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29 Jan 2008 : Column 56WH—continued


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The care pathway is delivered in several different ways: through information provided in GP practices, by Turning Point, to which I think that my hon. Friend referred, in the custody suites used by the probation service and in hospital wards. Identifying problem drinkers and where brief interventions should take place is a comprehensive way of tackling the issue. As my hon. Friend said, however, we also need hospital-based intensive care or an appropriate parallel residential setting.

All of that was in place, but since the coroner’s letter, the PCT has been working to identify additional resources, and those include another £100,000 for this financial year and £250,000 for next year. Before the coroner’s intervention, the PCT had a contract for in-patient beds with providers. As I said, we need to ensure that the right balance is struck and that people have access to both the community service and residential provision, because we need a complete care pathway and complete support, where that is necessary.

The PCT must consider, and is considering, the number of beds that it needs and where the appropriate care should be provided. Evidence shows that community detox is more effective under certain circumstances, but that when other related medical complications are involved, and needs are far more complex, residential care supported by community services is necessary. The PCT is taking forward its budget and local delivery plans, including through local area agreements, which will address wider activities, such as work with schools and young people, in appropriate locations, as my hon. Friend mentioned. It should continue to invest more money in this problem.

A few of the questions that my hon. Friend raised remain unanswered, particularly those on the interaction with accident and emergency admissions of people needing those beds. I have asked the regional director of public health to look into, and report back to me on, that matter specifically, the relevance of which extends beyond the problem before us today. I shall be happy to share that information with my hon. Friend when I receive it.

We would all agree that a variety of support services must be available across the board. My hon. Friend touched on the unfortunate increase in the number of health complications and deaths, many of which are preventable, resulting from alcohol consumption. We must look very carefully at the interaction between community care services and support and, increasingly, at such treatment and rehabilitation in a care setting. I admit that the level of service provision does not meet these emerging and complex needs, not only in her area, but elsewhere.

Let us consider more widely what we can do about the direct transmission belt, so to speak, that my hon. Friend mentioned, from strategic health authorities back to central Government. The NHS in the north-west undertook a stocktake of alcohol services and is now working with local primary care trusts to find ways of taking forward some very positive plans for tackling alcohol harm. The report confirmed that excess consumption of alcohol has a major impact on the lives of those in the north-west and identified a reduction in the number of deaths in the region caused by alcohol as a very high priority. However, it also found that PCTs in the region felt that there was a culture of excessive drinking, which created major barriers to addressing the health problems caused by alcohol.


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The Government office for the north-west and the Department of Health are working together through local area agreements and through local alcohol strategies, which are a priority for the NHS. They will continue to build on and develop local partnerships and to prioritise action at all levels, to encourage those who enjoy a drink to drink sensibly and those who feel that their drinking is becoming hazardous or harmful to seek help. If possible, that will be done in a community setting, but of course the acute treatment of complex cases should be dealt with in rehabilitation centres.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Has anyone calculated the cost of such provision to the NHS—not only of the straightforward services, but as a result of attacks on staff and the effects on accident and emergency departments?

Dawn Primarolo: I do not have a figure to hand. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right; over the course of people’s lives, the cost of excessive alcohol consumption is huge, whether as a result of higher hospital admission rates, alcohol-related crime, absence from work, school exclusions of young people consuming alcohol—regrettably—teenage pregnancies or road traffic accidents. In fact, I have just been handed the figure: the approximate cost to the NHS is £1.72 billion. That is truly phenomenal.

Regrettably, my hon. Friend’s views are well-founded. At 23 per cent., the north-west has the second highest level of binge drinkers in England; more people in the north-west die from alcohol-related illnesses than anywhere else in the country, and it has the second-highest number of alcohol-related hospital stays. There is no doubt that excessive alcohol consumption contributes to poor quality of life, shortens many lives and results in huge costs to families and communities, and eventually to the economy and the NHS.

To understand the breadth of the problem, the Government undertook an alcohol needs assessment research project—the first ever assessment of specialist alcohol treatment in England and of what needs to be done to improve available treatment. As a result of that study, the Department intends to monitor every year the availability of services in each PCT and to look specifically at collecting information for the first time on the specialist treatment that needs to be provided. That will begin on 1 April 2008.

What do we need to do here in Westminster? Although the collection of information, the commissioning of services and the investment of money are important steps, it will take time to turn the problem around. It has been a long time in the making. However, the Government are taking a number of other steps. The joint public service agreement target with the Home Office will address the more complex and wider problems associated with excessive alcohol consumption and interventions at that level. Furthermore, a new education campaign will start in the spring aimed particularly at encouraging young people to drink more sensibly.

Last week, the Department announced that an independent review is to be carried out of the relationship of alcohol pricing and promotion in off-licences, supermarkets, pubs and clubs to alcohol consumption and harm. I hope that the review’s finding will be received from the experts in July of this year, at which point we will assess the need for action, including
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regulatory change. We have agreements with the alcohol industry on the labelling of alcohol products, particularly in regard to health advice. In addition, the Prime Minister has made it clear that he is reconsidering the 24-hour licensing laws, which have been operating for number of years now, and evidence of whether they are connected to the problems that we are discussing.

Locally, a great deal is being done with extra investment, examining the issues that my hon. Friend has raised, and I shall be happy to discuss further developments. The strategic health authority will keep an eye on the situation and ensure that not only in her primary care trust, but in others, matters are taken forward. The Government are taking the necessary steps to get proper advice to people.


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Military Operations (Information)

1.30 pm

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): It is good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Marshall. It has taken some time to secure this debate about the release of military information, which I believe is an important subject not just for the military, but for others, including the family and friends of people serving overseas. We have heard much comment in the media over the past few months about how the military and their tremendous achievements in both Iraq and Afghanistan need to be appreciated by people in the United Kingdom. I question whether the military do enough to encourage that situation, and the purpose of the debate is to highlight the fact that they could do more and do it better. That point has been accepted none the less, and as a result, parades and receptions have been held to welcome back troops from active service overseas. We must never underestimate the contribution that they have made, and continue to make, in some of the toughest fighting since the second world war. My admiration for our troops is boundless, and I am relieved that the UK can still attract the calibre of young people who, with appropriate training and experience, are every bit as good as their forefathers.

However, the world has changed considerably and the shots are now called by a media that do not necessarily give a fair and accurate summary of what is happening in the field. Competing priorities and competition from other news stories can drive accurate reporting of operations off the front pages and television, but, using the Musa Qaleh operation as the basis for this debate, the only competition for news during that period was the missing person presumed dead for five years following a canoeing incident on the north-east coast—someone who was subsequently discovered to be very much alive.

A great opportunity was lost by the military to capture the imagination of the public, and it was lost under the camouflage of NATO, ISAF—the international security assistance force—the Afghan army and operational security. Although media information would have had to be shared with those organisations, none of them has any interest in, or responsibility for, the reaction of the British people to the battle of Musa Qaleh. Although the powers that be quite naturally wanted to promote the Afghan national army and the Afghan Government, the Ministry of Defence should have had as its priority the promotion of news to the British public, not least because it is important for the recruitment and retention of personnel in our armed services.

The families of serving personnel in Afghanistan, who had an obvious interest in developments, had to resort to foreign media and even to the Taliban for progress reports during the Musa Qaleh operation. The only information on the MOD website was an 82-word news article published on Friday 7 December 2007, which was replaced by another short article of 139 words the following day. It was left to newspapers to provide adequate coverage. For example, Rupert Hamer, the Sunday Mirror correspondent, gave details about what was happening in Musa Qaleh while accompanying the British Brigade Reconnaissance Force. At this point, I offer my condolences following the deaths of Jack Sadler and Darryl Gardiner and the injuries incurred by the reconnaissance force.


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That event could prove to be the turning point in the whole Afghanistan war. There was a long build-up to the taking of Musa Qaleh and most knew that it was happening—certainly the Taliban did. When the important flow of news is deliberately hidden behind the excuse of operational security, the Army pays a high price in the loss of good public relations. However, sensibly handled news, which would also have been picked up by the Taliban, could have been used to the advantage of the allies as it has so often been before. Just as the military operation for Musa Qaleh was meticulously planned and executed, so should have been the public relations exercise. The news of the steady push up the Sangin valley by British and Afghan forces could have been fed to the media, together with appropriate photographs, rather than the few outdated ones that were used. The purpose of the operation, the importance of the strategy, the breaking of the Taliban’s hold on the drugs trade and the sheer intensity of the battle, which took place over the weekend of 7, 8 and 9 December 2007 could have been explained.

The flow of good material, backed by photographs and video footage, could have dominated the British media for several days, sending out a very clear message about the achievements of the military. Instead, we had a complete public relations disaster in so far as a valuable opportunity was lost, very little material was available and virtually an information vacuum followed. However, we know that British forces are still harrying the Taliban, holding and rebuilding positions that have been taken to make it more difficult for the insurgents to re-group in the spring, and the complete lack of sympathetic coverage is not the way for the military to gain the enthusiastic backing of the British people.

If the Minister replies that the reason for the void is operational security, I shall feel like screaming, because I do not accept it. The situation was caused by a total failure of the military and the MOD to understand the power and importance of good public relations in informing the public about what was happening. It is as important to take the British people along with us, as it is to win the battle on the ground, because if that is not achieved, the calls for withdrawing from military action could escalate, with the result that recruitment and retention become ever more difficult.

In a further article, which was published on 23 December 2007, Rupert Hamer wrote:

the Brigade Reconnaissance Force—

The Taliban know exactly what is happening: they have mobile phones to get information, and they use them in the same way as the foreign press, which, for example, phoned residents in Musa Qaleh to find out what was happening on the ground. “Operational security” appears to have been used damagingly against our own side in that case, rather than against the enemy.

What can be done about the utter failure to use public relations to the UK’s advantage? When operating in a joint force, such as NATO, ISAF, the Afghan national army or any other, it should be made clear from the outset that if British forces are to take part, the British should handle the dissemination of news and the public relations agenda, and not rely, as happened recently, on other organisations to make the running. If British forces are to be used anywhere in the world, the
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moral obligation to keep the British people informed should be fulfilled, and that obligation should form part of our covenant with the military.

It is important to give the maintenance of good public relations a prominent role at all levels of training. Officers need to understand that it is vital to win the hearts and minds of the public—particularly commanders in the field who are responsible for making the decision to release information to the media. All pre-deployment training should include public relations training, because it is almost as important to inform the public as it is to win the battle.

However, the strategy cannot work unless a thorough overhaul of the chain of command is undertaken to decide how best material can be released, because I suspect that, as in all large organisations, there are blockages. The Ministry should be at the forefront of the release of news material; it should not lag days behind, or be dictated to and led by other media sources. Recent events have proved that the MOD is not at the forefront of reporting the activities and successes of our forces. In the case of Musa Qaleh, publicity could have been prepared in advance alongside the excellent military planning and successful execution. The superb co-operation between allied forces and the brilliant performance of the military went almost unrecognised because the British people were not told the full facts about what had been achieved, for the simple reason that the release of media information was never an integral part of the overall planning.

With the relatively small military force that the United Kingdom now has, it should be possible to know where every man and woman comes from, not just where they are based. Very few local newspapers follow the progress of service personnel originating from their area, because little information is given to them, yet local media, including newspapers, radio and television, command a greater circulation and coverage than the national media. There are so many exciting things going on in the military that a string of inspiring news stories about local people could go out to local communities. That would be a low-cost way of getting across the message about our armed services, and it would give youngsters an incentive to seek such a career. Too often, the only military story found in the local media is when someone is killed or injured.

The MOD should be the driving force of media coverage, and its website should be at the forefront at all times. I realise that that would put out of joint the noses of a few media outlets, because they rely on exclusives, but many have their own reporters and photographers embedded with our forces and get more detailed, precise and personal exclusive stories from them. In an operation such as Musa Qaleh, the MOD could have held briefing sessions supported by its website. The simple fact is that news that should have come directly from the military did not. I doubt whether the MOD ever got it in the first place.

It is no good the military moaning about a lack of public support when they do not go out of their way to inform the public. They have material in abundance, and not just about war-fighting, which they could provide to the news media. They cannot blame anyone but themselves for the failure to get the message over to the nation as a whole. I appreciate the fact that running any news outlet, whether a website or a blog, is not easy. To be effective, one has to update it continually, be ahead
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of the game and understand and promote the flow of stories. Some of the regimental sites are often out of date, but the MOD, given the authority to get on with the job and with a small, dedicated team, could be a pathfinder and lead by example. With the right will and determination, it could be done.

A written parliamentary reply on 18 December stated that the Ministry of Defence directorate of public relations comprised 69 personnel. I cannot work out why the smallest service, the Royal Navy, has the most, but there must be a reason. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell me what it is.

I hope that the Minister, the military and the MOD will take the debate seriously and set about reorganising the whole operation of news coverage, the release of news to the media and the monitoring of coverage. The motivation for the effort is to benefit the military, of whom we are all immensely proud. If undertaken well, the project would assist all our armed services.

There is much good will for our serving Army, Navy and Air Force personnel, which must never be taken for granted. Would not the parades of returning servicemen and women have meant even more to the public if their operational tour had been well covered in the local press throughout their deployment? The purpose of insurgency, which the UK is trying to counter, with great difficulty, particularly in Afghanistan, is not only to take control of an area but to undermine those who oppose it and to destroy support for foreign troops in their home territory. The calls for withdrawal then intensify, but the best way to counter them is to have established an excellent narrative and communication with the British people, who support the armed services for their professional and unselfish service on behalf of our country and its people.

1.45 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing the debate, and I thank her for what she said. I agree with some of what she said, but not all—I have my earplugs ready—and I do not agree with some of the conclusions that she drew. I hope that I might be able to persuade her to my view at least partly. The matter is complex and important, and it has an impact on our operational effectiveness and force protection, so I welcome the opportunity to respond on a subject to which, you will not be surprised to hear, Mr. Marshall, I attach the utmost seriousness.

Before I respond to the specific points raised in the debate, I am sure that those present will wish me to pay tribute to the professional, dedicated and courageous men and women of armed forces, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan among other operational theatres.

We face a complex dilemma in handling information on live operations. We are often faced with trying to manage two generally conflicting pressures. First, we have a responsibility to the public and, even more importantly, to the families of our service personnel, to keep them as fully informed as possible about the activities of our armed forces. The public have a right to know what our armed forces are doing in their name, and there is a proper expectation that there should be sensible debate about and scrutiny of our armed forces’ activities.


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