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Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove) : Like other hon. Members, I declare what I think is a non-pecuniary interest, as yet another honorary member of the Royal British Legion. It seems that the House is full of such Members, and I am delighted to be associated with that organisation. I welcome the debate, and especially the way in which the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) presented his case. He put a number of points which have made some of us stop and consider carefully the merits of his arguments. I pay tribute to his initiation of the debate and his presentation of the arguments. I am rather surprised, however, that, apart from a brief period, the Opposition Front Bench has remained in its current state--empty of any representative from the principal Opposition party. I should have thought that such a debate would merit attention by Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen more or less throughout its course. There are important issues to be aired and one would have expected them to wish to hear the opinions of hon. Members and to present their policies. We all owe much to those who have fought for this country. Although we remember every year those who have died, there are other memorials around us, not least the shields on the wall of the Chamber, as a constant reminder of the sacrifices that were made. We also remember the many people who carry their own reminder through the injuries that they have suffered. We do not remember just those who went through the world wars, but those who have offered themselves, perhaps without
Column 1077suffering injury, in more minor skirmishes or in continuing serious action in the Falklands and, in particular, Northern Ireland. The problems encountered by ex-service people are not rooted in history. We are not talking about those who will fade slowly from the scene. Ex-service men and women who have been prepared to lay down their lives for this country will be with us indefinitely and solutions must be reached not just to suit today but for the future. The Ministry of Defence, like any good employer, has a duty to look after its retiring and redundant staff. Those employees are a special case because of their particular potential for sacrifice and the good employer rules should apply with particular strength to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) was right to remind us that the Government have already done much to promote the care and welfare of ex-service personnel. They have introduced schemes such as the resettlement training programme, established regional resettlement centres, entered into joint partnership with the British Legion to develop a new training centre at Tidworth--which has benefited from European grant--established a services employment network and published the "Services Resettlement Voluntary Supplement". All those initiatives are designed to assist retiring service men and women to find alternative employment.
I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) that ex-service personnel represent a special case because of their vulnerability. During their service career, those individuals lived in a particularly closed environment. They were looked after in a manner unknown by most people in civvy street. They were provided with housing and leisure through in-service provision. Welfare services were always available to give support where required. As members of the forces, they live in a disciplined, controlled environment.
Then suddenly, they are expected to make their own way in a new career, in a totally different world. It is therefore particularly important that they are looked after during that transition. In common with other hon. Members, I pay particular tribute to the work of the Royal British Legion in assisting in that resettlement process. Notwithstanding that work, the MOD must continue to exercise its responsibilities for looking after service personnel once they leave the forces.
A constituent came to see me about a housing problem. He had just left the Army, although his family were still living in married quarters. I gained the impression that the support that the Army had provided to him as he prepared to leave its service would soon cease. He would not receive any after-sales service, but service personnel require such a service for some years after they have left the forces.
I am delighted that the Government are assisting service personnel by allowing them to buy their married quarters. They are also participating in do-it-yourself shared ownership schemes, which will allow people to buy into their service homes. The saving schemes and the services preferential mortgage scheme provided by the Government are excellent means of assisting service people to purchase housing. Those individuals, like anyone else, want to buy their own homes. We know that 80 per cent. of the
Column 1078population wish to be home owners and there is no reason to suppose that Army, Navy or Air Force personnel are any different. I am pleased to note that the Minister of State for Armed Forces has joined the Minister for Defence Procurement on the Front Bench. Yet another Government representative is present, which reaffirms my point about the absence of and lack of support from any shadow spokesman.
According to a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1,700 families are living illegally in United Kingdom armed service married quarters. That figure has increased in recent years. Illegal occupancy does not mean pure squatting, but that people who have left the forces have not had alternative housing provided for them. That is a serious problem.
Many local authorities require the services to seek eviction orders before they will house homeless families. That is entirely contrary to Government policy. The Government have made it clear that service people should be given priority when applying for local authority housing, and it is a disgrace that some local authorities are not meeting that Government requirement, but instead are putting service families through the strain and trauma of having eviction orders served against them. That practice illustrates the accommodation problems encountered.
Another problem is that the real value of the lump sum gratuity paid to service families has declined. Twenty years ago, it was adequate to buy a home, but that is no longer so. That, too, adds to the housing pressure. In the 1960s, a sergeant-major received a lump sum of £5,000, which was perfectly adequate to buy an ordinary semi-detached house. Today, the lump sum of £15,000 is hardly enough for a deposit on a semi-detached house, the average value of which is in the region of £55,000. It is clear that securing long-term housing for ex-service people is a problem.
When the Minister for Defence Procurement replies to the debate, I hope that he will tell us how the new announcement of the housing trust with responsibility for service accommodation, the professional management of housing stock and the cost-effective use of MOD properties will ensure that some of the problems are overcome. I have taken particular note of what the hon. Member for Thurrock said. When I first studied the terms of the motion, I questioned the establishment of a sub-Department, for three reasons : I wondered what it would achieve, what authority it would have and what work it would be able to do. We have already heard about the special health care, pension arrangements and resettlement grants that are already available to ex-service people, so what could a sub-Department achieve for those individuals ?
Housing provision will still be a matter for local authorities and the Department of the Environment, while social security benefits must remain a policy matter for the Department of Social Security. Policies must still be determined by individual Departments and Ministers according to general criteria, so I believe that a sub-Department would achieve very little.
Secondly, what authority would a Minister in charge of such a sub- Department exercise ? By virtue of the rules and conventions of government, he would have to be attached to a Department, but he could not be attached to all the Departments involved in matters which affect ex-service personnel. Such a Minister would be in danger of becoming a mere postboy or postgirl, passing messages from one Department to another.
Column 1079Thirdly, what work would the new sub- Department do ? The administration of benefits lies with the Benefits Agency, the administration of war pensions lies with the War Pensions Agency, and the administration of housing applications lies with local authorities, so the new sub-Department would not have much work to do. We do not need a specific Department to look after health and social security, because we do not have special programmes. Rather, we integrate welfare for ex-service personnel with the policies of those Departments.
At the outset, I sought to oppose the motion, not because I wanted to attack the welfare provisions for ex-service people but because I thought that the motion would simply increase bureaucracy. Having heard the constructive remarks of the hon. Member for Thurrock, however, I am more or less persuaded that there may be a case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West suggested, for a Minister at the Ministry of Defence to be specifically responsible for keeping an eye on ex-service issues and to have a minor co-ordinating role. I emphasise the word "minor" because it should not be a sub-Department or a dedicated Minister, as I believe the hon. Member for Thurrock intended and as was the thrust of the initial proposals that I and other hon. Members received from the Royal British Legion. We are now presented with an idea that may be more acceptable to a wider number of hon. Members.
I detected a difference of emphasis in the remarks of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who reverted to the original proposal of the British Legion to create a specific structure within a Department. In this modern age, there is no place for increasing bureaucracy. We want to decrease it and reduce regulation. Provided that the welfare of ex-service personnel is specifically incorporated within an existing Minister's portfolio, we may make further progress.
Mr. Alf Morris : Representatives of the Royal British Legion have not, in recent memory, been asking for a new Department of State. I was reflecting earlier in the debate the points which they, as national representatives of the ex-service community, feel are extremely important. They have no time for grandiosity. They feel that they are victims of bureaucracy. The motion is not about creating a new bureaucracy but about making life easier for members of the ex-service community and their dependants.
Mr. Thomason : That summarises the difference between the mover of the motion and the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe. Other hon. Members may disagree with me, but the difference I detect is that the mover wants a Minister who would simply keep an eye on what is happening, while the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe wants to set up a structure that would co- ordinate and deal with the affairs of ex-service personnel, with civil servants being appointed to such a structure to process those matters and deal with delays. We cannot deal with delays for ex-service personnel in a separate compartment but only as part of the generality of those who are allegedly not receiving the service that they should be receiving from the Government. As the citizens charters suggest, everyone is entitled to a proper service from Departments, and we must beware of compartmentalising any section of the community.
I did not suggest that the Royal British Legion was arguing for setting up a Department of state. The word
Column 1080"sub-Department" has always been used, but a sub-Department with a dedicated Minister and a peripheral mass of civil servants working to support that Minister is different from a Minister who is part of an established Department, who already undertakes a series of jobs and who will have added to his portfolio responsibility for co- ordinating work relating to ex-service people. That idea is much more acceptable.
Mr. Mackinlay : At the risk of alienating the hon. Gentleman, given his supportive remarks, there is not a blade of grass between my objectives and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris). The debate is intended for hon. Members to bounce ideas off one another and try to influence the Prime Minister to think about the issue. However, I am in concert with the hon. Gentleman on the concept of making a start. Let us have an existing Minister, which will involve no extra cost or bureaucracy, along the same lines as the Minister responsible for sport. That Minister has many other functions, such as responsibility for water, health, housing and a plethora of other issues, but everyone knows that he is also responsible for sport. A Minister responsible for ex- service personnel may already be in the Department of Defence or of Social Security, but his responsibility for ex-service personnel could be written into his job description.
Mr. Thomason : Many hon. Members would be happy with that arrangement, provided that it was not the thin end of the wedge. I am concerned that some hon. Members may see it in a slightly different context. I am perfectly happy with the provision of additional responsibilities, because, for the reasons I gave earlier, I have great sympathy with ex-service personnel.
Mr. Donald Anderson : I understand that the hon. Gentleman has remarked on my absence from the Front Bench. Had he been alert, he would have noticed that I was given a green card. I explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) that I had to leave the Chamber briefly in response to a green card. Otherwise, I have been present all morning, and I intend to stay and listen to what the Minister says.
Mr. Thomason : I referred to the absence of Opposition Members on the Front Bench, not to a specific Member. I remain surprised that the Opposition can produce only one Front-Bench spokesman, who was here fairly briefly and then--albeit for good reasons--had to disappear and could not find anyone else to ensure that his party was represented throughout the debate. That is contempt for the purposes of the motion.
Mr. Mackinlay : My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) explained his difficulty to me. A constituent came to see him and, as mover of the motion, I fully understood that he had to leave the Chamber.
I hope that we shall not labour the point too much this morning, because the tenor of the debate has shown a common interest across the Floor of the House. I hope that the debate will not deteriorate suddenly into one in which
Column 1081partisan points are made and we score points off one another. In crafting my speech, I was careful to demonstrate to people elsewhere that this matter commands the interest of the whole House and is not a party political issue. I hope that the rest of our debate will proceed in that spirit.
Mr. Thomason : I hope that we can proceed in that way and that we shall see a representative of the Opposition Front Bench present for the remainder of the debate. That would be a pleasant novelty. Any partisanship introduced into the debate was started by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock), who made the most extraordinary allegations against the Government and then left the Chamber.
Service men have the same right as all citizens to expect good and reliable service from the Government and Government agencies. Great improvements have been and are being made to the conditions of ex-service people, and much more is being done. There is a need for a demonstration of continuing concern for ex-service men through the Ministry of Defence acting as a good employer who cares for those who have left the service and are emerging into a different world. There is no case for a sub-Department, but I accept that there is a case to be argued for a Minister to take on ex-service responsibilities. 11.49 pm
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East) : Like the other hon. Members who have spoken, I think that we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) for raising the subject today. Like him, I am too young to have fought in the last war, but I can well remember soldiers camping in the yard when I was a small boy, which was exciting. I also remember being held in my parents' arms and watching the reflected glare of a burning Belfast in the sky in 1941.
As I grew older, I came to understand the debt we owe to all those who fought and died, and left dependants behind. It has not yet been mentioned that, for Ulster and for the wider public in the nation, today is a particularly appropriate day to have this debate. It is 1 July, the 78th anniversary of the battle of the Somme, in which many thousands of our fellow countrymen died, not least from the Province which I have the honour to represent.
On Sunday week, I was present at the unveiling of the first public war memorial in the southern part of my constituency--the churches, of course, all have their own. That memorial was unveiled in the village of Castledawson by Mr. Leslie Bell, who was wounded when he was 20, on the first day of the battle of the Somme. He is a sprightly 98 and I hope that the House will send him congratulations because he is back on the Somme battlefield today, as he has been for many years past, remembering his comrades who died and whose names are inscribed on the memorial.
The leader of the Ulster Unionist party, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), with Merlyn Rees and, no doubt, other hon. Members, have pursued the matter in the past. In the last Parliament, they asked Ministers whether the Government would make the provision sought in the motion for those ex-service personnel, but the Government declined to do so. Those
Column 1082Members have a keen interest in the welfare of the families and dependants of their past comrades and friends who died, and those who are still alive.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley is one of the few remaining Members of the House who saw combat in the war and, I believe, the last remaining Member who crossed the Normandy beaches on D-day. He was not in the first wave, but went across later to build an airfield for the Royal Air Force. He always says that, when he got there, the 21st Panzer division was in occupation, so they built the airfield elsewhere, prudence being the better part of valour on that occasion.
It was a great honour for me, as it was for every other hon. Member who did so, to visit Normandy on 6 June this year for the commemoration of that tremendous enterprise. It was an emotional and humbling experience to see the survivors march past, and it drew our attention once again to the debt that we owe them. It increased our pride in, and awe of, what they did ; we were conscious of the pride of the veterans as they marched past.
The sense of the debt that we owe the veterans should be ever more present in our minds as we, and the survivors of the great wars, grow older. The question is how best we can discharge that debt. The hon. Member for Thurrock mentioned Ards borough council in Northern Ireland. The debt is felt strongly by those who were liberated in the low countries, France and throughout occupied Europe. On 6 June this year those people showed how grateful they were to so many people in the United Kingdom and elsewhere who took part in the liberation of Europe. They are always generous to those who visit. The people of Belgium want to repay in some measure the debt that they owe. Ards borough council, like other councils in Northern Ireland, does not have the legal authority to pay for members of the public to travel to Belgium, but the Minister in charge of the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland can grant the authority. Those interested in the matter--not only Opposition Members but Conservative Members--should take it up with the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith). We want to discharge the debt that we owe to all ex-service personnel and their dependants.
Today's debate goes some way towards clarifying the issue in people's minds, as was made clear by the remarks of the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason). The subject is too important for point scoring, although there has been some banter backwards and forwards across the Floor today. I hope that the Government will take seriously the arguments advanced and, if they decline to do what has been asked by the hon. Member for Thurrock, give us detailed reasons why.
The ranks of those who fought in the 1914-18 war are thin, and the ranks of those who fought in the last war are thinning, but others are joining them- -many of them are severely disabled, not least because of Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, we have those who have served in the locally recruited regiment, the Ulster Defence Regiment, now the Royal Irish Regiment, and the regular Army. Those people have suffered, some of them grievously, and many of them are paralysed as a result of attacks. The victims and their dependants will require care for many years to come. I want that care to be delivered as swiftly, sympathetically and efficiently as possible. If we can have a one-stop shop, so much the better.
Column 1083A one-stop shop is needed because there are so many agencies--all of us who have contact with ex-service personnel chase around the many agencies. The British Legion does a tremendous job, but it would be much easier for us if we had a one-stop shop to which we could direct our inquiries, be satisfied that they would be followed up and sensible, sympathetic conclusions reached as swiftly as possible. When we come into the Chamber we pass through the Churchill arch, a symbol of what happens when one forgets defence. I fear that far too often we walk through that arch without thinking about the reason why it is there and the memory that it is supposed to call to mind. Far too often we forget the duty that we owe to those who fought for and served their country in the war, and whose dependants are still with us--many of their lives have been shattered by the experience of defending the freedoms that we enjoy. We could not be here today as a free nation were it not for the sacrifices made, and we should discharge our debt.
Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North) : I start by joining in the tributes paid to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) for raising this important subject today. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer), both of whom do so much for the Royal British Legion. In my constituency we are proud to have successful legions in Royston, Hitchin, Letchworth and the villages. At the recent commemoration in St. Albans abbey, they were very much to the fore, marching proudly behind their banners. The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) spoke about the 50th anniversary of D-day. We were all touched when we saw those men marching with pride in themselves and their country, often bowed with age and supporting old comrades. For those of us of the younger generation who did not serve, it showed us a pride in country and a comradeship from which we should learn and which we should not forget.
Another aspect that shone through those celebrations was a pride in practical endeavour and in getting the job done. We should not forget that either. It was not just a question of pride in country and passion for freedom ; it was also a job well done. I cannot see that the motion does any more than provide a certain recognition of that. In this place we recognise the sacrifices and endeavours of our fathers and their comrades- in-arms, but would a Ministry or sub-Department really have any practical purpose beyond recognition ? I find it hard to believe that it would achieve very much. The sub-Department for former service men's affairs has been described in this debate as a one-stop shop. Is it seriously proposed that when a service man left the services he would go to this sub- Department's office ? If so, would it be sited in London, or in the regions --or would it be grafted on to the housing departments of each council, or perhaps the employment departments ?
Or is the Ministry merely designed to be an expediter ? Another explanation that has been offered is that the various Departments will still deal with matters as they do now, but that there will be a Minister whom people can harry and ask about their various applications. The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe suggested the idea of a hospital monitor ; there would be no further problems in
Column 1084our hospitals for former service men, because this Minister would monitor the position and ensure that none cropped up.
Another description of the new post was that it would act as a focal point. Again I ask : what is the Ministry for ? Is it necessary ? I cannot believe that it is. It would end up, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) suggested, as little more than a post office. A former service man would enter this one-stop shop and say that he had a housing problem. Instead of his application being made to the housing department, as it would usually be, it would be sent to the former service men's Department, which in turn would apply to the housing department again. That would just add to bureaucracy. The same would apply to someone who wanted a war pension or an enhanced war pension. He would apply to the new Department, which would in turn apply to Norcross. What is the point ? If a former service man wanted a job, instead of going to the jobcentre he would go to the new former service men's Department, which would refer him to the jobcentre. I cannot see how that will achieve anything practical.
Is it really a proper recognition of the efforts of those who have done so much for our country to introduce an extra layer of bureaucracy ? Is it preferable to make the Departments and agencies that we have work better ? I concede immediately that improvements can always be made in every Department of state, but whether we need another layer of bureaucracy is extremely doubtful.
I am also worried that the idea might lead to former service men being regarded in a rather unhappy light by other members of the public. A well- trained person who leaves the services has the benefit of the access to excellence marketing scheme of registration, which means that he can go to the services' employment network. That network receives 700 new vacancies a month at the moment, and 80 per cent. of service men are being placed in work within three months. Why then is it necessary to add a new Department ; and what would other young people who are looking for work think if, in addition to all the provision already made for them, service men had an extra Department that seemed to be giving them even more of an advantage ? If service men are treated as requiring special help, and hence not as competitive with other young people in the job market, might that not undercut the excellent scheme which is already doing so much for them ?
No parliamentary motion can be comprehensive, of course, but this motion hardly reflects all the provision for service men that already exists. The War Pensions Agency, Norcross, does a fantastic job for former service men. It recognises their concerns and is expert in their needs. When I have tried to contact Norcross on behalf of constituents, I have always found it extremely helpful.
Crown immunity, which used to be a thorny issue, has been resolved, so that, if a service man has a legitimate claim against the Ministry of Defence, it can now be brought. There are new resettlement training cost grants of £500, and they provide former service men with additional help. There are eight new regional resettlement centres. I have already mentioned the access to excellence scheme and the services' employment network. All those benefits have been provided in recent years for former service men.
On top of that, there is the work of the Royal British Legion, whose offices help so many people. Then there is the work of the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families
Column 1085Association, SSAFA, which has not been mentioned thus far-- [Interruption.] --although I now see that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) is carrying his card. SSAFA is a point of contact for former service men in need, with access to regimental funds and assistance. It provides a national service. Certainly there may be a need for change, but there is surely no need for more bureaucracy, which will do nothing to help the situation.
Sir Jim Spicer : We would all agree with most of what my hon. Friend is saying, but his point about the bureaucracy is not what those of us who advocate this approach want. We do not wish to interfere with or to break down the current system, but there must be an ultimate port of call for those cases that include a problem--and there will always be problems.
Joe Bloggs, perhaps at the bottom end of the scale, scratches his head and says, "I don't know where to go or who to get in touch with. I don't know about the Royal British Legion or SSAFA--they don't hang around on my doorstep." He will be able to pick up a pen and write to the Minister for former service men, Whitehall. That office will then pass on Joe Bloggs' letter to someone who will expedite it and who will make sure that all these other marvellous Departments do their jobs properly and without delay. From time to time, there are delays that I find inexplicable and claims that should be dealt with in days take months to process. I promise my hon. Friend that we are not looking for a new bureaucracy.
Mr. Heald : I do not believe that my hon. Friend was in his place when I paid tribute to his work for the Royal British Legion. I accept his point that there are often unnecessary delays. If that is so, we as Members of Parliament should press Ministers hard on the complaints that we receive from our constituents. My hon. Friend is well known for doing that, but particularly on behalf of ex-service men. He cited the example of the 30 ex -parachutists whom he helped in recent years. The bastion for members of the public who need protection is ourselves. At least, I believe that that is our role. 12.10 pm
Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley) : I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to say a few words in this important debate. I was disgusted at some of the negative thinking expressed by Conservative Members. I am confident that there is a problem. Otherwise, we would not be debating the topic.
I declare an interest as a citizen of the British Isles who is eternally grateful to the men and women who fought and lost their lives, or who returned crippled with a variety of diseases or with shattered limbs. Pain, torment and torture was the lot of the people who were sent to fight. Wars are inevitably caused by politicians pontificating on why this or that is wrong. When they make a mess of it, the clarion call goes out to the citizens, "Rally round the flag and defend what we say is right."
I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion's marvellous work nationally and locally. It performs many acts of kindness that go unrecorded, and which should really be the responsibility of the Government. I hope that the Government will try to repay the debt of gratitude that we
Column 1086owe to those lads and lasses. The secretary of Rossington Royal British Legion asked me if I would take part in this debate, and of course I was only too happy to say that I would be present, in the hope that I would have an opportunity to say a few words. When the bands play, flags wave and cheers go up, our troops are urged to march to battle to defend the country's interests--but when asked to defend their interests, we are a little like Shylock : we do not really want to know how we can repay our debt of gratitude to those men and women. Some people in this country follow the train of thought that the former Prime Minister caused a war to win a general election. The present Government above all ought to repay their debt of gratitude.
I have seen some of the war graves in France, where there are rows upon rows of white crosses. Anyone who doubts the need to repay our debt of gratitude ought to see those white crosses. The Government should meet the Royal British Legion to discuss how the problems can be resolved--whether through a Ministry or an ombudsman. By discussing a problem, one can often get shot of it.problem.
Sir Jim Spicer : The hon. Gentleman does himself and his party no great service coming here two and a half hours after the debate started and intervening without having heard earlier contributions. So far, speeches made from both sides of the House have been reasoned and responsible, and designed to bring about some solution that will meet every case. As an ex- service man, I take grave exception to the hon. Gentleman claiming that we do nothing for our ex-service men. That is the biggest load of nonsense that I have heard in the House in a long time.
Mr. Redmond : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's contribution. I listened intently to his speech. The Chair would vouch that I was present to hear the hon. Gentleman's contribution. I was making the point that the negative thinking of hon. Members seated behind the hon. Gentleman leads me to doubt the Government's sincerity in wanting to repay their debt of gratitude to people who served this country.
There are many reasons that the Government should discuss with the Royal British Legion ways of helping people who served this country. In another place, there is a painting of the battle of Waterloo and another of Trafalgar. The pain and suffering that they depict are typical of the pain and suffering that follows war after war after war.
We shall never get shot of wars, so there will always be a need to help people who participate in them. People do not fight in wars because they hate Germany. Who are our enemies ? In the two great wars, Germany was our enemy and America was our ally--but America was our enemy in the war of independence.
An uncle of mine was taken prisoner during the second world war and suffered stomach problems as a result of his poor diet. Nevertheless, he was proud to have taken part in the defence of the realm. Ex-service men who suffered atrocities in Japanese captivity are seeking compensation
Column 1087from the Japanese Government. However that may be done, a Department of the sort proposed could assist those former soldiers to pursue their claim.
The rundown in the armed services has already been mentioned. There is a desperate need to help people who looked forward to a lifetime in the services but who are no longer required. The country owes those people a debt of gratitude, but we have been trying to avoid it. We owe it to them to set up a dialogue with the Royal British Legion to resolve the problem.
Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester) : It is with some sadness that I follow the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond). His speech struck a negative note which disgusted me, and which contrasted sharply with the other speeches that we have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on his remarks, read the report of the earlier speeches and decide whether what he said was justified.
I now strike a slightly lighter note myself, and suggest that the positive nature of the speeches that we have heard so far may reflect the debt owed by the House to the ex-service men who act as Doorkeepers and Deputies to the Serjeant-at-Arms ? It would be a brave Member of Parliament who said anything negative about ex-service men with them listening.
We all share another debt to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) for his thoughtful and sincere speech, and I pay tribute to the work of the Royal British Legion in my county. The county chairman, Mr. John Kimberley, has been a great help to me in sorting out my thinking on this important and difficult issue. I know that all the branches of the legion in my constituency--sadly, I am not an honorary member of any of them, but perhaps we can put that right--support the spirit of the motion.
In Worcester, we are acutely aware of the debt we owe to our ex-service men and women. This year saw the 200th anniversary of the Worcester Yeomanry and the 300th anniversary of the Worcestershire Regiment, both of which were celebrated in Worcester cathedral earlier in the year. No one who stood outside the Guildhall, as I did, and watched the march past of the veterans of the Worcester Regiment and its successors--formed by amalgamation--could have failed to be deeply moved by the pride and dignity that they showed. It inspired enormous emotion in us all.
I am too young to have served in conflict. Indeed, I have never served in any armed force, but I married into a service family and my mother was one of the ARP wardens who made such an important contribution during the second world war. My father--who would be 100 years old this month if he were alive--fought at Gallipoli with the Berkshire Yeomanry, in Palestine with the Imperial Camel Corps and then with the Worcester Yeomanry.
That fact alone has given me an acute recognition of the enormous debt we owe, not only to the victims of the second world war but to those of the first. I am particularly impressed by the strength of the constituency lobbying that I received on the issue, and the excellent way in which the Royal British Legion and similar organisations campaign for their members.
The motion refers to
Column 1088"the care, welfare and interests of ex- service people". Contrary to the impression that the hon. Member for Don Valley seems to have, hon. Members on both sides of the House believe in that. However, it also mentions the
"pressing need for a sub-Department of Ex-Service Affairs". While we may be unanimous on the first part of the motion, the second has proved slightly more controversial.
The hon. Member for Thurrock seemed to be moving away from that demand to a rather more modest request for a designated Minister, which is not in the motion. I must say that--for the reasons given by many of my hon. Friends-- that concept commends itself to me more than the more ambitious one on the Order Paper. We need to ask a number of questions about the need for a sub- Department.
First--I warn the hon. Member for Don Valley that this is a rhetorical question--do ex-service men and women form a special category because of what they have done and experienced ? The hon. Member for Thurrock spoke of the debt that the nation owes to people who have risked all, or been prepared to risk all, in conflicts in all parts of the globe--in two world wars, in regional conflicts from Suez to the Falklands, from Korea to the Gulf and, of course, in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. We must never allow our country to forget that.
We are not just talking about a generation that has passed away as time takes its toll ; we are talking a group of brave men and women whose numbers, in a dangerous and tragic world, will increase continually for the foreseeable future. As the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) pointed out, they may be few but they will always be with us.
Here is a difficult question : do those people constitute a unique group ? I think they are. The scale of what many were prepared to do--lay down their lives for our freedom--is uniquely great. But how much separates ex- service people from the devotion, dedication and risk associated with many other members of society--policemen and women, prison officers, firemen, ambulance drivers and paramedics and even members of the Merchant Navy, whose officers and ratings have served our country so bravely in war and peace ? The hon. Member for Thurrock reminded us of that last category.
Ultimately, I do think that ex-service men and women demand our special support and concern, because of the special risk that they have, as it were, strapped to their shoulders. But does that merit a sub-Department ?
Service life has its special characteristics, which many hon. Members have said. Its continuity and inwardness may ill-prepare service people for the outside world ; decision-making and initiative can sometimes be frustrated ; there is always a superior on whom to rely in the well-ordered service structures, which does not apply to the world that the rest of us are forced to inhabit ; the exercise of authority is always unquestioned, which is pretty rare in the rest of society, and certainly in the House of Commons.
All that means that people leaving service life need special help to adapt to civvy street--but does it require a special Department ? Is it not the job of a responsible employer, which I think the Ministry of Defence is, to deal with the problems before those people leave ?
We must not forget that today's volunteers know the risk that they are taking when they sign up, and--at least when not on active service--enjoy a reasonably comfortable life. Today, they leave the services well
Column 1089trained in skills that are often readily transferable to the private sector as a result of courses that they pursue during their careers with the Army, the Navy or the Royal Air Force. That does not suggest a need for a special Department.
Do ex-service people have special needs after they have left the services, meaning that they form a special category for which a sub-Department is necessary ? An issue very much in my mind at present is mobility for disabled ex-service men. Let us look at public transport.
Recently, one of my constituents was frustrated in his effort to reach Normandy for the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of D-day because his motorised tricycle could not be accommodated on a British Rail train. I was extremely sorry about that. My constituent was offered help with the journey by, among others, Mr. Richard Branson ; but, sadly, he had already cancelled his hotel bookings.
That man's problem, however, was not actually an ex-service problem. British Rail has worked hard on disability issues--I believe that it is the best in Europe in terms of access for disabled people. He was a victim of a problem that could have befallen any of my constituents lucky enough to have access to one of these marvellous new machines.
We should consider the question of cash compensation for disability. The British Legion and service men bring me examples of problems with disability living allowance and other benefits, but they mirror the problems of other constituents who do not have the strength of an excellent organisation such as the Legion behind them. The same is true generally in relation to benefits.
The Legion does a wonderful job in representing the interests of its members--as, in my constituency, does the Worcester citizens advice bureau, Age Concern, the disability information service, DIAL and the Worcester welfare rights centre for those who were not necessarily service men. If service personnel need more advice before discharge, that is the job of the MOD as a responsible employer, not a sub-Department after they have left the service.
I was interested to hear what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) said about the War Pensions Agency. It is clear that it has won the confidence of its clients.
I fully support the view that pensions should be generous. Lobbying by the Legion is the best guarantee of that, and not necessarily the creation of a sub-Department. The War Pensions Agency is doing a first-rate job, but I wonder whether its title is not a slight misnomer. Having read the document "How to Claim", which was produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport, I believe that in the agency we already have something pretty close to a sub-Department for ex-service affairs under the stewardship of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, Viscount Astor. I should like to discuss one aspect of ex-service pensions--the treatment of widows. Only last week, I received a representation in my constituency surgery from an ex-service man who married his wife after he had finished serving in the Army. I understand that, if he predeceases his wife, she will not receive any pension as a
Column 1090result of his Army service, yet the lateness of his marriage owed much to the fact that his service took him around the world and denied him the opportunity to marry sooner.
There is something to be said for reconsidering that aspect of pension provision in the armed services, to see whether it is possible to give some enhanced security to widows of ex-service men, even if they were not married to them during their period of service. I hope that the MOD will be able to tell the House that experience in this area matches best practice in the private sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) spoke about housing issues. It is true that ex-service men and women are thrown on to the housing market in mid-career, but the problems that that causes are the responsibility of the services before service personnel leave the service, and the Government have taken a number of important initiatives--the joint services housing advice office, the service home saving scheme, the discounted sale scheme for surplus married quarters and the nomination schemes for housing associations that are sold or leased surplus MOD property. The Legion says that many who have served need counselling after the inevitably horrifying experiences that they can, even now, have serving in our armed services. Again, that is the responsibility of the services as a responsible employer, and not of a new Department for ex-service affairs.
I think hon. Members agree that ex-service men and women have special status. Does that demand structural change in Government ? I conclude that, on balance, it probably does not. The Legion, which was founded three years after the first world war, exists precisely to further the interests of ex- service men and women and it is doing a splendid job. The case studies that I have been provided with by the Legion to justify the creation of a sub- Department have probably, if anything, proved rather the opposite--that, because of the excellence of the Legion's work, the need for a sub- Department does not exist.
I am instinctively more sympathetic to voluntary rather than state action. It is more flexible and more responsive. The moral pressure that the Legion can bring to bear on Members of Parliament and Departments is rather greater than the statutory pressure that a sub-Department would be able to bring to bear.
Apart from the Legion, other sources of help exist for ex-service men. We have had heard about the service benevolent funds, the regimental associations and the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Family Association. Taken together, that is a powerful network of assistance for ex-service men and women, the activities of which we all welcome.
The Government have done a great deal more than perhaps the hon. Member for Don Valley suggested. The War Pensions Agency is a powerful force for good for ex-service men and women. It has reviewed the guidance on the priority that should be given in the health service to all pensioners. It provides resettlement packages for those who are invalided out of the services, and for those who retire early there is the tri-service resettlement organisation. One very powerful sub-Department of ex-service affairs already exists--this House. No hon. Member will not give the highest possible priority in his or her constituency work to the needs of constituents from the services. We are a powerful force for ex-service men and women.