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John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I commend the work undertaken by my hon. Friend the Minister who opened the debate, and his contribution to what was a very moving weekend of commemoration.
Last night, I met two other veterans. Jack Jones and Bob Doyle were members of the International Brigade in the Spanish civil war, who volunteered to fight fascism when it appeared in its earliest form. I welcome the fact that the Government are considering what commemoration could be afforded to them and the sacrifice that they made. Last night, a plaque was unveiled at a ceremony held by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers to celebrate and commemorate the 70 members of the National Union of Seamen and National Union of Railwaymen who fought for the International Brigade. If the brigade had been successful, it is possible that we could have avoided world war two and its consequences, including D-day.
I want to refer to a matter that I and the Royal British Legion raised two years ago, and that is the records of British ex-service personnel. At that time, the Government announced proposals to privatise the Ministry of Defence records office based in Bourne avenue in Hayes, in my constituency. The office stores all the records of all service personnel, going back to well before world war one. Visitors to the office can see the historical artefacts that are the actual records of each serviceman: indeed, when I visited, the staff there brought out my father's second world war records.
The records are stored and archived by a team of dedicated staff, many of whom have served there for a long time. They are extremely caring, diligent, conscientious people. The records are very sensitive, as they contain the personal details of all ex-service personnel of all ranks. For example, they also include the records of personnel who have served recently in Northern Ireland. Some of the records were used in the Bloody Sunday inquiry.
In December last year, the records operation was sold to TNT and the site was sold to ProLogis for development. The records are being transferred to a TNT warehouse in the midlands. The MOD staff, who have given loyal and dedicated service, have been transferred to the private company, TNT, and most will
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lose their jobs within 15 months. As well as the loss of my constituents' jobs, the MOD will lose their expertise and care.
I am also concerned about the risk to those irreplaceable and historical documents. Parliamentary questions have revealed that more than 40 complaints have been made about the performance of the private company in handling those records since the transfer in December. Large numbers of new agency staff are now operating on the site and have access to those sensitive records. The speed with which those staff have been granted sufficient security clearance to gain access to those records is remarkable. The speed of that security clearance has never been observed in an MOD establishment before.
I pay tribute to the existing staff who are doing all that they can to maintain a high quality service. I pay tribute in particular to Dolores Moody, the Public and Commercial Services Union representative, who seeks to protect the working conditions of her fellow workers as well as to ensure the standards of service delivery and the protection of those precious documents.
I urge Ministers to re-examine the operation of that public-private partnership. If it were up to me, I would invoke the penalty clause and bring the service back into public ownership and the control of the MOD. If that is not possible, Ministers should at least consider how they can ensure that both the staff and the records they tend are protected. Under the new arrangements, those documents are at risk, and that puts the security of some of our ex-servicemen at risk, too.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): It is right and proper that this debate should be conducted a few days after the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of D-day last weekend. I hope that the Minister does not think that I am being facetious if I say that Britain likes to celebrate its retreats as well as its victories. My father was involved in one of our most celebrated retreatsfrom Gallipoli, where he fought with the Berkshire Yeomanry in the first world warand I also have in mind the retreat from Dunkirk.
I have a high regard for the Minister for veterans. I would go so far as to say that he is the best we have hadalthough he is only the second. I admire his dedication to his cause in sitting through this debatealthough it has been a good one to have to sit through, with some moving and memorable speeches from different generations with various reflections on what being a veteran meansbut he is in grievous error on two counts. If he were to beat a tactical retreatlike those at Gallipoli and Dunkirkon the issue of the Arctic convoy medal and the closure of the Droitwich Spa Army medal office, he would be even more popular with the veterans whose causes he generally espouses so well.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), because there is a strange synergy between the points that we wish to make on behalf of our constituents in relation to the protection of records and excellent services based in our constituencies. I am deeply and seriously concerned that the closure of the Army medal officeand of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines medal offices in Gosportwill seriously prejudice the issuing of medals.
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I saw at first-hand the efficiency of the Droitwich Spa Army medal office when I visited it for the first time as its constituency MP some years ago. The staff asked me about my father's service record and I described his service in the first world war with the Berkshire Yeomanry, the Imperial Camel Corps and the Worcestershire Yeomanry. They asked whether he had served in the Home Guard during the second world war. I confirmed that he did, so they asked whether he had claimed his defence medal. I did not know, but I knew that I had only his first world war medals. They looked up the records on the spot and established that my father had never claimed his defence medal. They issued it to me and, two years ago on Remembrance day in Droitwich, I was able to wear his three first world war medals alongside his second world war medal.
That was a proud moment for me. I know how much the Royal British Legion appreciates the wearing of veterans' medals by their descendants. I owe the medal office a debt, but the veterans owe the medal service a very big debt indeed for the remarkable job that it does.
I want to make three points. First, I want to discuss the general wisdom of moving the Droitwich Spa Army medal office to a new location based at the RAF medal office at Innsworth. Secondly, I want to look at the impact of that change for the Suez medals and, to a lesser extent, the Iraq medal. Thirdly, I want to look at the detail of the financial case that the Government are fighting for closure.
My view overall is that the Government have been led into an error of judgment through unblinking adherence to a simple tri-service agenda. The facts are being made to fit the model when actually the model should be made to fit the facts. I do not dismiss the possibility that at some stage in the future merger of the three offices may make sense but, as the Minister knows, I genuinely believe that this is the worst possible time in the history of the medal offices to make such a change.
The change did not come as a great surprise. I heard rumours from the trade unions at the site in late March that the move was on the cards, but the event was publicly confirmed only with the Minister's statement on 20 April when he said:
"Consultation with MOD Trade Unions about the choice of the three sites from which JPA"
"will be delivered has been undertaken and detailed local consultation about the implications for staff will start shortly."[Official Report, 20 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 11WS.]
It is both the absence of that detailed consideration of the implications for the medal offices and the whole strategy of the JPA that cause me concern, which is hardly surprising as medal offices are not currently part of the structure that will form part of the JPA. They are outside the AFPAAthe Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency. This is a difficult subject area for civilians to venture intothe acronyms are, in the best military tradition, truly blinding.
"Currently our members at Droitwich undertake all the research required to ensure that awards and medals are properly granted to Army personnel and are responsible for the stamping and issue of all medals to the three military services."
Sometimes, concern is expressed about the length of time it takes to issue medals, but it is difficult to speed up the process, especially when it involves checking the records of older campaigns. It has to be a meticulous affair. Several Members have spoken about the difficulties of determining the length of time that people were in theatres in order to justify the issue of a medal, but very specific criteria are attached to each medal and the process and the work involved are indeed complex.
"the loss of the majority of the Army Medal Office staff at Droitwich, with the formation of the Joint Medal Office at Innsworth, will have a severely detrimental impact upon the levels of experience amongst staff handling enquiries and requests for awards . . . with the current backlog of requests for medals and the further campaigns which the Government has recognised for awards, now is the worst possible time for the transfer of work and loss of experienced staff".
We have heard a number of estimates of the length of the backlog for the issue of the Suez medal. Today, the Minister told us that it was two years. I understood that three years was nearer the mark and some people take an even more pessimistic view, but the backlog is certainly considerable.
All those factors combine to make me ask the basic question: why move the operations away from Droitwich? If there has to be a joint medal office, why not concentrate the expertise at the biggest of the medal office sites in Droitwich? If that is not possible, why not delay the closure for at least three years, to enable the current heavy work load to be dealt with effectively?
This is the busiest time in the office's life. The Suez canal zone medal, which has been generally welcomed, has produced thousands upon thousands of applicationsmore than 30,000 in totalmost, but not all, are Army applications.
The campaign in Iraq is generating a new flood of medal-issuing demands. As regards the second world war, about 500 or 600 applications are received each month, and the events of last weekend will have again prompted many veterans and relations of deceased veterans to claim their medals.
Then there is the ongoing business of replacing lost and stolen medals. Establishing beyond doubt that medals were genuinely lost or stolen is a very time-consuming process. Reissuing medals from earlier campaigns is equivalent to issuing money, because they are very valuable, and careful checking has to take place beforehand.
"The Army Medal Office at Droitwich is currently responsible for the issue or replacement of some 332 medals or awards."[Official Report, 29 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 1173W.]
He promised to send me a complete list of the medals, which I have not yet received. I would love to see it. Until recently, the Army medal office issued medals from the Boer war to proven descendents of that conflict. It did a marvellous job in issuing the Queen's
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golden jubilee medal; to date, it has issued, again according to a parliamentary written answer from the Minister, more than 95,000 such medals.
I met the Minister with the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) to discuss the implications of the closure of the site. Many of its staff come from my constituency, from Worcester and from Wyre Forest. I am grateful to the Minister for the courtesy with which he heard our representations and the courteous letters that he has sent me subsequently. However, the warm words that he has offered do not reassure me. As he knows, I wrote to him again on 19 May, saying:
"I am very far from reassured. I urge you to re-think this policy and either to delay the closure of the Army Medal Office for three years and announce that as policy or, better still, to exploit its expertise and instead concentrate medal issuing at Droitwich rather than at Innsworth."
I was particularly concerned to see that the investment appraisal assumed that only nine members of staff out of 55 or 60 at Droitwich would be transferred. The rest would be lost, with all their crucial expertise.
All this comes out of a plan developed by the Government to harmonise the work of the Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency, which is based at four sitesGlasgow, Worthy Down, Centurion at Gosport and Innsworthinto three sites under a new joint personnel administration centre. As far as I know, the investment appraisal team responsible for that work has not visited the Army medal office in Droitwich Spa. Certainly, the consideration given to medals has been superficial, to say the least. Issuing medals is a very different and specialised operation, but I am afraid that that has not been properly considered. The experience needed and gained by staff is huge.
It is also worth pointing outI say this as someone who married into a naval family, so it goes against the grain to admit itthat the RAF and the Navy often look to the Army medal office for guidance on medal-issuing procedures. Because of its history, the medal office has unique records for the Home Guard, from which I benefited during my visit there regarding my father's defence medal. The bullion room secures safely all the blank medals for all the armed forcesit is a very important secure facility. It is unthinkable that all that should be prejudiced by this ill-considered move.
When I asked the Minister how many staff work in the various Army medal offices, he told me that there are 89 in total, of whom nearly two thirds55are at Droitwich; it is by far the biggest of the facilities. Extraordinarily, in a written answer of 20 May, the Minister told me that the closure of the Army medal office was
"part of a risk reduction strategy aimed at minimising disruption to medal service delivery."[Official Report, 25 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 1613W.]
The issuing of the Iraq medal has now at last begun. It was badly delayed because of the uncertainty over the site. It would have been better had the staff employed to issue the Iraq medal been placed on a three-year fixed-term contract to take account of a closure period three years hence, but they had to be employed on a casual basis.
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That will really prejudice the issuing of that medal, but it has now begun, and the money for equipmentwhich was previously frozen, for reasons that I do not understandhas been made available. At last the Iraq medal is beginning to be issued, but too many veterans of the Iraq campaign will not wear their medals this Remembrance day, because of the uncertainty at Droitwich.
"Let's face it, Suez veterans aren't getting any younger and we are involved in a race against time to get their medals out to them before they die. Scrapping the Army Medal Office is going to make that backlog much, much bigger and sadly a large number of people are going to miss out".
"Charles Golder, 76, who has fought for 50 years for the Suez Canal Zone medal",
"'Veterans, like me, just want to see our medals before we die and to be honest we are dropping like flies.'"
In another answer to me dated 21 May, the Minister said that one of the constraints in issuing the Suez canal medal was "numbers of trained personnel"yet he is planning to dismiss large numbers of the trained personnel who do this work. I shall quote again what I quoted in an earlier intervention. The Veterans Agency's website says about the Suez canal medal:
"Checking eligibility is a skilled, time-consuming and exacting job, but the medal offices have skilled staff who are experts at assessing eligibility quickly and accurately."
Time presses on, and I want to make sure that the Minister has a decent chance to respond to the debate, so I shall not quote at length all the cuttings that I looked up from provincial newspapers about Suez veterans who have received their medals, and the pride that they derived from receiving them. However, only yesterday in the Western Morning News we read the following:
"Veteran Mike Hardy, of Crediton in Devon, said some old soldiers were already dying before receiving their medals. 'It is very sad,' he said. 'In the last few months I know of four veterans who have died. People are already being told that they may have to wait three years for their medal and the disruption caused by the closure of the medal office"
"is bound to add at least a year to that. There are a lot of West Country veterans still waiting, and you can imagine that in four or five years' time there will not be so many of us left. People feel very let down. Mr. Blair gave us hope last year, but we feel as if we are being fobbed off now. There is no political will and no resources being put into it."
Indeed, the resources that are around are being squandered. In my hand I have the quotations from the other soldiers about their experiences during the Suez campaign, which show just how sad the reality is.
It took a lot of work to get the investment appraisal for the plan out of the Government. Originally I received an answer on 12 May saying that the
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investment appraisal would be placed in the Library. In the understatement of all understatements it said that the document
"did not deal exclusively with the issue of the Army Medal Office."
There was no sign of the investment appraisal, so on 20 May I asked another question and was told on 25 May that it had been placed in the Library on 20 May. I rang the Library on 1 June and was told that the investment appraisal was still not there. I first became aware of its actually having reached the Library on 7 June.
"for the future siting of AFPAA including JPAC".
"As a supplement to this IA and to inform the consultations with TUs, a specific analysis was done of the option of forming a Joint Medals Office at Droitwich compared with it being formed at one of the AFPAA sitesthis option was highly unattractive on both business and cost grounds and has been discounted. (Reference [TBC once letter to TUs is finalised]."
In other words, that had not been done. The document was being written after the decision, and the facts were being made to fit the model, not the other way round. The published document actually says:
"TBC once letter to TUs is finalised".
There is a hint about the timing, which we do not know much about. In the timetable, "MedalsInnsworth" appears under "Early 05, Stage 2", which suggests that closure is scheduled for next spring, but we do not know. The document also says, bizarrely:
"Where possible, functions will co-locate at the site where the greatest concentration of staff currently exist."
The document contains a forecast of the number of staff required to issue medals in the United Kingdom. The figure is 74 staff for April 2004, but that is lower than the figure cited in the parliamentary answer that I received, so I do not understand the discrepancy. It is forecast that the number of staff required to cover all three services in April 2008 will be 34, but that does not fill me with much hope given the detailed and labour-intensive nature of the medal-issuing process.
The section of the document on risk contains no mention of the risk that veterans might not receive their medals, which it should. The only significant mention of medals appears in annexe H under the heading "Medals and Awards Administration". It says that an advantage of the proposal is that there will be:
"Reduced distance for the majority of staffs needing relocation".
No, the proposal will increase distances for the majority of staff needing relocation. The appraisal says that the proposal "reduces staff movement", but staff movement would increase because the Government are consulting on providing a bus service from Worcestershire to Gloucestershire for medal office staff. The document says that the proposal "reduces business risk", but that is frankly an ugly turn of phrase to use about the issuing
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of medals to veterans. The proposal will increase business risk because it will put the operation on one site rather than four, so there will be more risk of disruption, not less.
We find a clue in a separate side letter dated 18 March that was written by Peter Northen, "DCE/Agency Secretary" of the Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency. Crucially, the letter says on estate drivers:
"It is a key part of the Defence Estates strategy that the accommodation and estate held by the MOD should be rationalised . . . DE advise that the Droitwich site has potential for high quality residential use were it to be disposed of by the MOD. The Investment Appraisal undertaken to support the establishment of JPAC on three of the four existing AFPAA sites assumes the disposal of the Droitwich site and an income of £3.9M from that disposal."
I have some news for the Minister that he has not heard before: Droitwich has allocated all the housing land that it needs until 2011. The land in question is employment land, and special planning policy guidance is in force to protect such landunless, of course, the Deputy Prime Minister hears about it. The land is not available for high-quality residential development and would not fetch £3.9 million. In fact, the Chancellor might want to buy it for continued use by Customs and Excise, which also occupies the site.
The Minister will make a serious error of judgment if he pursues the policy. I am delighted that he has made two visits to the national memorial arboretum, so will he please make one to Droitwichhe will do better than his officials if he does? He should not casually accept the bland assurances that he receives from his officials. Disruption would be inevitable and the proposed cost savings are illusory. The document that I cited regarding the value of the site makes the most pessimistic assumptions possible about the cost of remaining at the site and the most optimistic assumptions possible about the benefits of change. Pursuing the policy would not save costs; in fact, costs would increase due to additional redundancy and transport costs. Additional equipment would have to be bought and money would have to be spent on redecorating, re-equipping and so on, so the process would be a costly nightmare. Honouring our veterans and ensuring that they receive their medals on time is more important than blind loyalty to a superficial tri-service agenda and a study that would disgrace most management consultants.
"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest"
and the knights rode off and killed Thomas à Becketthe turbulent priest syndrome. The situation in government is often like that: Ministers have ideas, but their civil servants are too scared to challenge them, so they rush off to kill the archbishop instead of challenging Ministers' views or the prevailing wisdom in their Departments. I suspect that the Secretary of State, rather than the Minister for veterans, has said, "Will no one deliver me a proper and effective tri-service agenda?" The officials have said, "Oh yes, we'll deliver it, and hang the consequences." However, the
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consequences are serious. Although the Minister for veterans will probably not have that responsibility when the scheme is implementedhe might have moved on or even be out of governmentI forecast that it will lead to serious delays in the issuing of medals.
I end by citing one of the greatest parliamentarians. He was not always a great hero of mine because I come from the faithful city of Worcester, but in a letter to the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland in 1650, Cromwell wrote:
"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."
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