Scotland in the World: A New Perspective

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Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): On a point of order, Mrs. Adams. I ask for your guidance about the context of the Minister's statement. I have consulted page 716 of Erskine May. Under the heading ``Ministerial Statements'', it states that

    ``statements may be made . . . to facilitate questioning on matters relating to the Minister's official responsibilities in so far as they relate to Scotland''.

It seemed to me that much of what the Minister said was more general and widespread, and did not relate only to Scotland. I should be grateful for your guidance, Mrs. Adams, especially as we develop the debate. This Committee is one of the remaining ways in which Scottish Members may hold the Executive to account, and there should be more focus on Scotland than was in the Minister's statement.

The Chairman: I will take note of the objections. I remind hon. Members that any questions should relate to Scotland.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): I thank the Minister for the courtesy that he paid by sending me a copy of the statement. I listened especially attentively to what he said, because I realised that only about a third of the statement came through on the fax, so the latter two-thirds were a revelation. I hope that that is not an example of asymmetric warfare.

I join the Minister in paying tribute to Scottish veterans. Scotland has a particularly proud tradition of sending more than its quota of people to serve the country. It is appropriate that we should look after our veterans. I congratulate the Minister on the broad thrust of his statement. It would be difficult to take issue with him on any measure that will help to improve the lot of veterans in Scotland. Does he agree, however, that it is a stain on our record that the problems of mental health and homelessness of veterans received such poor attention, especially throughout the 1980s?

I have a personal interest in war pensions, because my mother's first husband was killed in the war and she did not receive a pension for many years. However, a pension was made available to her through the good offices of the Royal British Legion. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the work of the Royal British Legion in Scotland and the Earl Haig fund, especially on war widows' pensions?

I want to pick the Minister up on one or two points. He mentioned ID cards for veterans. I understand what he and his Department are trying to do, but he will recognise that Liberal Democrats always view ID cards with caution. Will he ensure that the benefits of ID cards will not be associated with the disadvantages and discrimination that could come from not having a card?

I welcomed the Minister's reference to Commonwealth soldiers. We often forget the debt that we owe to many Commonwealth soldiers who now live in Scotland, and we should look after them.

Will the Minister examine the cases of the men who were shot at dawn? He did not mention that issue, but a number of my constituents have relatives who were very young when they were shot during the first world war. In Scotland, I believe that the Executive has issued something approaching a pardon, but I understand that the Ministry of Defence does not feel able to look into those cases. There are only 300 cases, and I urge the Minister to consider them.

Dr. Moonie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks.

On pensions, I can only agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Royal British Legion, in Scotland and nationally, and the Earl Haig fund in Scotland play a significant part in looking after the interests of veterans, as does the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association locally. That organisation stretches throughout Scotland and we hope to make much better use of the support that it gives at community level.

On ID cards, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will take the greatest care in setting up the scheme. At the least, it would be a hollow benefit to veterans if all that they got was another card to put in their wallet. We are considering the possible benefits. It is important to learn from overseas examples of veterans' services—we need not sit down with a blank sheet of paper and reinvent the wheel. Much has been done in varied ways in Australia, Canada and the United States, although the sheer size of the United States dwarfs anything that other countries are likely to do.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), who is now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, considered in great detail the subject of those who were shot at dawn during the first world war. Although we have a great deal of sympathy with the arguments that have been expressed, we have so far felt unable to make further change beyond the large steps that have been made.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): I have two questions, neither of which the Minister can answer off the top of his head. The first is on war graves. Last year, my wife and I visited the war cemetery in Crete, where, incidentally, there are a lot of Scots—the Cameronians, the Camerons, the Gordons and the Argylls—at Suda bay. It was well kept and the Cretan officials were helpful. A couple of days later, we visited the German paratroopers cemetery at Maleme. It was absolutely superb. An exhibition explained exactly what had happened, in sensible terms, and pictures were displayed. Frankly, the British cemetery was not a patch on the cemetery for the German paratroopers who landed at Crete. Can inquiries be made to see whether our cemetery can be brought up to the standard of the German cemetery?

In Tripoli, which I visited two years ago, the British cemetery has been allowed to deteriorate. There was nothing that we could have done about it. However, I should like to congratulate the War Graves Commission, through the Minister, on the way in which it has tried to retrieve the situation, which is to its enormous credit.

On my second question, I hope that I shall be forgiven, as I suppose that I am the only veteran here, for talking rather emotionally. A number of my contemporaries in basic training at Catterick went off to Korea and were shot up with the 8th Hussars when their tank tracks were stuck in the Korean mud. It was a sad episode. Partly as a result of all that, as the Minister may know, and as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) certainly knows, there is a tree memorial near Torphichen in West Lothian to those who suffered in the Korean war. Only yesterday, I approached the Chancellor in relation to Colonel Johnny Johnston's concerns about that. I shall not bore the Committee with the ins and outs of the matter, but there is a great deal of upset that it is being charged on. The amount is £4,000 or £5,000, but to that kind of charity such a sum makes a difference. I did not realise that the statement was being made this morning; otherwise, I would have had the details with me. A detailed letter went to the Treasury only yesterday. Will the Minister approach the Treasury to see what can be done in relation to the Korean memorial forest at Torphichen?

Dr. Moonie: My hon. Friend made a valid point on the war graves issue. Where historical information facilities have been set up, they are well used, particularly in Normandy. I recently attended a ceremony at the Menin gate in Ypres. Extensive work has been done there, and at other sites such as Belsen in Germany.

It is not a matter of recognising the importance of those sites, but rather of where one stops. Is it a basic principle that every site should have informative or educative material available? I would be happy to discuss that with colleagues. Clearly, graveyards such as the one in Narvik, which I visited last year, provide a focus for visitors' attention. Perhaps we should be doing more to provide recognition.

There is also the matter of war graves on our own soil, for which the War Graves Commission is not responsible. We are trying to find resources, and I think that we will be successful in improving the way in which we should look after those graves. I have an open mind on this issue. We provide the majority of funding for the War Graves Commission, and it is put to excellent use. There is, however, little surplus, and perhaps we should look wider.

I will be happy to look into the second point that my hon. Friend raised.

Angus Robertson (Moray): I thank the Minister for forwarding the statement. I received a complete copy—although it blocked the fax machine for most of the morning—and it was most welcome.

I listened to the Minister's contribution with great interest, and would welcome any initiative that benefits the many veterans who served this country with so much distinction. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is not before time. I am certain that he will have examined how other countries deal with their veterans' affairs and co-ordinate matters. The irony—which is probably not lost on the hon. Gentleman—is that many of the countries we fought in the second world war, particularly Germany, have the best funded veteran support services. It is a shame that the initiative has taken so long, but I do not want to be churlish and diminish my welcome for it.

I would like to hear the Minister's thoughts on three issues, about which I suspect most hon. Members will have received correspondence. Does he anticipate that the initiative will contain or address any of the following matters? I refer first to the armed forces pension. I am certain that the Minister has received, as I have, many letters and surgery visits from constituents who served—or whose partners or relatives served—in the armed forces prior to the 1970s. They are not entitled to pensions because they, or their partners or relatives, served for less than 22 years. Will that pensions and compensation form any part of the veterans initiative?

The second matter concerns compensation for prisoners of war. Some days ago, the Minister confirmed that the 1,102 claims for compensation from people who served in the British armed forces and were in Japanese prisoner of war camps were rejected. How many of those claims were from Scottish people, or people living in Scotland, who should have received compensation? Will that issue be taken up in the context of the veterans initiative?

Thirdly, following up a point made by a number of hon. Members about Commonwealth veterans, will Ghurkha ex-service men's pension rights also be looked into under the aegis of the veterans initiative? I look forward to the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association, the Royal British Legion, and other veterans' organisations, expressing their views. I hope that they will do so, and that hon. Members will feed that information through to the Minister—although I am sure that he will also receive direct representations. I also look forward to hearing progress reports from the Minister on the subject.

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Prepared 28 November 2001