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War Veterans

10.58 am

Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence on taking over responsibility for war veterans, and I am delighted that he is present. The creation of such a post was consistently blocked by the previous Government. In 1993, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), who was Prime Minister at the time, said, in answer to a written question, that its creation was unnecessary and would merely add another administrative tier. It has taken the election of a Labour Government to recognise the need to designate a specific Minister to deal with the issues and concerns of war veterans. I applaud that decision.

Many issues are of concern to war veterans, ranging from the recognition for service in the Suez canal zone to compensation for ex-prisoners of war in Japan. The Government have taken those issues seriously and they are taking action in relation to them. Today, I shall examine two other issues of particular importance to the welfare of war veterans: homelessness and medical treatment for ex-service men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Those issues are not the concern of only one Government Department. Therefore, given his new responsibilities, they would best be dealt with by the Minister.

Partly as a direct result of the rough sleepers units, we have seen a real drive under this Government to eliminate homelessness, with earmarked funding for people on the streets, co-ordination between Departments and a clear target to reduce the number of rough sleepers by two thirds by 2002. In the past, Governments reverted to short-term solutions rather than dealing with the long-term needs of the homeless, which put us in the position which we are in today. To tackle homelessness successfully, we must have a broader policy approach that includes provision for follow-up advice and support. The rough sleepers report from the social exclusion unit acknowledges that. It states:

Ex-service personnel, especially single men, are vulnerable to becoming homeless, accounting for at least a quarter of the total number of homeless people in Britain. According to recent research by Crisis, that figure could be as high as a third. Crisis also found that, once on the streets, ex-service men stay homeless for longer. More than half of all homeless ex-service men are homeless for more than 10 years. Ex-service men are more likely than other groups to become homeless for complex reasons: some entered the Army after being in care, while others know little adult life outside the forces. The nature of life in the forces may not prepare them for life outside. In some cases, ex-service personnel suffer psychological damage as a result of serving in the forces, which affects their personal lives and well-being and indirectly affects family relationships--an issue to which I shall return later in my speech.

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Another factor to emerge from the Crisis report is the pattern of homelessness among ex-service men that results from the difficulty of finding suitable accommodation on leaving the forces. More than 50 per cent. of homeless ex-service personnel initially moved into accommodation that they did not want and 60 per cent. stayed in their first accommodation for less than a year. Nearly 60 per cent. took five years to find a settled home, and nearly 40 per cent. had not had a home at all since leaving the forces.

Much work is currently being undertaken by the armed forces to resettle those leaving the services at risk of experiencing housing problems. Indeed, over the past two years, the situation has transformed dramatically. I congratulate the Minister and his colleagues at the Ministry of Defence on the progress that has been made. Four developments over the past five years are likely to have a positive impact on future homelessness: the reorganisation of resettlement services, including the establishment of the career transition partnership; the provision of improved employment and accommodation services; wider access to skills and qualifications that are recognised in civilian life; improved provision for medical discharge, especially access to full resettlement packages; and a smoother handover from military to civilian services, including housing and finance briefings, workshops, seminars, training and help with finding a job, which is now being routinely offered.

How can we build on that work? We must acknowledge that gaps in provision still remain and work to deal with them. For example, while resettlement support is provided for many, there is no such support for those who served for fewer than three years, unless they were medically discharged. Those people are especially vulnerable to becoming homeless. We must identify personnel who are at risk but have served fewer than three years--for example, those who have been administratively discharged but have recognisable problems--and begin to create a package of measures of support for that group. Resettlement services for those personnel might be delivered as a specialist project by ex-service welfare agencies in partnership with other voluntary sector agencies that have a track record in working with clients with similar difficulties.

I am aware that a working group of officials from the Ministry of Defence and the rough sleepers unit at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has been set up. A pilot project called the single persons accommodation centre for the ex-services--SPACES--has already been launched at Catterick garrison. It is run by the English Churches housing group and provides accommodation advice to service personnel who are about to be discharged from the armed forces. Has the Minister any plans to extend that model to other areas of the country?

Homeless and service charities will need to work closely with local authorities to meet the needs of ex-personnel who are already in civilian life. I welcome the proposal in the housing Green Paper to widen the definition of categories of people vulnerable to homelessness and applaud the Government's decision to add ex-service men to the priority need list so that

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they can be prioritised in local housing strategies. The measures introduced in the Homes Bill, which is being considered in the other place, will put an obligation on local authorities to implement strategies to deal with homelessness. That is a huge step forward. The emphasis on prevention as well as cure in that Bill is a step forward. Many ex-service men do not become homeless immediately on leaving the armed forces. The new emphasis should mean that local authorities would have correct support structures in place to address their problems before homelessness arises.

Although local authorities may prioritise vulnerable ex-service men in their housing strategies, defining vulnerability will be important. The housing Green Paper suggests that local authorities are to determine vulnerability on an individual basis. However, as many ex-service men spend years in accommodation before becoming homeless, housing departments would have to consider circumstances going back many years when reviewing an application under homelessness legislation. Length of time in the forces, for example, is not necessarily an indication of the degree of institutionalisation or housing need. We should also consider the needs of those who have served only a limited time but have nowhere to return to after discharge, because they were in care or have no family to return to, for example. People who have been discharged after court martial or time spent in military prison should also be considered carefully. Will the Minister tell us whether the definition of vulnerability could cover all ex-service personnel leaving the armed forces? Will any guidance to local authorities be laid before the House?

Many ex-service men who become homeless in London are not from London. Resources should be used to prevent that concentration of homelessness in the capital. Will the Minister tell us whether extra resources or attention could be given to local authorities that, on paper, have a small number of homeless people in their area, but have an Army base nearby, for example? There should be clarification, too, about which local authority is responsible for whom. For example, would it be the nearest authority to which the ex-service man was based, the authority he left when he joined the armed forces perhaps 10 or 20 years before, or the authority where his family was living?

I bring to the Minister's attention the valuable work undertaken by the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation, which has set up an ex-service resettlement project, partly funded by the rough sleepers unit, that specialises in assisting homeless ex-service men. The project addresses needs, secures accommodation and gives support in the vulnerable early stages of resettlement. Such knowledge and experience should not be overlooked when guidance is drawn up to include ex-service men in the priority need group and when local authorities develop their homeless strategies. Perhaps the project could act as an example of good practice for local authorities.

Two in five homeless ex-service personnel have alcohol problems, compared with one in four non-service homeless people. There is a clear need for outreach teams to work with ex-service men on the streets and in hostels to deal with alcohol dependency and to provide on-going support. Local authorities will

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have to work closely with homeless and ex-service charities to develop rehabilitation and resettlement programmes for those with substance abuse or mental health problems. The consultation and involvement of service charities such as the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress is vital, as they, rather than local authorities, are likely to be the first ports of call for many homeless ex-service men.

The rough sleepers unit recommended various initiatives to help homeless ex-service men. I am pleased that action has been taken on many of them, but continued monitoring and evaluation are essential to ensure that resources are properly targeted. I note with concern that the main subject of inquiry to the special helpline set up for ex-service personnel with health, housing and other needs has been lost war medals--although that is very valuable.

I welcome the Government's recognition that the problem of homeless ex-service men needs to be addressed and I support the many measures already taken. However, given the characteristics of homeless ex-service men, more resources must be directed towards ensuring that contact is maintained between the Ministry of Defence and ex-service men. The hurdles that they face in reintegrating into civilian life can emerge years after they have left the armed forces.

Perhaps we should rethink the current system and institute a new one that is more like the system available to children leaving care, whereby a caseworker is assigned to each individual. A point of contact could then be established with vulnerable ex-service men leaving the MOD and with their families.

I turn to the availability of treatment for ex-service men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. That was brought to my attention by the families of two of my constituents, both of whom wish to remain anonymous. Both constituents were having difficulty in obtaining funding for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Is it not a paradox that we recognise the role played and the work undertaken by the armed forces during conflicts through statements in the House, awarding service medals and erecting memorials, yet a large proportion of our homeless are from the armed forces, and ex-service men are being denied medical treatment for psychological damage caused while serving their country?

Ex-service men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder can commit suicide, slip into alcoholism or end up divorced or in prison. Some to whom I have talked believe that the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder in ex-service men has been exaggerated, but I disagree. My view seems to be backed by a paper published by the British Medical Journal in January 1999. The paper was based on the first 1,000 patients to attend the gulf veterans' medical assessment programme and reported that post-traumatic stress disorder was the most common psychiatric disorder found.

For years, post-traumatic stress disorder in ex-service men was hardly acknowledged and it has been taken seriously only during the past few years. Are we saying that those who served in the two great wars were immune to it? No. It was then termed shell shock, and sufferers who admitted to it were accused of cowardice and desertion and were in danger of execution. I am glad that we have at least moved on from that line of thought.

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Many cases of ex-service men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder still go unnoticed, perhaps because of the dismissive reaction of the general public, the perception that the ex-soldier is to blame or the masculine culture associated with the armed forces. For the ex-service man suffering from the disorder, the problem is serious and has been overlooked for too long. It can have a major impact on ex-soldiers, their families and society as a whole.

I illustrate the problems associated with the illness by drawing to hon. Members' attention some incidents clearly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder that have been covered in the press. The Evening Standard contained an article on 17 January about the tragic death of Colleen Chudley, who was knifed in the chest several times by her estranged partner, a Gulf war veteran, while her two young children were in the house.

The incident had all the signs of a person suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, evidence for which was contained in an interview that the veteran gave to his local paper approximately six months before the incident. He was quoted as saying:

The second case is more recent. Last month, an 80-year-old ex-Royal Artillery private who served during the second world war pleaded guilty to the charge of manslaughter on the ground of diminished responsibility. He was awoken by the sound of fireworks and had a flashback, thinking that he had returned to the battlefields of north Africa. When his 85-year-old neighbour appeared, he believed that the enemy was breaking in, so he stabbed her.

Those two tragic examples illustrate that post-traumatic stress disorder can ruin, and even end, a person's life, and we should do everything possible to stop such situations occurring again. Because those examples are extreme and involve the loss of life, they have caught the attention of the media. However, there are many other cases--involving domestic violence, family breakdown and crime--that can be attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder.

What help is available to ex-service men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder? The MOD has put in place measures aimed at preventing post-traumatic stress disorder, and treatment is available at the Duchess of Kent's hospital in Catterick. According to MOD figures, approximately 20 soldiers a year are discharged solely or mainly due to post-traumatic stress disorder. People may think that that is a small number and wonder what the fuss is about, but it is only the tip of the

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iceberg. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can occur days, weeks, months, or even years after the incident. They can occur on its anniversary, or on the anniversary of the end of the conflict in question.

As the second case to which I alluded shows, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can also be prompted by an event that triggers a flashback. Perhaps that is one reason why the issue has not been given the attention that it merits. As Martin Collins said in his article on post-traumatic stress disorder, published in The Guardian in 1992:

In any event, answers to my parliamentary questions have shown that, on leaving the armed forces, a soldier is regarded as a civilian. Any medical issue is therefore the responsibility not of the Ministry of Defence but of the national health service. Given the new role of my hon. Friend the Minister, I anticipate that he will be able to communicate with the Department of Health and other Departments when an issue of concern to war veterans is raised. I should be grateful if he clarified that point, and told us to which Department such questions and inquiries should be addressed.

As I have said, the majority of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder are dealt with after the soldier has been discharged. As the Minister will know, there are two main sources from which help can be sought: Combat Stress and the national health service. Such provision might appear adequate, but in practice it seems not to be working and I shall try to explain why. I should begin by putting on the record my full support and admiration for the work undertaken by Combat Stress, which provides a valuable service that has benefited many ex-service men. However, there are a number of ex-service men whose condition is so severe that Combat Stress is unable to provide the necessary treatment.

Combat Stress funds treatment through the War Pensions Agency. Such treatment is available for a maximum of six weeks a year only, which raises a further issue. In order to be treated by Combat Stress, ex-service men must be in receipt of a war pension, but evidence suggests that those in need of help, such as homeless ex-service men, do not receive one. In the first instance, they must therefore apply for a war pension, which can take months.

Another problem is that many patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder require specialist treatment, but Combat Stress does not have the required facilities. As a result, I understand that it is necessarily selective about the patients that it accepts. For example, it has a low-alcohol policy and, on occasions, it has had to ask patients to leave. Such practices are in place because treatment is provided in nursing homes that do not have facilities for disruptive patients, who would be better suited to hospital treatment.

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Based on the evidence and examples that I have mentioned, ex-service men who have become homeless, experienced family breakdown or been in prison have a common characteristic--an alcohol problem--which may divert attention from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Consequently, many of those ex-service men--the ones who people see sleeping rough or read about in newspapers--are unable to get treatment from Combat Stress. In a nutshell, ex-service men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who are disruptive or have an alcohol problem have no alternative to NHS treatment, which is where the problem lies.

Given the specialist facilities required to treat patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, the level of services available differs throughout the country. In fact, many hospitals do not have the specialist facilities required. In that case, NHS funding can be provided, so that the patient can be treated by an organisation that offers specialist treatment. That structure of access means that individual health authorities determine each application, which results in an inequality of access to post-traumatic stress disorder treatment. However, that was not the reply I was given by the Secretary of State for Health last November. When I asked about waiting times for ex-service men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he told me in a letter that the information was not held centrally. However, he stated that

When my office spoke to a representative from Planning and Healthcare Consultants, an organisation that offers specialist treatment for ex-service men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, it was informed that health authorities were refusing to fund applications for treatment. That impasse resulted in endless negotiations with the health authority in seeking funding, a problem that affected my two constituents. If a general practitioner states that specialist treatment is required, why would a health authority refuse to fund it? Is it the case that health authorities do not want to fund the treatment because of its cost? If so, it is unacceptable. The problem is not caused by general practitioners' lack of awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder; it is mainly due to health authorities' refusal to provide the necessary funding.

A possible solution to ensure that ex-service men have access to the necessary treatment would be to authorise a central body--perhaps the War Pensions Agency as it

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already allocates funding for treatment to Combat Stress--to access applications, monitor value for money, ensure a high standard of treatment and allocate funding to specialist treatment centres for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. That would ensure uniformity of access throughout the country and ensure that all ex-service men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder had access to treatment. I would be grateful if the Minister considered that suggestion.

The lack of statistics is a key problem when examining issues that are relevant to war veterans. Over the past few months, I have been trying to gain a picture of the profiles of ex-service personnel who become homeless and are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Not only are there few statistics to examine, but there does not appear to be a plan to collect figures in crucial areas such as ex-service personnel who commit criminal offences. Perhaps the Minister would examine the issue of statistics with his colleagues at the Home Office and the DETR. Collating statistics on what happens to ex-service men when they leave the armed forces could help to ensure that their needs are addressed more effectively.

Society has an obligation to recognise and care about the needs of those who have served in the armed forces. I am glad to say that the Government have acknowledged that through the Minister's recently added responsibilities. We pay for our armed forces to train and to serve their country. It is right that we should also ensure the welfare of all our war veterans. They may have left the armed forces, but their experiences will never leave them.

11.24 am

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of contributing to a debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess. It is nearly 25 years since we first encountered one another in the dark recesses of the London borough of Newham, and we may now be in the last few days of the present Parliament.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) on securing the debate and on her thoughtful and compassionate speech. She touched on the serious problem of post-traumatic stress disorder, which afflicts people who are paying the price of their past war service. I want to discuss what happens to those people and their dependants once they have retired. The Officers Pensions Society campaigns not only for the pensions of retired officers, but for those of their widows after they have passed away. For many years, the society has drawn attention to several anomalies that affect situations relating to such pensions. I shall refer to three of those anomalies.

My first example concerns post-retirement marriages, whereby service men marry after they have retired from the fighting arm in which they served. Widows of service men who retired before 1978, but who married them subsequently, receive no pension whatsoever. If their late husband retired after 1978, but they married him only after that retirement, they receive a service widows pension only for the years since 1978. The service man will be considered to have made the same contribution throughout the period of his service as that of a fellow service man who happened to be married during that time, yet, whereas the widow of the latter will get the benefit of a service pension, the widow of the former will not. That is unjust.

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The second concern raised by the society relates to service men who retired before 1973 and who were not given the option to buy in their earlier service for the half-rate widows pensions. That means that their eventual widows--widows who were married to their late husbands during the period of his service--get only the one-third rate. The widow of the man who retired in March 1973 is condemned to a third-rate widows pension for life, whereas the man who retired in April 1973 after making exactly the same contribution is given the option to buy in earlier service for the half rate for his wife for the time she outlives him.

Thirdly, there has recently been a surge of publicity relating to the very different pensions that service men receive on an arbitrary basis according to the situation that obtained on the date on which they retired. It seems monumentally unjust that service men should have such differential pension entitlements according to an arbitrary date. To give an example cited by the society, a major who retired in 1977 receives £4,269 per annum less than an exactly comparable major who retired two years earlier in 1975. In fact, he receives less than all those who retired right back to 1964.

When he sums up, I hope that the Minister will make every attempt to deal with my concerns and those of the hon. Member for Bolton, West, and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who is about to speak. I hope that the Minister will urge his Department, during the current consultation phase of the pension and compensation reviews, to look closely at the shortcomings in the armed forces pension scheme, which affect everyone who served on pensionable terms. The Minister will be aware of how vigorously in recent months the Officers Pensions Society and many of its members have pressed for the consideration of injustices in the present scheme. The injustices bear most heavily on the widows of our service men--widows who followed the flag and showed as much loyalty as their husbands but now find that the arbitrary date of their husband's retirement may have a permanent and perpetually damaging effect on their own subsequent pension.

The recommendations of the pension and compensation reviews go some way to ensuring that such anomalies do not occur in future, but that is of little comfort to those who are disadvantaged by the present scheme. Given the frequent declarations by Ministers that our service personnel are unique in their commitment to the nation, I urge the Minister to keep in mind that those who have served previously were unique in their era of service and should be looked after as well as those who are serving now and those who will do so in future.

I turn to the activities of some local authorities in relation to pensions for war veterans and war widows, and the for once beneficial work of the broadcast media--in particular, the BBC programme "Money Box." By chance, I heard that programme on Radio 4 on 7 April, when it reported that war pensioners in the Labour-controlled borough of Harrow were about to lose, on average, almost £1,700 a year each. That was owing to the fact that the council, which like the overwhelming majority of other councils in England and Wales takes no account of war pensions when working out entitlements to help with rent and council tax, was thinking of ceasing to disregard the two types

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of pensions that some of their residents received: the war widows pension and the war disablement pension. The grand total of 53 war widows and pensioners in the borough were affected.

The programme went into some detail on the matter and interviewed, as a typical example, a widow called Dorothy. She said that she felt angry because

At the time, Harrow council said that it had no choice. The deputy leader, Mr. Keith Toms, was interviewed on the programme. He had twice voted to cut the benefits paid to Dorothy and the other 52 war widows and war disabled pensioners. He said:

For many years, the Royal British Legion has campaigned for war disablement and war widows pensions to be disregarded because they should be seen not as state benefits but as compensation for the loss of amenity or the death of a husband in the service of our country. Under a previous Conservative Government in 1986, the Secretary of State for Social Services decided, wrongly in my view, to maintain local authorities' discretionary powers on whether to disregard war disablement and war widows pensions. Keith Toms, deputy leader of Harrow council, made a strange comment during the "Money Box" programme on 7 April:

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Finally, I turn to the distress that is being caused to war veterans by diving to wrecks, which hon. Members in my party, as well as Liberal Democrats and Labour Members, have highlighted in early-day motions throughout this Session. I applaud them for so doing. Friends of War Memorials has pointed out that, since August 1914, just under 300 shipwrecks have been designated as war graves. The Government have powers under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 to designate those wrecks as controlled sites or protected places, but they have not done so. Until the Government invest those wrecks with the necessary protection, which they could provide if they undertook the necessary paperwork, the wrecks will continue to be plundered for souvenirs, causing massive offence and distress to those who regard the wrecks as the graves of loved ones who never came back from fighting to preserve this country's freedom in the first and second world wars.

It seems strange that such an issue should have to be raised at all in such a debate, at the turn of the century. It only goes to show the monumental insensitivity of people who, while professing an interest in history, defile that history and distress veterans and survivors of terrible conflicts. Without those conflicts and sacrifices, we would not enjoy our freedoms today, and people who engage in such sports would not enjoy the leisure time in which to amuse themselves. They do so carelessly, rather than respecting the graves of those to whom we owe so much.

11.40 am

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I am pleased to take part in this timely debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) on securing it. During my time in Parliament, I have asked Tory and Labour Governments for an annual House of Commons debate on veterans' affairs. Both have denied it. I do not think that the matter should be left to Back Benchers. There should be an annual day's debate, along the lines of the annual debate on the Metropolitan police, which always falls in the late autumn. I hope that the Minister might take that on board and have a word with the people who work out the parliamentary timetable. It would be not only good politics, but right to have such a debate in Government time.

I am very proud of my associate membership of an ex-service organisation, and I am sure that you, Mr. Amess, are proud of yours. I am an associate member of the Grays, Thurrock branch of the Royal British Legion. Although the views that I utter this morning will be my own, I expect that they will find much support in that quarter and elsewhere.

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Walking in Gibraltar, I once saw painted on a wall:

Each Government can find things that they have remedied. The Minister will undoubtedly refer to some of the things that this Labour Government have achieved with some pride, and I associate myself with that pride. The person who will speak for the Conservative party will, no doubt, try to claim some credit for what Conservative Governments have done.

By and large, however, we have failed. We cannot be proud of that. It is a scandal that it has taken 80 years to designate a Minister as having special responsibility for veterans. I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West congratulate the Prime Minister on that, and I also congratulate him--I am very fond of him. However, he has something in common with his predecessor. Both said no to a veterans Minister. I am delighted that the Prime Minister has changed his mind. One lesson that I have learned in this place is that, if one keeps going, eventually one gets somewhere by attrition.

That is especially true when one knows that one is right, when that which is right is sensible, and when that which is sensible becomes inevitable. I have learned that, if one keeps ploughing away, eventually, there is change. I hope that the next Labour Government, elected in a few weeks' time, will be much more radical on a range of issues, and particularly in the area under discussion. The veterans Minister will need to be much more independent and self-standing. He should not be cluttered with other duties, as the present Minister is. His appointment is a major step forward, but we need to go much further.

I am not making a party point, but the Minister, like me, will take some delight in the fact that, under this Government, there has finally been a very generous ex gratia compensatory payment to people who were prisoners of the Japanese. That is a source of some pride for the Government. Previous Labour and Conservative Governments have considered it, but the present Government have done it, and I give them a bonus mark for that.

The Minister should revisit the reply that he gave to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) in an Adjournment debate about a month ago concerning compensation for people who were prisoners of the Germans in the second world war, but were not kept in accordance with the Geneva convention. I supported the hon. Gentleman in that debate and referred to my constituent, John Stevens. When his ship, HMS Gloucester, was sunk in the battle of Crete, he was one of the few survivors and was marched all the way through Europe. He languished as a prisoner of war in the IG Farben chemical factory, which was essentially a concentration camp close to the Auschwitz campus. He and many others who have written to me since the debate were not afforded their rights.

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When the Minister responded to that debate, he did not hold out much chance of a change of view on the matter, but said that he would reconsider it. I urge him really to scratch the surface, not merely to take the brief that he has received from people in the historical branch of the Ministry of Defence. Successive Ministers have done no more than agree with those people, who come from a template--they are effectively the same people who were there 80 years ago. I want the Minister to say, "I hear what you're saying and now this is what we're going to do." He would do an enormous amount of good if he revisited the matter and met some of the people who have complained about not having been afforded their rights in their treatment by the Germans. Will he agree to do that?

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) raised a valid point about the disregard of the war disabled pension, but he over-egged it and fell into the temptation of making a party political point. I have been rehearsing all morning the phrase, "They're both to blame and both the same." The problem does not turn on Labour or Conservative councils, or Labour or Tory Governments, but on the fact that successive Ministers have failed to use legislative opportunities to do away with the discretion. It is absurd that a pensioner in one borough can have his benefits disregarded, while in another area that will not happen. Our next legislative programme should remove the temptation for municipal councils--which face enormous constraints--to do that. It is not fair to them or to other local authorities. I have pursued this matter since 1992 and it is clear that Labour and Conservative and some Liberal Democrat councils are the guilty parties--although that is not the appropriate term, because the temptation should not be there.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): We must not allow this myth to perpetuate itself. It is exclusively Labour councils that are behaving in this manner: no Liberal Democrat or Conservative council is doing so. Why do only Labour councils give in to the temptation?

Mr. Mackinlay : That is not so.

Mr. Key : Yes, it is.

Mr. Mackinlay : The message may have gone out to all Conservative councils that they should now fall into line. If so, full marks to them. However, that is not yet the case. I do not want to labour the point, but it is Governments who have failed to remove the discretion. If the Minister is still in his place after 7 June, I hope that he will reconsider the matter. Will he comment on the injustice involved for widows who married ex-service men after they left the services?

We should not have a debate about veterans issues without referring to the sad story of Gulf war syndrome. Hands up anyone who believes the Ministry of Defence about that. No one does. [Interruption.] I am referring to the Ministry of Defence, not the Minister. It is a fact that the Minister responsible for the armed forces under the Conservative Government was misled by the Ministry of Defence. No one has knocked him for that. In fact, he was the first to rush to the House about it. The Ministry of Defence has misled Ministers about Gulf war syndrome and it is continuing to frustrate some

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particularly unfair cases. For example, the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) has diligently pursued a particular case of a civilian who was working for the Ministry of Defence. He was literally in uniform, but the Ministry of Defence will not recognise any obligations to him. I hope that the Minister will intervene on such anomalies and break away from that which is being handed down by the bureaucracy.

The issue of Commonwealth war graves is another illustration of when matters come right in the end. I am pleased that Baroness Dean was appointed by the Government to head the inquiry. It has resolved matters concerning the battlefields of north-west Europe to the satisfaction of my fellow members of the Transport and General Workers Union and other trade unions. It would have been better if the unions had been listened to first, but the settlement is welcome and I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister for the Armed Forces were able to facilitate a resolution. Both Labour and Conservative Ministers have been sympathetic to the matter, but they have not tackled the Ministry of Defence.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie) : It is not the Ministry of Defence that is responsible.

Mr. Mackinlay : I am well aware that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is independent, but the British Ministry of Defence is very much the leading behind-the-scenes influence in the matter. The Secretary of State appoints some of the commissioners. Furthermore, he appointed Baroness Dean to provide the remedy and the outcome has been extremely helpful.

Recently, I questioned the Minister about the 49th West Riding division and 269 Squadron that held Iceland in the second world war, both of which have been denied the Atlantic star. I asked the Minister to meet them, but he ducked the issue.

Dr. Moonie : The answer is no, lest I be thought to be ducking something.

Mr. Mackinlay : That is disappointing, but it is an example of how I have to use attrition. Eventually, I shall be successful and a Minister will meet both the squadron and the division. Their case is that the committee that decided the award of medals immediately following the second world war was not fully cognisant with the circumstances of their role in Iceland. Surely my hon. Friend should listen to such a well-founded case. It is a wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East referred to war graves in the sea. There is great scope for the Government to take the initiative on that. They need to pursue the UN cultural convention on the matter. A conference should be initiated by Her Majesty's Government that requires the participation of the principal maritime nations and the former belligerent nations of the first and second world wars and subsequent conflicts to see whether common legislation and enforcement can be achieved. I hope that the Minister will take up that helpful initiative. Moreover, off the shores of the Republic of Ireland are numerous war graves from both world wars.

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I have raised my final point many times. When we were in opposition, there was a free vote in the House of Commons on pardons for soldiers executed in the first world war. Over half the Labour shadow Cabinet was in the Division Lobby with me. When he was Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid) went some way towards acknowledging the wrongs of the executions. The men were suffering overwhelmingly from battle stress. They were denied the rules of natural justice. Their trials were flawed, but the Ministry of Defence resisted granting them pardons.

The Labour Government should revisit the matter. It is popular, although that should not be the reason for doing so; we should revisit it because it is right to do so. It would correct a sad part of our history that has only recently been written with clarity and precision having previously all been covered up. Documents were suppressed by the Ministry of Defence for 75 years. When those documents become available, and jurists, families, relatives, journalists and politicians say, "This is unfair", the Ministry of Defence turns around and says that it is too late to remedy the matter. It is not. Some loved ones of the people involved are alive.

We need to write history with clarity and precision--even matters that make us uncomfortable--and we shall do so if we grant the pardons. I want to mention people such as John Hipkin, Janet Booth and the late Tom Stones, who have campaigned for so long on the issue and were instrumental in creating an arboretum that will open in June to the memory of the 300-plus soldiers executed. Will the Ministry of Defence be present and facilitate the ceremonial, bearing in mind the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill and his moving statement to the House on the matter two years ago? It would be entirely consistent if the Ministry were to support the commemoration of the soldiers at the opening of the arboretum.

If we have such an annual debate, many more hon. Members will be able to contribute and raise issues such as those that have been raised this morning and to pursue much more fully matters such as whether there should be a Suez medal or an ex-national service personnel medal. I shall not labour the Chamber with such matters this morning as such measures are sensitive. However, with courage, the next Labour Government should approach them, discuss them more fully with ex-service organisations and meet the people who are campaigning for those medals. It is their right to have their day in court with the Minister and for him to listen to them. It would be generous of the Minister to suggest that that will be the spirit in which he approaches the subject.

Ex-service organisations should become much stronger and more confident. Uniquely among western democracies, ex-service organisations in this country do not have direct access in the way that ex-service organisations do in Germany or the United States of America. It is partly their fault: they are too much "Mr. Nice Guy". Any Prime Minister or Minister with responsibility for defence should have to defer to them much more enthusiastically. I hope that they will be much stronger in future and perhaps follow the example

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of the Officers Pensions Society, which raised the question of the trough, which I raised in the House previously. It is the result of--I am not proud of this--a Labour Government in the 1970s having a pay pause, which aggravated the position unfairly for ex-service men. Some 48,000 people--not only officers but people of all ranks--have been disadvantaged.

It is time to put the matter right. We have priorities because of the resources involved, but we must do what is right. I hope that the Minister responsible for veterans will have a long time in office and will scratch the surface on these issues more deeply than the people who held his portfolio, but not his title.

11.58 am

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) on having secured the debate, which has been fascinating and interesting. I congratulate the Minister on his new role and portfolio.

We heard two speeches from the Back Benches--from the hon. Members for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who speak on defence issues with great authority in the House. Although I do not always agree with everything that they say, I always listen with great affection. They understand what they are talking about and are a tribute to the House.

I pay tribute to the members of Her Majesty's armed forces who serve on our behalf and protect the freedoms that the hon. Member for New Forest, East discussed. Anyone who speaks on defence issues, who has been through the parliamentary armed forces scheme and who deals with the armed forces regularly never fails to be astonished at their commitment. Since 1945, there has been only one year in which a member of Her Majesty's armed forces has not been killed on active service. Although the big wars of the past may be over, the sort of wars that we are beginning to witness will continue.

We have discussed a number of veterans' affairs. I wish to discuss a specific matter that affects more and more young men--and, increasingly, young women--who put themselves at risk in the defence of freedom. Veterans' affairs are not only about people who served in the second world war or first world war: people who serve today in our armed forces are the veterans of tomorrow.

I pick up on a case of which I have given the Minister notice, and which I have previously raised in Parliament. It is the case of the last person to die for Her Majesty's armed forces--Bombardier Brad Tinnion. He was killed in Sierra Leone at the end of last year during a paratrooper and Special Air Services attack to free the hostages of the West Side Boys.

Brad Tinnion was 28 when he was killed, and the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) paid tribute to him for his action. Sir Charles Guthrie spoke of him as a brilliant young man. Brad, like many people of his generation--not perhaps people of my or the Minister's generation--was not married. However, he had a partner with whom he had lived for 10 years, and they

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were on their third home together. Anna Homsi and he were regarded, to quote one sergeant major of the SAS regiment, as "more married than married". Indeed, when he died, Brad was aware that Anna was carrying the child, Georgia, who was later born to her. However, because Anna was not married to Brad and had not been through a form of marriage ceremony, the Ministry of Defence has refused to give her a war widow's pension.

The Ministry of Defence did give Georgia--a beautiful young girl whom I have met--a pension for her father, after getting Treasury dispensation. Georgia was granted a generous £2,000 a year until the age of 17, and Anna was given a one-off payment of £20,000. In a letter to me and Anna Homsi, the Secretary of State told Anna that, had she lived with Brad for six months before he joined the armed forces, she would be treated as a widow and receive the full widow's entitlement. Brad was only 16 when he joined the armed forces. I am not sure whether the Secretary of State was suggesting that they should have lived together when he was just 15.

The young lady is being deprived of a war widow's pension of £18,000 a year. She will have to return to full-time work and will not be able to look after her daughter in the manner that she would want, simply because the couple had not gone through a form of marriage ceremony, which more and more people today do not believe is necessary.

In the past 10 years, 394 members of the armed forces have been killed in active service. On average, 35 per cent. of such people are married, so we are discussing only a few hundred people. Some will have had long-term partners, such as Anna, and many will not. I wonder how many more partners of dead soldiers--male, female or, possibly in a short time, gay--will not be entitled to the recognition that should be given. How many more children will start to grow up thinking that the Army has let down their mother or father?

Ministers have told me that the matter is a big can of worms and that, if we get into it, we will have to start to give partners' rights to many people. It is claimed that sailors in Portsmouth will go into a pub in Portsmouth the night before they go to sea, find somebody, sleep with them, and then that person will claim to be a partner and thus entitled to rights. That is rubbish. The majority of private pension schemes accept that there should be a discretionary element and that one should be able to examine each individual case. If there have been only 394 cases in the past 10 years, that is hardly a massive requirement.

I do not suggest that unmarried partners should automatically have a right to service housing or to other effects that service men have. However, if a service man or woman pays the ultimate price for our country, the state should examine the possibility of giving something to that person's partner. After all, one of the last things that Brad did before he went to Sierra Leone was make a will, in which Anna Homsi was sole beneficiary. I have no doubt that he would have wanted her and his child to be treated properly.

It is ironic that, in this House, married and unmarried partners of hon. Members are entitled to be treated the same. Partners of hon. Members, whether married or unmarried--I am married, as is the Minister--are entitled to free rail tickets and the same access to the

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building, yet the country is not prepared to accept that partners who lay down their lives should be treated in a decent manner.

What is most annoying for Anna, to whom I spoke on the phone this morning, is that, in so many aspects of life, partners are now treated, rightly, as if they were married. The Child Support Agency does not bother to find out, before chasing ex-service men for money, whether they are married. Benefits agencies assess married and unmarried couples equally, as does the tax system. The country is moving forward. Although some hon. Members, who may be of a different generation, may not understand or like that, whoever is the Minister with responsibility for veterans in the next Government needs to address the matter. It simply is not good enough for Ministers to say, "I'm sorry Paul, we'll keep saying no on this." Like the hon. Member for Thurrock, I shall keep battling on the issue, and I hope that progress will be made.

One of the great aspects of our system is that, almost at this moment, the Prime Minister is seeking a dissolution of Parliament from Her Majesty the Queen. Our armed forces are Her Majesty's armed forces, and I am sorry that Her Majesty's Ministers have not decided, in this instance or in other instances like it, that they could be more generous. If the old adage is true that a dying person sees his life flash before him, I have no doubt that, when Brad Tinnion died, his last thoughts would have been for his partner of 10 years, Anna Homsi, and for the child whom he did not see. The next Government should treat such people with the respect that they deserve and with the respect that the regiment in which Brad served believes he should be accorded.

12.6 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) on raising this important issue. I agree with much of what she said. Her remarks about the Ministry of Defence keeping in touch with ex-service men were right. After all, it loses touch with about a third of reservists in the first year, which is not helpful to anybody.

One of the problems is that we do not go to war any more. The Falklands, the Gulf and the Balkans were all conflicts and technically, not, wars. It is also difficult to determine what is the front line and what is not. For all those reasons, it is difficult to know how the Ministry of Defence, when considering veteran's affairs, should treat sponsored reserves, contractors, civil servants who are in the front line, such as my constituents who work at Porton Down and who are in the front line of chemical and biological defence in Kuwait--

Mr. Mackinlay : And private industries.

Mr. Key : And, of course, private industries. We must think afresh and look forward, which is what I intend to do.

There is a large number of war veterans--about 15 million people, of all ages, are eligible to approach the Royal British Legion for support. That includes 291,000 war disability pensioners and war widows. The services provided by the Royal British Legion include resettlement, welfare, pilgrimages, job retraining, counselling and much more. Last year, the legion

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received more than 300,000 calls for help from eligible people. The Officers Pensions Society--which, incidentally, also deals with ranks other than officers--has a huge work load and is to be congratulated. I must, of course, mention the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association. On disregards, I entirely agree with the spirit of the remarks of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). There should be no question of partial disregards. When one considers the roll of honour of which widows are a part, it contrasts with the roll of shame of the only six local authorities in the country that make no disregard for war and war widows pensions--Chester-le-Street district council, Easington district council, Wear Valley district council, Manchester city council, South Tyneside metropolitan borough council and Gateshead metropolitan borough council.

Mr. Mackinlay : I want to ask a simple question. Why did not the hon. Gentleman support my private Member's Bill, which would have ended discretion? His party is as much to blame as the present Administration. However, I do not believe that Conservative or Labour Governments were to blame, except in so far as they permitted discretion to endure--

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair) : Order. That has been a long and passionate intervention.

Mr. Key : There are still a few Members of Parliament who, like me, believe in local government democracy. The hon. Gentleman said that we should dictate to local authorities, but I believe that they should have discretion because they, like us, are elected. Therefore, they must accept their responsibilities.

With regard to the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), I wish to add a small word of caution. Many divers are responsible and we should not include them in the condemnation. I have received many representations from divers who are not careless about where and how they dive. Problems often arise in international waters, and the Government are, rightly, addressing that matter.

The issue of where to draw the line presents another problem. Apparently, although it is acceptable to raise the Mary Rose and to put it on display in Portsmouth, a distinction must be drawn after 1914. The issue is fraught with difficulty, but my hon. Friend was right to highlight the need for divers to be sensitive.

I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend on the service pension and the pension trough. That is a serious matter that must not be ignored. Our nation is getting richer--

Mr. Mackinlay : What about before?

Mr. Key : All I can say with regard to what happened in the past, is that that was then and this is now. Our nation is much wealthier. Although progress has been made, we must continue to move forward.

The issue is important and it requires detailed and very careful consideration. When my party is returned to government in a few weeks, it will commission a

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review of the current service pension system, which will place particular emphasis on the concerns that have been raised in the debate. The Select Committee on Social Security is also holding an inquiry on the matter and I suspect that hon. Members from all parties would like progress to be made.

I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence has accepted the office of veterans Minister. However, much mythology surrounds the post. The comment of the hon. Member for Bolton, West that it had been considered only during the past couple of years is incorrect. In 1996, the Select Committee on Defence produced a report that recommended that there should be a veterans Minister. That report was unanimously supported by all parties, and I was one of the members of the Committee who signed it. It was inevitable that such a Minster would be created, irrespective of which party was returned to government following the 1997 general election. The Ministry of Defence was heading in that direction.

However, the decision had to be taken whether to establish a Department of Veterans Affairs, such as the one that exists in the United States of America, or a Minister with co-ordinating responsibility. That is the happy position at which we have arrived. The Minister made the announcement on 14 March 2001, but I quickly realised that something was not quite right about it, because we have had a Minister with responsibility for veterans affairs. The Cabinet Office guide to ministerial responsibilities that was published in January 2001 lists the Minister for the Armed Forces as responsible for service personnel policy, including veterans. Therefore, the role has been downgraded from the Minister of State to the Under-Secretary of State. That is an interesting development.

That point is akin to splitting hairs and I shall not dwell on it. However, a considerable amount of spin was put on the announcement, and when I probed the Department about the organisation and membership of the veterans forum and the veterans taskforce, I received a long answer stating that the final decision on such matters had not yet been taken. In other words, there is still a lot of work to do. Perhaps the Minister will fill us in on the detail today.

I also asked how much new money and manpower had been allocated to allow the Minister to fulfil the role, and I received a predictable answer: no new money and three new people. That will make little impression on the 15 million people who are entitled to seek the help of the Royal British Legion. Nevertheless, it is progress. I merely want the Minister to assure us that there will be more progress and that it will happen a bit sooner. Although I welcome the appointment of a war veterans Minister, given that the Select Committee reported in 1996 and the strategic defence review finally reported in 1998, why has the Ministry of Defence only now got around to writing the press release on what is happening?

I end on a positive note. One of the problems touched on by the hon. Member for Bolton, West was the serious lack of statistics kept by the Ministry of Defence, although it keeps a large number of them. In the Gulf war, we experienced problems because no records were kept of whom was inoculated, you will not be surprised to hear, Mr. O'Hara, that as Member of Parliament for Porton Down I probed the matter. I was told that the

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record-keeping in the second world war, especially regarding the inoculation of soldiers in the north African desert, was much better than that achieved by the Ministry of Defence in the Gulf war. We must make progress on that problem.

A measure that was initiated by the previous Government should be accelerated--electronic tagging. That was proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) when he was Minister for the Armed Forces in 1996, but progress has been slow, if not non-existent. I have asked parliamentary questions since then and raised the matter in debate as recently as last year. After all, a report in Computer Weekly in October 2000 headed, "US Military Gets Smart Cards", stated that:

I look forward to the Minister's response. I regret only that we did not each have 20 minutes in which to put our points.

12.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) for giving us the opportunity to consider the concerns of our war veterans. Many in our country have no direct experience of military service and it is easy to lose sight of the sacrifices made by those who served in our armed forces and by their families. Some are veterans of the major wars of the previous century who are now facing the wide range of problems that come with time--health, making ends meet or simply the concern that their efforts have not been recognised or that their sacrifices have been forgotten.

Many veterans, however, served in more recent operations and their problems can be different. Some have experienced difficultly in adjusting to civilian life or in finding employment. Some have become homeless and some are incapacitated through illness or injury resulting from their service. Our concern should not end with the individual who served in the services. Military service has cost many dependants a wife, husband, father or mother, and relatives of those who died may experience a range of problems, such as single parenthood, financial hardship and the heavy burden of personal loss.

The risks attached to a service career are high and it is right that we should give particular recognition to the needs of those who have served their country. Whatever their particular contribution, our veterans and their families have played a major part in securing the peace and security of our nation. The Government are determined to deal with their concerns effectively and with a proper focus. It was with that aim in mind that, on 14 March, the Prime Minister announced my appointment as Minister with responsibility for veterans' affairs. It is a privilege to be given that

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responsibility and I am conscious of the expectations that come with the appointment. I am determined to succeed and know that I have the Prime Minister's full support.

My task is to ensure that the response to veterans' concerns is co-ordinated throughout government--whether central, regional or local--to deliver a properly integrated service. Individual Departments and local authorities are invariably conscientious in trying to deal with veterans' concerns, but, in the past, they have tended to do that issue by issue. The role of the ministerial taskforce will be to ensure that veterans' concerns are understood and dealt with as a coherent and seamless whole. We plan the first meeting of the taskforce for later this summer. I am sure that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who speaks for the Opposition, would be happy to fill that role in the unlikely event that he is called on to do so. I mean that in no personal sense.

We also wish to work more effectively with many veterans' charities. Those groups undertake excellent work in supporting former members of the armed forces, but we are determined that our efforts and theirs be better co-ordinated. We often work in different areas. There can be gaps or overlaps in the support that we provide. We bring different strengths to our work and our individual understanding of the worries of veterans is often incomplete. There are already close working relationships between individual Departments and particular charities, but we can achieve more by effective co-operation.

The veterans forum will provide the opportunity for representatives of several veterans charities to help us to define our agenda for veterans, identify those issues of the deepest concern and ensure that we concentrate our collective efforts on those areas in which we can make a substantial difference. From the Government's perspective, it will also allow us to tap into the knowledge and skills of veterans organisations more effectively. I am confident that those arrangements will bring a new dynamism to our handling of such issues, and veterans, for their part, can look forward to real improvements in the support that they receive.

That is not to say that much has not already being achieved for veterans through the efforts of the Government and the charitable sector. It is easy, whether looking at the media or listening to debates such as this, to lose sight of the many good things that are happening. The rough sleepers initiative has done much to deal with homelessness among ex-service personnel. We have recently introduced regulations to extend reservists' eligibility for benefits for illness, injury or death resulting from service. In addition, we have a pensions scheme, which, although I accept it is not perfect, is the envy of many throughout the world. We should not forget the considerable support that we already give our veterans. However, clearly, issues need to be addressed, several of which have been raised in the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West referred to homelessness. We recognise the problems and we are working closely with the rough sleepers unit at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and ex-service charities to deal with them. Our approach is focused on the three key points of pre-discharge, the point of discharge and post-discharge. As

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my hon. Friend said, Catterick garrison has been chosen to host a pilot project, funded by the rough sleepers unit and run by the English Churches housing group, to provide accommodation advice to service personnel who are about to be discharged from the armed forces.

The project is known as the single persons accommodation centre for the ex-services--SPACES. It is amazing how acronyms can be concocted; it is just as well that we have them, given the lengthy title of the project. It has no housing of its own, but assists in the search for suitable accommodation for single leavers. The point of discharge group should be successfully targeted by the project, which aims to identify vulnerable service leavers and prevent them from falling into the cycle of homelessness and rough sleeping. After 18 months, we shall review the success of the project and, if it is deemed a success, further projects will be set up.

The MOD has long been committed to ensuring that service personnel make a smooth transition back to civilian life. To that end, it has a comprehensive career transition service that is provided by the career transition partnership: a partnership between the MOD and Coutts Consulting Group. That provides a wide-ranging service for all personnel with five or more years' service who are discharged for medical reasons or who are leaving because of redundancy. The service includes guidance on financial, housing and welfare issues together with practical advice on job finding for up to two years post-discharge.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West made a good point about those with more limited service and we shall certainly be willing to consider that during our review. In addition, financial advice briefings are arranged by the CTP at 10 regional resettlement centres and are open to all service personnel. The briefings provide impartial advice on pension schemes, savings and financial management as well as on how best to obtain suitable living accommodation. All service personnel are also eligible to attend briefings on housing options run by the joint service housing advice office, which include the opportunity to discuss individual cases. About 1,500 personnel attend such briefings annually. We are by no means complacent about the current position and keep it under regular review. However, it is important to recognise that some 20,000 people leave the armed forces every year, and that the overwhelming majority make a successful transition to civilian life.

We recognise that post-traumatic stress disorder is both serious and disabling. Preventive measures are in place, including pre-deployment and post-deployment briefing and counselling during deployments. The strategic defence review recommended that community psychiatric services be enhanced. That has resulted in proposals to increase staffing at some existing defence community psychiatric centres, and the formation of two new centres--one in Scotland and one in England. The arrangements have been developed over a number of years and will continue to be reviewed in the light of medical developments in stress management and treatment.

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In terms of the nature of the challenge that we face, the spectrum of psychiatric disorders in the armed forces is broadly similar to that in the community at large. Limited peer review evidence has been published on how to treat such disablements, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder. Evidence exists confirming the usefulness of certain psychological treatments, but many unknown factors remain, including the question of whether treatment should be in-patient or out-patient based, the precise composition of such treatment, and whether it should be based on individual or group therapy. The exact role of therapeutic drugs also remains unresolved.

On treatment of mental illness in respect of those who have left the armed forces, it is Government policy to ensure that the NHS makes proper provision for health services. The Government have identified mental illness as one of their three health priorities and have addressed it in their framework for mental health. The framework includes significant extra investment of more than £300 million in the NHS plan for mental health service development in the next three years. According to that framework, most locally based NHS services should be able to offer effective treatment for psychological injury.

We do not think it necessary to treat psychological injury cases by providing substantial periods of in-patient care; indeed, in general, every effort is made in psychiatry to avoid admitting in-patients. Patients, including those in community psychiatric care, are most likely to be looked after by primary care teams, with a percentage referred to consultant psychiatrists as out-patients. Periods as an in-patient are likely to be brief and, I suspect, will mainly involve those for whom drug and/or alcohol dependence is an issue. Equally, there might well be a need for sporadic acute admissions where symptoms become severe.

War disablement pensioners have been entitled to priority NHS treatment since the former Ministry of Pensions hospitals were transferred to the NHS. Priority is determined by the clinician in charge, and is subject to the needs of emergencies and other urgent cases. Priority treatment is a matter for the Department of Health and the NHS executive, and is the subject of regular circulars to trusts and individual practitioners. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West that I will take a very close look at the matter through the Ministry's taskforce, and see whether anything can be done to improve co-ordination.

Given that I have dealt with the main issues raised by my hon. Friend, and given the limited time remaining, perhaps I should move on to some of the other points to which reference has been made. On the question of war graves at sea, it should not have escaped the notice of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) that I announced a major review of the present system and gave a personal promise to ensure that proper respect is paid to war graves. That does not mean, however, that people will not be allowed to dive on them, just as we would not prevent people from walking through a graveyard. We will take careful action, in co-ordination with other countries--I accept the need for that--to ensure that visitors respect sites. That is the key.

I believe that my role in respect of veterans will lead to better co-ordination between Departments and a much sharper focus on important issues. Although that is but one--albeit the major--aspect of what is an increasingly

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large and diverse portfolio, I assure all hon. Members present that I will pay very close attention to it. On the question of to whom to write in respect of individual cases, one may write to me or to the individual Department concerned. General issues will be dealt with by me and more specific ones by the relevant Department.

On pensions--I am sorry to appear to repeat the long-standing policy of Governments--whatever changes might be made, there will be no retrospection.

It is most unlikely that we shall consider revisiting that issue, although I recognise that people feel that they have been badly treated. That I do not see us revisiting it does not mean that I shall not reconsider it on occasion. I shall not consider a change in policy, but I might consider whether anything could be done at its margins.

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