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Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I see from the Minister's smile that he anticipates exactly what I am going to say. I hope that I will be able to make this point at greater length, if I catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker. If he attaches such importance to clearing the backlog, why is he choosing this precise moment to close the Army medal office, losing most of the expertise and skilled staff there, and transferring it miles down the road to Gloucestershire? Would he not be better advised to scrap the idea entirely? If he is not prepared to do that, could he at least put the closure on hold for three years, to enable that skilled body of men and women to issue the medal, as they wish to do, to veterans, who, tragically, are dying before receiving it?

Mr. Caplin: The hon. Gentleman and I have met on this matter and exchanged correspondence on it, and we simply do not agree. We need to bring the medal offices together to try to create an environment in which medals can be delivered more quickly and efficiently to veterans. That is one of the reasons why we are doing it.
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Although a great deal of valuable work is rightly going on to support the 60th anniversary events in 2004–05 and other commemorations, I also want to begin longer-term initiatives to ensure that the baton of remembrance is passed on to future generations. I have made two visits recently to the national memorial arboretum in Lichfield, and I was deeply impressed on both occasions. I am especially pleased that the Government have been able to provide a significant grant in aid for a three-year period to help the new management from the Royal British Legion to carry the project forward. This project has received warm support from veterans groups and is a fitting way to commemorate the sacrifices made in more recent times. As many Members will know, there are also plans to place the new armed forces memorial there, and longer-term proposals for an education facility.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Will the Minister spare a moment to say how grateful we all are to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and to General Sir John Wilsey, for their work, which we were all able to see on television? All around the world, it is important to veterans, and to the rest of us, that Commonwealth war graves are maintained in a decent state.

Mr. Caplin: Clearly, there has been a leak, because the next line of my speech was that I should also mention the continuing excellent work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A number of Members of this House, including the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), are commissioners. It is not always appreciated that the United Kingdom, in line with its proportion of the dead of the two world wars, meets almost 80 per cent. of the commission's costs through an annual grant of about £30 million from the Ministry of Defence. Those who have visited the commission's cemeteries around the world will testify to the wonderful work of its staff—drawn from many nations—in caring for those who have fallen in the service not only of the United Kingdom but of our partners in the Commonwealth. I commend the commission's new website, which provides outstanding assistance to those seeking to trace people who may be buried in one of its sites. I understand that the number of hits on the website now runs at more than 250,000 a month, from all over the world.

The commission is also actively exploring options for education projects. Like the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), I am pleased that the commission site at Bayeux played such an important and prominent role in the D-day commemorations, and that it looked in such superb condition, as did the memorial at Cassino last month.

Commemoration and recognition of veterans rightly deserves high priority, especially now, but also in the longer term. Our efforts and plans demonstrate our commitment to remembering the service given, and sacrifices made, by so many during the second world war and throughout history.

Mr. Hancock: I realise that the Minister is coming to the end of his speech. Earlier, he was asked about the Arctic convoys, and medals for those who served in them—four such veterans are in the Gallery today—and
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I hope that he will accept that this is a perfect occasion for him to announce that the Government have changed their mind and will award that medal to those deserving citizens of the UK. We can talk time and again about the role of those veterans, but there is one way in which we can commemorate their action, especially on the Arctic convoys: by giving them the medal. I would not want the Minister to miss this opportunity to put his side of the story and, for once, I hope, to agree with the rest of the House.

Mr. Caplin: I answered questions on this matter in some detail at Defence questions on 1 March 2004. That is on the record, and I do not plan to repeat what I said on that occasion. I stand by the comments that I made in relation to Arctic convoys. The House can no doubt debate these issues.

So what are our plans for the future? I have already said that I would like to develop many of our current initiatives. I believe that the various strands of commemorative and educative work, including veterans awareness week, will be particularly important as fewer and fewer people in wider society have direct knowledge of the essential work of our armed forces.

My vision as I approach this task is of making recognition and commemoration of veterans' achievements in support of their country a part of our national heritage—one that we can celebrate with the veterans among us, but can also pass to succeeding generations. I have emphasised our efforts to focus on the needs of younger and future veterans as well as those of their distinguished predecessors. To that end, I intend to continue the progress made on enhanced arrangements for the transition from service to civilian life by keeping the new programmes introduced this year under careful and constant review. I also intend to develop the role of the Veterans Agency in providing information and support for veterans, and to lock into other Government information services. A review of our veterans-related information strategy is in hand, as are individual collaborative projects on information and communications.

We have a range of new initiatives across Government and in partnership with the voluntary sector to tackle aspects of social exclusion and vulnerability among an important minority of veterans. I want to make progress on that as well as on the work relating to health matters, which will ensure that our veterans enjoy the full support of the national health service and can enjoy long and healthy retirements. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet, will refer to that later.

I am sure the House will recognise that it has been a busy year for veterans' affairs in the United Kingdom. We have righted an injustice with the award of the Suez medal, introduced new and different approaches to the transition from service to civilian life, enhanced the status of veterans across the United Kingdom, and successfully assisted with the 60th anniversary commemorations of D-day. Moreover, we have £27.5 million of lottery funding to spend on veterans to help future generations understand what happened.

There is, however, no room for complacency. There is much more to do, and the Government are strongly committed to continuing to recognise and enhance the role of the veteran in our communities.
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2.52 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): When the debate began I felt that I was coming in as a novice, but after an hour and six minutes of the Minister's excellent speech I feel that I have become something of a veteran myself. The reason I appear as a novice is, however, a good one, of which the Minister is aware: our official spokesman on veterans' affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), is today attending the funeral of his uncle and godfather—who, incidentally, was himself a wartime paratrooper. As my hon. Friend pointed out, he is in a way doing a service to a veteran although he cannot be here today to do the same for all veterans, as he would like to.

The Minister rightly observed that this is the first full debate on veterans' affairs to be held in the Chamber—although I remind him that, appropriately enough on VE day 2001, a full debate on the subject took place in Westminster Hall. That was at the initiative of the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), who has subsequently become a Treasury Minister and is therefore now in a position to implement some of the recommendations that she rightly made on behalf of veterans at that time.

Let me add my congratulations to the Minister, the Government and all who organised the magnificent event at Normandy. It really was an outstanding affair, which was of course entirely predictable. Any of us—which means all of us—who have personally come into contact with veterans of the second world war, and indeed of other conflicts, know what marvellous people they are and what a life-enhancing experience it is to meet them.

We all have our favourite little stories. Before I embark on the substance of my speech, I want to share one or two of them with the House. One concerns a man who died very recently, Lieutenant-Commander Pat Kingsmill. He was the only one of six Swordfish pilots to survive the war who were involved in trying to stop the German battle fleet when it sailed up the English channel. It was a suicide mission. The leader, Esmonde, was awarded the VC; all the planes were shot down. I read about the event when I was a lad, and never dreamed that circumstances with which I shall not detain the House would bring me into contact with Pat Kingsmill and the other survivors. I had an opportunity to bring them to the House, where they met Speaker Boothroyd at what was probably one of her last engagements before she stepped down.

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