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Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): Ten years ago, when the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of D-day were taking place, it was felt that that would be the last major celebration. It was only when servicemen and women began to object to holding fairly low-key 60th anniversary celebrations that the public bodies respondedas they did magnificentlyto the demands for major celebrations this year. I congratulate the Ministry of Defence and all those who were involved in those celebrations. It has been mooted that the 60th anniversary should be the last major celebration. That may be so, but it would be wise to wait and see what celebrations the servicemen and women who took part this year want in 10 years' time.
I want to speak mainly, but not entirely, about veterans other than those of the second world war. I was interested to hear about how the Minister sees veterans. The young men and women who walk into recruitment offices this week and sign up to join Her Majesty's services will be the veterans of tomorrow, whether they serve for only a few years or their whole working life. The vast majority will have careers outside the armed forces. It is crucial for the Ministry of Defence and for us here in Parliament to recognise that the period that people spend in the armed forces, however long or short, is very special, because we ask very special things of those who join Her Majesty's armed forces. We ask them not only to put their lives at risk, but to give up many of the rights and freedoms that those of us in civilian life take for granted and enjoy. We expect them to move from one end of the world to another at the drop of a hat, to come back from operations and turn round to go somewhere else, and to disrupt their family life and put it on hold. We expect them to be treated in a way that people in civilian life would never accept.
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That is crucially important if we are to have an effective and well-oiled military machineit is part of the deal that is done. However, I sometimes think that the Ministry of Defence gets into a mindset whereby it assumes that when those men and women leave the armed forces they can continue to be treated in the same way as they were as servicemen and women.
That is why I so much welcome the establishment of a Minister for veterans. As a constituency MP dealing with a variety of cases involving ex-servicemen and women over the past seven years, I have noticed that the Ministry of Defence often has a jobsworth approach to such issues. It is often obstructive, and treats such people as it would expect a serving soldier or sailor to be treated.
It is important to change the culture within the MOD; that is one reason why it is so important to have a Minister for veterans. When someone comes towards the end of their service they should be treated properly, and there should be proper planning for their career when they leave. I welcome some of the initiatives that have been taken over the last couple of years, especially the career transition partnership, the work being planned for early leavers, and what is being done with projects such as Project Compass. Such projects are important, and I am sure that all Members in the Chamber will have had constituents with major social problems after their service with the armed forces, who are struggling because they are homeless or have not been able to settle down properly into civilian life.
It is crucial that the Ministry of Defence recognises that its responsibility does not end the moment that somebody leaves the service of their country, and that we have an ongoing responsibility. For many of the reasons that have been raised in the debate, that responsibility needs to be there in the long term, after military service is over.
I sense that what happens in a small case when someone leaves the service is likely to be repeated on a larger scale. I am in dialogue with the Minister at the moment about such a case, involving a constituent of mine with long service, who was not treated very well when he left. The same jobsworth attitude is often to be seen: "It doesn't conform to the rules," or "It'll set a precedent, so it will be very difficult to do that, Minister."
Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point. It is surely no criticism of the current Minister, who is energetic in his job, to point out that that is exactly why, in America, the veterans ministry is at arm's length from the Pentagon. That was the arrangement for which the Royal British Legion pressed, because the organisation whose focus is, rightly, on fighting the wars and fulfilling the commitments of today, will never have its eye fully on the ball of the kind of case that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.
Let us think about the issues that have been raised this afternoon. The problem with the Arctic convoy medals is a classic. If we asked Members anonymously, the vast majority would say that the men who served on those
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convoys should have a medal, and it is up to MOD officials to find a way of giving them one. However, I fully understand the difficulties that Ministers may have in sorting that out, because civil servants will always come up with a reason not to do it. That is one reason why we need a Minister for veterans, but the job is only half done.
Since we have had a Minister for veterans, much progress has been made on several matters but we have not reached the point where we need to be. The Minister has much more work to do to deliver on many of the issues that we have discussed.
We must consider, for example, the way in which we deal with people when they have left the services. I spent 1998 and last year on the armed forces parliamentary scheme with the Army. I therefore spoke to many of the servicemen and women who were involved in the Iraq campaign last year. Former servicemen and women are expected to serve as reservists, but the assumption since the second world war has been that a reservist would be called up only in the case of a direct threat to the United Kingdom. My father told me a few years ago that he was nearly called up to go to Korea but the general assumption in the UK was that once people had left the Army, the Navy or the Air Force, they would not be called up unless the Russians came over the German plain and we were fighting for our existence.
Iraq shows that the situation has changedit was expected that the reservists would be called up. Although the Territorial Army generally responded well to the call-up, many reservists assumed that they would not be called up unless there was a threat to the UK and found all sorts of reasons not to respond. We need to sort out what is expected of people when they leave the services. If they intend to continue as reservists, they must be clear that they could be called up for relatively small peacekeeping campaigns if that was the military's requirement. We must ensure that men and women who leave the services understand their obligations and future role. Many issues have not been properly sorted out because matters have drifted and we have assumed that things will simply carry on.
Many of today's contributions, especially on the Arctic convoy, have been powerful and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take them on board and acknowledge that change will happen. He has a major job of work, which is half done. He has made significant progress in the Ministry of Defence in improving the way in which we deal with servicemen and women when they reach the end of their service and move into civilian life and their treatment during that transition period. Many good initiatives have taken place and the Ministry's response to the D-day celebrations was excellent; everybody deserves congratulations on that.
However, we should not believe that we have reached the end of the process. The job is half done. Perhaps we may have to revert to considering whether the Minister for veterans should remain at the Ministry of Defence. Much progress is being made, however, and compared with the position seven years ago, when I became a Member of Parliament, matters are immeasurably
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better. If progress can continue at such a pace, we may well reach where we should be by the time I leave the House.
It is appropriate that the debate is being held this week. The tens of thousands of men who crossed the small strip of water close to my constituency where ferries ply today were on an uncertain mission. Most of the amphibious landings that allied forces attempted in both world wars failed and Hitler never tried a major amphibious landing. Although in physical terms the distance was small, when we consider that they faced minefields, barbed wire, concrete emplacementssome of which are preserved and were shown on televisionand being swept by formidable fire from determined defenders after a bone-shaking sea crossing, it is clear that they were a remarkable group of men.
I pay tribute to my local branch of the Normandy Veterans Association, headed by the redoubtable Frank Risbridger, which commemorated this remarkable event. I also join other hon. Members in congratulating the Government on the organisation and work that went into the commemorations. It is particularly encouraging to see the number of young people who have been so impressed by them. I further congratulate the Government on the announcement of the £27 million package that the Minister has extracted from the national lottery to carry on the commemorations by reminding young people in our schools of the sacrifices that were made by people of previous generations.
It is easy to pay lip service to the achievements of our veterans when we have a focal point as obvious as the recent anniversary, but it is also our duty to remember the countless other wars and operations on which we have sent our armed forces. Today, we are thinking mostly about D-day; tomorrow, our thoughts will no doubt return to Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. Since the end of the second world war, we have sent our forces to, among other places, Palestine, Korea, Egypt, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden, Oman, the Falkland islands, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Kuwait andagain and againNorthern Ireland. Each of those engagements required the courage, professionalism and dedication to duty for which our armed forcesregular and citizenare so well known.
Successive British Governments have been able to undertake those actions because, no matter what technical or geographical problems lay ahead, we could be confident that our armed forces would surmount them, and they are rightly admired all round the world for doing so. The men and women of our armed forces go to those places without complaintBritish soldiers have always enjoyed a bit of chuntering, but they go willingly and without hesitation or reservation. We are very fortunate to be so well served.
In so many debates on the armed forces, we acknowledge the debt that we owe our forces and rightly pay tribute to those who have been killed. We owe the members of our armed forces a duty of care, and I sometimes wonder whether we are fulfilling it. The
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whole nation was moved when it watched those brave old men make their pilgrimage to the beaches and drop zones around Normandy. It is all very well to talk about our debt of gratitude to the people who fought in the second world war and in subsequent conflicts, but each conflict produced its heroes and each man or woman involved had a story to tell, and all those events left scarssome mental, some physicalon many of the survivors.
That is why this year, the 60th anniversary of D-day, is an incredibly inappropriate timenot that there would ever be an appropriate onefor Her Majesty's Government to introduce proposals to alter the arrangements for war pensions. The worst of the changes is the raising of the burden of proof, to which the British Legion and the other service welfare organisations have objected so strongly. My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) referred in his powerful speech to the shortening of the time periods for most medical cases from seven years to five, and to the fact that procedures and tribunal arrangements will be much more complicated.
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