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Column 1091Finally, there is the question of what such a sub-Department would do. It would provide co-ordination at the centre, but, as a number of hon. Members have said, all the assistance that is delivered to ex-service men would still be delivered through a plethora of agencies and 17 Government Departments, just as at present. All that a sub- Department would do is add an extra tier of bureaucracy for ex-service people and their organisations to deal with. It would create a real danger of buck-passing. Sixteen of the 17 Departments that do not have the sub- Department will breathe a big sigh of relief and will do less than they presently do for ex-service men and women.
All the flak for alleged Government failures would not be directed at individual Ministers, but at the sub-Department. Other Ministers who are currently subject to all the marvellous pressure from Members of Parliament, the Royal British Legion and elsewhere, would get off scot- free. Given the strength of the lobby for ex-service men and women, having ex-service issues spread around is a good thing, and delivers the best outcome for ex-service men and women.
I advised on Government relations before coming to the House. I always prefer to deal with an issue that involves more than one Department. That often enhances the chances of success. Governments are not monoliths, but diverse structures. If one gets a no from one Department which is the only one responsible for an issue, that is the end of the matter, because there is nowhere else to go. But if other Departments are involved, getting a no is not the end of the matter. I worry that creating a sub-Department could, on ex-service issues, turn the Government into a monolith and make it more difficult to win issues on behalf of ex-service men and women. Having said all that, the question remains, what should be done ? I would not die in a ditch fighting the idea of a sub-Department if that was what ex-service organisations really want ; we have to listen to that. However, I believe that such a move could be counter-productive. Perhaps there is another solution that goes some way towards meeting the concerns and that would not have the adverse consequences of a fully blown sub-Department. The hon. Member for Thurrock made the rather more modest suggestion of a designated Minister with prime responsibility for ex-service issues. We are already pretty near that position, because direct responsibility is held de facto by only two Ministers : my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, from whom I always receive excellent replies on ex-service issues, and my noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security. I find the service from them excellent.
Perhaps one of them could have prime responsibility for ex-service issues, and the role of dealing specifically with ex-service organisations and their concerns. I do not mean a more general, broad-brush postbox for anyone who had a concern, but a means by which organisations such as the Royal British Legion and SSAFA could say to that person, "This is the problem ; can you sort it in the machine ?" Perhaps we could think about that.
The veterans deserve a special status in our society. That is best guaranteed still by ensuring that they get the best advice and assistance when they leave the service, and by ensuring that the benefits and health care on which they depend are delivered efficiently and fairly to the whole of society. The Government's reforms are achieving that.
Column 1092Ex-service men and women tend to be prudent people, but they often have relatively low savings. My constituency is full of such people and such households. Their prudence often cuts them off from benefits and they feel aggrieved as a result. Helping those people, from whatever walk of life they come, will bring real benefits to them. In the meantime, I welcome our commitment to protect pensions from the impact of VAT on fuel, our success in improving the health service, and the developing pragmatic policies on improving mobility and access for the disabled. All that will bring real benefits to ex-service men, without the need for a sub-Department.
There is one thing that we can and should do for our ex-service men and women. We must ensure that we do all we can to maintain Remembrance day and the dignity that goes with it. We must remind our young people that Remembrance day and the needs and problems of ex-service men and women are not just about a bitter trench war which began 80 years ago or about a war against totalitarianism and organised racism which ended 50 years ago, but about all the brave men and women in the British armed forces who have given their lives in more recent wars around the world, always in defence of this country, its interests and values, and who continue to risk their lives in that same cause even as we debate the motion today. 12.39 pm
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) : The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who is temporarily out of the Chamber, introduced his topic in a refreshing way. The manner in which he has championed his cause has been well-regarded on both sides of the House. Indeed, many people will look to him to champion other causes because of the way in which he has handled this one.
The hon. Gentleman treated us to wonderful Churchillian tones, which are still ringing in my ears. It was a refreshing contrast to the many pacifists and former and current members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament who share the Labour Benches with him. I hope that I am right in saying that he has never been a member of such an organisation, and therefore is not open to the charge of hypocrisy for having championed this cause. I pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff)--come Remembrance Day, I hope that Labour Members will wear a red poppy and not some trivial white emblem in their lapels.
Ex-service men are special because what of they have sacrificed, or have been prepared to sacrifice, for their country. By "ex-service men", I mean both ex-service men and ex-service women. I and, I suspect, many of them would not want me to make a concession to political correctness in adding "women" to "service men" whenever I mention them.
The Royal British Legion does an enormous amount of work for the welfare of service men, and every hon. Member will have people in their constituencies who put in hour after hour looking after their welfare. A little thing we could all do, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) said earlier when I waved my SSAFA card, is to have a credit card that gives a bob or two to such a cause whenever we buy our champagne in Threshers, or whatever. That would go a long way towards helping an important cause.
Column 1093I have a simple point. Is the motion a good idea that risks becoming bad government ? I fear that it is. Many good ideas are floating around ; there are many good and worthy causes, but the challenge in this House is to ensure that they are translated into good law and good administration. My fear about the creation of a sub-Department in one Department or another is that that risks converting a very good cause into poor administration--indeed, as my hon. Friend for Worcester said, into inferior administration. It is our responsibility in this House and this debate to ensure that that does not happen.
The hon. Member for Thurrock said that ex-service men today are not just the veterans of, largely and increasingly, the second world war, but comprise a number of much younger people who have served a few years in the services and, because of their preference to change career, or because of "Options for Change", are now, even at the age of 30 or 35, in need of a good deal of help. The hon. Gentleman implicitly said that even the younger people should have some sort of special help. The problem with the younger ones in particular is that they are as much a part of a social security, national health service or housing problem as any other citizen, be he or she a former policeman, a former nurse or whatever.
The problem with the hon. Gentleman's suggestion is that, in reality, he is saying that, in our administration of the concerns of ex-service men, we should divert all their applications for help through a specific sub- Department just because they are former members of the services. Former policemen would not have a similar sub-Department ; they would have to look to all the various Departments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North said, it is an important role of individual Members of Parliament to refer the cases of their ex-service constituents to the Department that they know has responsibility for those concerns.
What would we actually get if a sub-Department were set up--be it in the Department of Social Security or the Ministry of
Defence--specifically for ex-service men ? We would end up complicating the manner in which the help they desperately need is delivered. As my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester said, we would add a layer of bureaucracy which would work to the detriment of what they want to see.
We have heard quite a lot of jargon this morning. We heard that we want someone to "expedite" matters, we want something to be the "focal point", and we want "one-stop shops". That is all very well but we want action, not jargon. My fear is that, if we create a diversionary loop through a new sub -Department for all the concerns of those individuals, we will hinder the machinery of government in helping them, rather than assist it.
What we would do is make the Minister with special responsibility a glorified post box. If individuals or, indeed, Members of Parliament write directly to the Minister, a few days would be added before the letter pleading for some assistance for a constituent ends up on the desk of the Minister responsible. It would be at least two, three, or four days, or perhaps a week, before the letter went from the Minister with special responsibility to the Department of Social Security, a sub-Department of the Department of Social Security, or a special part of the Ministry of Defence.
Column 1094That would not help the individual we are trying to help. We would create a glorified postman in ministerial guise. He would simply process letters from individuals or Members of Parliament to the Department. He would be a postman who had not a red van but simply a red box. I cannot see how that would help.
I urge the hon. Member for Thurrock, who has been an appealing champion of an important cause in which I think all Tory Members share, to reconsider whether the cause that he is championing will translate into better government if his proposal is put into play. I do not think it will. We do not want any symbolism ; we want good government for the interests of all ex-service men, of whom we have many examples in our constituencies.
One point on which I agree with the hon. Gentleman is that of the casting of medals for national service. Fortunately, we live in a time of peace, by and large. We have just celebrated 50 years of the beginning of peace. There are people with pride who have put in a lot of time and their careers, to put themselves at risk, to guarantee that peace. Often, they are as important as those who put their lives at risk in combat.
As for the wearing of medals, which are able to be worn through the generations, it is important that we recognise those who have kept the peace as much as those who have fought in war.
Mr. Mackinlay : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his gracious comments. In a sense, he attributes too much power and influence to me. The important fact is that more than 200 hon. Members support the motion that there should be an ex-service affairs Ministry, including those who have served in the armed forces and, indeed, seen conflict. That is a powerful argument which the hon. Gentleman and I need to be mindful of when considering the issue. The fact that others of different generations are pressing for a sub-Department is persuasive.
Mr. Duncan : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he says. The point is that, when an early-day motion is put before hon. Members which supports such a worthy cause as those who work for the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association, and those who benefit from their work, it would appear churlish not to sign it. When it comes to discussing the specifics, we are duty bound to stop and think, and work out whether the hon. Gentleman's proposal will make the serving of their interests by Government better or worse. I fear that it would not be better. As I have said today, the hon. Gentleman has been a worthy champion. I believe that everyone on the Conservative Benches would congratulate him. He has raised the profile of the issue. He has done it in such a cheerful and Churchillian way that perhaps he would consider coming across to this side of the House in a manner which would serve to improve our street cred. I hope that, in the ministerial answer, the points that I have raised will be taken up.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : I wish to take a few moments in this debate on a subject of interest and importance. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) referred to a medal for national service men. I have some vested interest in that, having been a national service man. If such a medal were introduced, I would be one of those in the House who would be eligible to receive it. The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) referred to the attendants and badge messengers in the House. I have slightly more reason to be aware of their presence in the House than others perhaps have. When I did my national service, some of them were sergeants in the Royal Marines. They were not quite so polite at times on the parade ground as they are when I now pass through the Lobby and come into the Chamber. They are courteous and make this place work in the successful way that it does. Certainly, at that time they were doing their job and I was doing my job. I did two years of service in the Royal Marines.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton asked why we should move along the lines suggested in the motion. It is not simply because my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) has moved the motion. It is not because 200 Conservative and Opposition Members of Parliament have supported the early-day motion that has been on the Order Paper throughout this Session. Nor is it because I believe that it is the right thing to do. The reason why I support the motion today is that it is overwhelmingly the view of those people who gave valued service during the war and fought for the type of society in which we live and to defeat fascism so that we could have a free Europe in which we could express our views, even at times when we strongly differ in our views, that we should set up a sub-Department of ex- service affairs.
Earlier this month I attended some of the D-day commemorations, as I am sure that many other hon. Members did. I went to a service at Blackburn cathedral. I am a member of the Royal Naval Association in Burnley because there is no Royal Marine Association. The people in the East Lancashire Royal Marine Association managed to persuade me to join that association while I was at that service. The people taking part with great pride in the commemoration, marching with their banners and bands, were clearly of the view that we needed a Minister such as my hon. Friend's motion calls for and the type of structure referred to in the motion. I believe that if that is what they believe, there must be a case for such a sub-Department. On that basis, I strongly support the motion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock made some important points. I want to touch quickly on one or two of them. He referred to the nuclear test veterans and the Japanese ex-prisoners of war. In my constituency, I have an active Far East Prisoners of War Association which represents those people who were prisoners of war of the Japanese during the second world war. Those men and their families have suffered for so many years as a result of the way in which they were treated. They certainly believe that we need to have the type of Minister and sub-Department that we are discussing.
Column 1096I would especially like to add one point to those made in my hon. Friend's opening speech. Many of us remember that, in the early weeks of the present Prime Minister's term of office, some of the first questions that he answered in 1990 were on the two issues of the creation of a Minister and a Department for ex-service men's affairs. He certainly gave hope to many people that action would be taken. People are still trying to prove conclusively whether the suffering of nuclear test veterans can be attributed to the tests. The benefit of the doubt should be given to the people who took part in those tests.
The compensation for prisoners of war agreed between the two Governments in the 1950s is derisory and something needs to be done about it. Obviously, I do not view this debate as one in which one would put those arguments in great detail. I mention them only because it clearly illustrates the need for a Minister to deal with those problems and ensure that speedy conclusions are reached, so that people receive the justice and respect that they deserve before it is too late.
We must remember that, year by year, the veterans die, as I know all too well because one of my uncles, who lived in Burnley and who served all through the war in the Royal Navy, died on Friday last week and was paid great respect by the Royal Naval Association at his funeral on Wednesday. The people concerned are getting older and it is important to reach a speedy decision to ensure that they receive the justice to which they feel- -and we all should feel--they are entitled for what they gave for this country during the second world war.
In an intervention during my hon. Friend's opening speech, I referred to one part of the letter that I received from the Royal British Legion in Burnley. A point was clearly put in its letter, which said :
"we lag behind the rest of our wartime allies"--
In brackets after that sentence, it said, "and enemies". It is significant that so many war veterans feel that, having fought for peace, for the type of world and the democracy that we have today, they have not received the same respect and treatment as some of the people who fought with the axis powers in that war. If they feel that, it is a tragedy and we should try to remedy the situation. Mr. Schofield, the chairman of the Burnley branch, went on to say :
"as the D-day commemoration happenings proved, we are first rate at pageantry. Let us be in the forefront for welfare."
That sums up the views of ex-service men throughout the country. They believe that it is time that we had a Minister to ensure that they get everyone to which they are entitled. That does not mean that I am criticising the War Pensions Agency, as I am not : I accept that it does much work. Also, obviously, the Royal British Legion and the regimental ex- service associations do tremendous work for their members.
Nevertheless, there is a gap--and we have the opportunity to ensure that that gap is filled. Hon. Members have referred to the 17 Departments involved in different aspects of ex-service men's affairs. Let us have one Minister who has the power to ensure that, whatever Department he is dealing with, he is given priority and that matters are dealt with urgently.
I give the Minister one suggestion. We all know that a Government reshuffle is likely some time this month. Let him draw the attention of the Prime Minister to one ministerial post which is used for various functions from time to time--that of the Chancellor of the Duchy of
Column 1097Lancaster. It is a Cabinet post which has been used at times by the chairman of the Conservative party and by others. When the reshuffle takes place, that office--which exercises certain powers and responsibilities in the Duchy of Lancaster, although not enough to warrant a full-time position in the Cabinet--should deal with ex-service personnel matters.
If the Government took that bold step, ex-service men would start to believe that they will get the justice to which they are entitled and be treated in this country with the same respect and be held in the same pride as they command from other nations. That is what hon. Members should call for.
I agree with many of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock and others, and I would not wish to prolong the debate, except to say that this is a valid motion. The Government must accept that 1994 is the time to put matters right before it is too late. 1 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) : The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) made a number of good points, not least in drawing our attention to the fact that the work of representing our ex-service men and women is already being done in a commendable way by organisations such as the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Associations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has already said, however, it is the Royal British Legion that believes that something more should be done, and we should consider its argument weightily and with respect. The starting point of the debate must surely be one of consensus, because everyone has congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on his good fortune in the ballot and on his initiative in choosing this subject for debate. He has also been congratulated on the way on which he has consistently argued the case for ex-service personnel. By doing so, he has joined those on both sides of the House who, over the years, have drawn attention to the special needs of our service personnel.
One thinks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) who is, I believe, a consultant to the Royal British Legion, the hon. Member for Shipley (Sir M. Fox) and others, who have, over years, consistently championed the cause of our ex-service men in a non-partisan manner.
Mr. Alfred Morris : The hon. Member for Shipley (Sir M. Fox) and I are joint honorary parliamentary advisers to the Royal British Legion. I should like to make one other point briefly. There has been talk of our just having celebrated almost 50 years of peace, but the service community does not regard what happened this year as a celebration ; it was seeking a dignified commemoration of the 50th anniversary of D-day.
Mr. Anderson : I believe it is fair to say that that is what it got, eventually. I hope that all hon. Members will recognise, however, that those concerns represented an unhappy chapter in the arrangements. May I say in a non-partisan way that the
misunderstandings, which were not fomented for partisan reasons, arose because of the
Column 1098understandable sensitivities of ex-service men about their own dead and fallen comrades. They believed that there was nothing to celebrate, but a great deal to commemorate.
The problems associated with the D-day arrangements illustrate that that sad saga and the misunderstandings might have been averted if there had been a Minister with specific responsibilities for ex-service men. If we had a Minister who could keep in regular touch with the Royal British Legion and organisations such as the Normandy Veterans, misjudgments such as those that appear to have been made at an early stage in the arrangements for commemorating the D-day landings would be less likely to occur.
We should remember that when men went over the top in the first world war and when our people fought together during the D-day landings, they did not ask each other on which side of the political divide they fell. We should respond in exactly the same spirit when we consider the way in which the House should deal with the affairs of ex-service men.
Sadly, relatively few hon. Members today have direct knowledge of service life. No one under the age of 55 will have done national service, and relatively few hon. Members have served in our regular forces. There is therefore an increasing gulf between those who have experienced service life and Members of Parliament
Mr. Duncan : Although those of us who are young may not have direct experience of service life, some of us come from service families. So the non-partisan understanding which the hon. Gentleman wants in the House can come down through the generations.
The motion has broad support. It constitutes an important recognition of the debt we owe to our service people. All those who have spoken have favoured more dialogue but expressed caution about how we should respond to that call administratively. We all clearly recognise that this is a timely debate in view of the commemoration of both the Italian and Normandy landings.
May I recall a personal experience ? I worked on a farm near Caen for some time. During a fete held by several local villages, there was a procession to the local cemetery. As the only British person in the area, I was honoured to join local veterans in the procession. As a young man of about 19 looking at the British graves, I was struck by the large number of those who had fallen on the Normandy beaches who had been my age.
We are aware of the campaign that has been mounted so sensitively by the Royal British Legion and have much sympathy with the broad thrust of the argument. We recognise, as does the legion, that the issues involved cover several Ministries. As several hon. Members have said, that is part of the complexity of responding to the demand. Everyone recognises the real need for better co-ordination to deal with the many areas of interest to ex- service personnel. I have mentioned the misunderstanding over the commemoration of the Normandy landings. Given the Government's response to the health problems of those who served in the Gulf, I wonder whether that could have been dealt with more sensitively had a Minister been
Column 1099specifically responsible for the matter. Contrast their treatment with the treatment of veterans in the United States with what is deemed to be "Gulf war syndrome".
One hon. Member asked how housing problems of ex-service men differ from those of the general population of the same generation. The Ministry of Defence is currently carrying out an exercise relating to its estate and the housing in its control. The needs of ex-service men must be taken fully into account in that exercise. I accept that that is already being done to an extent. It is important that people already in the services make their contribution. But this issue is different.
The formation of life in the services differs greatly from that of civilians who may be looking for housing. There is a need, therefore, to feed in to the consideration of how that new housing trust should be organised--in terms of its priorities and ground rules--the concerns of ex- service men. That is where a Minister with specific responsibility for ex- service men could make an input.
There is a need for better co-ordination, particularly at a time when the services are being decreased in size. There are worries about the complexity of the benefits system. The decision to restrict, without adequate consultation, the compensation available for noise-induced deafness resulting from service in the forces is but one recent example of how a Minister with special responsibility might have averted the problems that have arisen.
It has been well recognised by all who have spoken today that there are difficulties in creating either a separate Department of State or a large bureaucracy in one of the existing Departments, because of the overlapping responsibilities. But the need to improve co-ordination must be taken seriously.
We are considering setting up a specific unit in the Ministry of Defence under a Minister whose departmental responsibilities will include looking after issues relevant to ex-service personnel. Such a ministerial appointment would give status and a new authority to those matters. The war pensions directorate established under the Department of Social Security will give a more focused and efficient service to service personnel. We shall monitor developments and listen carefully to the debate.
The point of consensus is that our priority must, at all times, be to provide the best service for those who have served this country at home and overseas. We must now consider how best to achieve that goal administratively, with full recognition of our debt and in full consultation with those who represent the interests of ex-service personnel, particularly the Royal British Legion.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), both on his good fortune in winning the ballot for the debate and on the stimulating and sympathetic way in which he marshalled his arguments in support of the motion. I thought that the House enjoyed his good-humoured and histrionic touches, which set a pleasant and constructive tone that lasted for almost all the debate. I also congratulate him on the timing of the debate, which takes place when the deeply moving scenes of the D-day commemoration events are still fresh in our memory. Those events, particularly the stirring parade of British veterans on the beach of Arromanches, where the
Column 1100salute was taken by Her Majesty the Queen, reminded us, graphically and emotionally, of the tremendous debt that we owe to our former service personnel.
It is appropriate for me, on behalf of the Government, to quietly put on record the profound sense of gratitude and appreciation that the House, Government and country feel towards those who served their Queen and country in the armed forces. Their contributions to the security of the United Kingdom are well recognised in the pages of history, but our recognition must also take tangible and living forms in the day-to-day life of the present. An important part of that recognition is to know that our former service men and women must be properly, fairly and decently treated by the nation. That principle has been the common thread throughout the debate running between both sides of the House.
I sympathise with the spirit of what the hon. Member for Thurrock said, but there are small differences of emphasis and approach on the practical arrangements through which we should uphold that principle. I shall remind the House of the practical arrangements already in place for looking after our former service men and women, particularly in pensions, health and housing. After describing those arrangements, I will then try to answer the principal points raised in the debate, and then turn to the central question whether we need a sub-Department of State for this purpose.
In general, we attach great importance to the principle that former service personnel should integrate fully with the civilian population ; equally we acknowledge that they have a unique place in our society, and special needs. The substantial administrative arrangements that the Government already have in place to meet those special needs show that we take the welfare of the veteran community very seriously. I was pleased that gracious compliments were paid by hon. Members on both sides of the House to the work of the War Pensions Agency. It came into existence only in April this year, but it was just the latest step in a process of establishing an organisation specially dedicated to the delivery of pensions and welfare services to war-disabled pensioners, war widows, their dependants and carers. The organisation has moved from being a directorate within the Benefits Agency, through the interim step of the war pensions unit, to the successful attainment of executive agency status in the Department of Social Security. The tributes paid to it by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks), based on his experience of working with the agency, and by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), served to show how well regarded and successful the agency has been in carrying out its duties.
I thought, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) had a point when he said that, as the agency is working so well, it is already fairly close to being a sub-Department for service men's affairs. There is some truth in that. The changes that we have implemented in recent years have helped to bring much greater efficiency in administration and improvement in the standard of services that we provide. The attainment of agency status is a beginning, not an end. The agency is committed to a programme of continual improvement in every aspect of its work. Already, claims are being handled much faster, there is a more personal approach and there are better communications--all of which help to meet war pensioners' expectations.
Mr. Alfred Morris : As the Minister has heard, I yield to no one in my admiration for the War Pensions Agency, from much experience of all its excellent work. What role could the agency as constituted have in dealing with the problems, for example, that arise from "Options for Change"--the employment problems, the training problems, and the housing problems of people who are leaving the services earlier than expected ? I think that the ethos in the agency is very important, but it would most certainly say that, as constituted, it could not deal with the whole range of problems now dealt with by so many other Departments.
Mr. Aitken : The right hon. Gentleman is seeking to make the speech that he did not make earlier in the debate. I shall come to the question of ministerial responsibility for some of those other areas shortly.
I am glad that we can all pay tribute to the War Pensions Agency--and it is not an empty tribute, either. A recent customer perception survey showed that the agency has an 85 per cent. satisfaction rating among pensioners and other applicants. I come now to the point about ministerial responsibility. My noble Friend Lord Astor, the DSS Minister with special responsibility for war pension matters, regularly meets and consults the central advisory committee on war pensions and takes a keen interest in the agency. He also meets representatives of local war pensions committees and other former service men's organisations. Lord Astor liaises closely on these matters with my noble Friend Lord Cranborne, Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who has a number of responsibilities : medals, resettlement, and armed forces' pensions. He is also the point of contact for former service men's groups, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and queries about people's periods of service. From that list hon. Members can see that these two Ministers act as points of contact for a wide range of matters. The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe thought that he had delivered a knock -out blow when he complained that no one was doing a good job in bringing to wider attention the fact that special national health service priority could be given to war pensioners. It is certainly important that more general practitioners should know about existing priority arrangements.
On 16 May, my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health, Lady Cumberlege, announced that new health service guidelines were being issued that day, to reinforce an instruction issued in August 1992 on NHS treatment for those who have a pension or receive a gratuity for disablement caused by armed service. My noble Friend made it clear that the Government had written to trusts, hospitals and family health services authorities "to remind them they should give priority to war pensioners, both as in-patients and out-patients, for examination or treatment which relates to the conditions for which they receive a war pension." Again, somewhere in Government a Minister is fulfilling the role that at least one hon. Member complained was not being performed.
Mr. Alfred Morris : The Minister is reading from notes that were written for him before I made my speech. I did not claim to score any particular goal, but reported what had been said to me and to the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) by officers of the Royal British Legion
Column 1102the day before yesterday. They made it clear that many GPs and others in the medical profession seem not to know that guidance has been available for a long time. More people need to know about those arrangements.
Mr. Aitken : The right hon. Gentleman's thesis was that we need a new co-ordinating Minister to deliver the message to GPs, hospitals and patients that priority treatment is available. I was not quoting from notes written before the debate but from a Department of Health press release reporting that a Minister had already performed the task that the right hon. Gentleman complained had not been completed because there was no specially designated Minister. I was developing the thesis that many such tasks are already well covered by active Ministers in various Departments.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer)-- [Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."]--argued that it was necessary to strengthen the work done by Departments for ex-service men and co- ordination between Government Departments. I view that concept sympathetically and am willing to have further dialogue with my hon. Friend and with the Royal British Legion.
I am glad that my hon. Friend's speech acknowledged that there are problems for the Government in a special sub-Department, the creation of which could cut across existing lines of communication--including that between Members of Parliament and their constituents. I am sure that any requests from my hon. Friend for a meeting with Ministers would be welcomed and acted upon with the usual courtesy.
Mr. Mackinlay : I welcome the Minister's remarks, and I appreciate that other matters are not in his gift. Will he recommend to the Prime Minister that he finds time to meet representatives of the Royal British Legion and of other ex-service organisations, informally but soon, to discuss issues raised this morning ? A chat at 10 Downing street would be most welcome, appropriate and timely.
Mr. Aitken : I had better not assume for myself the role of my right hon. Friend's diary secretary, but I will certainly draw to his attention the remarks of the hon. Member for Thurrock and of the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe--who asked me to draw the substance of the whole debate to my right hon. Friend's attention, in his capacity as head of the Government and of the machinery of government. In some ways, this is a machinery of government issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Southport, who spoke with the authority of a former officer of the Gordon Highlanders, has had special dealings with the War Pensions Agency. I have already drawn attention to his tribute to that body. I am glad that he stressed the importance of the "How to Claim" booklet : we are working hard to ensure that the messages get across, and there has been a substantial jump in the number of claims being processed each year since the early 1990s as a result of more efficient work and better communication.
The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) announced what may have been an interesting new Liberal policy or just an interesting new Christchurch policy--I am not sure which. She suggested that there was a need to impose, by legislation, a statutory requirement on all local authorities in regard to war pensions disregard. That would cost money and have a budgetary impact. I was more worried, however, by another matter that was raised, amid
Column 1103some controversy, on a point of order : according to the hon. Lady, the result of an appeal won by a constituent of hers had been disregarded by an unspecified agency. At one point she seemed to be saying that it was a Minister or the Government.
I assure the hon. Lady that there is no question of Ministers or the Government unfairly intervening in, or overturning, the decisions of statutory tribunals. Her allegation was unwise, and I hope that on reflection she will feel able to withdraw it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) emphasised the importance of resettlement programmes, after-sales service and housing. We have a proud record in that regard. We have taken a number of initiatives to encourage home ownership in the services and help to meet the needs of those leaving them : they include a new services home saving scheme, the sale of surplus married quarters at a discount and the establishment of a joint services housing advisory office.
That office was set up in September 1992, in response to a recommendation from our housing task force, to provide advice on the increasingly complex range of housing options open to service personnel. Its role is to provide a focal point--a phrase that has cropped up a number of times in the debate --giving housing advice to all serving personnel and to ex-service personnel who are still in married quarters.
It receives over 100 inquiries each week, and provides a comprehensive range of advice and guidance on housing options, working closely with local authorities and housing associations. It offers help and advice on the availability of local authority housing, housing association opportunities nationwide, MOD nominations to housing associations, the sale of surplus married quarters on the discount scheme and many other matters.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove asked a specific question about the housing trust that we are setting up. I can tell him that it will provide more flexibility in offering surplus married quarters for rent to ex-service personnel. The Government are taking well co-ordinated and effective action in regard to health, housing and war pension to help our ex-service men.
The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) told us in moving terms about his friend Mr. Leslie Bell of Moneymore, a 98-year-old gallant ex- soldier who is today commemorating the battle of the Somme on the battlefield. I am happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion by sending that gallant old soldier the good wishes of the House. The hon. Gentleman was right to remind us of the suffering of those who have served in the armed forces in Northern Ireland in both the regular Army and the Ulster Defence Regiment ; I am glad that a voice from Northern Ireland was heard in that connection. Like many other speakers, the hon. Member for Londonderry, East mentioned the need for a one-stop shop--another of the buzz words and phrases that kept appearing, along with "expediter" and "focal point". I was glad that his comments were followed by the realistic scepticism of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald), who wondered whether such buzz words were likely to be any more effective than the existing machinery.
He emphasised--I was glad that someone did--how well the voluntary network of communication lines for ex-service men work, running through the regimental system, the British Legion, the Soldiers, Sailors and
Column 1104Airmen's Families Association and at least 150 other organisations. In an interesting intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West mentioned the mythical complainant, Mr. Joe Bloggs, who had a welfare problem and who scratched his head and asked, "Where should I go ? " The notion that Mr. Joe Bloggs should somehow go instantly to the Minister was flattering to Ministers, but my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North got it right when he emphasised that Members of Parliament are as good a focal point or expediter as anyone. Asking a Minister to replace or work alongside those good channels will weaken them.
The hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) sounded the only discordant note in the debate when he said that we do nothing for ex-service men and that we need a new Ministry--the biggest claim of the day--or an ombudsman.
Any partisan spirit was soon dispelled by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), who talked about nuclear test veterans. We have all been concerned about those veterans. It must be emphasised again, however, that the incidence of death from cancer among veterans has been lower than among the general public and no higher than among any matched controlled group. That is shown in a report of the National Radiological Protection Board, which was published last December and a copy of which is in the House Library. It concluded that participation in the nuclear test programme has had no effect on life expectancy or the risk of developing cancer or any other fatal disease.
Mr. Donald Anderson : A potentially similar case exists in relation to Gulf war veterans. It is said that the United States Administration have changed their mind as a result of new medical evidence. Has the Ministry of Defence received such medical evidence and, if so, is it appraising it to see whether the Government should change their response ?