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Mr. David Hamilton: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that improving housing standards is of key importance if our servicemen are to remain in the Army and not
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worry about their families? As we improve the house building programmes, education will also be improved, as families would rather stay in good accommodation. They would be more stable and that would assist family outcomes.

Dr. Murrison: I am sure that there is an element of truth in what the hon. Gentleman has said.

October 2 was a day of significant speeches from sandy places. In a reversal of what presumably was intended, the Prime Minister’s Iraq address was completely eclipsed by the barnstorming speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) in Blackpool. Back in October, Christmas seemed such a long time away, but it did not seem so for service families. The Prime Minister said from his desert soapbox that 1,000 troops would be home for Christmas, but he failed to say that the pledge was backdated to June. In fact, since the beginning of September, the number of troops has fallen by just 120.

As most of us here contemplate Christmas at home with our family and friends, is it any wonder that our troops feel let down by a Government whose first instinct is to spin, even at the expense of our men and women engaged in two major conflicts? Those conflicts were unforeseen by the planning assumptions of a now laughably out-of-date strategic defence review and financed only in part by a heavily caveated urgent operational requirement.

I end on a slightly more conciliatory note. Four years after the publication of the well intentioned but largely ignored overarching personnel strategy, the Government’s understandable focus on military hardware may well have unwittingly squeezed what used to be called the greatest single factor in Britain’s armed forces—their people. The time may have come to reappraise the balance.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a limit of 10 minutes on Back-Bench speeches. Members may wish voluntarily to reduce their contributions further.

2.58 pm

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I shall be brief; I have asked a number of questions and spoke in the last debate on these issues. I feel very strongly about how we deal with the families of our armed forces, and I shall concentrate on that point.

As I said last time, when people from my area left school many years ago in 1965, they went to the pits or the mills or they joined the Army—we had Glencorse barracks, which were referred to earlier. What surprises me and is very important is that we must move forward at a time of high expectations. The expectations of people leaving school are now much higher than many years ago. The days of dormitories are over; if we want to attract the best people into the armed forces, we must provide proper accommodation to go with that for when they are back home.

We must ensure overall that families are well looked after. That is the biggest single issue that I find with members of the armed forces whom I meet—it is about
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the families. When our lads and lassies are at the front in Afghanistan or Iraq, all they are worried about is how their families are getting on back home. That is why—I say this to the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison)—I emphasise the point about education and homes. As we develop a programme to make things much more stable so that people can choose to stay in their homes instead of moving to Germany, that will mean much more stability not only in the home, but for the children who attend school. In my constituency, a substantial number of children from Glencorse barracks attend the local primary school.

While I was with the Defence Committee in Germany, I realised for the first time—one always learns from practical experience—that children need to be together. When children are moved into Army barracks, the education authority considers moving them to the nearest primary schools, so that they are spread out into different ones. My experience in Germany showed me that the best thing to do is to put all the children in the same school, because if any disaster befell a family it was amazing how that reflected itself all the way down through the families of the armed forces to affect the children, who depended on each other. I spoke to people at a local primary school a few months ago, and it was amazing how the young kids who were based in Germany and Cyprus before coming back to Britain had gelled. That was good to see. Because of the housing that is available to mothers and fathers, many of them have chosen and will choose to remain where they are in the long term instead of moving about as they have hitherto.

I congratulate the Government on the long-term house-building programme. It is brilliant to find that we now have single people’s accommodation with a television and a single bed and no other person in the room. It is very good for them to have that facility in some of the new build that has taken place. However, there will be a practical problem throughout the UK in trying to get workers for some of the schemes that are under way. In many areas, those workers will not be found. It is difficult in my area, where prices have rocketed and are three times what they used to be; that is why we are having to bring people over from the eastern countries to do the work. In appropriate areas, joint ventures between social housing organisations, local authorities and the MOD might be the way forward. I am glad that the Minister has agreed to meet me to discuss that.

We must recognise the amount of money that is going into the developments that are taking place. The Government have undertaken to ensure that when people leave the Army they are on an equal footing when they go on to the housing list. I genuinely hope that they, and all Opposition parties, will take a different view. In Midlothian, armed forces personnel get priority so that when they leave the armed forces they go to No. 1 on the housing list. I have never once received a complaint from any member of the public about that position. If we are truly going to recognise the role of the armed forces, perhaps the leading lights from the three main parties can agree on one thing.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I recently raised that issue with my district council, because unfortunately armed forces do not get priority
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locally. I entirely agree that there would be no public concern whatsoever, and it would be a real fulfilment of the covenant to do that and to make it absolute policy throughout the country.

Mr. Hamilton: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I agree, Madam Deputy Speaker—I mean Mr. Deputy Speaker; that was a good changeover—that that is very important. An understanding that local authorities recognise such matters would send an important message to our armed forces as they come out of the service and are trying to get back on to the housing list.

I notice that, once again, no Scottish National party Members are in the Chamber to discuss this issue. It is important to recognise that several issues that are faced by the Government in relation to education, health and so on do not apply in Scotland, which is a separate case. When kids from a Scottish regiment come back from abroad, they come back not to an English education, but to a Scottish education, and that must be recognised. When the Defence Committee took evidence in Scotland, I was truly ashamed by the ignorance of officials in the Scotland Office who did not understand the questions that we were asking. We stated that view in our report—it was an outrage. I ask the Minister, when he talks about how we develop programmes throughout the UK, to remember that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in many cases different. Although 87 per cent. of the UK’s population is in England, a disproportionate number of those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in the armed forces, and let us ensure that we deal with everybody as part of the UK.

3.5 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): The transition from Madam Deputy Speaker to yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, was a stealthy operation—it would have done the SAS great credit to slip in so unseen.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton), because his intervention on the Conservative spokesman was very relevant and the response that he got was less than generous. The hon. Gentleman’s point was that the changes that the Army, in particular, has brought about were geared around the lifestyle of families to ensure that children and housing became a much more stable commodity for service families, and it is wrong for anyone not to give credit for those changes. I am sure that five years from now there will be a distinct difference for service families in how education, in particular, operates.

As the longest-serving member of the Defence Committee, our recent session— [ Interruption. ] I remind Labour colleagues that at recent meetings Opposition members were in the majority, because despite their huge numbers on the Committee, so many of them were absent. Over those 10 years, I have listened to lots of evidence sessions, but the best one by a long way and for a long time was that on Defence Medical Services, which was attended by the Under-Secretary and the two leading Army medics—the one in charge of medical services and the surgeon general—with the NHS represented by a Health Minister. That showed a positive and open-minded approach to the issues that servicemen and their families were facing. It was a real pleasure for once to
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hear two generals who were committed to the issue before them, were not afraid to say somewhat controversial things, and willing when they did not have the answer to admit as much. I am like the former defence Minister, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who said that he could not recollect former chiefs who reported to him raising these matters when they were in office. One wonders how much credibility there really is among those people in the other place who continually make these comments when they are out of service but did little or nothing at the time. Mike Jackson gave evidence to the Defence Committee many times about the morale of the Army, and I cannot remember one occasion when he said that one of the key issues is junior ranks’ accommodation or, for that matter, service accommodation generally.

I would much rather listen to someone who, at the age of 42, having led 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan, resigned from the Army and clearly stated the reasons. I hope that the Minister for the Armed Forces will look carefully at the points that that colonel raised in his resignation letter. That is a man who has had the job of commanding a unit and has had to face what the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) had to face in commanding soldiers in the Balkans—dealing with the daily issues that soldiers face and the pressure that they are under on the front line. It is not about their own safety and what is affecting them, but about what is going on at home. That is why so many Members, including the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), intervened about the family welfare packages that are available. It is essential that we get that right and that we have a duty of care not only to service personnel but to the service family in its entirety.

We need to look carefully at the issue of inquests. I enthusiastically support what was said in the statement about greater resources; every single Member here who has been close to such processes for any period welcomed that intervention and that new money. Coroners will be allowed to be more flexible about where the hearings take place.

I return to the point, however, of legal representation. With regard to families not having legal representation automatically, we should not forget that that would be a matter not just of the MOD paying, but of people having access to legal aid. It would not fall on the MOD if the legal aid regulations were worded to the effect that the circumstances of a death could be treated in a certain way if they were sufficiently extraordinary—in the same way as they would if someone died in police custody or in prison. I cannot understand why we cannot overcome this problem. The cost would not fall on the defence budget, and the matter has to be seriously considered. The Prime Minister, in one of the interventions that he took on his statement this afternoon, said that he would look at it. We need to look at a change to the legal aid regulations, which would allow further change to happen.

The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) talked about a lack of mention of welfare, families or education in our motion. Remarkably, there is no mention of education in the Conservatives’ amendment to it. I wonder whether, just as in respect of the previous
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intervention he took, when he suggested that he did not quite know what we were talking about, he had not read his own amendment.

Bob Russell: He signed it.

Mr. Hancock: Despite the fact that the hon. Member for Westbury signed the amendment, I am sure that he would not have been the first Front-Bench spokesman who had signed something without reading it. Our motion certainly talks about the overall package of welfare, and it would have to be a pretty mean-spirited person who did not recognise that that, in its entirety, meant the welfare package for service personnel: housing, education, health—the whole gamut.

On the question of housing, I represent an area where there is a high proportion of service housing, and I am a little mystified about where the 140 unfit houses are located. I cannot believe that they are all in Portsmouth. If there are only 140 unfit houses in the MOD estate, I cannot believe that they are all located in and around the Portsmouth area. That figures needs to be considered with a great deal of caution; I suggest that we look at it further. We must be renting more than 140 houses in the private sector because there is not suitable accommodation for service families in Portsmouth. I know for a fact that we are doing so. It is interesting that the current Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence continually tells us that it was his last task as a Minister at the MOD to sell off the housing estate. I am sorry that he is not with us this afternoon, because he would have another chance to justify that awful decision.

The only winner in that disposal was Annington Homes. It is clear that the disposal of surplus assets has made up nearly half, if not all, of the price it paid the MOD for the initial acquisition. I am at a loss to understand why the MOD is building houses at the same time as Annington is selling them. I have yet to understand how that equation works out to the benefit of the nation. We sell off our service homes and say that we will rent them back. We allow some of them to fall into disrepair. They are no longer used by service personnel because they are not fit to live in, and Annington then gets the privilege of selling them off. At the same time, the MOD is spending hundreds if not millions of pounds in the greater Portsmouth area alone to replace housing.

Let us get it right on housing. I admire what the Government have done about single person’s accommodation for junior ranks in the Portsmouth area. That has greatly improved, but there is still a long way to go. Based on the estimate given to the Defence Committee five years ago, it will take 20 years to bring all single service accommodation up to standard. In Aldershot, we were renting four-bedroom houses so that six Paras could live in them because the accommodation available was inadequate and shameful. One of the reasons that they moved to Colchester—apart from the fact that Essex has some attractions and that they would have the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) representing them—was the appalling state of the single-service accommodation in Aldershot, which was demolished as soon as they moved out. It certainly was not the football that attracted them.

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I welcome the debate today, and I think that there is a general accord. I do not believe that the military covenant is being broken, but I agree with those who have said that it needs to be cherished and that it is in need of greater care. Resources have to be prioritised, and we have to be honest and fair. In a perfect world, everything would be in place, but we do not live in that world. We have to accept that major steps have been taken by this Government to bring about improvements—I think that this view is shared and supported by the whole House—but that is not to say that an awful lot still does not have to be done.

3.15 pm

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): It is a privilege to speak in the debate this afternoon, and a privilege indeed to follow the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), who always speaks on these matters with authority and fairness.

I want to touch this afternoon on how the issues in question affect me as a constituency MP, and about the role that various organisations play in relation to them. It is instructive that the Government amendment talks about

I should like to spend a little time talking about that role, and about the key role played by individuals. Over the years, along with other towns in Lancashire, Blackpool has contributed more than its fair share of servicemen to difficult spots. When I first came to this House, one of the things that first drew me into contact with veterans’ organisations was the campaign for compensation for far east prisoners of war. That compensation was achieved under this Government after more than 40 years of failing to do so.

I strongly welcome what the Royal British Legion has done by introducing its campaign. It has focused minds throughout the House on the various issues, and the organisation has been commendably fair minded in the way it has pursued them. That is one of the reasons I sat down with my local Royal British Legion association to talk about some of the key issues that have been raised with it, and I want to touch on them a little later.

We have, quite rightly, heard a lot about the practical nuts and bolts of service conditions today. In speaking in the debate, I am acutely conscious that I am a civilian. Like the majority of people in this House, I have never served in the armed forces. I did have the privilege, however, of editing the magazine History Today for 12 years, and in that context I dealt with and met many historians and the actual veterans whose service we are considering. Honouring our servicemen is not just about honouring them through practical conditions, but honouring them through remembrance of their service and their achievements. The recognition of those achievements is extremely important; it has a practical consequence, and links into their needs today.

Both my parents served in the armed forces during the war, and I am sure that many people here had parents who served. They are literally the generation to whom we owe everything. It is important that their needs should be addressed now, while many of them are in their ’70s and ’80s. That is why I was pleased
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when, under this Government, the service of the Arctic convoy veterans was recognised—the Russian convoy club in Blackpool and many of my constituents had brought the matter to my attention. Under this Government, we have had recognition of the Suez canal veterans, the Bevin boys and the Land Army girls. Those are intangible things, but important nevertheless.

David T.C. Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Marsden: I will not give way because of the time constraints, and to allow other colleagues to get in. I am sorry.

We need to look at practical things today. When I sat down with my British Legion colleagues in Blackpool, they were particularly keen to talk to me about three main issues: mental health care, support for families at inquests, and general priority treatment for veterans; all of those are important issues. I might add in passing that the British Legion in Blackpool has played a tremendous role not just in supporting veterans, but in fundraising. Because of the nature of Blackpool as a leisure and tourism town, the British Legion organisation there has raised £100,000 over the past 18 years through its annual Poppython, which is a 10-hour entertainment extravaganza that raises money in the weeks before Remembrance day. I want to put on record my tribute to its president, Ian Coleman, and to the many members of the organisation who work very hard for it.

Many Lancashire servicemen were taken prisoner while fighting in campaigns in Singapore and elsewhere. Every year, the Burma Star Association holds its reunion in the Winter Gardens, and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) and I have been privileged to attend those reunions over the past 10 years. Behind that organisation, one man, Jack Nield—who, sadly, died last month—had been a tireless worker for the welfare of the Burma Star veterans over the past 20 years. Those are some of the individual stories behind the organisational ones.

I want to discuss how we should honour all these people today, and how we can take these issues forward. We have talked about priority NHS treatment for veterans. Many veterans are not aware of that entitlement; indeed, many primary care trusts do not know about it either. That is why I have written to the chief executives of all my local trusts, including the Lancashire Care NHS Trust, to ask whether they have protocols for this, and whether veterans are receiving the priority treatment to which they are entitled. We must also remember that veterans suffer from a wide range of conditions, many of which might not emerge until 30 or 40 years after their active service.

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