Anglian soldiers 'cheated' by government

STEVE DOWNES East Anglian soldiers who are risking their lives in bloody battles in Afghanistan and Iraq have been “cheated” by the government after missing out on a council tax rebate.

STEVE DOWNES

East Anglian soldiers who are risking their lives in bloody battles in Afghanistan and Iraq have been "cheated" by the government after missing out on a council tax rebate.

The government announced yesterday it would cut council tax bills to serving troops by £140 from April 1 as a "further enhancement" for those on the front line.

But the rebate will not be backdated - meaning hundreds of brave soldiers from this region who are about to return home from the bloodiest chapter yet in the Afghanistan conflict will miss out on the windfall.

And other East Anglian soldiers who came back to Britain from Iraq on September 2 will also be overlooked.

Last night, Keith Simpson, MP for Mid-Norfolk and Conservative foreign affairs spokesman, hit out at the move.

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He said: "I know a line has to be drawn somewhere, but if it doesn't have an impact on servicemen who are recruited from this region, they will feel cheated."

Those who will not qualify for the benefit include 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment, whose troops will return home in the next fortnight after a six-month tour of the treacherous Helmand province in Afghanistan.

Of the 600 soldiers, nine have been killed and more than 100 injured during increasingly fierce fighting with the Taliban.

The 100-strong B Squadron of the Light Dragoons will return to its base at Swanton Morley, near Dereham, in the next few days, at the end of a spell in the same province.

And 1 Squadron RAF Regiment, based at Honington, near Thetford, was deployed in Iraq until September 2.

Despite their sterling efforts, the Ministry of Defence confirmed they would not get the council tax rebate.

MoD spokesman Paul Leat said: "Payments will take effect from April 1 next year. Anyone in theatre on that date or who goes on deployment after that will benefit. Anyone coming back before April 1, 2008, will not benefit."

The benefit was announced yesterday by defence secretary Des Browne, who said: "This payment is designed to offset around 25pc of their council tax payments while they are on operations. It underlines the government's commitment to support our armed forces and their families. We intend to extend this payment to all those deployed overseas on operations next year."

Mr Simpson joined opposition MPs in condemning the rebate as a "cynical, headline-grabbing" move by prime minister Gordon Brown.

He said: "It's a tiny sum of money, it doesn't apply to those serving in the Balkans and it has to be found from inside the MoD's current budget, which is already stretched beyond its capacity.

"Instead of coming up with headline-grabbing gestures, the government needs to undertake a complete review of the whole business of duty of care, pay and allowances for troops."

The rebate will be added to the tax-free operational allowance which is paid to servicemen and women at the end of an operational tour in Afghan-istan or Iraq. It is currently worth £2,320 over a six-month tour of duty.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said: "The nature of this measure will be divisive amongst the armed forces because it discriminates between personnel on different operations. It will put further pressure on the frontline budget because no new money is being made available to the MoD."

The Conservatives also criticised the government for basing the rebate on the average charge for all homes in England, rather than for a band D property - the usual measure of council tax.

The average band D council tax for 2007-08 in England is £1,321 compared with £1,101 for all properties. The rebate would be £165 if it were based on the band D figure.

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