18 Jun 2007 : Column 1057

18 Jun 2007 : Column 1057

House of Commons

Monday 18 June 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Health Support

1. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the support his Department provides for those diagnosed with adverse health conditions as a consequence of military service. [142909]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a short statement before answering the question. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending sincere condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal James Cartwright, who was killed in Basra, Iraq, on Saturday.

The Ministry of Defence provides a high level of support for serving personnel diagnosed with adverse health conditions, however they arise. That can range from life-saving surgery in our field hospitals, or UK NHS hospitals, to rehabilitation at the world-class defence medical rehabilitation centre, or our regional rehabilitation units, and comprehensive in-patient and community-based treatment for those whose mental health has been affected. For those who have left the forces, health care is provided primarily by the NHS. We work closely with the relevant authorities to enable a seamless transfer for those who are medically discharged from the services.

Harry Cohen: I add my condolences to those connected with Lance Corporal Cartwright.

The Ministry of Defence is generally quite good at providing medical services for serving soldiers—once the helicopter arrives—but the service is inadequate for the ex-military, especially those with post-traumatic disorders. The fact that hundreds are likely to contract those disorders after coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan has been described as a ticking time-bomb. This is not about NHS or private treatment. However, surely dedicated specialist help needs to be easily accessible to the ex-military with post-traumatic stress disorders? Will the Minister take responsibility for setting that up?

18 Jun 2007 : Column 1058

Derek Twigg: The NHS has always had responsibility for the treatment of veterans. We have worked closely with Combat Stress, which provides a good service and support. We have funded it to the tune of about £2.9 million and will significantly increase its funding this year. I announced last Monday the extension of the medical assessment programme, through which former service personnel who served from 1982 onwards, which includes those involved in the Falklands campaign, will be able to go to St. Thomas’ hospital for a medical assessment that will be carried out by Dr. Ian Palmer, an expert in military psychiatry. I believe that that has been widely welcomed as a positive step forward. We are working with Combat Stress and the health service to determine how we can develop pilot schemes that will enable the NHS to draw on expertise and help as it treats former personnel who might have developed a mental illness as a result of their time in the services.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): I recently had the pleasure of welcoming home 2nd Battalion the Rifles after their distinguished tour of duty in Basra. Its members’ concerns were selflessly for their colleagues and comrades who had been injured in service. They asked me to ask the Secretary of State to undertake work to ensure that when such people return to the United Kingdom, their recovery takes place in “observably military circumstances”—a true military facility. Will the Minister consider that, especially in the context of Birmingham?

Derek Twigg: I am quite convinced that our armed forces personnel who have been injured and wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq are getting world-class treatment and care at Selly Oak. That is provided by our military medical personnel, who include 26 nurses—the number will rise to 39 in the summer—welfare support and liaison officers, and military clinicians. However, the fantastic NHS clinicians and nurses also do an absolutely wonderful job of supporting and working with our injured personnel. We are just about to finish work on a partition to bring about a greater military ethos in the ward. Our personnel are getting world-class treatment, although we can always learn from events and any complaints will be investigated. The chiefs of staff are considering whether to move to a new military ward as part of the new hospital building.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My hon. Friend referred to the “seamless transfer” to the NHS. Will he give the House a guarantee that all patients’ medical records will be available? Surely the MOD has a responsibility to ensure that any injuries collected in service are seen to before the person goes back to a normal state of living. Will he guarantee that the duty of care will be maintained until that point?

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that there be a seamless transfer from military medical support and treatment to the NHS, so we are working closely with our NHS colleagues to ensure that that happens. Additionally, we are looking at how we can make further improvements by examining whether there are gaps or improvements that can be addressed by the MOD, the NHS and the service charities that work with injured personnel and
18 Jun 2007 : Column 1059
those who leave the forces owing to a medical condition. I guarantee my hon. Friend that I will continue to press for further improvements to ensure that our military personnel get the best possible treatment and care.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Will the Minister review the way in which the mental health charity Combat Stress is financed? He is right to say that it has a wonderful record, but the charity can receive money from the Ministry of Defence only for those who are in receipt of a war pension, and many servicemen and women do not show symptoms of stress until up to 14 years after they have been discharged from the services. The problem is therefore going to grow, and a brilliantly cost-effective way of dealing with it would be through that well established charity, which he visited in December and I visited with the Defence Committee last Thursday.

Derek Twigg: As the hon. Gentleman says, the charity Combat Stress does excellent work and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to see exactly what it does. As I said, we fund the charity to the tune of £2.9 million and we are going to give it a significant increase in funding. Perhaps I did not make this clear in my previous answer, but we are considering setting up pilot schemes around the country to enable the NHS, Combat Stress and the MOD to see how we can improve the support for former service personnel who suffer mental illness as a result of their service, and part of that work will cover commissioning. That has been welcomed by Combat Stress, but there is more work to be done. I hope that we will be able to make an announcement on those pilot schemes in the not-too-distant future.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend say a little more about the support available to those who serve in the Territorial Army? I recently met a young man who is soon to go to Afghanistan for a year. My hon. Friend will have seen the criticism of the support on their return for those who serve in the Territorial Army. Will he reassure me that he is looking as closely at the support available to our territorial soldiers as he is at the support available to regular servicemen and women?

Derek Twigg: I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. A study by King’s college London showed that there were more reservists than regulars suffering from mental health problems. Although the difference was not significant, it was large enough for us to examine the issue to see what more we could do. Often, such people do not go back as formed units or to friends back at a barracks or base; they go back to communities around the country.

Last year, we announced the reservist mental health assessment scheme, which we run from Chilwell in Nottingham, where reservists who served from 2003 can go for a full mental health medical assessment and for treatment, if that is needed. Of course, we will work closely with their GPs and any other commissioners. I believe that that has been a successful step forward, but we always keep open our options to do more.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): The Minister may be aware that the funding of a number of the mental health trusts across the country is
18 Jun 2007 : Column 1060
threadbare. When someone is transferred from military care to NHS care, we must ensure that funding is available within the area where that person wishes to reside. Will the Minister discuss the matter with the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that funding is provided for those mental health trusts?

Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. My hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) made a similar point about transfer and the importance of making sure that there are links between the military medical services and the NHS. Of course we speak to our colleagues at the Department for Health—for example, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health and for Defence had a meeting a few months ago to discuss how to continue to co-ordinate and improve medical support for armed forces or ex-armed forces personnel. The pilot schemes I mentioned earlier are important in providing the NHS with expert help to determine the best way to care for and treat those who have developed a mental health condition as a result of their time in the armed forces.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): First, I associate the Conservative party with the condolences in relation to those who have lost their lives on operations overseas or here at home.

I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who is returning with the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), from the Falklands, where he attended the commemorative services. I also apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is also on a defence visit.

With your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, may I also say “well done” to the Government for the events they staged to commemorate the Falklands conflict? They were a fitting tribute to those who fell retaking the islands.

The Under-Secretary mentioned the medical assessment programme, which the Ministry of Defence described in a press release last week as being “vastly expanded”. In that area of policy, it is important that service personnel are able to have confidence in what the Ministry says. Describing a programme as “vastly expanded” when the increase in the number of medical personnel consists of one doctor being transferred from working part time to working full time is an example of the Government being guilty of spin. Does the Under-Secretary think that such an increase in the number of personnel really is a vast expansion of that service?

Derek Twigg: First of all, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments about the Falklands commemorations, and the Opposition parties for their support in developing the commemorative event? I believe that I am right in saying that the veterans thought that it was a great event that did them justice, and that they thought that it was in the right tone, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he says.

Dr. Ian Palmer is a widely respected consultant psychiatrist who has vast experience and has served in the armed forces. Of course, he has much experience
18 Jun 2007 : Column 1061
from the military medical point of view. We are increasing his hours from one day a week to five days a week. That is a significant increase in the resources that we are making available, and we will make further resources available if that is needed. I might just make the point that in the end we did not have to use all the resources that we provided for the reservist mental health scheme. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will accept, we are not sure about the numbers of people who will use the service. The key thing is to get it off the ground, and to ensure that our veterans know that it is available and that they can use it to get their mental health assessment and medical assessment. That service was not there before, and it is a major step forward.

Naval Base Review

2. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): When he expects to conclude the naval base review. [142910]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): That complex review is progressing well, but further work is required before final conclusions can be reached. It is important that the naval base review is allowed to run its course and that all relevant issues are considered, so that the right decision can be made.

Linda Gilroy: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He will be aware of the concern in Plymouth that BAE Systems is exerting undue pressure on the Ministry of Defence to ensure its preferred outcome to the naval base review as part of its negotiations on the future carrier. Does he agree that that is totally inappropriate, and that it would not be in the interests of the MOD to distort the cost base and the outcome of the naval base review, which should be the subject of separate analysis?

Des Browne: In almost every area for which I have responsibility, rumours abound—but they seldom turn out to be true, although sometimes there is a degree of accuracy to them. On the rumour that my hon. Friend mentions, I have no knowledge of any such pressure being imposed by BAE Systems, but I would just say that the basing of the future carrier is of course a consideration in the naval base review, as are the facilities at Devonport, which cannot be replicated elsewhere. She is shortly to meet my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, and I am sure that she will then have the opportunity to make the case for Plymouth and Devonport, as she has already done eloquently.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): In considering the future of the Portsmouth naval base, does the Secretary of State agree that, among the issues to be considered, two are important? One is the viability of the future joint venture between VT and BAE Systems. Another is the difficulty of persuading naval personnel to move away from the home of the Royal Navy, as their spouses may well be deeply ensconced in their own careers in the Portsmouth area.

Des Browne: The right hon. Gentleman makes two good points in support of Portsmouth that will be need to be taken into account in the naval base review, but as
18 Jun 2007 : Column 1062
far as Devonport and Faslane are concerned, their strong historical naval links and the fact that families have spouses or partners employed in the naval bases there are serious considerations, too. Of course the joint venture is a consideration in the naval base review, as is Babcock’s intended purchase of DML.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): May I add my voice to the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), and emphasise just how crucial the future of the naval base is for the wider south-west, not just Plymouth? Cornwall is an objective 1 area, Plymouth has some of the most deprived wards in the country, and Bristol is about to lose some air base defence jobs and skills. Will my right hon. Friend, along with colleagues from other Departments, consider fully the wider socio-economic impact, given the peripherality of the south-west compared with the overheated south-east?

Des Browne: I assure my hon. Friend that we are fully engaged with a number of stakeholders, including other Government Departments and regional development agencies, in jointly working up the cost implications of different naval base review options. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces recently met ministerial colleagues from other Departments to discuss that very issue.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): There have been numerous reports in recent weeks about a possible collaboration with the French on the construction of two new aircraft carriers, including one today that suggested that Rosyth could either lose out or even be the base for those new carriers. Would the Secretary of State care to comment on the collaboration with the French, whether any conclusions have been reached, how UK dockyards would be affected, and whether Rosyth would benefit from being the base for the aircraft carriers?

Des Browne: We need to be careful lest we increase the proliferation of rumours, but I accept that every rumour detrimental to my job is an opportunity for a Back Bencher. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that our co-operation on the carriers with the French is very productive, as they have made a significant contribution. We continue to work with them. The new President and Government who have been elected still support the venture, and I look forward to continued co-operation. As for conclusions, the hon. Gentleman will just have to wait with everyone else for the outcome.

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): May I support the important point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), as well as the powerful financial and industrial arguments in favour of Portsmouth remaining the main base? Does the Secretary of State agree that there are very important points, too, relating to the retention of senior staff—men and women who are usually family people—who, for years, have made their home in south Hampshire, where the training and basing of ships is focused? Does he accept that that is important to the retention of Portsmouth?

18 Jun 2007 : Column 1063

Des Browne: I am very conscious of that, and I assure everyone in the House that those parts of the country with strong links to the Royal Navy will have those links taken into account in our considerations. It is too early to say, because I have not yet received any recommendations about one naval base or the other, but the hon. Gentleman and his constituents can be reassured that everything that is relevant to the eventual difficult decisions that have to be made has been taken into account.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): If we are to keep faith with those who laid down their lives in the south Atlantic 25 years ago, is it not essential that the review produce a Royal Navy that can undertake any task crucial to the national interest?

Des Browne: I think that the answer is yes.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Is not the real reason why the naval base review has been undertaken at all the fact that the Government have slashed the size of the surface fleet, and the admirals fear that if they do not reduce their base capacity, another six frigates and destroyers will go, on top of the 10 already lost? Does the Secretary of State at least accept that over the very long term, the sort of threats that we face may change and any reduction in naval base capacity should be reversible, whereas the closure of either Portsmouth or Devonport would be irreversible? Is not the answer flexibility, rather than closure?

Des Browne: Like the previous Government, who reduced the size of the Royal Navy significantly because of the review that they undertook, the Government have made sure that the Navy’s capabilities reflect our assessment of the threats that we face and those that we are likely face, as well as the comprehensive review that took place at the beginning of our term of office. I am satisfied that we have a Navy that is fit for the strategic circumstances in which we live. The Navy is doing more across the world than it ever did before, and as we will no doubt hear in response to questions if we come to them during this Question Time, it can look forward to being equipped over the next 10 or 20 years with the best modern ships that the world has seen.

Next Section Index Home Page