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Anne Picking (East Lothian) (Lab): Before the Minister leaves the important events of last weekend, may I point out that a constituent of mine, Mr. Jock Wilson, who is 100 years old, is the oldest living survivor of those veterans? He was there at the weekend, and said that it was a very proud moment for him. It was also a proud moment for me to see him being honoured by the Queen, and I would like to place on record my thanks to the Minister for all that he did to allow those people that opportunity.

Mr. Caplin: I am grateful for that. I met Mr. Jock Wilson at Colleville-Montgomery on the Saturday morning when he was taking part in the march-past of veterans. He was determined to participate in his wheelchair, and I know that the Duke of Gloucester was very pleased to give him a salute.

Mr. Dismore: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Caplin: I am going to move on now. My hon. Friend has already asked me a couple of questions, and he may want to hear the answers later—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend has persuaded me to give way to him.

Mr. Dismore: In the same vein, was my hon. Friend as pleased as I was to see the AJEX standard in the D-day parade, with representation from my constituency, among others? Is that not a reflection of the major contribution made by Jewish servicemen, both on D-day and throughout the second world war?

Mr. Caplin: Indeed, I was pleased to see that. I certainly recognise the role of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women in our armed forces, and I shall have something more to say about that subject later.

Having reflected on last weekend, I shall ask a question: what is a veteran? My answer is simple. A veteran is anybody who has served in the United Kingdom armed forces. Including such people's widows or widowers and dependants, that definition covers some 13 million people. It is deliberately broad, to ensure that we embrace all parts of the veterans community.

Obviously, needs and aspirations vary, and I hope to demonstrate to the House that our approach is tailored to take account of that. The result is that while we continue to recognise the special place of older veterans in our nation's history, we also look ahead to the next generation of veterans—today's servicemen and women—who carry on the proud tradition of service established by their predecessors.

Work to ensure that the 60th anniversaries would be successful has taken up a great deal of my time and that of my officials in recent months, but that is only one area
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of an extensive veterans agenda being pursued across Government, covering three broad areas. First, I want to ensure that the personnel now serving in our armed forces have as much help as possible when they make the transition back to civilian life. Secondly, I want to ensure that the relatively small proportion of veterans of all ages who face difficulties in civilian life receive appropriate support. Thirdly, I want to ensure that the contribution made by our service personnel to the freedom and security of the United Kingdom is properly recognised and understood, and that the achievements of veterans from all generations are suitably commemorated.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Minister confirm—or not, as the case may be—that veterans also include the Gurkhas, such as those who wish to remain in the United Kingdom when their service in Her Majesty's armed forces draws to an end?

Mr. Caplin: The hon. Gentleman knows that we do, of course, recognise Gurkhas as veterans—but there are other issues related to their return, to Nepal or elsewhere, when they leave our armed forces.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): When the representatives of the Veterans Agency appeared before the Public Accounts Committee, I questioned them closely on the Gurkhas and their eligibility under the war pensions scheme, and the Minister's officials were unable to give the Committee any proper advice on what decisions may have been made about eligibility. Can the Minister tell us more? Those people have given tremendous service to this country, and it is seven years since they were relocated from Hong Kong to here.

Mr. Caplin: I am afraid that I do not recall seeing that in the PAC report; I shall have to have another look at it, and perhaps I could write to the hon. Gentleman.

I shall say more about each of the three issues that I raised just before those two interventions, and in doing so I want to bring out three key themes: the enduring importance of partnership and co-operation across Government, and between Government and the voluntary sector in addressing veterans' issues; the progress achieved so far; and my plans and visions for carrying veterans' issues forward, not just in the next few years but for decades to come.

My job is to ensure that veterans-related issues are recognised and taken into account across all levels of government, but especially by those responsible for policy and delivery of services affecting veterans. As my speech will highlight, the issue of veterans' affairs is a pre-eminent example of joined-up government in action, not just between Departments, but with the voluntary sector too.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con) rose—

Mr. Caplin: I have not got very far, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Brazier: May I ask the Minister to heed the urgings of the Royal British Legion, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and the Select
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Committee on Defence, which all say that it is a mistake to raise the burden of proof for those wounded or otherwise injured on military service for the next generation of veterans?

Mr. Caplin: I have a feeling that the hon. Gentleman has asked a question to which he knows the answer. We have debated those matters long and hard on Second Reading, in Committee and on Third Reading of the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill, and we have made our position clear. My noble Friend Lord Bach will open the Second Reading debate on the Bill in the House of Lords tomorrow.

An effective partnership with the voluntary sector is vital, particularly with the ex-service organisations that have a long and successful history of providing support to veterans. I have greatly enjoyed working with those organisations over the past year, and am grateful for the advice and co-operation throughout that time.

I do not think that it would be welcomed if the Government tried to replicate or control those independent and distinguished organisations. I see my role as trying to provide the focal point within Government with which the ex-service organisations can raise issues and develop appropriate co-operation. That is a role that those organisations have pressed on Government for many years, and it is a credit to this Labour Government that they have been the first to respond positively. We now have a much more focused approach to veterans' affairs across Government.

I believe that the level of co-operation achieved is a model of its kind. For example, the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations attends as an equal partner all my major meetings with other Ministers. The relationship achieved with ex-service organisations is mature and realistic. Both sides recognise that we will not agree on all matters, and that we should not be frightened to be critical of one another where necessary. The voluntary organisations may choose to co-operate with the Government on some issues, while campaigning separately on others. I welcome that businesslike approach.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab): On being critical of one person or another, my hon. Friend may know that yesterday several hon. Members from different parties attended a short and moving service outside Westminster Abbey conducted by Dr. Wesley Carr for the 29 who lost their lives in the Chinook disaster and the two pilots. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I say that some of us are astonished that the Ministry of Defence can be so certain when it failed to convince Lord Jauncey, a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, for eight years. The Minister for the armed forces knows very well that that man travelled frequently from Scotland to London, paid enormous attention to the case and, at the end of the day, was extremely sceptical about the view of the Ministry of Defence. As we are considering co-operation, would not it be a good idea to re-examine that emotive issue?

Mr. Caplin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. He knows that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that he intends to meet the campaign group when time allows.
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Placing veterans' affairs in the Ministry of Defence has been essential in ensuring so many of this year's achievements for several reasons. First, as many ex-service organisations recognise, risks such as operational stress—which can unfortunately affect some veterans—can be prevented or managed at the outset in-service only as part of a "through life" approach in our armed forces. Secondly, the way in which the services prepare personnel for transition to civilian life in terms of life skills and housing advice has a direct impact on longer-term veterans-related issues.

Everyone at the Ministry of Defence and in our armed forces has a positive approach to veterans-related issues. Of course, the service personnel recognise that they will be veterans one day. Indeed, we have several in both Houses. They also recognise that the way in which the services address veterans' issues can affect recruitment, retention and morale as well as public support for our armed forces.

Funding is a major spur when carrying forward any new initiatives. In addition to other sources, I was pleased that we were able last year to introduce a new veterans challenge fund to pump-prime individual veterans-related projects either undertaken by veterans' organisations or commissioned by the Ministry of Defence after consultation with other interested organisations. The fund totals £2 million over three years—a significant sum by any standards. We will review further arrangements in the light of the initial results.

I can give examples of some of the projects approved so far. They include a grant to the Royal British Legion to produce a veterans wall chart for schools to promote understanding and support for remembrance and veterans' issues; research by Citizens Advice to identify how it can improve the delivery of information and advice to veterans, and funding for Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association Forces Help for the modernisation of two playgrounds in its "stepping stone" homes, which are based in the constituencies of the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam).

With the increasing emphasis on multinational military operations, I passionately believe that co-operation on veterans' issues needs to be international as well. Many of the issues and possible solutions to problems that veterans sometimes experience can best be tackled through international exchange of information and best practice. That can be especially important when researching potential health problems associated with specific operations.

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