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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 13 July 2005

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Government Support (Veterans)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Dhanda.]

9.30 am

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured the debate, following on as it does from veterans' awareness week and last Sunday's world war two national commemoration day. Recently, we held a similar event in Ayrshire, which was organised by the three Ayrshire councils and the lord lieutenant. More than 100 veterans from the second world war took part in a service and recounted memories of their comrades at home and abroad. However, some local women who had taken part in it made it clear to me that they considered that women's contribution to the war effort had never been given the recognition that it deserved. I know that they will be delighted that Her Majesty the Queen has unveiled a memorial to commemorate the 7 million women who worked for victory in the second world war in both the armed forces and on the home front.

I believe that, to date, only one debate on the Floor of the House, in June 2004, was dedicated exclusively to veterans' issues. It is a little disappointing that such a debate has not become an annual event. Although there are opportunities in defence debates to raise veterans' matters, such as the one that was held last week, does the Minister agree that a specific debate held in Government time would help to raise the profile of veterans' awareness week and highlight further some of the excellent work that is undoubtedly going on, as well as providing a platform for hon. Members to raise concerns on behalf of their constituents who are veterans? Moreover, members of our communities are concerned about how society treats our veterans.

I wish to make it clear that I am no expert on defence matters. In common with many hon. Members, I do not have personal experience of the armed forces. That is why I am grateful to have had the opportunity of taking part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme and completing 22 days with the Royal Marines. I pay tribute to Sir Neil Thorne and all who made the scheme possible. It afforded me the chance to learn at first hand about the armed forces that I would never otherwise have had. As I said, such an experience does not make me an expert, but it gave me an opportunity to hear from the real experts on both a formal and informal basis. It opened my eyes to many issues in respect of the armed forces, which are for another debate.

I wish to draw attention to some relevant points that I learned during my time with the Royal Marines. If we do not treat them fairly today, we cannot expect serving members of our armed forces to have confidence that they will be treated well when they become the veterans of tomorrow. Much work has been done, for example, in tackling homelessness among ex-servicemen, and that
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is important for those who are vulnerable. However, as Ministers have stated on many occasions, most people settle well when they leave the armed forces. There is the possibility for them to leave the armed forces enhanced by skills and experience and to develop their potential in the wider community, but I was informed by some marines that they could not afford to get on the property ladder because they were not paid enough.

I am acting as an unofficial shop steward on behalf of the Royal Marines. Perhaps we should seriously consider introducing a trade union to the armed forces. I saw at first hand the job that members of the armed forces do and the contribution that they make, for which they should be appropriately rewarded. The Ministry of Defence is modernising the service to increase the opportunities for serving personnel to put down roots and extend the time that they can spend with their families. We need to encourage recruitment and retention, but getting on the property ladder is surely part of the preparation for civilian life. I do not suggest that young members of the armed forces are unique in that regard, but I ask the Minister to consider it as a serious issue.

My second point follows on from that. Preparation for civilian life should be part of the process from the beginning and not an afterthought when the end is in sight. I know that efforts are being made to ease the transition from military to civilian life, and I would be grateful if the Minister provided an update on what is being done to assist serving personnel to plan for the future.

I am indebted to the armed forces parliamentary scheme, but also to the Veterans Agency, the Royal British Legion and particularly Combat Stress for the information and advice that they have made available in their work and campaigns. The situation for veterans today is very different from that of the past. However, that does not mean that everything is rosy. I refer, for example, to an article by Dr. Niall Barr in the first issue of the Royal British Legion magazine, "Forward". It provides an historical perspective on how veterans have been neglected by the state in the past and on how the legion was formed in 1921 to form a veterans' movement, which, as we know, continues today.

Although people do not leave the services now as part of a great wave of demobilisations as in 1918 or 1945, a return to civilian life can be difficult for some people today. They may not leave the services destitute, but they leave as individuals and face loneliness, a lack of support and often a lack of public empathy. Thanks to the efforts of its servicemen and women, British society is insulated from the demands and human costs of war and there remains little real understanding of what they have experienced on operations. Unfortunately, last week we saw a measure of how bad that can be. Let us hope that we never see a repeat of it.

I shall concentrate most of my remarks on ex-service personnel who suffer from mental health problems, what is being done for them, where gaps need to be filled, the contribution made by Combat Stress—the ex-services mental health society—and especially Hollybush house, newly in my constituency. It was formerly in the constituency of my former colleague, the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, who has gone to the other place as Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. I am indebted to him; he was very committed to the work of Hollybush
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house. He invited the former Minister with responsibilities for veterans, Ivor Caplin, to visit the house, and I was delighted to be present on that occasion. The Minister was impressed by the work being done there.

I summarily extend an invitation to the current Minister with responsibilities for veterans to visit Hollybush house to see the work that is being done there. I am sure that he would enjoy his visit to Scotland, and I know that the people there would be happy to welcome him.

I should like to recognise the progress that has been made since the appointment of the first Minister with responsibility for veterans. In preparing for this debate, I was struck by the amount of intensive strategic work going on in this area, which appears to differ substantially from the somewhat piecemeal approach adopted by Governments in the past. Previously, problems were addressed as they developed, but the Government are taking a more structured approach and are basing policy—and, ultimately, resources and action—on evidence of real and measured needs. In the past, services for veterans have been delivered by a variety of Government and voluntary sector organisations, often working in isolation. Increasingly, social services are delivered on a cross-Government basis or through partnership between the Government and private or voluntary sectors. It is that partnership that I want to explore more fully this morning.

I question whether we fully support veterans with mental health illness, but there is no question that at least there is a coherent plan, and mechanisms to measure success or failure, what is or is not working. I am sure that that will be widely welcomed throughout the House, but the difficulty is that it will not necessarily convince our veterans who want practical proposals. They are not overly impressed by phrases such as "coherent strategies" or "partnership working"—I suspect that they would have used other expressions in their serving days—that may appear to be nothing more than bureaucratic window dressing to someone who cannot access the treatment that they need.

I would not dare to speak for ex-service organisations, but I can speak from my experience of working with a voluntary organisation that supported women who had been abused and who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of experiences that were somewhat different from those of veterans. It is always pleasing when a Government, who have the power to take on board the concerns that an organisation has campaigned on with little recognition for many years, start to take the issue seriously, but it is always done on the Government's terms. It can be difficult for the organisation to comply with consultations on strategies while it struggles to provide a service at the coalface with scarce resources.

Partnership between the Government and the voluntary sector must therefore recognise the authentic experience and the campaigning roles of the veteran's organisations. It is necessary to ensure that jointly funded work does not detract from the Government's responsibility to provide state support for veterans or impinge on the charities' independence. That is a fine
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balance. I hope that the Minister will inform us that it is being achieved through the Veterans Forum and its various working groups.

I would also be grateful if the Minister could outline how the Government are putting their money where their mouth is. We all applaud the sterling fundraising efforts of ex-service organisations and the support that they get from the public, but what is the role of public money in supporting veterans? How does our contribution to supporting veterans compare with that of other countries? It is often said that a country can be judged by how it treats its veterans. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that last week's events would give the country an opportunity to thank a generation that made so many sacrifices for freedom. However, that generation was not particularly well treated at the time. What of the generations that have come after it and future generations?

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing this important debate. I have recently dealt with several cases of the type to which she refers, and I shall be grateful to the Minister for what I am sure will be a helpful response. Does my hon. Friend agree that stress and mental health problems may not manifest themselves immediately or even early on in a person's service career—they may not become apparent until many years have passed—and that they could result not only from having served in areas of conflict but from having been subjected to stress by superior officers, from having been treated as a guinea pig and given inoculations without proper explanation or from having served in nuclear test areas? It is only when people reach the later stages of their life that such events begin to prey on their mind and cause them the mental health and stress to which my hon. Friend refers.

Sandra Osborne : I entirely agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. A well-known feature of post-traumatic stress disorder is that it can affect people many years after the event, even though they were not necessarily aware of a problem at the time. There are a number of contentious issues about how people end up with mental health illnesses following their service. They have been ongoing for many years.

I turn to my main concern, which is to raise specific issues relating to mental health problems associated with combat. Thousands of British veterans still struggle with the horrific psychological effects of combat. Many of those brave veterans face a daily struggle against nightmares, flashbacks, depression and anxiety. That is the brutal legacy of combat experience. As the organisation solely dedicated to helping the veterans recover from their injuries, the society—Combat Stress—provides intensive therapy at three treatment centres. One is in Surrey, one is in Shropshire and the other is Hollybush house in Ayrshire, which is in my constituency.

Hollybush House is vital to Scottish and Irish veterans. It is the only specialist service providing for the psychologically wounded in Scotland. It provides a unique safe environment where experienced staff can use the veteran peer group to help break down the mental barriers associated with post-traumatic stress disorder
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and other conditions. They can engage the veterans in therapy much more quickly and much more effectively than outpatient national health service appointments can do.

Research by Professor Simon Wesley and the current review of the society by the health and social care advisory service show that the NHS is not well equipped to understand the experiences of those veterans who have the mental health problems of combat-related psychological injury. Interim suggestions for policy have come out of Professor Wesley's King's college scoping study, which was commissioned by the MOD to examine key areas of need not already being met. They included the idea that for people who have left the services, joint work with the Department of Health for enhanced provision of service-related mental health problems was required. Such provision should be in a setting sensitive to veterans' unique needs. I would suggest that Combat Stress and its various treatment centres provide such a setting.

Ex-services people feel disfranchised and have often been fobbed off or pushed from pillar to post when trying to access health services. The reality is that most clients referred to Combat Stress have already done the rounds and have not been helped in the existing NHS system. Their condition is often chronic. They are often unemployed, may have housing problems related to the breakdown of relationships, are dependent on the state benefits system and have not uncommonly left a partner and children in similar circumstances.

It appears that many other countries recognise the fact that to achieve positive outcomes with that client group, a dedicated service is required for them. Hence their Governments also fund them. For example, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States have a different system, where veterans' organisations and hospitals are funded by the Government. In this country, some time ago, money was transferred to the NHS when service hospitals closed in the belief that it would provide services to veterans. It has been left to the ex-services organisations to pick up the pieces.

I do not say that we should lose the partnership approach that we have, or the valuable experience of our long-standing ex-services organisations, but if they are spending most of their time worrying about funding, that affects their ability to provide the service and they cannot expand it, either to accept higher numbers of referrals or to respond to real and measured needs, to use the MOD phraseology.

Many people seem to think that an ex-services mental welfare society will be dealing only with veterans of the two world wars. They tend to see images of shell shock, images from the past. Those are important images but they do not necessarily relate to today's younger veterans.

The society is picking up an unprecedented number of new cases: it had 900 last year and put 500 on its books. The damage caused to veterans frequently requires long-term treatment and is getting more and more complex because of societal changes and the different active engagements of troops. However, many clients are now referred earlier to Hollybush house. Those are the clients most likely to achieve positive outcomes, but they are also the very people for whom funding is not available.
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The aims of treatment for these clients should be to provide curative treatment that will enable them to deal with the effects of their symptoms to a degree that allows them to live a more normal life, form relationships and join the work force. However, that cannot be offered, because although Combat Stress has the expertise, it does not have the funding to allow it to provide the level of input necessary to achieve those outcomes. There is a big vacuum at the moment, as it cannot do the outreach work that would complement the work of community mental health teams in the national health service.

As I said, referral rates are rising, and it is logical to expect further increases as a result of the conflict in Iraq. As the Minister knows, the Territorial Army, and reserves in general, were used quite extensively in Iraq, and more TA soldiers are asking Combat Stress for help than has been the case in any other conflict. I have been informed that the issue is causing concern to not only clinicians in Combat Stress but the Army Families Federation and community psychiatric nurses working for the Army. There seems to be a shortfall in help for TA service personnel with psychological problems on return home. As the Minister knows, regular soldiers must attend a compulsory decompression process on return from active duty. They also return to the support of barracks and continued help, if necessary, from the defence psychiatric services.

The TA soldier has the option of the decompression process, but quite naturally most opt to get home as soon as possible, where they immediately become the responsibility of the NHS and the victim of long waiting lists and are dealt with by staff with little or no experience of combat-related psychological problems. It is feared that the current increased referral rate from the TA may be only the tip of the iceberg and that there may be a substantial increase in demand for support from reserve veterans in future. I would be grateful for the Minister's comments on that.

In April 2004, Combat Stress organised an appeal under the direction of Sir Clive Fairweather to upgrade Hollybush house to meet the statutory requirements laid out in the Regulation of Care (Scotland) Act 2001, which comes into effect in 2007. Fundraising for the new wing stands at an incredible £730,000, and the appeal has been supported by almost 2,000 donors and organisations. I know that there is a great deal of local support for the appeal because I have attended several local fundraising events.

In Ayrshire, we are much aware of the fine work done by Hollybush house, but the appeal has had the added advantage of placing the needs of Scottish veterans with combat-related mental health injuries firmly on the map. There is no doubt, however, that without that appeal the closure of Hollybush house was a distinct possibility. We hope that the Scottish Executive will make a contribution to the final budget of £1.7 million that is needed to secure the upgrade. We wait for a decision to be made. The upgrade is welcome, but it has been hastened by the Scottish Executive's care requirements. I believe that it is incumbent on the Scottish Executive to make a contribution.

There is the vital issue of funding for Combat Stress in the light of the new compensation scheme introduced in April. Even before April, Government support came only in the form of possible funding of treatment for any client who has a war pension of more than 20 per cent.
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for a mental health problem. More than 40 per cent. of the clients did not have that pension, so the society was reliant on using its general fund, which consists of donations from regimental associations, the Royal British Legion branches and other charitable trusts.

Many referrals now come from mental health professionals or primary care providers, but such referrals do not come with any funding attached. The new scheme introduced in April does not have that element to it. The single payment compensation with a lump sum will not necessarily be used to pay for treatment at Combat Stress. When funding disappears with current veterans who receive pensions, it will not be replaced by the new system. Slowly but surely, clients under the new scheme will not be able to be accommodated.

As I have said, 40 per cent. of treatment is already unfunded. The Ministry of Defence appears to be saying that funding for veterans with combat-related mental health issues is a national health service issue, not an MOD one. There is no scheme in place to ensure that the NHS fills the gap. Combat Stress is doing all that it can to raise funds from the public. The Minister knows that it is notoriously difficult to raise funds to respond to mental illness in any circumstance.

The balance of responsibility for funding has been shifted to the NHS. I hope that I have shown that it is well established that it is not realistic for appropriate services to be provided by the NHS. It could be done through partnership with Combat Stress, but that would require public funding. If Combat Stress is doing a job that should be done by the NHS and social services, the Government should allocate funds to the organisation that can deliver the service through a contract for specialist commissioned services or some other mechanism. It is worrying that such a system is not in place.

I realise that there are complications owing to devolved government, but there must be a national agreement, or a postcode lottery will develop, with veterans accessing services only if their local health authority happens to take the situation on board. I have already stated that much has been done by the Government. Successive Ministers with responsibility for veterans should develop a proper strategy for dealing with veterans' concerns. The Minister responsible for encouraging cross-Government co-operation on veterans' issues must solve the funding problem.

It does not make economic sense not to spend money in the short term that would reduce the long-term drains that will almost certainly result both on the NHS and the nation's benefit system should an increasing number of veterans continue to develop chronic, debilitating conditions that go untreated. Hollybush house does a fantastic job with scarce resources. Is it right that it achieves all that while it is heavily dependent on charitable income? More importantly, does the situation show that we value the sacrifice that our veterans have made for their country? I look forward to the Minister's reply.

9.58 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne). She made an interesting,
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well developed and, in the light of the celebrations, parades and so on last Sunday, timely speech. She was   right to highlight some of the many issues that affect veterans today: the women's contribution; homelessness, which I will touch on; and the many health care issues that affect those who have served our country.

Veterans have made a huge contribution to our country's history and have shaped the country that we live in today. Many of them survived the horrors of war while their friends and comrades gave their lives so that we could live ours in freedom. As a result, it is extremely important that everyone in this country and beyond recalls the sacrifices of our soldiers past and present and passes on the culture of remembrance from generation to generation. I pay tribute to the work of the many veterans organisations that continue to raise awareness and fight for the rights of veterans and their families across the country. The importance of the treatment of veterans has not always been given the weight that it deserves. With that in mind, I was pleased by the announcement four years ago that all veterans issues, right across the Government, had been pulled together under a single Minister. Following the creation of the post of Minister for Veterans, I look forward to hearing of the work that has been done in the past four years.

Sunday saw marches in Edinburgh and throughout the country celebrating national commemoration day, the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war. Many veterans paraded down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh amid scenes that were repeated around the country. However, many of those who marched are now in their 80s and 90s, and it will not be long before very few veterans of the two world wars are still among us. Consequently, we owe it to them and to ourselves not to forget their contributions or the lessons that can be learned from them. I am hopeful that we will never again bear witness to another conflict on the scale of the two world wars. However, that does not mean that there are not many important lessons that we can learn from those past sacrifices. Sunday's celebrations should remind us of the triumph of the free world, but also of the horrors of war and the sacrifices of our servicemen and women.

I am sure all hon. Members were as concerned as I was earlier in the year by the apparent lack of awareness among many younger people of the VE-day celebrations. A worrying survey of UK pupils showed that three quarters did not know what VE stood for. Indeed, some thought that it was a music festival and others a venereal disease. It is fair to say that we need to do much more to educate the next generation about the sacrifices and bravery of our war veterans. They have inspirational stories that could encourage young people. I hope that last weekend's commemorative events will have gone some way towards achieving that.

I am sure that the whole House will welcome "Their Past Your Future", the scheme run by the Imperial War museum with national lottery funding. It has enabled students from all over the country to join veterans on overseas pilgrimages to former theatres of war to learn more about our recent history. The last century was one of the most violent in recent history and in the history of mankind. It is incumbent on us to educate the next generation so that they will be inspired to ensure that this new century will be one of peace and tolerance.
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Although we must remember veterans from previous conflicts, we must not forget those members of our armed forces who are, as we speak, serving this country in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere. Although the veterans of the two great wars have much to teach us, Government support for veterans goes far beyond that group. We must recognise that the majority of those who leave our armed forces are in their 30s and 40s. Consequently, supporting their transition back into civilian society is a major issue, as the hon. Lady said. Many have serious difficulties finding not only their first job, but a fruitful career for the following 20 to 25 years. We need to ensure that they have support not only when they first leave the services, but throughout the rest of their working lives, if they need it.

On a similar note, many of our soldiers join up at the age of 16 or 17 and therefore miss out on gaining the further or higher education qualifications that many of their contemporaries will go on to achieve. It is important that education does not stop on enrolment and that we equip our recruits with transferable skills and qualifications that will aid their transition into civilian life.

Some years ago, I interviewed a young American veteran who had served his country and had thought that he was also being trained for a job in the medical services in civilian life when his time in the forces was over. When he left the forces, he found out that his qualifications and experiences were worthless because there were not valued in the hospitals to which he applied for jobs. He felt let down, misled and betrayed by his Government. He was fit, able, intelligent and articulate. I interviewed him in a hostel for the homeless and he had his entire worldly possessions with him in one small bag. Hopefully, we shall be able to avoid such situations in this country.

As we heard, the casualties of war are not only those injured and killed in conflict, but those who suffer debilitating after-effects of their time in such conflicts. The Government have failed too many veterans in this regard. For example, recent years have exposed the reluctance of the Ministry of Defence to implement a screening test to detect uranium in the bodies of Gulf war soldiers. Although veterans have been demanding the tests since 1996, only last year did the MOD agree to offer them, by which time many experts say that there was little chance of detecting anything. That is just one of many similar stories. It remains the case that Defence Ministers in successive Governments have tried to play down the significance of a variety of severe illnesses. Those who put their lives on the line for this country deserve better. Such stories provide, unfortunately, an uncomfortable backdrop to last week's celebrations.

Pension provision is another central concern for veterans. Those men and women have spent a large part of their lives defending us and our country and they deserve all the support we can give. In 1973, armed forces pensions were recognised as among the best pensions in the public sector. However, during the 30 years since then, it is clear that they have slipped considerably to the bottom of the scale. We owe a duty of care and responsibility to our veterans and their dependants, and I look forward to hearing the Minister explain what the Government have been doing to reverse that trend.
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Many of my hon. Friends have recently been involved in the treatment of the Gurkhas. I am sure that many hon. Members will have welcomed, as I did, the news last year that retired Gurkha soldiers will be allowed to apply for UK citizenship. I am pleased that those deemed good enough to fight and die for us are finally considered good enough to apply for citizenship. I am interested to hear the Minister's comments on the take-up of that scheme and any other help that has been offered to that often overlooked category of veterans.

On a different note, following the widespread public opposition to the recent war in Iraq, we must consider seriously how we deal with veterans of different conflicts. Sadly, it often seems that veterans of what can only be described as more popular conflicts are more widely revered than veterans involved with those conflicts that are less popular in the eyes of the public. For example, the South Atlantic fund did a great deal of work for the veterans of the Falklands war. I am less confident that a similar scheme awaits veterans of the war in Iraq.

The recent disagreement on the treatment of veterans of the Arctic convoys has also led to such complaints. We need to remember that the risks taken and sacrifices made by members of the armed forces are the same, irrespective of the justification for, or public perception of, a conflict. For that reason, although I opposed the war in Iraq, as did my right hon. and hon. Friends, we recognise that having sent our troops into a conflict we immediately have to do all we can to support them. I hope that the Minister will consider those concerns.

I could not speak about the Government's support for veterans without touching on the future of the Scottish regiments. There may well be a case for reform in the Army, but to break the link between the past and present is unnecessary and unhelpful when we all agree that we need to do more to educate people and to remember the sacrifices of our soldiers. At this time, like no other, increasing demands are being made of our soldiers. Surely this is not the time for such reforms.

I am sure that the Minister will have ample time to address the points made. We all owe a debt of gratitude to our servicemen and women, who have given so much to this country. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that we never forget not just those who gave their lives for their country, but veterans, young and old, in all our constituencies. Their concerns must be addressed by their Government, and we will always remember that our freedom, our democracy and today's debate would not have happened without their selfless actions. They are asking for a fair deal and they deserve nothing less.

10.9 am

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): It is great pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), not only on having secured the debate, but on the measured and deeply committed way in which she made her case. She concentrated primarily on mental health provision for ex-servicemen, which I also hope to touch on. However, I intend to range a bit further across the spectrum of veterans' affairs to give the Minister a wider choice of things on which to comment and to help us understand the Government's latest thinking.

I am also pleased to agree with much of what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) said. He made an important point about veterans of unpopular
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wars not receiving the same support as those who participated in wars that enjoyed more jingoistic support at the time. I pay credit to hon. Members from all parties who have, in recent years, shown time and again that they are able to distinguish between their own beliefs about whether a conflict should have been entered into and their unfettered regard for the servicemen and women who faithfully carry out the orders of the Government of the day to try to bring about a successful resolution to those conflicts, with the minimum number of casualties and with maximum effectiveness.

It is important that we learn something about the mistakes of the past. We all too often pay tribute to people long after the event and regret not doing the things that could have been done to help them at the time while nevertheless proceeding behindhand in trying to deal with the veterans' problems of today. It is no good always saying, "We're sorry for the mistakes we made in the past", if we go on making them in the present.

Later today there will be a ministerial statement on far east prisoners of war. I understand that the ombudsman has found against the Government on four counts of maladministration of the compensation scheme. The ombudsman's report refers in particular to those people who were interned by the Japanese in the second world war, but were not considered to have a sufficient connection with the United Kingdom to qualify for the compensation agreed in November 2000.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who set up the all-party group on far east prisoners of war and internees. When I heard about the forthcoming statement I did a quick search to remind myself of all those occasions on which we spoke and argued for compensation for the veterans who had been so sorely afflicted during those terrible years. The debates in which myself and others participated consisted of statements and question sessions on 9 March 2000, 3 July 2000, 7 November 2000—when the then Member for Kircaldy, one of the predecessors of the current Minister, announced the scheme—and on 26 November 2001, when the hon. Members for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) asked why the criteria for eligibility for compensation for civilians interned by the Japanese in the second world war had been changed.

I asked the Minister at the time why he was defending the indefensible and put it to him that if people were British enough to be interned, they were British enough to be compensated for that internment. He replied:

Evidently, the ombudsman disagrees.

We do not wish to keep replaying such mistakes over and over again. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock made a point about so many people who, having faithfully served the country in the armed forces, were finding themselves homeless and without adequate support when suffering the flashbacks of the traumas that they experienced while in the services. Those flashbacks often emerge long after the event.
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In part, that reflects the wider issue of the way in which mental health is, in general, treated in this country. There is not the in-patient support that there used to be for people who do not need permanent in-patient residence but who do need periodic in-patient support to keep them on an even keel as a result of a trauma. More needs to be done before servicemen and women who have seen active service leave the armed forces. If the work is done in advance of their departure, it may be much easier to spot people who are at risk of developing mental health problems.

We need to develop schemes to help people who have not been able to get on the property ladder's first rung while serving their country overseas. I know that the Government have been thinking about that. I want to hear how far they have progressed in making it possible for someone who has completed a considerable period as a serviceman or woman in far-flung parts of the globe to have, when they enter civilian life, a financial basis on which to make a start on acquiring a home that will be the base from which they build their future career.

The pensions of members of the armed services have been a matter of great controversy and debate for many years. I do not propose to revisit all the arguments about those still suffering from the pensions trough of the 1970s or those who are still in anomalous positions because of post-retirement marriages. The Minister will    have been addressing those issues with some concentration since he took up his post relatively recently. I want to hear what he has to offer to put right a situation that is getting easier to put right year by year, if only for the sad reason that fewer and fewer people are   still alive to benefit from a rectification of the disadvantages that were incurred so long ago.

I am delighted to be able to congratulate the Government on the work that they have done in recent weeks and months to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war. The work on the commemoration events in the past week speaks for itself. The Living museum, which I had the pleasure of visiting, was affected for part of its duration by the terrible events that took place last week. Nevertheless, it saw a high throughput of people making the most of the opportunity to see all that is owed to those who fought and won the fight against a much greater, more pervasive and stronger form of totalitarianism than that faced by our society on a small, though deadly, scale.

I was also pleased with the efforts to educate the wider public by bringing future generations into contact with the memories of the veterans' generations. However, when I went to the "Their Past Your Future" exhibition at the Ministry of Defence, I was surprised to see among the exhibits a claim that the late Lord Cheshire VC, who founded Cheshire Homes and was a leading hero of the Royal Air Force bomber command and an observer at the Nagasaki bombing, had, at the end of his life, joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and campaigned against nuclear weapons. I had the privilege of being in contact with Lord Cheshire during the 1980s. Although he used to go to Japan to pray for the souls of those who died at Nagasaki, he maintained until the end of his life that the bombings were necessary and that the lives of many thousands of allied prisoners of war were
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saved by a speedy end to the war so that the well established Japanese plans to murder them could not be put into effect.

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the title of the debate is Government support for veterans, and I ask him to return to that topic.

Dr. Lewis : I am happy to do that, but I believe that that is a veterans issue, because the project's work is about putting the veterans' record before future generations. I was pleased that the Imperial War museum responded to my inquiry and corrected the record.

It is important that we draw the right lessons when we look back on what the veterans achieved for this country. We should draw the lessons that wars are sometimes fought because of lack of preparedness rather than bellicosity and that we owe it to the veterans whose memories we have been honouring that their record is not distorted.

The issue of the award of medals involves the Government and veterans. I understand from people who have held ministerial office in the Ministry of Defence that that always takes up a disproportionate amount of Government time. The Government eventually resolved the Suez canal zone problem by awarding a general service medal to those who had served in that zone in the 1950s and a clasp to those who already had the general service medal and who had also served in other zones, but who were entitled to extra recognition. It was possible for that medal to be awarded retrospectively because the record was examined and the decision was taken to make the award in light of the fact that that had not been considered and rejected at the time.

So, I have a positive proposal to put to the Minister with regard to the ongoing dispute about the awarding of an Arctic star or an Arctic clasp in respect of the Russian convoys veterans of world war two. It has been a long-standing concern of hon. Members in all parties. I have taken the trouble to do a little research in the archives and am grateful to the Cabinet Office historical section for allowing me to inspect the records of the ceremonial department that established the campaign stars and clasps that were awarded at the end of the second world war.

I went through those records thoroughly, and I can assure the Minister that nothing in the records that were presented to me suggested that the question of making a separate award of either a campaign star or a clasp was specifically considered and rejected at the time. Therefore, I think that he should investigate further. Perhaps it would be possible to resolve this last outstanding issue from the second world war campaign medals inventory, by finding out if the same criteria that allowed the Suez canal zone issue to be resolved could also be applied to the Arctic convoys.

The veterans concerned would be content if there were a recognised clasp, such as the clasp that was awarded to those who fought in the battle of Britain, to be attached to one of the existing campaign stars from world war two. A solution along those lines would be acceptable. Something that does not come under the
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category of an official star or clasp would not be acceptable. It would be a sensible and non-controversial way to resolve the matter without opening up a Pandora's box of claims for history to be revisited and for further medals to be awarded for one reason or another. It is sensible that such awards should normally be made as a result of decisions made reasonably soon after the events.

That campaign has been something of a running sore. There has always been the suspicion that that one theatre of war was not properly recognised, primarily because when those decisions were being taken, the cold war was breaking out. The omission is certainly strange. I put it to the Minister that a resolution is possible.

I should also be grateful if the Minister could advise us on the Government's thinking about the permission being given to veterans to wear medals awarded by other countries as a result of their gratitude for campaigns waged successfully by our servicemen and women. Recently, there has been a certain amount of correspondence from veterans who were involved in the successful 12-year counter-insurgency campaign in Malaya, or Malaysia as it is now known, and I know that the Government of Malaysia are keen to make an award so that veterans understand that their efforts were fully appreciated and valued by the people of that country. However, I also realise that our Government gave a general service medal and an appropriate clasp at the time.

Finally, I congratulate the Government on the heroes return scheme. I know of several people in my constituency who will be taking the opportunity to revisit those theatres where they saw action. In particular, a friend of mine, Mr. Eric Spearing, who served on the escort carrier, HMS Speaker—a carrier that has obvious connections with this House—will be going out to the far east and revisiting those places in which he, as a man of about 6 ft 4 in in stature, somehow managed to participate from the very small cockpit of a very small plane operating off a very small aircraft carrier.

The work that the armed services do is invaluable, especially at a time like this. We all make the right noises about how wonderful our servicemen and women are. The Minister, however, has the unenviable task of trying to ensure that they feel the practical benefit of the Government's support, as opposed to the emotional benefit of the country's support. I look forward to hearing what he has to say about the practical measures that they shall take in respect of service conditions, post-service preparations, mental health support and, when one leaves the armed forces, the ability to start out with a foot on the first rung of the housing ladder.

10.29 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig) : I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing this debate to address the general topic of the Government's support for veterans. Colleagues will appreciate that this is a wide subject to cover in a debate such as this, but I shall attempt to provide a broad outline of what we are doing to support former service personnel, and the areas in which we hope to make further progress.
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It is a tremendous honour to be the Minister with responsibility for veterans. As colleagues have already said, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to those who served our country in the armed forces. They contributed their time, skills and effort; in some cases they sacrificed their health, and in many others their lives, to protect our country and the values for which we stand.

One of my key responsibilities is to ensure that veterans are properly looked after and that they receive the support and help that they need in civilian life. For me, a person who has ceased to wear a service uniform is still part of the service family. It is not quite a case of from the cradle to the grave, but when someone leaves the service they become a veteran immediately, and we must have care and concern for them.

I recently had the privilege of visiting the Royal hospital in Chelsea. That organisation is a great example of how the country values and cares for its veterans. I received a warm welcome, and I know that a warm welcome was given to my compatriot, Katherine Jenkins, who went to the hospital recently and joined in a sing-along with the pensioners. Of course, all Welsh visitors are treated well and are welcomed at the hospital, but I understand that the gentlemen at Chelsea are more interested in getting a return visit from Katherine Jenkins than from me.

All Members are aware of the range of events that took place last week as part of the first veterans' awareness week and the commemorations, in London and across the UK to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war. The events were a great success and shone out against last week's awful atrocities in London. It is a tribute to the veterans that they once again refused to be beaten and turned out in their thousands to commemorate Sunday's event and to the living exhibition at St. James's park throughout the week.

I am grateful to the Big Lottery Fund, which provided nearly £50 million of funding to support commemorative events across the UK this year, thereby allowing new generations to learn from the experiences of those who lived through those awful times.

To turn to other areas of support, the veterans' programme provides a framework in which we can address and progress veterans' issues. The main priorities of the programme are to ensure that as many service personnel as possible make the transition from service to civilian life successfully and to offer appropriate support to those who have difficulties. I am well aware of the potential risks associated with such a change in work and lifestyle, and I consider it of great importance that we do all that we can to help minimise the risks and ease the transition process.

That is why the Ministry of Defence provides a comprehensive package of resettlement initiatives, including the provision of advice to all who, leave the services, including those who leave early and who, we therefore believe, are potentially more vulnerable to social exclusion. Early service leavers now have a mandatory resettlement brief and interview and access to a service resettlement adviser, who can, where
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necessary, provide expert advice on employment and other areas of resettlement. Counselling is also provided where that is thought appropriate.

Of course, our work in that area is not complete. We need to know what sort of problems early service leavers experience when facing civilian life, and to this end we    have commissioned King's college, London, to undertake research to assess whether a formalised mentoring service might play a part in preventing social exclusion.

Other work is focusing on health and social care, especially mental health care. A problem common to all sectors of society is recognising those most at risk of mental health problems, suicide or deliberate self-harm. There is, for example, no single cause of suicide or deliberate self-harm. Although the service environment can provide many stresses, the evidence is generally that service personnel are not more at risk of mental health problems than the rest of the population.

The services have recognised the need to manage stress in a pragmatic way, to reduce the stigma that can so often be associated with mental health problems, and to educate both personnel and those who can help them to recognise the signs of possible problems at an early stage, so that help can be provided. The same basic requirements apply to those in service and to veterans. I discussed that issue recently with Combat Stress.

A key issue identified is the failure of veterans to access care, perhaps because of unfamiliarity with civilian arrangements or a strongly held belief that civilian health professionals know little about service life. To help redress that problem, we are producing a leaflet called "Looking After Yourself", with which we aim to assist veterans to get help for mental health symptoms and illness in civilian life, which outlines what they should expect.

We also want to raise awareness in the medical world about veterans, and have begun discussions with the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Faculty of Occupational Medicine to explore the scope for introducing material about the armed forces into their training curriculums. I am sure that we all know of cases in which people have gone to their GPs for help and advice. It is important that we give GPs signposts that if such people were in the services, certain boxes should perhaps be ticked in terms of getting extra support or referrals.

Sandra Osborne : I do not disagree with anything that the Minister says—it is important to raise awareness among health professionals—but does he agree that in dealing with veterans' mental health problems, there would be advantages to veterans having contact, treatment and support from people who have experienced service life and to their mixing with their own peer group?

Mr. Touhig : My hon. Friend makes an important point. In a moment, I shall touch on some things that we are considering to see how we might progress on that issue.

The Veterans Agency has produced its first quarterly news letter, which is intended to inform all those who deal with veterans of the type of issues that they face. On their leaving the armed forces, responsibility for the
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medical care of service personnel passes to the NHS—my hon. Friend queried that. A patient's GP is usually the first port of call; if he thinks that specialist treatment is required, it can be provided. We are currently working with the Department of Health, the devolved Administrations, and other UK health authorities to consider how to enhance that programme. I hope to be able to make a positive announcement on our progress soon, and that will be welcomed.

People who have left the services who believe that their post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are directly related to their work in the armed forces are referred to the Veterans Agency for their entitlement to the war disablement pension to be assessed. More than 2.5 per cent. of veterans who receive the war pension get it for symptoms associated with stress. Such people are also advised of the work of voluntary organisations such as Combat Stress. My hon. Friend said a lot about that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to address and comment on the work of Combat Stress—I know that one of its residential facilities is in her constituency. Combat Stress has a long and distinguished history of providing care to people suffering from mental illness as a result of their service in the armed forces. I visited that organisation's centre at Tyrwhitt house on 21 June to see some of its work. I was greatly impressed with the commitment of the staff and met some of the many clients whose lives would be much poorer without the support provided in the organisation's residential care homes and by its welfare officers.

I reiterate a point that I have made before: no matter how good Government and local government are or think they are, many people's quality of life would not be as good without organisations such as Combat Stress. I pay tribute to their work.

Of course, no area of medicine stands still. That is as true of the understanding of mental illness and its treatment as it is of other areas. In recent years, in particular, incidents all over the world, not least those in London last week, have heightened awareness of the possible psychological effects of traumatic events, and evidence-based best-practice treatments are now emerging. I commend the forward-looking approach of the chief executive of Combat Stress, Commodore Toby Elliott, and his staff, on their work to modernise the services that are provided. They are doing exciting things, and I am greatly impressed by what I learned there.

Combat Stress particularly wants to address the problems experienced by reservists who, like both current and former regular servicemen, can suffer from issues affected by stress. We recognise that that is a problem, and we are working with the Department of Health and the NHS to identify the best way to tackle the issues about which my hon. Friend was concerned.

Combat Stress is also working in close co-operation with my Department to commission a review of its treatment regimes by the Health and Social Care Advisory Service. The review has highlighted the enormous commitment of the society and its staff to the care of war pensioners with mental health problems and has confirmed the value that many veterans attach to their periods of care at Combat Stress centres. It has
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commended the society's evolving approach over recent years in line with wider good practice and methods of delivery.

At the same time, the review has identified a number of areas where further change is likely to offer new benefits to clients, including, in some cases, the prospect of treatment to cure. Although the review has yet to report formally, I understand that my officials and the society's officers are agreed that it offers new opportunities that must be grasped.

The society, the Department and the Health and Social Care Advisory Service will work closely together to agree how best to review recommendations and to take them forward. We will involve the Department of Health and other ex-service charities where they might also have a role to play.

Since its establishment in 1948 it has been the intention of successive Governments that the NHS should be the main provider of health care for veterans and war pensioners, for both physical and mental problems. War pensioners have priority NHS treatment provided for pensioned disablements, with priority decided by the clinician in charge. That long-established model is entirely in line with the cross-departmental veterans' programme.

My hon. Friend mentioned Hollybush house in her constituency, and said that I would be most welcome to visit. I hope to have the opportunity to do so in the near future. I am aware of the challenges that the society faces in meeting requirements to modernise the centre, particularly the provision of single-occupancy accommodation. I am also aware that the society has approached the Scottish Executive for a grant to support that work. That must, of course, be a matter for the Scottish Executive to decide. However, I fully support the society's movement towards modernisation, and I have no doubt that Hollybush house will play an important part in delivering those changes.

I am aware that my hon. Friend has previously raised questions concerning Gulf veterans' illnesses. I take the opportunity to reassure her that the Government have always given the concerns of the 1990–91 Gulf veterans the highest priority. That important and highly complex issue will continue to receive the close attention that it deserves. My predecessor set out the Government's position on the issue to my hon. Friend in his letter of 18 April, but before I respond to the specific points raised I would remind hon. Members of the Government's approach to Gulf veterans' illnesses issues.

More than 53,000 UK armed forces personnel were deployed in the Gulf in 1990–91. A minority of them are ill, and we want to know why. There is no medical or scientific consensus on the cause or causes of ill-health among some Gulf veterans and insufficient evidence to enable that ill-health to be characterised as a unique Gulf-related illness or syndrome, which is why we and others do not recognise Gulf war syndrome as a medical condition. The term "Gulf war syndrome" is not found in the World Health Organisation's international classification of diseases, which is used throughout the world by physicians and scientists to distinguish diagnosable diseases and their categories. We are not out of step with our major allies on that point.

Despite that, we remain concerned and are continuing with our £8.5 million research programme to try to establish why the 1990–91 Gulf veterans report more ill-
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health than other comparable groups, although the pattern of that ill-health is not unique to Gulf veterans. They report the same symptoms and conditions as UK Bosnia veterans and UK military personnel who did not deploy to the Gulf. The only difference is the increased frequency with which Gulf veterans report such symptoms.

I take seriously all claims of ill-health among veterans. I strongly recommend that veterans of the 1990–91 Gulf conflict and of the recent deployment in Iraq attend the Gulf veterans' medical assessment programme if they have concerns about their health. The programme has been running since 1993, and in that time about 3,500 patients have been seen, some more than once. Further details of the programme are available from the Ministry of Defence website.

The fact that we do not accept the term "Gulf syndrome" does not stop Gulf veterans receiving a war pension and attributable benefits under the armed forces occupational pension schemes. Such pensions are not awarded for a list of disorders but for any disablement that can be accepted as caused, or made worse, by service. War pensions are paid on the basis of eligibility rules that are strongly geared in favour of the claimant; a payment will be made unless the Department can show beyond reasonable doubt that an illness or injury arising within seven years of service was not caused by service. Veterans of the 1990–91 Gulf conflict can and do receive compensation in the form of war pensions and armed forces pensions on the same basis as other veterans.

Several points were raised in the debate about homelessness, and I want to mention our work with the Office of the Deputy Prime-Minister, devolved Administrations and ex-service charities to help to prevent and tackle the problems of homelessness among ex-service personnel. Work continues to consolidate a number of projects such as Project Compass, which seeks to help homeless ex-service personnel back into sustained employment; it is a major priority, and I will give attention to it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock and the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) raised the issue of what the Ministry of Defence is doing to help service personnel to get on to the property ladder. The MOD has long been committed to ensuring that service personnel make a smooth transition to civilian life. The Joint Service Housing Advice Office, which was established in 1992, provides tri-service civilian housing advice to service personnel. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has raised these issues with me, and I will be looking at ways in which we can examine what help, support and encouragement we can give in those circumstances.

My hon. Friend also asked how the Government are putting their money where their mouth is in supporting veterans' issues. I do not know why she sits on the fence; why does she not say what she means? I take her point.

There are many projects for veterans funded by the Ministry of Defence apart from research and supporting projects such as homelessness among former servicemen and prison in-reach. The Department provides £750,000 a year to the challenge fund, which seeks to pump-prime veterans-related projects that address the identifiable
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gap in existing knowledge or activity. Money is available, and I encourage veterans' organisations to approach the Department if they have projects that require support.

The Ministry of Defence also funds 80 per cent. of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—about £31   million a year. The veterans' programme is a collaboration between the Government and the ex-service organisations, and much additional funding is therefore provided by other Departments or bodies—for example, £50 million of support has been provided for the commemorative projects by the Big Lottery Fund in the past year.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of funding and support for Combat Stress. For the past 40 years the Government have funded war pensioners for remedial treatment at Combat Stress's residential centres, and, depending on the numbers who are being supported and cared for by that organisation, support is about £2 million to £3 million a year, which helps and benefits Combat Stress.

Sandra Osborne : I understand that those are important projects that have to be funded but does the Minister recall that I suggested that there is a substantial funding gap and that Combat Stress has to rely substantially on charitable giving? I question whether that signals Government support for the recognition of the serious mental health problems from which veterans suffer. Should there not be more public funding for that?

Mr. Touhig : There are always demands on the public purse for the funding of a host of worthy and important causes. I think that our support at this moment is appropriate. There are always ongoing discussions with organisations such as Combat Stress about the support that they get, and Commodore Elliott is not slow to give me verbal GBH if he thinks that we are not doing enough and not giving the support that we ought. I recognise the difficulty, but there are important ongoing discussions, which I welcome.

My hon. Friend suggested that funding would not be    available for treatment under the new armed forces compensation scheme. Her concern reflects a misunderstanding: funding will continue to be available for those with significant mental illness due to service. The precise nature of the arrangement depends on agreeing with Combat Stress on how best to take forward the findings of the Health and Social Care Advisory Service report. However, we have made clear to the society that there will not be any significant changes at this time. We shall wait and see what the report comes through with.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) made the important point that we must pass on the message of the commitment and dedication of the veterans to the younger generation. Last Thursday, I went to St. James's park after the bombings to meet members of the RAF Prisoners of War Association. I was greatly impressed by the numbers that turned up; I had not been certain that many would be able to get through to the park.

One veteran told me that he had got to Victoria station that morning. There were no buses and no public transport—it was chaos. He said, "They kept me as a
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prisoner of war for four years. That didn't bloody stop me, and this wasn't going to stop me this morning." That showed the spirit of determination of that generation, and we can be inspired by that. In fairness, I do not think that we play down the issues of veterans' health, support and pensions; we are making the right contribution.

The hon. Gentleman was concerned that pensions had fallen behind wider good practice, but the current pensions scheme is one of the most valuable available in the United Kingdom. However, we recognise that in certain respects it has fallen behind good practice elsewhere. That is why on 6 April we introduced a new scheme, which has implemented a number of major improvements, including an increase in the level of death-in-service benefit from one and a half times pay to four times pay, a 25 per cent. improvement in the value of widows' pensions at full career and the introduction of benefits for unmarried partners. These things are good steps forward, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes them.

Dr. Julian Lewis : Can the Minister say to what extent people have taken up that scheme rather than staying with the previous one?

Mr. Touhig : I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that information now. However, I shall look into the matter and write to him and other Members who have attended the debate.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East is right to point out that very often we look back at an issue after a time and think that we should have done something better or different. He focused his initial remarks on the ombudsman's report on the scheme for ex gratia payments to former prisoners of war of the Japanese. As he is aware, I have produced a written statement, to be presented to the House this morning, that responds to the ombudsman's comments. I do not want to trespass on that until it is available to all Members.

I say simply that the ombudsman made some criticisms of the Government and said that we should take certain actions. He suggested in particular that we should review the operation of the scheme. I do not think that that makes any sense; there were 29,000 applications for compensation under the scheme, and 24,000 people—or 83 per cent.—have been compensated. I see no purpose in examining the entire operation of the scheme, although I recognise that its announcement and introduction were not well handled. The Government accept that fully.

I am sure that Members are aware of the issues at the time. There was an urgency and enthusiasm to introduce the scheme as quickly as possible. A number of judicial reviews and issues affected the scheme. In the first such review, the judge commented that a scheme introduced in such haste was bound to have problems. I regret that a number of people who at first thought that they would be compensated will not now be compensated, because of the issue of birth link. I sincerely apologise for that. It was wrong, and the Government made a mistake. I shall be giving some thought to the ombudsman's recommendation that I should do more than apologise and consider some tangible response. I shall refer to it in my statement this morning.

The hon. Gentleman made several points about people moving on to the property ladder, and I think that I have covered them. My right hon. Friend the
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Secretary of State is keen that we should consider the issue, and I shall do what I can. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about veterans' awareness week, which was a great success and showed the determination of our country to recognise the sacrifices and commitment of a generation that kept us free.

When I knocked on doors a few weeks ago in the general election, and people told me that they were not going to vote, I said to many of them, "We shall be commemorating in July, in a few weeks, the 60th anniversary of the end of the last war. If we had lost that war, you would not have the choice to vote." It is important that we get that message across. We owe the freedoms that we enjoy now to that generation who kept us a free people. I hope that their example will be recognised and carried on by younger generations.

The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of the Arctic veterans and a clasp for them. He said that he had done some research, which is interesting. If he wants to write to me or have a discussion, I shall take his points on board to ascertain whether anything can be done. He also mentioned medals issued to British service personnel by foreign Governments. That is a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but I shall deal with that procedure in a note to him. I thank him for his comments about the heroes return project, which everyone thinks very worth while.

Dr. Julian Lewis : I have one last point for the Minister. The Veterans Agency has been a success for the Government. There is some talk about merging it with another organisation, and that is a little worrying. Can the Minister throw light on that?

Mr. Touhig : Yes. There is a proposal that the Veterans Agency should be merged with another part of the Ministry of Defence. I have discussed that with a number of veterans' organisations. I am considering various options and comments. We are consulting on the proposal, and I shall make a decision in due course, but I reassure hon. Members that I should not want the excellent work that the Veterans Agency does, through being very focused on veterans and veterans' issues, to be diminished in any way if there were to be a merged organisation. That must be a top priority for any new body that may be set up. I am not in a position to say more now. I am waiting for comments. If any hon. Members who would like information about the proposals want to contact me, I shall make sure that they are given all the necessary information.

I hope that my comments and the programmes that I have outlined demonstrate that the Government are committed to ensuring that the quality of life of our veterans is good and that their service and commitment to our country is recognised. We owe them a great debt, which I know that the whole House wants to honour and repay. It is important that we continue to learn from the past as a country and continue to recognise the huge sacrifices that were made on our behalf. That can be done in no better way than by honouring, supporting and helping our veterans. In my role in the MOD—I am also the Minister with responsibility for the Met Office, by the way, so the good weather is down to me, although bad weather is Ivor Caplin's fault—my No. 1 priority among my many responsibilities will be working with, helping, supporting and encouraging our veterans. I am sure that I shall have the support of all hon. Members in that.
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