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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): The Government's decision to institute an annual veterans day on 27 June provides a major new opportunity to celebrate the enormous contribution that veterans have made to our country. Plans are progressing well for a London event, linked with the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the institution of the Victoria cross, which will pick up on the qualities of supreme courage shown by those who are awarded that medal. I am also encouraging the involvement of school children, veterans and other members of the public right across the country so that we make this a truly national celebration of the contribution that veterans have made to life in our country.
I hope that colleagues on both sides of the House will take the opportunity to talk to veterans organisations in their constituencies and to their local authorities and others so that we can organise all sorts
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of events to commemorate veterans day. It is important that we recognise that veterans come in all ages, shapes and sizes. In Newcastle recently, when I did a radio interview about the advertising campaign that we were launching for the Veterans Agency, it was put to me that veterans are generally people who fought in the last war, but I was alongside a veteran who was in her 30s and had two young children. Veterans come in all ages, shapes and sizes and have made a huge contribution to our country. I hope that veterans day this year will raise awareness across the country that a veteran is someone who has served in our armed forces. Some 23,000 people leave our armed forces every year and they should be honoured as veterans as much as anybody else.
Mr. Crausby: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that Bolton United Services Veterans Association was formed 100 years ago, in 1906, to provide welfare and comfort to servicemen who suffered in the Boer war? It continues to do a fantastic job to this very day. Will he see whether he can provide any additional help to it in celebrating its centenary?
Mr. Touhig: Yes, of course I will. Indeed, I invite colleagues on both sides of the House to come forward with ideas. If we are able to provide support and encouragement, and even help to look for some funding, we will certainly do that. We want the day to be an annual commemoration and celebration of veterans. I pay tribute to the organisation to which my hon. Friend refers. If he would like to get in touch with me directly, I will do everything I can to help the commemorations and celebrations in his constituency.
Mr. Touhig: I had to answer such a question about St. David's day when I was a Wales Minister. It is a problem, but there are no plans to make veterans day a public holiday. However, I would say that we see this as a process, not an event. We think that the day will evolve year after year. We will stick to commemorating and celebrating veterans on 27 June, and I have no doubt that in time there will be a great many events throughout the country that will lead us to celebrate and cherish what our veterans have done. Who knows? At some time in the future the hon. Gentleman's point might well be on the agenda, but it is not at present.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
(Con): May I express a degree of surprise and puzzlement about the origins of veterans day? Does the Minister accept that the Government have received strong support from the Opposition for a whole raft of commemoration events, whether they be for the battle of the Atlantic, or the end of world war twoVE-day and VJ-day? Can he honestly say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had serious discussions with the Ministry of Defence and the Veterans Agency before making the announcement? The Chancellor did not seem to be aware that there was already an archive of veterans' memories when he talked of children going round with tape recorders recording themas the Minister knows, the Imperial War museum does that very well. Did the Chancellor realise
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that, in America, veterans day is the same as Armistice day, and does the Minister accept that veterans day could, to some extent, undermine Armistice day in this country?
Mr. Touhig: On the last point, I do not. As I said earlier, I am very keen that we hold 11 November in a special place in the hearts of the whole country as a day on which we solemnly remember those who made a sacrifice for our country to defend the freedoms that we enjoy today. Veterans day is meant as a celebration for veterans of all ages who have served our country at all times in the past.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I welcome the support of the Oppositionall parties in the Housefor the various decisions and acts that we have taken to commemorate and celebrate veterans. However, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence launched veterans awareness week last year, he made it quite clear that it would not be a one-off event and that we would have ongoing events. We have concludedthis was the reason for his announcementthat we will have a veterans day this year. We think that 27 June is the appropriate time of year to hold it for various reasons, such as the fact that it is away from 11 November and the time at which we celebrate Her Majesty's official birthday. I hope that everyone will see the day as a significant move forward to recognise our veterans' contributions, support it and do all that they can to make it a success.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): The armed forces provide opportunities to gain recognised qualifications through the accreditation of military education and training programmes and attendance on full-time courses. In the first six months of the financial year, some 13,000 qualifications were achieved, ranging from apprenticeships to post-graduate awards. In addition, approximately 13,500 level 1 awards in either literacy or numeracy were achieved during 2005.
Mr. McFadden: I thank the Minister for his reply. I am sure that he agrees that education and training make an extremely important contribution to our armed forces. Does he agree that the combination of future defence training on a single site could offer huge educational benefits to the armed forces? Does he further agree that RAF Cosford in the west midlandsit is in the constituency of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard)with its excellent transport links, the value-for-money bid behind it and its location in an existing network of excellent aerospace, engineering and technological skills, is the ideal place for such future combined defence training?
The defence training review programme is at an advanced stage. Bidders' proposals for both packages of training have been received and are being evaluated. All bidders understand the potential of Cosford and St. Athan, the other possible location. Naturally, this is a competitive phase. We will go through the process in an open and transparent way. A decision will be made at the appropriate time on the future of the defence training review. I acknowledge the importance of training, and the important contribution that defence training makes to our whole economy.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Is the Minister concerned that the increased speed of turnaround for overseas deployments is having an impact on educational opportunities, in particular for younger soldiers?
John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): Given the importance of educational achievement in the military, will my hon. Friend give a categorical assurance that no single service will unduly influence the evaluation process taking place for the defence training rationalisation programme and threaten to undermine the Government's policy of achieving a modern, flexible, agile and new system of training that is genuinely tri-service and based on one site?
Mr. Touhig: Let me make it clear that an extensive and robust evaluation process is in place to examine the bidders that seek to win the defence training review programme. The recommendation will come to me later than I had anticipated, and it is more likely that a decision will now be announced in October. However, I want to make it clear that that will be open and transparent. There is an independent evaluation at every stage of the operation, and I want everyone to be assured that the decision will be taken in the best interests of defence training and the best interests of Britain plc.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The Minister's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) was insubstantial and unsatisfactory. The time between infantry deployments is three months shorter than the publicly stated target of the Ministry of Defence. That must have some impact. What quantitative or qualitative assessment has the hon. Gentleman made?
Mr. Touhig: The shortness of the answer does not in any way undermine its quality. I hope the hon. Gentleman accepts that. However, I will take his point on board and further consider his comments and those of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone). If appropriate action is needed in terms of writing to them, I will certainly do that.
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