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12 Dec 2007 : Column 327

The accommodation is in a bad way. Almost half the single living accommodation remains of the lowest standard—graded fourth out of 4—and only 18 per cent. is of the highest standard. The MOD itself estimates that even if current investment continues, 30 per cent. of the accommodation will remain at grades 3 or 4 after 2013. The Government do not have a sufficient sense of urgency. They are beginning to acknowledge the problem and are introducing programmes to try to address it, and I commend them for that. However, I do not think that adequate progress will be made or that the improvements that everybody wants and expects will be brought about on anything like a realistic or reasonable time scale.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): May I point out that that is not the case across the UK? In Midlothian, £60 million has been invested in the past few years and we have satellite television and state-of-the-art houses for the Highland Regiment. The Government propose to amend the legislation to give service personnel equal footing on the housing list when they leave the forces. There could be cross-party agreement—I encourage those on the Front Benches to do more on this—on the idea that ex-servicemen returning from duties should be given not just an equal footing but priority by all local authorities.

Nick Harvey: I would imagine that we all agree that that is desirable. If it were not for the desperate housing shortage, I imagine that something more akin to that would happen.

Let me stick with the subject of housing. In its 2007 report, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body noted on the subject of the improvement programme for single living:

We have been falling behind on even the targets and programmes that the Ministry has established. Since 1997, the MOD has brought £2.2 billion into the Treasury through asset sales. In the year that the modernisation plan began, twice as much money went into the Treasury coffers from asset sales as went into improving soldiers’ accommodation.

Mr. Touhig rose—

Nick Harvey: I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman one last time, once I have made the point that it seems to me the Government have not even used the resources at their disposal in the way the House would want.

Mr. Touhig: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I agree with a lot of what he says about the inadequacy of single living accommodation and family accommodation. However, the MOD has put a lot of effort and finance into improving it. It may surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that when I was a Minister in the MOD responsible for those matters the former service chiefs and others whom we now pray in aid certainly never supported me when I said we should use the sale of assets to invest in accommodation for our servicemen. They may say that on television and radio now, but they never did a damn thing when they were in a position to do something about it.

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Nick Harvey: I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point. It is well made, and will be heard by some who serve in the armed forces. The Adjutant-General, Sir Freddie Viggers, has been willing to put his head above the parapet while he has been in post and say that too much accommodation is of a poor standard, too old or not modern enough in how it is fitted for families. We have a long way to go to bring about the improvement that we would want in the 41,000 units left in the estate.

It is worrying that an average of 20 per cent. of married quarters—this was covered on the radio this morning—are empty at any given time. It costs the Ministry money to pay the lease for properties that are not filled. I accept that when large numbers of people are moved around, as happens with the armed forces, a percentage of the properties will always be empty. That would probably be a higher percentage than would be experienced by a commercial landlord. Nevertheless, it seems an awful lot when we consider that the MOD is paying to rent family accommodation in the private sector at the same time.

The Ministry has told us that it would cost £750 million to bring all the family accommodation up to grade 1. It has also acknowledged that a minimum of £50 million will need to be spent each year to make the necessary improvements. The figures for 2006-07 show that the MOD did not spend anything like the £50 million that has been acknowledged to be necessary. The process, if it continues at the speed at which the work is being done and the money is being spent, rather than the speed that is being talked about, will take almost 50 years unless the MOD can improve radically on its performance in 2006-07. There is a long way to go.

The contract to deal with repairs and complaints was given to the contractor, MODern Housing Solutions—MHS. In the year from March 2006 to March 2007, MHS received almost 9,000 complaints. The call centre received some 200,000 repair call-out calls in that year and dropped almost 9 per cent. while people were hanging on at the other end. It is no wonder that the families of our armed forces are getting somewhat exasperated wondering when essential repairs will be conducted, particularly when they involve ageing boilers in need of repair in the depths of winter. The situation was summed up well by General Sir Michael Rose when he said recently that

It is perfectly clear that there is a long way to go.

My other major point concerns medical care. I recognise and acknowledge the vital role of the military ward at Selly Oak hospital and the extraordinary quality of the medical expertise available there. It is clear that that is now a world-class service and, combined with some good medical care in the operational theatres, it means that people are now surviving who previously would not have done so. That said, they are often seriously incapacitated following the initial acute interventions.

It is the quality of the care afterwards that is so often criticised and that many believe to be lacking. [ Interruption. ] It is criticised by families and, occasionally,
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by the victims themselves. I have spoken to some of them individually. They are very appreciative of the high quality of medical care available at Selly Oak. It is clear that their aftercare, when they can be pushed back into different parts of the UK, does not match the high standard that they have experienced at Selly Oak. I am surprised that Ministers are pulling a slight face at that, because many people have commented on it and would recognise it as being the case.

Mr. Hancock: Some hon. Members are being critical of what my hon. Friend has to say, but they might be interested in the comments made by the former commander of the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan. In a letter to the MOD, he said that his resignation was in part due to the shoddy treatment that injured soldiers under his command had received when returning to the UK. In a letter to defence chiefs, he was reported to have criticised the level of pay, the lack of training and equipment, the appalling housing and, most of all, the treatment of injured soldiers. Labour Members ought to be cautious about what they say when they ask for proof, given that a lieutenant-colonel has resigned from the Army because of the treatment of his troops.

Nick Harvey: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is clear that those criticisms have been made, and on a wide front.

In July, the Secretary of State for Defence said in response to the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow):

I take his point.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Nick Harvey: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman twice already. We look forward to hearing what he has to say later.

We take the Secretary of State’s point about medical care, but I want to draw a comparison with the US, where there are some 180 military hospitals. If we were to translate that pro rata to the size of our armed forces, the UK would have around 33 military hospitals. I am not aware that anyone in this House, from any part of the political spectrum, has suggested that we should bring back a widespread network of military hospitals. I am not sure that I have heard any recent argument that we should go as far as having even one, but the Government have stated that they intend to explore whether there should be a larger network of military-only wards around the country. However, I would not expect each such ward to achieve anything like the degree of specialist expertise available at Selly Oak.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Nick Harvey: In a moment.

The Government have stated that they will consider such a network, so they should tell us what progress has been made. The quality of aftercare, beyond the initial intervention, would be improved if there were military wards in more parts of the country, and especially where there are large numbers of military personnel in the geographical locality. The Government should either go ahead and introduce such a system, or put us out of our misery and acknowledge that they are not going to do so.

Linda Gilroy: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way? Has he visited the Stonehouse ward at the Ministry of Defence hospital unit at Derriford, the nearest military-managed ward to his constituency? Two thirds of the nurses there are from a military background, and the unit has a definite military ethos.

Nick Harvey: I am very familiar with that ward, and I greatly welcome what it does, but I want to know whether the Government intend to follow up on what they have hinted at in the past and establish a network of such wards. Indeed, I think that the Conservative amendment says as much.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): What?

Nick Harvey: Am I mistaken? Perhaps the Conservative amendment does not refer to such a network, but I want to know what progress the Government intend to make in that regard.

Dr. Murrison: I fear that the hon. Gentleman might be getting a little confused. I am certainly concerned that he seems to think we should have a military hospital for 13,000 servicemen. He should understand that, in America, a clinic with a few beds counts as a military hospital. We have many of those already in this country.

Nick Harvey: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was deliberately misquoting me, but I was explaining that I did not think that anyone had asserted that we should have a network of military hospitals. I am making the case that we should have a network of military wards.

Before I leave the issue of health, I want to make a few remarks about mental health. Following the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, that is certainly one of the most significant long-term problems that the Government and society as a whole must address. The Government have begun various good initiatives to meet the challenge posed by mental health for both serving personnel and veterans, but I believe that we might face a significant influx of mental health patients in the years to come. Veterans are especially vulnerable, because they get less support from and have less involvement with the MOD when they leave the service and are at the mercy of civilian health care services.

We know that mental health is something of a poor relation in the NHS. Additional NHS plans to develop community mental health services for veterans would improve the situation, and practitioners with some specialism in post-traumatic stress disorders need to be on the look out for, and ready to help, those who have
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served in the armed forces. At present, they are not being picked up well or readily enough by primary care trusts and health centres.

We are of course aware of the good work being done for those still in service. The Government have their contract with the Priory, and Combat Stress is also doing a lot of work in the field. I welcome the recent improvement in that organisation’s budget, but there is still a long way to go and there is a real risk that there will be a huge surge in demand for the services in the future.

In conclusion, I believe that the military covenant would benefit from being written down in detail. It should be codified so that it is widely understood.

Mr. Kevan Jones: It is written down already.

Nick Harvey: That is true, in a manner of speaking, but I am talking about a properly fleshed out and detailed document against which progress can be monitored every year. An independent committee should conduct that monitoring and report back to the House so that the matter can be debated each year. There should be publicly accountable benchmarking of progress on key areas in the military covenant, because the bond between nation and military needs to be rebuilt and safeguarded. The confidence of the armed forces in the covenant needs to be re-established, and that means that there should be real entitlements and obligations.

Finally, we should show that the commitment of the political community to the covenant is genuine. In recognising the work of our armed forces, everyone in this House needs to demonstrate that we are absolutely committed to honouring the military covenant.

2.5 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

There is considerable and quite proper interest in the House and among the public about how we meet our obligations to our armed forces and veterans, and to their families. In the run-up to Christmas, we have many people stationed abroad, many of them young and in dangerous circumstances. It is therefore appropriate that we express in full the feelings that we have for our troops and wish them the very best as they carry out the very arduous tasks that they undertake on our behalf.

As the Chief of the General Staff has said, we need to ensure that we get the military covenant into balance, but we must bring the debate about these matters into
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balance as well. I welcome this debate, as it is important that all the people of Britain become more aware of the efforts and sacrifices being made by our armed forces on their behalf. In addition, we all need to think about our security over the years ahead and therefore about what level of spending we should commit to defence. Within that spending, we need to decide what our priorities should be, both in terms of operational capability and on the human welfare side of the equation.

Wild exaggerations of some of the issues on either side of the argument contribute nothing of value, so let us look at the factual situation. On one side of the equation, we are asking a lot of our people: harmony guidelines are not being met in every circumstance, and one meets people who have been sent to operational theatres more often than is ideal. Yesterday, I went to the Millennium stadium to watch the medal parade and service of remembrance for 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh. That battalion has deployed to Iraq three times, but that is not true across the whole of our armed forces.

On the other side of the equation, we have already achieved a great deal. This year, the armed forces received a pay increase worth 9.2 per cent. for the most junior ranks and an average of 3.3 per cent. across all ranks. We have also introduced a tax-free operational allowance, now worth £2,320 for a six-month tour, and announced a council tax rebate.

Despite the ritual accusations about our soldiers being poorly equipped, we have delivered significant investment in equipment for the front line. Some £2.6 billion of urgent operational requirements have been approved to meet needs for current operations, with £100 million being approved for each month this year. We have already announced six new Merlin battlefield support helicopters, the first of which arrived in July, and a sixth C-17 transport plane to move troops and equipment into theatre quickly. Moreover, the Prime Minister announced to the House earlier today an investment of more than £150 million in 150 new protected vehicles. The vehicles will be called Ridgbacks, and they will support operations in Afghanistan. That investment, alongside previous orders for the Mastiff and the Vector, brings the total number of new protected vehicles that we are delivering to support operations to more than 600.

Jim Sheridan: Does my hon. Friend agree that the new equipment was delivered not by the tooth fairy but by good, honest manufacturing workers? The vehicles and equipment were manufactured in this country and provided thousands of quality jobs.

Mr. Ainsworth: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. As Member for Coventry, North-East, as well as Minister for the Armed Forces, I am enormously proud that the up-armouring of Mastiff is being performed in my constituency. It is one of the vehicles in which those on operation have the most confidence, especially when they are deploying on dangerous routes where there is a mine threat.

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