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Mr. Dennis Turner: On international co-operation, has my hon. Friend given any thought to the possibility of our striking an ex-serviceman's medal for the first time in this country for all people who have given excellent service to our armed forces? Whatever time they have served and whenever they served, we should, as a nation, recognise their contribution and present
 
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every former serviceman with a medal for service. Most European countries give an ex-serviceman's medal and I invite my hon. Friend to consider that.

Mr. Caplin: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. I intend to deal with status and recognition shortly.

I have had productive meetings with veterans Ministers from the United States, Australia and New Zealand and I can confirm to the House that I am looking forward to hosting a ministerial summit on veterans' issues in the United Kingdom early in 2005 to discuss even closer co-operation. Last Friday, I was pleased to have been able to sign a memorandum of understanding with my French ministerial colleague to cement our co-operation on commemorative events and other veterans-related matters. That is an especially important development given France's role in the 60th anniversary events over the next year. A copy of the memorandum is being placed in the Library of both Houses today.

What has been achieved? As I said earlier, transition is a key matter. The priority is to help as many service leavers as possible to make a successful transition to civilian life. For most service leavers, that means finding a suitable second career outside the armed forces. One of the most important elements in that transition is training to enable those who leave the services to find employment as soon as possible. That is provided under the career transition partnership contract, and is designed to equip those who leave with the skills necessary to make their transition a success.

Overall, our resettlement process is considered to be among the best for employees anywhere. Our current statistics show that an astonishing 95 per cent. of service leavers who make use of the services available under the career transition partnership find employment within six months of leaving the armed forces and that the vast majority of service leavers make a smooth transition to civilian life. I would like to take the opportunity today formally to thank all those who have been involved in that incredibly successful scheme.

Preparation for transition to civilian life best begins as early as possible in a service career. Adult learning programmes, developed in co-operation with the Department for Education and Skills, provide service personnel with increasing opportunities to develop skills that will stand them in good stead in civilian life as well as in our armed forces.

There has, however, been a gap in provision of support and advice to some service leavers. Until recently, not all personnel who left our armed forces each year have been eligible for resettlement advice. The group includes those who are compulsorily discharged, those who are unsuitable for military service or those who are discharged while still under training. The introduction in April of a tri-service "early service leavers initiative" seeks to bridge the gap. The new policy ensures that all early service leavers receive a mandatory resettlement brief and interview. Trained unit staff provide guidance, including advice on organisations that can help, such as Jobcentre Plus, the joint service housing advice office and the single persons accommodation centre for ex-services—SPACES—as well as the ex-service organisations.
 
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During the interview, staff will try to identify the small proportion of personnel at risk of falling into social exclusion and arrange more specialist assistance as necessary. That is an important improvement to our service discharge system and means that, for the first time, there is a resettlement umbrella that covers all service leavers.

Although those enhanced transition arrangements are a major step forward, I know that some who leave our armed forces may need more closely targeted assistance. The Ministry of Defence has therefore commissioned King's college London to conduct research into the provision of more tailored support for vulnerable ex-service personnel.

Ensuring that service personnel make adequate housing arrangements is another important key to the smooth transition to civilian life.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (Lab): My hon. Friend will understand and accept that statistics show that, throughout the United Kingdom, several ex-service personnel find themselves homeless. That applies not only to the major towns but to rural areas. I therefore welcome my hon. Friend's comments on adequate housing arrangements. I think that that could help.

Mr. Caplin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I want to say a little more about that later and I hope that I shall cover his point.

Current service personnel are encouraged to attend briefings on housing options throughout their careers. The relative number of people who face problems is small but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, we want to help where we can. On 1 April, staff numbers in the joint service housing advice office were increased to educate personnel about the need to make civilian housing provision at a much earlier stage in their service careers.

Fostering a sense of comradeship and belonging is something that concerns the services just as much as the ex-service organisations. I have recently written to the services' principal personnel officers to remind them of the vital role that ex-service personnel can play in maintaining support for our armed forces and how, in addition to the resettlement provision that is available, marking the transition to civilian life and nurturing links thereafter can fully repay the investment made.

When I first became Minister for veterans, I was very concerned to hear of many cases involving the demeaning practice of destroying service ID cards in front of those who hand them in as part of the leaving process. I personally intervened to ensure that this practice should end, and I am pleased to report to the House that this commitment has now been fully met by all the services.

It is important to emphasise that the vast majority of service personnel find their service a positive experience and settle well in civilian life after their service careers, but we obviously need to help the small percentage who are less successful, sometimes many years after leaving the forces. I have taken a close personal interest in this matter, and I view it as one of the most important parts of my responsibility for veterans.

The MOD's evolving policy for tackling homelessness among a small minority of veterans has been developed in close co-operation with other Departments and in
 
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partnership with the voluntary and private sectors. That has already led to several successful programmes to assist service leavers at risk of homelessness, as well as homeless veterans. Those include the SPACES project at Catterick, which I mentioned earlier, and the armed forces project at Colchester. I am always happy to see the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) in his place for a defence debate.

We are also working closely with the Ex-Services Action Group, which brings together representatives from the voluntary and public sectors. As part of that work, the MOD has been actively supporting the development of new, short-term, supported accommodation in London. We also continue to work closely with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the devolved Administrations on wider housing policies. That has resulted in the extension of the group of people recognised as having a priority need for housing to include those considered vulnerable as a result of service in the armed forces.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I am grateful to the Minister for his comments on housing. Would it not be appropriate for the MOD to make better use of surplus MOD housing by allowing former MOD personnel who have a problem to live in it? This is not just about the Conservatives' policy of selling off such property to Annington Homes, although that is a contributory factor. Hundreds of homes that are still under the control of the Defence Housing Agency are not being used; they could be used to house the very people the Minister is talking about.

Mr. Caplin: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that he has answered his own question: the vast bulk of service family accommodation was sold during the privatisation of 1996.

Of course, the impact of all of this work needs to be measured and evidence for future policy changes provided. We have therefore commissioned a new UK-wide study into the causes, extent, costs and impact of ex-service homelessness. The work, which began earlier this year, is almost complete in England and will now move to Scotland and Wales. I am also committed to extending the research to include Northern Ireland.

Employment is another important factor in assisting people to break out of social exclusion. In 2001, we established another ground-breaking partnership, this time with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Business in the Community, Training for Life, the defence industry and the Ex-Services Action Group on homelessness. The partnership, known as Project Compass, provides new employment opportunities and support for homeless veterans. In November last year, I accompanied the Prince of Wales, who has been involved in Project Compass since its inception, on a visit to the project. I do not usually speak for the prince, but I think that I can safely say that we were both impressed with the results of the pilot scheme.

Our partnership with Business in the Community has attracted the attention of several leaders in the corporate sector, including KPMG, Tesco, Marsh UK, Armstrong International, Publicis and Cisco Systems, who are keen to support the next phase of Project Compass. We are working with KPMG to develop a
 
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business plan for the project, which we hope will attract even more corporate interest in tackling problems associated with ex-service homelessness. Next week, I shall attend a reception with major stakeholders to present our plans for the next stage of the project.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet, will deal with health issues in his wind-up speech, but I want to reflect briefly on mental health problems, which are currently a high priority across government. While the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence have an obvious interest, it is increasingly appreciated that good mental health is a community-wide and through-life responsibility, with opportunities for older people, the devolved Administrations, local authorities, employers, schools and voluntary organisations all to play a part. We are therefore involved, along with many other organisations, in the social exclusion unit's mental health project, which seeks to help people with mental health symptoms across the range of severity to enter and retain work and to enjoy full social participation.

Evidence collected by the project confirms stigma and perceived discrimination to be major influences in discouraging people from seeking help. Those are also issues for the armed forces. The project will soon move to implementation, and a major strand of the work will focus on discrimination. I am meeting colleagues in the near future to discuss our further involvement in that important range of work.

In the context of veterans' health issues, it is also appropriate to mention the long-standing arrangement that war pensioners should be given priority in NHS hospitals for examination or treatment relating to their pensioned disablement. I can assure the House that I take this matter seriously, as does the Department of Health, and we intend to ensure that hospitals, GPs and other key players in the referral process are aware of the arrangement.

I now want to address the wider commemoration issues. It is very important that, as a society, we continue to recognise the enormous contribution made by veterans to our security. I see two principal obligations, which are closely inter-linked: first, the commemoration of those who died in the service of their country; and secondly, the need to raise and maintain public awareness about the vital and lasting contribution made by those who have served their country so well.

Next year's commemoration of events leading up to the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war will provide a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives, as well as to all those who served this country in that historic conflict. The anniversary will also provide a unique opportunity to raise awareness about veterans and to celebrate the role of the veteran in society. A great deal of effort is being put into making the occasions special for veterans and their families. The Government are acutely aware that this might be the last chance for many of the men and women who lived through those events to commemorate them in any numbers. Just as importantly, it could also be the last chance for new generations to learn at first hand from the veterans themselves what it was like to be involved
 
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in the second world war. Their memories and experiences will provide for future generations a lasting legacy that needs to be harnessed.

Last Sunday, it was said:

the legacy—

Those were the words of President Chirac in his address at the international D-day event. Equally telling are the words of Mr. Ray Rosen, the president of the Birmingham Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women:

This is the passing on of the baton of remembrance referred to by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his message on the D-day weekend in last week's House magazine. So our plans for the commemorations of the end of the war on 10 July 2005 are evolving and progressing well, and taking into account that aspect of commemoration.

I can confirm that the main events will be in London, and will include a religious service, a lunch and an event on Horse Guards parade. They will be attended by many thousands of veterans of the second world war, including those who served on the home front. Other events will be planned for the week leading up to 10 July 2005 as part of the United Kingdom's first ever veterans awareness week, an initiative that I hope will allow the whole country to come together to remember the significant contribution that our veterans made and to ensure that it will not be forgotten. I very much hope that many schools will plan events involving local veterans during that week.

The week will act as a pilot for further annual veterans awareness weeks. I see those events as crucial in ensuring that younger generations appreciate the sacrifice made by their forefathers.

My aim is to develop new themes each year around the core aim of commemorating our veterans and involving all generations in associated events across the nation. I am pleased that the project involves close co-operation with, and support from, our ex-service organisations as well as other stakeholders.

While the official celebrations of the 60th anniversaries in 2004–05 are obviously hugely important, I realised some time ago that many veterans would like to return to the areas in which they served for their own individual commemorations. I also recognised that their exploits and memories could provide wonderful educational material for today's youngsters. I am glad to say that both those strands have been brought together by the Big Lottery Fund's "Veterans Reunited" programme, which allows national lottery money to be used to enable veterans and young people to commemorate the events of the second world war. Indeed, under this Government, more money than ever before is being put into ensuring that veterans can attend commemorations.

The largest part of the "Veterans Reunited" programme is the "Heroes Return" scheme, which is providing £10 million of funding for veterans, their
 
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spouses and, where required, their present-day carers to visit the overseas areas where the veterans saw active service in the second world war. By the end of May—less than four months after the scheme was launched—more than 1,600 awards had been made, with a total value of £1.9 million.

Of course, the biggest commemorative event to receive funding so far is the Normandy commemorations of last weekend. By the end of May, the "Heroes Return" programme had distributed nearly £1.2 million to veterans wishing to travel to the D-day commemorations. Funding had been received by 2,128 veterans, 963 wives or husbands, and 1,166 carers—a grand total of 4,257 individuals. With the ability to make awards retrospectively, we expect the funding and the number of individuals funded to rise significantly.

The "Veterans Reunited" programme also includes about £10 million for educational projects under "Their Past, Your Future", while £7 million can be used for grants to organise events and exhibitions in the United Kingdom as part of the "Home Front Recall" aspect of the project. In total, "Veterans Reunited" has £27.5 million allocated from the lottery for the next two years.

In carrying forward the MOD's involvement in these projects, I have the crucial support of the Veterans Agency in Norcross, near Blackpool. In addition to its role in the administration of war pensions and provision of welfare support to pensioners, the agency represents the focal point in the MOD for delivery of support to the wider veterans' community, particularly in respect of advice on the services available from the Government and the voluntary sector. Its free helpline and other information services are heavily used, and I know that they are valued by many veterans.

I am pleased to report that the agency has played a major role in the "Heroes Return" scheme by providing initial advice to potential applicants. The agency has provided a helpline for inquiries about "Heroes Return" and has so far dealt successfully with more than 28,000 calls. That represents a 40 per cent. increase over the helpline's normal information traffic. I would like to thank, on the record, all those concerned in handling that huge amount of extra work in such a short time. I am sure that that work is appreciated across the House.


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