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My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex raised the issue of cost inflation in the armed forces. Notably, when the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) discussed funding, he talked about it only in cash terms, but the correct way to examine it is as a share of GDP. My hon. Friend put his finger on it, when he pointed out that costs in the armed forces are rising faster than in the economy generally, which is why one must keep pace with growth in the size of the economy.
On recruitment and retention, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) drew attention to the important part that Commonwealth citizens play in our armed forces, which is worth remembering. Frankly, if we were not recruiting armed forces personnel from Commonwealth countries, we would be in even greater difficulty than we are at the moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring discussed our concerns about mental health with impressive clarity, which was acknowledged on both sides of the House. There was also an excellent contribution by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) drawing on his experience. There was general acknowledgement and endorsement of Combat Stress, which is an excellent organisation.
Turning to the treatment that armed forces personnel receive for physical injuries, I, too, have been fortunate enough to visit Selly Oak, and I have also visited Headley Court. Conservative Members have always been clear that the medical care at those establishments is excellent, and Front Benchers have never criticised it. Having spoken to our service personnel, some of whom have suffered severe injuries, I was struck by their attitude and continuing courage, which is humbling. They do not complain; they just get on with things.
The support that injured personnel get from their home communities makes a tremendous difference. Several people whom I spoke to had featured in their local press. They had received letters from people whom they had never met before, and football teams had been very supportivesome of them had received a visit from the local football manager. Such support from the local community is incredibly helpful to them, and it also helps communities to understand a little better just what our armed forces do for us, which we should always remember.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring said, although the medical treatment is very good, it is important to have a dedicated military ward. Negotiations are under way for the new private finance initiative hospital in Birmingham, and it is incredibly important to include a dedicated military ward in the plans. Uncharacteristically, the Minister made rather a silly point when he challenged my hon. Friend about the exceptional circumstances. If a tragic event resulting in a requirement for medical care were to occur, one would, of course, use those facilities in the same way as a military hospital would have been used 20 years ago. In the normal scheme of things, however, a dedicated ward for our military personnel is necessary. As the new PFI is put together, it would be worth making sure that we achieve that.
On mental health services, a recent report from Health and Social Care Advisory Services, carried out with Combat Stress, drew attention to the fact that the guidance from the Department of Health spends very little time talking about the needs of veterans as a
specific category. The guidance mentions other groups that need particular care, for example prisoners, but does not really talk about veterans as a social category. The Minister, with his Government colleagues, could perhaps do something about that.
I do not need to dwell on the cuts in the Territorial Army because my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) gave an excellent exposé of the damage that would do. To his credit, the Minister of State agreed to look at that issue again. If he is unable to reverse the cuts completely, I hope he will go some way to putting them right. The examples that my hon. Friend gave would be tremendously damaging and the signal they would send to those serving in the Territorial Army would be unfortunate given the work that we ask them to do.
The Minister mentioned the statement from the Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice yesterday about the progress on military inquests. The treatment of families who have lost their loved ones, who have paid the ultimate price, is incredibly important. I know that the Department takes it seriously, but although it has put in extra resources the brutal truth is that the rate at which we are losing service personnel is outstripping the capacity of coroners to deal with their inquests. The backlog, at 109 inquests, is only one lower than it was last October, which was the level that prompted the extra resources. I do not know whether it will require extra resources or whether the coroners involvedthe Wiltshire and Swindon coroner nowneed to disperse more of the inquests. Very few have been dispersed around the country.
I do not know what the solution is, but the current situation is not sustainable. If the backlog is still well over 100 in a few months, that will not be acceptable to the families. Inquests are still outstanding four years after people have lost their loved ones. I know that the Minister wants to deal with that, but the current system is not working.
I know that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) referred to the important military training that is performed in his constituency, but I hope he will forgive me for missing his speech. I am not sure how favourably everyone who serves in the armed forces looks upon the training that they undergo in his constituency, but the training is necessary to get our armed forces in good shape for operations abroad.
A couple of Members raised the Iran hostages issue, on which we had a statement this week. I wanted to draw the attention of the House to the photograph that was printed in many national newspapers at the time, and was reprinted in the Daily Mail yesterday, of our service personnel, in their rather ill-fitting suits, waving at their captors. I thought it was interesting and I wanted to say something positive about some of those personnel. Three personnel on the right-hand side of the photograph deserve particular praise. The way they conducted themselvesby standing there rather grim-faced and failing to wave at the camerademonstrated how, in a very difficult situation, some of our personnel were able to demonstrate clearly to those who chose to look that they were not going to play along with the propaganda exercise conducted by the Iranian regime. They should be very proud of themselves, particularly the young man third from the right, who was an example to the others.
I want to raise with the Minister a subject that I mentioned in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North Essexthe defence schools presentation team. My hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) spoke of the lack of understanding of the armed forces and the military ethos in society as a whole. The defence schools presentation team is not a recruiting exercise. It is a tri-service team, which includes even Ministry of Defence civil servants. It visits schools and teaches them about the importance of defence and the Ministry of Defence. It plays a critical role, and its presentations fit very well into the citizenship curriculum.
I went for myself to see one of those presentations at Cove school in Farnborough last week. I did so because the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, in a written answer, explained how powerful the presentations are, and said that schools frequently ask for the team to come back, and that the team does very good work, and in the second half of the written answer explained that unfortunately the team was being done away withfor cost reasons, effectively. I think that is short-sighted and I want to explain why.
The team gives schools a comprehensive briefing. Schools give up about half a day. The tri-service team, including MOD civil servants, makes a presentation about the role of the armed forces in society and the constitutional position. It goes through some of the recent operations that we have been involved in. Most importantly, it gives the students the opportunity to do a role-play of a crisis in a fictional country, and it takes them through some of the challenges in deploying military assets, and some of the difficult challenges that Ministers and the armed forces have to grapple with. The children then present their solutions to the problems in front of their classmates. Having been there for a morning, I thought that the exercise was incredibly worth while, and that it would be very short-sighted to get rid of it. One thing amused me, though: not one of the students or staff in the room knew the name of the present Defence Secretary, so the 229 staff in the Ministry of Defence press office need to do a little more work to improve the MODs public relations.
I want to raise three further points. The first is on war pension priority in the national health service, which is incredibly important. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who has held the job of Minister for Veterans and therefore should be in a position to know these things, said he did not believe that priority was being given. For Members who do not know, the NHS is told that if a war pensioner needs medical treatment they should be treated as a priority. That is a difficult promise to deliver because it sets up a conflict for clinicians, who want to deal with patients according to their clinical priority. But of course that promise is made to veterans. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I am not sure that priority is being given.
There is one further issue of confusion. It was my understanding, and it is in the guidance that is given to doctors and NHS trusts, that the priority applies only to veterans in receipt of a war pension, and it applies only to the specific thing for which they receive the war pension. But in a debate in Westminster Hall, the Under-Secretary of State said he was happy to confirm that
priority treatment applies to all disablements that have been found to be due to service, irrespective of whether they result in a pension...three groups are eligible for priority treatment from the health services for a service-related condition: those who receive a continuing war pension; those who receive a one-off gratuity; and those whose condition has been found to be caused by service, but has not attracted an award.[ Official Report, Westminster Hall, 12 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 262WH.]
My understanding is that that is certainly not the Department of Health advice that is given to NHS trusts. I am not sure that it would be that practical anyway, because I do not know how a doctor or NHS trust is supposed to know whether a condition has been caused by service if there is no war pension. It would be very helpful if the Minister clarified that today, or wrote to me and placed the letter in the Library, because this is very important and clear guidance needs to be given to those veterans and war pensioners.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) referred to the Governments welcome statement today about changing the rules for eligibility for social housing. That change is promised for England, but the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said that such matters are devolved, and I hope that Ministers will work hard with the devolved Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that our United Kingdom armed forces personnel, wherever they live in the UK, receive consistent and equal treatment. I know that that is slightly more challenging now that not all the Assemblies are under the control of the national governing party, but I hope that the Government will try to achieve that, because that would be better for our armed forces.
The central problem, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring has outlined, is that our armed forces commitments have outstripped the resources available, and there is no sign that that will improve. Even if we see some reduction in commitments, the fact that our armed forces have been shrinking for the last two years and that there is no sign of that process going into reverse, means that we have no spare capacityquite the opposite. That is the central point that leads to many of the issues raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and that is the central fact that the Minister needs to address when he replies.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I welcome todays wide-ranging debate. I was struck by the number of comments on the job done by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. As someone who is fairly new to the Department, I have found his experience and help invaluable, and I can see why he is so highly thought of by the House. I also thank the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) for his kind comments on the veterans badge and my attendance at the event, which I enjoyed. As he said, the widespread popularity of the veterans badge is continuing to grow, and we should reach our half-millionth badge by this autumn. Members of Parliament play a crucial role in getting that message across.
We all recognise the tremendous job that our armed forces do, and their courage, dedication and professionalism, which is clear to those of us who have been out to operations, but also that of the civilians who support them and the tremendous work that they do within the
Ministry of Defence and elsewhere. We ask them to do a great deal and there is a high operational tempo, but they do a fantastic job. We have made significant improvements in terms of equipment and support for our armed forces. When I went to Afghanistan and Iraq, the clear message from the vast majority of our armed forces personnel was that they had the best personal kit that they had ever had.
I thank the Opposition for their comments on Monday on the Falklands commemorations, which were a tremendous success. I put on record my appreciation for the hard work of our team in the MOD, many of whom are members of the armed forces, in putting together the organisation and activities. I know from talking to the veterans, families and widows how appreciative they were of their efforts. The commemorations struck the right tone, recognising the tremendous feat that our armed forces carried out. I would also like to praise the South Atlantic Medal Association for its outstanding work in leading the veterans.
We have talked a lot about the problems today, which I will come to shortly, but the armed forces provide tremendous opportunities. We hear a lot about mental health issues and other problems that people face when they leave the armed forces, but for the vast majority the armed forces provide a very beneficial experience. They develop great skills in leadership and teamwork, which they take back into civilian life. That is often forgotten because of the attention that is given to the problems that exist, but for the vast majority, the armed forces offer a positive experience and they then make an important contribution to our communities and the life around them.
Much has been said today about the whole-life approach, not just when serving, but afterwards. That is the right approach and it is the one that the Government are taking and will develop further. I shall not pretend that there are not issues and problems that we need to addressof course there areand we could do better in various areas. The Government have taken a tremendous step forward in recent years in the support given to our armed forces and veterans. I therefore reject the comment that we are complacent; we are active in improving the situation.
Hon. Members have mentioned a range of issues, one of which is pay. It is important to reiterate that the 3.3 per cent. award was one of the best in recent years, and the increase of about 9 per cent. for our junior ranks is a tremendous improvement. We have also introduced the operational allowance of £2,320 and special pay arrangements for pinchpoint grades to meet shortages. We have made strides on pay: we have recognised the operational tempo and the contribution of our armed forces, and we will continue to consider what more we can do.
Mr. Lancaster: This is almost a continuation of a conversation in a previous debate, but does the Minister know how many people, like me, were not part of a formed unit and were mobilised before the introduction of the Joint Personnel Administration, so their operational bonus has still not been paid?
I understand that the hon. Gentlemans operational bonus has now been paid. He made an interesting point in a previous debate, and it was taken in the right spirit. Clearly, we want to make sure that our people get their operational bonus. I am not aware
of any further problems, but I assure him that we will double-check that. I know that he is talking about reservists as a whole, not just himself.
Reference has been made to housing. We accept that the legacy of under-investment goes back many years. The point was made that we have been in office for 10 years and have not solved the problem. The Conservative party was in office for 18 years, and the housing stock and estate that it handed over to us was not in a great state; we had to deal with more problems and difficulties. We accept our responsibility, and I hope that the Opposition accept responsibility for what they did not do in government. We need to get on with the work and improve the housing stock and estate as much as possible. It is like painting the Forth bridge, but we have allocated £5 billion over the next 10 years. Single living accommodation is being improved massively, and service family accommodation is also being improved. There is more to do, and if we can do more than is currently planned in the coming years, we will. It will take some time to reach the desired stage.
As part of the strategic remuneration review, the Government are considering how we can give further help to members of the armed forces to buy a house or equity in a property. Given the changes in the coming years in relation to super-garrisons and other basing strategies, that is the way to go. Most Members would support that, but work is ongoing, and we will make an announcement at the appropriate time.
Housing advice is provided to service leavers, and we have developed several projects to support those who become homeless. There was a particular problem with homelessness in London, and that has been reduced significantly.
The announcement today on local connection has been welcomed by the House, and many Members of the House have pushed for the change. The situation in Scotland has been mentioned, and we will take that up with the Administration there.
In relation to recruitment and retention, supporting families and providing good accommodation is very important. Having that support and stability at home is crucial to members of our armed forces serving in operations, not least in Iraq and Afghanistan. The service families federations also do an important job in that regard. We are aware that our families need to be given the best possible support.
Cadets are not often mentioned in debates on the Floor of the House, so I just want to make a few comments about them. They are a huge success story, with 130,000 young people spread over 3,000 villages, towns and cities. They are one of the biggest youth organisations in the United Kingdom. Through the cadets, young people from all backgrounds gain valuable skills and experience, including problem-solving, leadership and physical training. I pay tribute to all of them and to the 26,000 adult volunteers who support and mentor them. I think that it is the best youth organisation in the country.
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