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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I have seldom heard an hon. Friend likened to Henry II. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence assures me that he has no intention of killing any archbishops, although we looked at each other quizzically when the matter was raised because the thought occasionally crosses our minds about one or two.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his introduction to our wide-ranging debate. He clearly set out the issues that are important to veterans, those who currently serve in the United Kingdom armed forces and their families. Praise was lavished on him not only by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) but by several other hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) and for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman). My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner) appeared to want to organise a party in his honour, such is the quality of his work. Even the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) praised him. My hon. Friend is doing a marvellous job as the veterans Minister.

The celebrations that my hon. Friend played such a big part in organising at the weekend were extremely successful. Praise was therefore well deserved. However, I noted that he celebrated the D-day landings by visiting not only Normandy but Monte Cassino, whereas I celebrated at Margate. I wonder why I got Margate and he got foreign travel; nevertheless, the weekend was incredibly successful.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to wind up, because it is important to take the opportunity of the first debate of this type to spell out how the health and social care system is trying to meet veterans' needs. I was also parliamentary private secretary to the Minister for the armed forces for two years and I have therefore attended many defence debates, but this is the first time that I have been allowed to speak in one.

Like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and others who have spoken, I must start by acknowledging the huge debt that we owe those veterans who served in the second world war and did so much to secure the freedoms that we enjoy today. If they had not done what they did, would we be here today, debating in a free Parliament or casting our votes tomorrow in free elections? I doubt it.

Like my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for New Forest, East, I was moved by the accounts in the media over the weekend of the personal experiences of those
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who took part in the campaigns at Monte Cassino and the D-day landings in Normandy. I was especially struck by the accounts of the children and grandchildren of veterans, including those from the United States of America. Although my trip was not perhaps as exotic as those that my hon. Friend went on, I was proud to stand with veterans at the D-day celebrations in Margate on Sunday and to hear at first hand their accounts of that miraculous day. I asked one elderly gentleman in a wheelchair, whose breathing was assisted by oxygen and who had been there on the day, "Can you remember what it was like?" He replied, "Like it was yesterday." The events are as fresh as yesterday in many veterans' minds, so amazing and momentous was the day.

I was struck by how much has changed for those concerned with health issues in the 60 years since D-day. I delighted to say that there has been unprecedented growth in health and social care services. Back then, health and care services focused largely on veterans' physical needs but at least we are now prepared to acknowledge the psychological impact of conflict on mental health and social functioning. We all need to apply better understanding of the wider impact of conflict and of the difficulties that people face simply in making the transition from service life to civilian life to ensure that we do better for veterans in the future than we have done in the past.

Happily, we are now much better prepared to support those who live with the mental and physical consequences of the trauma that conflict brings and, although we still have much further to go, I believe that individuals themselves are now more prepared to come forward and seek help. We have made progress, but we are still a long way from perfection, and I suspect that I am not unusual as a Member of Parliament in having on my books several veterans who have found themselves in my MP's surgery because of health problems or difficulties with adjustment. Some saw action, and some did not, but all have found transition difficult and need multi-agency support. To a greater or lesser extent, all have encountered difficulty in getting that support, and we must learn from their experiences and do better in future.

We must do better for the veterans whom we celebrated at the weekend and all the veterans of the last century's world wars, better for the veterans of Korea and Suez, and better for the veterans of Northern Ireland and all the other conflicts of our generation. We must also do better for the young men and women serving today in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. I am therefore especially pleased to be able to draw to the House's attention the work that we are doing in partnership with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to support people with a history of service in the armed forces.

I know from conversations that I have had with my constituents how difficult it can be to re-engage with ordinary life after leaving the armed forces, and how much more difficult that must be if a person is vulnerable, stressed or suffering from a mental illness, however short term. That is why our Departments will be working together to build on the support that the Ministry of Defence already provides. We will ensure that those leaving the services have information especially configured to their needs, and we shall look to the veterans' associations to help us with this and to
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provide us with advice. Above all, we shall look to the veterans and members of the services themselves to tell us what they need and how we can improve.

I do not want to second-guess what this guidance should contain, but I do know that it should be practical, relevant and focused on the basics as well as on some of those issues that we know are the most difficult to handle. It should cover subjects such as how to register with a general practitioner, what questions a person should ask if they need counselling or a psychological therapy, where they can get further information or a specialised assessment, and what to do if the services they need are not being provided.

Of course, health services for veterans do not stand alone. In this country, we have a national health service—in my view, a truly great concept and a great organisation—that provides quality care to all, free at the point of need. Its existence is the reason that we do not need a separate veterans service, as some countries do. I think that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) also came to that conclusion when he was serving in the previous Conservative Government. So when we drive up standards in the national health service, as we are, and when we take on more doctors and nurses, cut waiting times and improve services, as we have been doing, we improve services for everyone as well as for veterans. It is in that context that we must view the work that we are doing to improve, reform and modernise mental health services, and to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

Mental ill health goes hand in hand with social exclusion, and it features at every level of our society. It blights the workplace, with about one in five workers—around 5 million people—reporting symptoms of stress. It is also the leading cause of sickness absence, and restricts people in their capacity to live productive lives. It should therefore come as no surprise to us that members of the armed forces suffer from mental ill health just like the rest of us, in service and after service. We need to accept that and to help.

Much is said about the macho culture in the armed forces, but we know that young men, whatever their backgrounds, find it difficult to ask for help for social and emotional difficulties. That is a particularly worrying observation, given that young men are one of the leading risk groups for death by suicide. We must therefore tackle mental ill health with as much vigour as we tackle physical ill health, and we must drive up standards not only in health care but in social care. As well as driving up standards generally, we need to keep a special focus on the particular challenges that face veterans.

I should like to turn to some of the points raised by hon. Members today, and I shall begin with the hon. Member for New Forest, East, who correctly stated that tributes are important. I entirely agree with him on that.

He also rightly pointed out that they are important not just to those who remember these events, but to young people, our children and our grandchildren in establishing the respect that we ought to have for the freedoms that we have in this country. They will become fragile if we ever take our eye off the ball and forget to protect them.

Tributes are important, but I say to the hon. Gentleman, who seems to have made up his mind that celebrations of D-day need to continue almost annually,
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that some veterans I was talking to on Sunday said that this should be the last, as they do not want the celebrations to peter out and fade away.

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