have a government which has lost its political instincts and sense of direction."
However, ministers said they were appealing to introduce "fairness" to the compensation scheme.
Defence minister Kevan Jones said the ruling by the appeal tribunal had put "an amputee on a par with someone who had broken their leg".
He said the appeal was "not reducing compensation, but actually clarifying the rules".
But critics say the compensation scheme should be reviewed as it puts the burden of proof on soldiers to provide evidence they were injured in the course of their duties. Complications are not open for compensation.
Cpl Duncan said that he had spent two years trying to recover from a bullet wound to the inside of his left leg that he had suffered in 2005.
"I thought I'd been rugby-tackled at first," he said. "I was looking around for someone to swing for, then realised I couldn't feel my leg. I saw the blood and thought I'd been involved in an explosion."
Yesterday saw funerals for two more soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Captain Ben Babington-Browne, 27, of 22 Engineer Regiment, and Lance Corporal David Dennis, 29, of The Light Dragoons, were laid to rest.
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Brain injury with persistent vegetative state – 570,000 Permanent facial numbness – 2,888
ARMS and LEGS
Loss of all limbs – 570,000 Loss of both legs (above or below knee) and one arm (above or below elbow) – 402,500
Total blindness – 402,500 Loss of sight in one eye and permanent damage to the other – 115,000
Loss of legs at or above the knee – 230,000 Loss of one leg below the knee – 92,000
Loss of both hands – 172,500 Loss of both thumbs – 63,835 Loss of both index fingers or two or more fingers – 23,100.
Burns, second or third degree affecting 70 per cent or more of body – 172,500 Affecting face and neck resulting in scarring – 34,100
Traumatic injury causing "permanent significant functional limitation" – 63,835
Loss of feet at ankle – 115,000. Loss of one toe – 1,155
Injury to abdomen or pelvis causing permanent disability – 48,875
Loss of hearing – 92,000 Total deafness in one ear – 23,100
Fracture of three or more ribs – 1,155
What past heroes would receive
HORATIO NELSON, lost his right arm and the sight in his right eye during battle: Approx 135,000
DOUGLAS BADER, lost both legs during a training crash: 230,000
SIMON WESTON, suffered severe burns in the Falklands: 172,000