Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) : It is my privilege to present to this honourable House a petition signed by more than 25,000 people, in particular Janet Booth, who is the granddaughter of Harry Farr of the West Yorkshire Regiment, Allan Harris, the nephew of Private Louis Harris of the West Yorkshire Regiment and Grace Shoan, niece of Private Bertie McCubbin of the Sherwood Foresters.
Those individuals, together with the other 25,000 petitioners, wish to draw the House's attention to the fact that, in the great war of 1914-19, more than 300 soldiers of the British empire were executed at dawn by firing squad, having been found guilty of offences that included cowardice, desertion, disobedience, sleeping at post, throwing away arms and striking a superior officer.
The petitioners believe that those men were denied fair trials in accordance with the rules of natural justice and note that documents now available prove that many were suffering from sickness and trauma. They say :
Wherefore your petitioners pray that your honourable House introduce legislation to grant posthumous pardons to each of these men and that their names shall be included in all official records and memorials to the esteemed soldiers of the Empire Forces who fought bravely and made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, in the cause of freedom and justice.
And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, etc. To lie upon the Table.
That this House, mindful of the increasing needs of the United Kingdom's ageing ex-service population and the many problems of younger members of the ex-service community in direct consequence of "Options for Change", considers that there is now a pressing need for a sub-Department of Ex- Service Affairs within an existing Ministry and with a designated Minister to be responsible, as the only fundamental and long-term solution for the care and welfare of ex-service people and their dependants ; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government now to respond positively to the Royal British Legion's urgent call for a sub-department to be established.
It is a privilege and an honour to present this motion, the principal author of which is my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and his friends in the Royal British Legion. I am pleased to declare that I am an associate member of the legion.
The motion calls for the appointment of a Minister with special responsibilities to look after the interests of ex-service men and women. It draws attention to the care that those men and women, who gave diligent, gallant and brave service to this country in our armed forces for many years, now need. It is a timely request. I know that other hon. Members have sought to draw attention to the need for such a Minister, and I look forward to hearing them later.
My constituency is rich in organisations that endeavour to promote and protect the interests of ex-service people. I hope that I will be forgiven for referring to Andy Finn and Charles Mercer of my local branch of the Royal Naval Association ; John Webb and John Bright of the Royal British Legion ; and Councillor Sid Joslin of the Royal Air Forces Association, who have all encouraged me to promote the motion this morning.
Many more hon. Members would have liked to be present this morning. In fairness to them, it should be recorded that Friday is an extraordinarily difficult day for hon. Members to be in the House, as many have long- standing constituency interests. I am anxious that anyone who reads the Official Report should understand that many hon. Members from both sides of the House wish to be associated with the motion, although unable to be here today. They will no doubt tell the Prime Minister in their own way, either by writing or informally, that they agree that it is time that a Minister dedicated to the interests of ex-service people was appointed.
At school, I was a dilatory pupil, in some ways unhappy. Every week, one of our tutors would insist that we learn some lines of Hilaire Belloc, which did not stimulate me a bit, and I was ritually admonished, much to my embarrassment and discomfiture.
But on one occasion he set us some lines of Sir Winston Churchill. Unbeknown to him, I had studied the speeches of Sir Winston Churchill. Indeed, I knew them rather well. When he came in the classroom hoping to do his usual stuff and cause me discomfiture, he called me to the front and said, "Proceed, Mackinlay." To his surprise and a round of applause from my fellow pupils, I recited the lines which, if the House will allow me, I shall quote again this morning :
"The gratitude of every home in our island, in the Empire and, indeed, throughout the world--except in the abodes of the guilty--goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by the odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are
Column 1053turning the tide of this war by their prowess and devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
Although those words are jealously guarded as a memorial to the gallant fighters of the Royal Air Force, half a century on they could refer to a larger number of people. The gratitude of many that is owed to the few must mean my generation, who were born after the second world war and are the beneficiaries of the sacrifice of millions of men and women during the great conflict of 1939 to 1945. "The few" are my parents' generation, not just RAF pilots but all those who fought in all the theatres of war in the cause of justice and freedom.
This motion is addressed primarily on behalf of, but not exclusively to, those millions of people. If the Government are persuaded to appoint such a Minister, he or she will be responsible for those people. Ex-service men and women who served in previous conflicts need the support of a dedicated Minister. A few thousand soldiers who served in the great war are still alive, as are many of the widows of those who served.
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) rose
Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North) rose
Mr. Greenway : The hon. Gentleman is most generous, and I congratulate him on initiating this debate. He was right to recite the superb words of Sir Winston Churchill in the greatest speech in the history of this land, but he should not forget the value of Hilaire Belloc. Perhaps we can have a word about that afterwards. Sir Winston Churchill spoke of "the few". The central point is that those few are a diminishing band. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will give a friendly nod in favour of the motion. The newly appointed Minister will have a diminishing responsibility, but it should be discharged. All my British Legion friends- -I am vice-president of the Greenford branch of the Royal British Legion and its Royal Naval section--strongly support what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I am sure that the House will support it.
Mr. Mackinlay : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He and I have often spoken privately about our mutual interest in Polish ex-service men, of whom he represents a large number. It is important to recall that about one in seven of the German aircraft shot down over London were shot down by brave Polish pilots, some of whom still reside in the United Kingdom, having made it their home.
Although they are now in the evening of life with their British grandchildren around them, in the intervening 50 years their interests have not always been satisfactorily safeguarded. For instance, whereas other British service men have had extensive opportunities to appeal against refusals for benefits, it has been much more difficult for Polish ex- service men to do so.
If a Minister were appointed, he or she could deal with the interests of Polish ex-service men who are now inextricably bound up with the United Kingdom, having made it their home. That group must not be forgotten. A debate like this could inadvertently offend other groups by not referring to them, but I acknowledge the debt of
Column 1054gratitude which this country owes to the Polish ex-service men who fought alongside colleagues in the Royal Air Force.
Mr. Heald : Although we all agree that "the few" gave much service to this country, will the hon. Gentleman explain the purpose of a new Minister ? Existing ministries already deal with housing and employment, and war pensions are dealt with by a separate Department. What would a new Minister do ?
Mr. Mackinlay : The hon. Gentleman is somewhat impatient. I am just warming up, although some hon. Members will be anxious about the volume of papers that I have with me. I shall deal with the matter as swiftly as I can, and come to the central issue of the Minister in a few moments. The hon. Gentleman prompts me to say that the United Kingdom is the exception among our principal allies in not having a Minister directly charged with promoting the interests of ex-service people. The United States has a considerable veterans' organisation. As recently as 1989, President Bush raised the post to the level of Cabinet Secretary, and that importance has been sustained by President Clinton.
Mr. Heald : I am sorry to trespass on the hon. Gentleman's good will, but the position in America is different. There, the Veterans Administration deals with the health service for veterans and is the only means of delivering health care to veterans. This country has a national health service, so such a Minister is not needed.
Mr. Mackinlay : The hon. Gentleman is impatient, and should wait to hear me out. It is true that, in America, the Veterans Administration deals with health and welfare, but not exclusively--it promotes the wider interests of ex-service people and their dependants, who are entitled to a voice. They are people who have made great sacrifices. I notice that the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) is of my generation--he and I should tread cautiously-- [Hon. Members : -- "He is younger."] In that case, he should tread even more cautiously when pontificating on the subject.
I wish to deal with the important subject of comparable Ministers in other countries.
Mrs. Barbara Roche (Hornsey and Wood Green) : I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I want to support him and ask for his comments. The call for a Minister is warmly supported by the Royal British Legion branches. My constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green is privileged to have three branches : Muswell Hill, Hornsey and Wood Green, and I am proud to be an associate member of the legion. I received a letter from the Wood Green branch of the Royal British Legion this week and I should like my hon. Friend's views on it.
Mrs. Roche rose
Mrs. Roche : Absolutely not. I wanted to emphasise that British Legion branches in my constituency and elsewhere are stating that it is particularly hard for them at this difficult time and it is even more important that there should be a Minister to meet their needs. We should take the point that the British Legion makes, which I am sure will have been reinforced by letters to many hon. Members.
Mr. Mackinlay : I want to pick up the theme of what happens in other allied countries, and mention Canada and Australia. However, before I do so, I wish to stress that, in the United States and other countries, the need exists for a Minister who can cut through red tape in Whitehall, and in other countries' equivalent of Whitehall, to assist the ex-service organisations that campaign for individual and collective interests.
One of the arguments forcibly advanced by the Royal British Legion and other ex-service organisations is that Whitehall has a plethora of agencies --about 17 or 18--and a host of Departments and Ministers with which they have to deal to obtain redress for their members. We want to break through that bureaucracy, and a designated Minister could do that-- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North must contain himself.
There are plenty of precedents in Whitehall. We have had a Minister for Sport for some time, but for the first decade or more of the post's existence, there was no official portfolio. The portfolio was originally held by a junior Minister in the former Ministry of Housing and Local Government, then the Department of the Environment, then the Department of Education and Science. It now resides in the tranquil waters of the National Heritage Department. I was told just the other evening that there are now red dispatch boxes with the words "Minister for Sport" on them.
Before the formal post of Minister for Sport existed, various Prime Ministers said that a Minister would be given responsibility for promoting sport and would intervene in Departments and agencies to that end. That worked well and, after a time, the Minister for Sport became a designated post.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) : I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech. I have great sympathy for the motion. The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire branch of the British Legion has made many representations to me expressing support for the motion.
Could the hon. Gentleman help me to understand the concept of the Minister ? At present, the responsibility for service men's affairs is spread across different Departments that specialise in individual problems. I fear that, if the affairs are run through one Minister, bottlenecks and delays may occur. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can reassure me that that will not be the case.
I would appreciate it if the hon. Gentleman would also touch on the subject of cost. I should not want the
Column 1056excessive costs of a new Minister to take funds from other Departments that already deal with ex-service men's affairs.
Mr. Mackinlay : The hon. Lady has made three points. I do not think that cost should be of paramount importance when considering ex-service men and women, but in any event I believe that the post will provide a marginal saving. Many costs are incurred by voluntary organisations and Government Departments because the responsibility is fractured between various Government Departments and agencies. A dedicated Minister would be able to cut through the red tape and diminish costs and time, which is vital to people in the evening of life or who are in pain and discomfort. Costs should not be of paramount importance, but, as the hon. Lady has raised the subject, I have to say that I believe that a dedicated Minister would probably bring savings. I believe that I have covered the point that the hon. Lady made about efficiency.
When I tabled the motion, I received an unsolicited telephone call from the office of the Government's Chief Whip. I was asked which Minister I thought should reply to the debate. I was a little surprised by the request, and said that I thought that the Minister should come from the Ministry of Defence. The clerk replied that a representative from the Ministry of Defence had already stated that it was not its responsibility to reply.
I said that the only person who could help was the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister had previously been asked about the subject by a number of hon. Members, including myself. The Prime Minister said--in fairness to the present Prime Minister, it was also said by his predecessors--that the matter was adequately dealt across a range of Departments and Ministers. That story shows that it is not clear who should have responsibility for ex -service people's affairs. I am pleased to see that good sense has prevailed and there is a distinguished Minister on the Treasury Bench this morning--the Minister of State for Defence Procurement--who I know will give us the benefit of his views later. The Minister is always kind and courteous, and I know that he takes a great interest in the subject. However, he is a little hindered, as he cannot deliver the goods this morning. If the mood of the House is in favour of at least asking the Prime Minister to reconsider the subject, I hope that he will pass on that fact at an early opportunity next week, probably in advance of the expected Government reshuffle. I hope that he will tell the Prime Minister that he should consider the subject. The British Legion has said that its members are frustrated. I have three examples of the sort of problems encountered in the agencies in Whitehall and elsewhere. One ex-service man was medically discharged, suffering from a psychiatric problem--he had been disabled by a toxic aerosol that poisoned him during an exercise in Canada. As a result, he had to contact the Department of Social Security to claim a war pension, and the Benefits Agency to claim income support and disabled living allowance. He probably has further entitlements under the war pension scheme that the British Legion need to pursue on his behalf. He has been advised to claim sickness benefit from his local benefits agency, which should have been awarded to him on his discharge from the Army. However, it was not until he received the advice of the British Legion that the matter was pursued on his behalf.
Column 1057A former royal marine eventually received a war pension of 20 per cent. for noise-induced hearing loss. When he contacted the legion, it was revealed that he was also suffering injuries to his knees and had osteoarthritis in other parts of his body. Because the British Legion championed his interests, he is now in receipt of a 90 per cent. war pension. A war pensioner's mobility supplement is also being considered, along with a constant attendance allowance. He has also received a grant from the DSS to enable him to purchase a special chair under the home adaptations grant scheme for war pensioners.
However, one wonders what would have happened if he had not come into contact with the legion, and whether he could have achieved these benefits much earlier had there been a dedicated Minister who was alive to his interests. If he had gone to the legion in those circumstances, it would have had to bang on the door of only one Ministry.
The final case concerns a man who had given 28 years' service in the forces. He left with no form of discharge procedure or medical board, but it was known that he had a hearing disability. On leaving the service, he was put in touch with the war pensions directorate, through the local DSS office, and was ultimately given a gratuity for noise-induced deafness, which it was accepted he had incurred during his years of service.
Following legal advice, he got a 30 per cent. war pension, although his legal costs were considerable. As a former service man, he had no knowledge of civil systems ; he was fortunate to achieve that much, but without the advice of the legion he would never have got that far. The legion has now been able to obtain more for him, including a 50 per cent. war pension and an allowance for a lowered standard of occupation.
This again shows the need for a central point where information would be available to help former service people with their needs. I return to the question of what happens elsewhere. I was pleased yesterday to receive some information from Australia, from the Veterans Affairs Minister, Mr. Con Sciacca, who says that his portfolio is in the Department of Defence. Similarly, our colleagues in the Canadian Parliament have two Ministers dedicated to veterans affairs, with Privy Council status. So there are easy comparisons to be made with other Westminster-style constitutions. Those Ministers fulfil all the duties that I have tried to outline this morning.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Royal British Legion in Burnley thinks that we lag not only behind our allies but also, tragically, behind some of our former enemies ? That causes the legion even more distress.
Mr. Mackinlay : Absolutely. When preparing for this morning's debate, I studied an amendment once tabled by the former Member for Hastings and Rye, Mr. Ken Warren-- [Hon. Members :-- "Sir Ken Warren."] Yes, of parachutist fame, I believe. His amendment drew attention to the fact that the pensions and benefits paid to former service people and widows in Germany and Japan were far superior to those paid here. I therefore endorse what my hon. Friend says.
Column 1058When I go the Library to ask how many early -day motions relating to former service people have been tabled by hon. Members, I realise how many of them, on both sides of the House, take an interest.
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) : I congratulate my hon. Friend on his initiative, which I know is much appreciated by members of the Royal British Legion. I know that he will be pleased to learn the position of the official Opposition on this. We accept the need for much greater co- ordination between the parts of Whitehall that impact on the needs of our service men and women, and we are actively considering setting up a special unit in the MOD to look after their needs.
Mr. Mackinlay : That is excellent news. In a way, I am addressing my remarks today to the Prime Minister, but there could be a change of Government at some stage, and I hope that the leader of a Labour Administration would act on what I have said. In any event I am greatly encouraged by my hon. Friend's remarks. Meanwhile, I invite hon. Members to study carefully some of the early-day motions to which I have referred.
I suspect that the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) may want to mention this subject later, but I was recently privileged to visit Ards borough council in Northern Ireland, where I made many friends in the community. Recently, the council was invited by the Belgian authorities to send some veterans this autumn to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of a number of Belgian towns--a liberation effected chiefly by a Polish contingent and regiments from Northern Ireland. There was cross- party support in Ards borough council to pay for the veterans' trip, and the hospitality in Belgium was to be paid for by the Belgian authorities.
Unfortunately, the Northern Ireland district auditor waved his red card, so to speak, and said that he would not approve of the expenditure. The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) and I have written to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about the matter. I hope that it can be resolved, but it goes to show that there is an awful lot of red tape. There is always some Blimp who can frustrate things. A Ministry of the type that I propose would provide a one-stop shop for Ards borough council and the other veterans' organisations in Northern Ireland--and for hon. Members who want such cases sorted out. What has happened to Ards was clearly absurd, and it must be remedied with dispatch.
Last week, a report was published by an organisation known as Crisis. Entitled "Working for Homeless People", it drew attention to the plight of the homeless in London. There has been some dispute about the report's figures, which suggested that as many as one in four single homeless people in London were former service men. I do not want to argue the statistics this morning ; it is irrelevant whether one in four or one in six is the operative figure. But it is a demonstrable fact that a high proportion of these people are former service men. My anxiety is prompted by the fact that, with the downsizing of our armed forces and all the implications of "Options for Change", many men and women who joined the armed forces as adolescents and to whom the services have been family and friend will, for the first time in their lives, find themselves alone, without homes or companionship.
Column 1059Crisis at Christmas, can I assure my hon. Friend and the whole House that the report to which he referred was at once carefully researched and well documented ? It was also looked at very carefully and with some concern by the former service community and its organisations.
Mr. Mackinlay : Absolutely right. We all have a duty to be alive to the interests of service men and women, and to safeguard those interests when they leave the armed forces, to ensure that homelessness among this group does not grow. We must bring our energies and resources to bear to ensure that the number of homeless former service men and women is reduced.
Mr. John Sykes (Scarborough) : I am with the hon. Gentleman on that point, and wish to raise an issue of profound importance to one of my constituents. With your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish to speak about it in this intervention.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The Chair cannot allow that indulgence. There is plenty of time for proper contributions. Interventions should be short and to the point. No quotations or long examples should be given.
Mr. Sykes : I will attempt to make my intervention as short as possible. It concerns an RAF widow whose husband, a sergeant, died after 20 years' service to his country. She and her children are about to be thrown on the street because, under the Ministry of Defence system, an ex-service man's widow has no right to occupy or buy the home. However, four MOD civil servants have exercised their rights on the same estate.
Will the hon. Gentleman compare that with the astronomical sums awarded to ex-service women who got themselves pregnant, and the fact that some individuals in the MOD seem concerned to prosecute Falklands service men who fought for their country ? Is that not a scandalous state of affairs ?
Mr. Mackinlay : If we had a Minister for ex-service affairs, the hon. Member would have a focal point to allow him to raise that issue. There is no Question Time dedicated to such matters, either. Although I do not go along with the broad thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, he should have the right to raise the matter in the House with an appropriate Minister at Question Time. The hon. Gentleman could then argue his corner. As sure as night turns into day, the parliamentary calendar would then include a half-day--I hope, a whole day--each year to debate ex-service issues.
I give way to the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer), who gave service to his country in the armed forces.
Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West) : The hon. Gentleman said that homeless ex-service people had been part of a family, and that it was tragic that they should thereafter become homeless. The hon. Gentleman should never forget that they remain part of that family after they leave it.
I can talk only about airborne forces, but I know of one case of an ex- guardsman. The first port of call for anyone who has left the services with a problem must be the family--back to the regiment and through it, to the Royal British Legion. It follows that he will be directed by the legion and his regimental association to the right help. If I have dealt with one case in the past 20 years, I have dealt with 30 or
Column 106040 ex-parachutists who came to me as their first port of call. Safety nets exist, but those who drop through them ought to know--and they do know before they leave the services--that they exist.
Mr. Mackinlay : I absolutely agree, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman's intervention will attract attention. There is a problem with communicating with people, who, by definition, are lonely and have no fixed abode. I know that every right hon. and hon. Member would take the same initiative as the hon. Gentleman, in steering ex-service people in emotional, physical or financial difficulty towards their former regiment or equivalent Royal Air Force or Royal Navy unit and on to the appropriate ex-service organisation. Incidentally, I stress that all my comments include our gallant friends who served in conflicts in the Merchant Navy. They are definitely included--as are, to some extent, members of other uniformed services who took part in the 1939-45 war effort in particular.
Right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House have signed early-day motions and pressed Ministers in respect of former prisoners of war. Lord Braine, the former Member of Parliament for Castle Point, was vigorous and vocal on behalf of people who were incarcerated in Japanese prisoner of war camps, who he considers have not received justice or a proper remedy. I was pleased to support a related early-day motion tabled in the last session by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff), which attracted support from all parts of the House.
One of my constituents, John Stevens, served on HMS Gloucester, which was sunk in the battle of Crete. He was one of the few survivors, and was marched across central Europe to somewhere in Poland, where he claims--I believe with some legitimacy--that he was not treated in accordance with the Geneva convention. He was required by the Farben chemical corporation, along with the Hitler regime, to help the German war machine, contrary to the convention's provisions. He suffered physical and emotional hardship, and has tried to pursue his case and that of his colleagues with various Government Departments.
Part of the problem for people engaged in such campaigns is that they do not have a one-stop shop or a Minister who will listen. I am not necessarily saying that the Minister would agree with all such campaigns and claims, but it is difficult to get such problems examined at a senior level in Whitehall.
A similar situation exists in respect of British nuclear test veterans. By coincidence, their chairman--a Paisley councillor--is named Ken McGinley. I am sure that they would want to be mentioned in this debate, because they are frustrated by their inability to have someone at senior level acknowledge their case and properly consider their claim for compensation.
I was privileged to join a number of hon. Members at the deeply moving ceremonies in Normandy a few weeks ago. I place on record my congratulations to the Minister in another place, Viscount Cranborne, and his colleagues on the way in which those ceremonies were conducted. They were profoundly moving, and something that I will always remember.
Previously, there was misunderstanding--I apportion no blame--between some individuals in Whitehall and ex-service organisations. It all turned out right on the day,
Column 1061but that initial misunderstanding could have been avoided if there had been a veterans Minister with responsibility for service affairs. He or she would have been sensitive from the outset to the aspirations and interests of ex-service people.
Concern has been expressed on both sides of the House about the reduced grant to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I believe that the Government have seen the amber light--frankly, right hon. and hon. Members do not like that cut. We were told by the Secretary of State for Defence that the commission can absorb that cut, and that it will not create any problems. However, that situation should be watched.
If there were someone in Whitehall conscious of such matters, that cut might not have been made, and the Government could be counselled against making any further cuts in a service that is much valued and appreciated by ex-service men and women, their widows and dependants, and people generally who are proud of this country and of the service that it was given in years past by brave service men.
I am disappointed that the Government failed to recommend to the sovereign that an official medal be struck and awarded for the millions of people who did national service. The Royal British Legion has produced its own fine medal, but ex-national service men and women who now serve in the various uniformed services--police, ambulance and fire brigade--are not, strictly speaking, permitted to wear the legion medal on their uniforms on appropriate occasions. That is a pity ; it also strikes me as daft and insensitive. Why on earth should we not recognise people who are proud of having done national service ? They may not all have been up to their necks in muck and bullets, but they did their best, and they are proud of it. I hope that the Minister will think again, because millions of ex-national service men would be profoundly appreciative. I apologise for having spoken at some length, but I have tried to give way to interventions and to reassure people that I am arguing not for a Ministry, but for a Minister. I do not care whether the Minister concerned is actually in the Ministry of Defence, perhaps also charged with buying dreadnoughts, in the Department of Social Security perhaps also issuing giro cheques or in the Privy Council Office in Downing street.
That does not matter ; what we want is a Minister for veterans or ex- service men and women, and I suspect that, once appointed, such a Minister would be greatly valued. After a while, people will wonder how things worked without such a post--which, after a while, would find an appropriate home in one of the Ministries, as have the Minister for Sport and the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People.
I hope that today's debate will persuade the Prime Minister to acknowledge the views of numerous Members of Parliament--some of whom are legitimately unable to be present--and, above all, the views of all those in the ex- service organisations who would like recognition of the service that their members have given, and the sacrifices made by their comrades-in-arms who, although now deceased, have left widows and dependants.
Column 106210.21 am
Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West) : I warmly thank the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) for all that he has done to support the Royal British Legion over the years, and for giving me--a virtual new boy in its counsels--such wise guidance. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) has cited as one of his main interests studying the battlefields of the first world war. Today, however, he has shown that his support and enthusiasm for our armed forces past, present and, indeed, future--for we are considering the future as much as the past--go far beyond that. I am cautious by nature, and I approach the subject with caution as well as enthusiasm. Anyone who believes that we could wave a wand tomorrow and appoint a Minister, and that then all the problems of ex- service men would be solved, is living in cloud cuckoo land. Let us think carefully about this, and go about it in the right way.
As the hon. Member mentioned in both his speech and his petition--I am not sure that I can go all the way with the petition--we are considering between 18,000 and 20,000 people who fought in the first world war and who are still alive, plus their dependants. Those dependants are very vulnerable, and often find themselves completely lost when left alone. Inevitably, and in a sense sadly, they are a decreasing problem. Then there are those who served in the second world war : no one can say exactly how many uniformed men and women served in that war, but there may have been as many as 8 million. Finally, there are the national service men, and regulars who have left or are now leaving the armed forces.
As the hon. Member for Thurrock pointed out, those people have been part of a family structure that has given both discipline and dependence. When they leave the forces, they are sometimes pretty vulnerable--far more vulnerable than people who have led entirely civilian lives, and know their way around.
I should declare an interest : I am a former service man. I joined the Army at 16, and served as a regular for some 14 years. I thought that it might be sensible to toughen up a bit in preparation for joining the Army, so I found work in a scrap metal yard. In those days, there were no forklift trucks ; we had bagging hats and bagging hooks. I would climb up the side of my lorry with my bagging hat and hook and a hundredweight and a half of scrap, while two chaps waited below to put another load on.
I was paid the princely sum of £5 a week in that job. It was quite a shock to leave--admittedly, it was a 12-hour day--and to go into the armed forces, where my pay immediately dropped to 14 shillings a week. A year later, when I was commissioned, I found myself on 14 shillings a day. That was still less than what I would have been paid if I had stayed in the scrap metal yard--and I probably could have wangled it to remain there in a reserved occupation ; my post-war credits would have built up. I missed out on that, and served--but that is exactly what I wanted to do.
Now I am president of my local branch of the Royal British Legion : the Beaminster branch, which, as my hon. Friend the Minister will know, is without doubt the finest branch in the United Kingdom. I hope that he will pay appropriate tribute to it when he winds up. [Interruption.] Views may differ, but I am better qualified than others to judge because of my former service.
Column 1063I am full of the same enthusiasm as the hon. Member for Thurrock, but I understand the fears that exist in government. It is a little easier for the Opposition to say, "This is what we will do," but we need a firm pledge. The Royal British Legion is exerting pressure on the Government--rightly, in my view--but, as I have said, fears exist. We must ask ourselves first whether a direct Ministry involvement of this kind is really needed. I believe that it is, as does the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe, who has vast experience of dealing with the Royal British Legion in government as well as in opposition.
There is sometimes a lack of co-ordination between the 17 Departments which operate in this area. However, anyone who thinks that the work of 17 Departments can be drawn together in one sub-office of a Ministry is living in cloud cuckoo land ; and that is not what we propose. We want to improve the work that is done in those Departments, and to co-ordinate it on occasions when co-ordination is necessary. As has been said, such a sub- Department could even save money, as things would be done more quickly. If we accept that the need exists, we must then ask how it can best be met. A low-key system and a responsible Minister are necessary, as is a sub- office. Most crucially, we need what I would describe as an expediter who will ensure that matters are dealt with quickly, rather than an imperious Minister--not that Ministers are ever imperious, of course, but we do not want a Minister surrounded by a huge staff. All Back Benchers--indeed, all Members of Parliament--should be aware of one possible problem. As soon as there is a designated Minister for veterans, a large number of people might bypass their local Member of Parliament. I hope and expect that all ex- service men in my constituency will write to me in the first instance asking me to deal with their problems ; the last thing I want is for them to write directly to the Minister for ex-service men and ignore their Member of Parliament. That is my concern, and it must be met.
The right channel must be, first, to the Member of Parliament, who would then pass the problem to the sub-office for it then to be dealt with by other Departments. I would be extremely upset if the Minister for the sub- office wrote to me to say that he had received a letter from one of my constituents--not least because of the extra delay involved.
One must accept that a key role should be played by the Royal British Legion, which has field officers in almost every county. The Legion made it clear in discussions with the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and myself that it wanted to be involved and to be part of a partnership. It does not want the operation to be conducted exclusively by the Government, but equally, it does not want to tell the Government what they should do. It wants to set the scene, and then say to the Government, "You do what is right."
When I first became involved in this matter, one or two of my hon. Friends, who, I am pleased to say, are not here today, seized me by the scruff of the neck and said, "How dare you suggest that the sub-Department, or whatever it may be called, should be based in the Ministry of Defence ? It must be based in the Department of Social Security, where it rightly belongs." The Royal British Legion hasa now made it quite clear that it is not its job to say how all this should be constructed or which Ministry should be involved : that is for the Government to decide.