Previous Section Index Home Page

We have now moved to an initial operating capability for the military-managed ward and work is about to commence on ensuring that we have a partition to define that area even more clearly. When I answered a question previously in the House, I made it clear that the development of the new hospital in Birmingham to replace the current buildings at Selly Oak will give us a greater opportunity to improve the operation of the military-only ward. For the record, we are considering a military ward as part of the new hospital building, but a business case will have to be made for that—as hon. Members would expect—and of course we will also take account of clinical opinion. I am examining that at the moment, as part of my role as Minister with
26 Apr 2007 : Column 1133
responsibility for the armed forces health services. We will continue to improve the treatment, care and welfare support that the whole House wants us to make available for injured service personnel and their families.

The hon. Member for Woodspring asked a number of questions, one of which was about traumatic brain injury. I am sure that he will be aware that the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is conducting research into that, with a view to informing injury management and body armour protection. Our analysis has examined patterns of brain injury in the context of helmet design and the protection that is offered, and there has also been close liaison with the Oxford coroner so that lessons can be learned from those casualties who do not survive their injuries.

Traumatic brain injury patients are transferred to Birmingham, as the hon. Gentleman knows. They are looked after at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court, which provides comprehensive management of neurological injuries. Like the US, we deploy computer tomography to operational theatres, and the use of telemedicine means that scans are reported to military radiologists in the UK within an hour. That system is already fully operational in Iraq, and it will soon be operational in Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the research into traumatic brain injury that is going on in the US. I can tell him that we are aware of that research, and that we are engaged in it through our medical liaison officer there. I hope that that gives him some reassurance.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the care of armed forces personnel with mental health problems. Tremendous improvements have been made in the advice and support offered to service personnel, both before and after deployment. In addition, much more extensive information is given to families about the possible effects of serving in an operational theatre. We acknowledge that support for personnel who suffer mental health problems while on operation is also important, and we have made sure that it is provided.

As I have set out on previous occasions, a scheme for reservists who return to their homes is now up and running, providing support for those who need it. We have also put in place appropriate care pathways for people who leave the service because of a mental illness. In addition, support is available for people who develop mental health problems some time after leaving the armed forces, and we are working with the health authorities and Combat Stress to set up a scheme to raise awareness and improve the treatment available on the NHS. Negotiations are at an advanced stage, and the first pilot should be up and running in the next few months.

The Department is working closely with Combat Stress in negotiations over that organisation’s budget, which at present stands at £2.8 million. We are also looking at other ways to improve the support for people who are suffering from a mental illness as a result of their service in the armed forces. We have an excellent resettlement package—which is being looked at by many other countries—that offers help with housing, training and employment for people who leave the forces.

26 Apr 2007 : Column 1134

The Department has also set up various schemes and initiatives to help service personnel who end up homeless. I have visited the excellent Compass scheme, which does so much excellent work to get people in that situation back into housing, but there is more to be done. For example, we must ensure that people who leave the service have better pathways in respect of health and housing. The MOD and the services themselves, as well as the service organisations, regimental associations and service charities all have a part to play.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the problems arising with primary care trust waiting lists when service personnel and their families move home. I can tell him that transfers between PCTs in England and Northern Ireland are arranged so that people retain their position in the waiting list, and that negotiations are under way about the cross-border issues connected with that policy.

Many Members mentioned accommodation for service personnel, and the House will recognise that such housing has been underfunded for many years. We accept that some of the accommodation is not good enough for our service personnel, and we are spending significant sums. Last year, more than £700 million was allocated to improve both service family and single living accommodation. Members referred to the excellent examples of such accommodation around the country. Although £5 billion has been allocated over the next 10 years, there is more to do. It is important that we obtain best value for that money, with as many improvements as possible.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) referred to the Falklands and, given the commemorations this year, it was important to record in this debate our admiration for what our service personnel did in the Falklands. We look forward to the commemorations; many of those who served in the Falklands will take part in both the main event in London—on Sunday 17 June in Horse Guards parade—and the visit to the islands. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will go out there for the anniversary and I shall visit later in the year with the main delegation of veterans. I am pleased that Members expressed recognition of what our armed forces did, as well as of the fact that many people lost their lives in that conflict.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) mentioned the naval base review and the importance of defence industries to her constituency. I am sure that her comments will be borne in mind in the review. She also drew attention to the benefits to Members of the armed forces parliamentary scheme.

Linda Gilroy: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Derek Twigg: I was just about to mention my hon. Friend. She made a strong case for Plymouth, as she has done for several months, and her comments have been noted and taken on board. She also raised issues about the defence estate and medical services.

My hon. Friend mentioned DML and the defence supply chain. We obviously support the company’s meeting local MPs and civic leaders, which is an
26 Apr 2007 : Column 1135
important aspect of the process, and I shall bring my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of my noble Friend Lord Drayson.

The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) made important points. He spoke of the Select Committee’s visit to Afghanistan and of the Committee’s important work, not least on accommodation and medical services. He mentioned the care pathways and the objectives in Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) made a powerful speech. He referred to the visit to Afghanistan and noted the particular strength of the tri-service approach there, which struck me during my visit, too. The Army, Navy and RAF are working closely together in Afghanistan. My hon. Friend mentioned welfare and accommodation issues, and made a strong point about the Annington Homes deal and super-garrisons. Like other Members, he referred to the care pathways for medical treatment for service leavers.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) paid due tribute to our people in the Falklands. He made an important point about training and discipline, as he has done before. I am sure that the House recognises the tremendous work on training undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State in relation to Deepcut to ensure that attention is paid to the welfare of trainees. Given the work that our armed forces undertake, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex was right to say that training has to be robust, professional and challenging. As he made clear, it is because of their training and discipline that they are the best in the world. There has been much discussion of the need for the right tactics and discipline to deliver the results we want. The hon. Gentleman made an extremely important point.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) made a number of points about the previous Government’s defence expenditure cuts. The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) made an interesting speech. She asked what equipment we should supply for our service personnel, and referred to the funding for projects and the speed with which equipment was put into theatre. She spoke consensually of the great strides that have been made on force protection for our bases—although clearly more needs to be done. She also mentioned improved equipment, such as body armour, the new armoured vehicles—Bulldogs and Mastiffs—and communication equipment. She made some important points.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) made the case for Portsmouth’s position in the naval base review. He was generous to my right hon. Friend the Minister about his work on training in the armed forces. He made an important point about the impact of the defence training review on the Portsmouth area.

Our armed forces are a success story—

It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

26 Apr 2007 : Column 1136

Mr. Peter Francis

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Kevin Brennan.]

6 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I would like to preface my remarks by saying that it was only in 2002 that the Audit Commission told Walsall council effectively to find a new chief executive and other senior officials. At the time, the commission gave a damning picture of the services provided in the borough. Now, five years later, I am conducting a debate on the case of Mr. Peter Francis, who, in December last year, was awarded more than £650,000 in compensation by an employment tribunal in Birmingham. He brought a case against the council and at the last moment—I have to say that it really was the last moment—the council conceded and admitted liability for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination. Some money was undoubtedly spent by the local authority in trying to contest the case, but liability was admitted in the end.

I have no complaints about the compensation. In all the circumstances, some of which I will describe, I believe that the money is justified, but it will come, of course, from local taxpayers. As I understand it, there will be no money forthcoming from central Government. The question is simply this: why was Mr. Francis treated in such a shabby and unacceptable way? As a result of what happened to him, he has suffered—and continues to suffer—much ill health and much anxiety.

Then there is the question of the two reports into his case, neither of which will be published before the local elections. The first is by the district auditor, so the Government are involved through the Audit Commission, and we are told that it has been held up by delays in getting some individuals to comment. The district auditor’s report is not ready to be published. The second report, commissioned by the council itself, and conducted by Douglas Bradbury, a former chief executive of another authority, has actually been completed and sent to the council. The question remains why it is not being published. The response from the council is that the two reports will be published at the same time—but after the local elections.

That is amazing, is it not? We are talking about annual elections and there are arguments for and against them, but one of the main arguments in favour of them is that the electorate can make its decision accordingly. One factor is undoubtedly the performance of the council. As I say, both reports are not going to be published until after the election.

I received a letter today from the assistant chief constable of the west midlands. It is a rather serious letter in its content, as he tells me that current cases involving the council and arising out of the allegations made have been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. We do not know the outcome, but clearly, the police and the CPS are now involved. It makes all these matters that much more serious.

Peter Francis was a civil servant for some 20 years. He started employment with Walsall council in June 1997. His first job was connected with the single regeneration budget, as he was the monetary officer. He was involved in the civil service as a manager in the
26 Apr 2007 : Column 1137
employment service and he got promotion. In January 2004, given his background, he became the programme manager responsible for neighbourhood renewal funding, which at the time was worth about £11 million annually. That was when the trouble started for Mr. Francis.

As I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm, that money was intended for the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. When Mr. Francis became the programme manager, he found that that was not happening, and that some money was being used in areas that were not classified as such neighbourhoods. At one stage, he found that £4.5 million of the renewal fund could not be accounted for. I understand that some of that money, although nowhere near as much, continues to be unaccounted for. For all I know, that is why the police are involved.

Mr. Francis understandably raised his concerns with senior officials and the chief executive, Annie Shepperd. She was appointed in 2002, but she has now left the local authority and become the chief executive of a London borough. One would have imagined that in any organisation, whether in the public or private sector, a responsible official who was worried about such matters would receive support from senior officers. However, the very opposite happened. Mr. Francis says that rather than being listened to, with the matter investigated, he was looked on as the enemy within. Although I do not want to exaggerate, the situation reminds one to some extent of the situation in Westminster council when Lady Porter was its leader.

The atmosphere in Walsall council was, to say the least—I am putting this at its mildest—very unhelpful indeed. Mr. Francis found that that atmosphere caused him great concern and, unfortunately, much ill health. Several community organisations—I do not have time to read out the list—that had expected to receive renewal funding found that they did not receive the money. As a result, they are in some difficulty and have had to reduce services.

What led to the situation in which Mr. Francis had to bring his case before an employment tribunal? He found that his job was being restructured, which was a fine way of getting rid of him. He was told that the position that he had held would no longer remain in existence and that there was a new position for which he could apply, if he wished. There was certainly no enthusiasm for him to continue in the council’s employment. That led to him bringing a case for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination against the local authority. The employment tribunal then reached the conclusion that, given all the circumstances, he should be awarded a sum of more than £650,000.

At the moment, Mr. Francis suffers from depression and anxiety. He told me in a letter that he feels that his 30-year career in public service has come to an end—he is in his early 50s. Much, if not all, of the responsibility for that falls on what happened to him during his employment for Walsall council.

Councils are run by political parties. The Conservative party that runs the council must accept some responsibility for what has occurred. I am not at all sure that the Tories running the council have owned up in any way to the situation that I have been
26 Apr 2007 : Column 1138
describing. The overall responsibility lies not with senior officers or the chief executive but with the political party; that is where it begins and ends.

I find the matter very unfortunate and I conclude with what I said at the beginning of my speech. The two important reports, by the district auditor and by Mr. Douglas Bradbury, are not being published before the local elections next Thursday, so the electorate will not be able to read them and come to a conclusion. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I hope, even at this late stage, with only a week to go, that at least one of the reports can be published. If the district auditor’s report cannot be published for the reasons that I have stated, the council should be asked—it cannot be instructed—to publish Mr. Bradbury’s independent report.

6.10 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): I am deeply grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) for allowing me to join in the debate. We are speaking because we feel a sense of intense frustration and anger. Those who, in my view, are clearly guilty have been surrounded by a ring of steel, preventing proper inquiry from being made and justice being done. I can think of few cases in my 34 years as a Member of Parliament that have filled me with such a sense of embarrassment at the disgrace and perversion of local government in Walsall.

Walsall was a failed authority. The Government rightly stepped in, booted out the senior officers, started teaching the councillors how to be councillors and imposed staff, including a chief executive. She is now, thankfully, over the Thames. Every time I look over I feel a sense of anger, but also delight and gratitude to Southwark for relieving us of somebody who was at the centre of a range of activities, supported by loyal associates.

I know Peter Francis very well, and my hon. Friend has rightly focused on what happened to him, but two other people were equally damaged, psychologically and physically, by what the local authority did to them. It is reprehensible, and the guilty have not been investigated and have so far escaped. The improvements in the council came at an unacceptably high price. The staff whom I know of—principally Peter Francis, David Parish, a former chief superintendent, and Liz McDonald—were intimidated, harassed and bullied. These were loyal staff. They did what they should have done as good local authority employees. When they saw that there was fraud, and misappropriation and misdirection of public funding, they went through the normal processes, to no avail. When one member of staff, believing that he was protected by law, blew the whistle, he continued to be hounded and was a broken man physically and emotionally.

Next Section Index Home Page