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House of Commons

Monday 3 March 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Queen’s Speech (Answer To Address)

The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported Her Majesty’s Answer to the Address, as follows:

I have received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of your thanks for the S peech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.

Comptroller and Auditor General

I have to inform the House that the address of 23 rd January , praying that Her Majesty will appoint Timothy John Burr to the of fice of Comptroller and Auditor Gener al, was presented to Her Majesty who was graciously pleas ed to comply with the request.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Veterans Day

1. David Wright (Telford) (Lab): What plans he is considering to mark Veterans day. [190358]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Royal Air Force Sergeant Duane “Baz” Barwood, who died in Iraq on Friday 29 February. We owe him and others who have lost their lives a deep debt of gratitude.

The third annual Veterans day will take place on 27 June 2008, and we have allocated £350,000 to support events across the UK. In January, I announced that Blackpool will host this year’s national event. To date, more than 80 UK towns and cities will host major events to celebrate the achievements of the country’s veterans, and we expect many more to do so. We are also working to ensure the effective involvement of ex-service organisations and service units.

David Wright: The whole House associates itself with the Minister’s remarks about Sergeant Barwood, who give his life serving our country. We all owe him a debt of gratitude.

Given that the Government are considering options for another bank holiday, is it not time that Veterans day was a bank holiday?

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Derek Twigg: I am sure that there will be a lot of support for that, particularly in the veterans community. As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, the decision is not mine to take, but many veterans have pressed that case and I am sure that they will continue to do so. As Minister with responsibility for veterans, I am the voice for veterans in government, and it is important to make sure that everyone is aware of veterans’ views on that issue.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): As we think about Veterans day, can we consider some of the veterans who did not return home, in particular Captain Robert Nairac of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, whose body has never been found following his service in Northern Ireland? Is there any news on Captain Nairac’s body?

Derek Twigg: I do not have any news, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman after I have returned to the Ministry of Defence and found out any further information.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): This year marks the 90th anniversary of the first world war armistice, of which there are a few veterans still alive. Will the Minister say how we will commemorate that occasion, bearing in mind that it was a seminal moment socially, politically and militarily for our country and, indeed, for Europe?

Derek Twigg: I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of that moment. My grandfather fought in the first world war, and I am particularly proud of his record—of course, the first world war touched nearly every family in the country. As my hon. Friend knows, we intend to hold a significant event when the passing of the last world war one veteran takes place. He is right to say that we need to do something this year to mark the 90th anniversary, and I will set out more detail for the House at a future date. At the moment, we plan to hold an event around remembrance week. It is also possible that there will be an event in France, and I will discuss that issue with the French Defence Minister.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Although I acknowledge other hon. Members’ contributions on particular veterans’ issues, I want to stress the importance of ensuring that there is a memorial to Sir Keith Park in Trafalgar square, which is in my constituency. There will be a campaign on Sir Keith Park, Bomber Command and the battle of Britain, and although I do not expect a positive answer from the Minister at this juncture, I have put the matter on the record.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Fighter Command.

Mr. Field: As my hon. Friend rightly points out from a sedentary position, the campaign concerns Fighter Command. The Minister should give some credence to that campaign in the months and years ahead.

Derek Twigg: As the hon. Gentleman will know, there is a great deal of support for that campaign. However, there are many campaigns for different memorials to various acts of heroism and service. He will also know that memorials are usually funded by public subscription, so it would not be appropriate for
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me to comment at this stage. However, I understand the sentiment that the hon. Gentleman has expressed; I can only praise all those who served in Bomber Command, the rest of the Air Force and the other services during the second and first world wars.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): John Patterson is a local hero in my constituency. He flew more than 32 bombing raids into Berlin and ended the war flying Field Marshal Montgomery throughout Africa. As a result of publicity, he met a comrade whom he had not seen for 62 years. Will my hon. Friend consider producing a special magazine that contains the names of all the people who have received a veterans badge so that they can get in contact with old comrades?

Derek Twigg: I have to be candid with my hon. Friend and say that I had not thought about that until now. I shall certainly have a look at the idea. About 550,000 veterans badges have now been given out and the practice is becoming ever more popular. I do not know whether we can do anything along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend, but I shall write to him.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): We Conservatives wish to be associated with the Minister’s message of condolence to the family of Sergeant Duane Barwood, who died serving our country.

Parades and badges are important, but veterans are also looking for a more tangible recognition of their service and sacrifice. Will the Minister use the opportunity of Veterans day to announce, first, his plans to remedy the shortcomings in the management of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans, highlighted last month by the Defence Committee? Secondly, will he announce his plans for ensuring that there is continuity of care throughout the UK for amputees who leave the defence services rehabilitation centre at Headley Court and become reliant on NHS limb centres, which are not as well resourced and may very well have competing clinical priorities?

Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman will know that we have made a number of announcements about PTSD in the past few months. He has visited the medical assessment centre at St. Thomas’s—people can go there to get a mental health assessment, support and help to link in with that from their general practitioner. We have also announced the reservists mental health scheme and a 45 per cent. increase in funding for Combat Stress from January this year.

There is also an important new project, in which the Ministry of Defence will work with Combat Stress and the health service to develop specific pilots to address the mental health problems of veterans. Clearly, that is still at an early stage. We will continue to consider what more we can do to improve support for veterans. Given that we have much better knowledge of PTSD and mental health these days, I suspect that we can always do more.

It is important that we understand that the quality of the prosthetic limbs that our service people get at Headley Court is world class. If they have to leave the services, such people will obviously come under the care of the national health service. It is important that we have a system that will maintain that standard of prosthetic limb. That is why we are working with the national health service and talking to a number of health trusts about how we can provide such a service.

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Health Care

2. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on arrangements for ex-service personnel to receive continuing secondary health care. [190359]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I have regular contact with my Department of Health counterparts. Recently, I discussed our response to the Defence Committee’s inquiry into Defence Medical Services. The issues that the Committee raised, including continuity of care for veterans, will be covered in the Government’s formal response to its report.

Rosie Cooper: In the light of that answer, will the Minister expand on the progress that has been made with the regional pilots that are being used to improve the mental health of ex-service personnel?

Derek Twigg: I have visited pilots in Stafford and Camden and am pleased to see that they are developing well. There are, of course, other pilots in Wales, St. Austell, Cleveland and Scotland. The pilots are important because they will allow us to develop a service tailored to the particular needs of veterans suffering from a mental health problem.

I should like to make it specifically clear that the issue is not about the actual standard of treatment and care—that is the same whether the patient is a civilian or from the services. The issue is about understanding the culture of the armed forces and about the experiences that might have led to the mental health problems of those who have served in them. There is a greater understanding and therefore better care; that is the important point to make. That links in with Combat Stress, with which we are working very closely.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): The House will understand that the Government now understand the issues and we are grateful for that.

The Minister mentioned continuing health care. Will he also consult the ex-service associations and make it plain to those dealing with wills that the estates of those whose deaths, whether early or late, might have been brought forward by war service or wounds, can be inherited tax-free?

Derek Twigg: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the answer to that today, but I shall certainly write to him with my views on the issue.

As a Department, we work closely with ex-service organisations on a range of issues; I meet their representatives regularly. That partnership is an important part of the support that we give those who have lost loved ones on operations in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere and of the treatment of the wounded and veterans. That relationship is important for us.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): As the Minister knows, I have a constituent who is suffering from post-combat mental stress. In the first instance, he is finding it very difficult to get a GP referral, and in the second instance, he is being told that he cannot get any treatment for it in the north of England, so he has to travel to the south of England, which is adding to the stress of his condition and that for his mother and the
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rest of his family. This is simply not acceptable, and I hope that the Minister will look at some alternatives so that we can have treatment for these very brave soldiers nearer to their homes.

Derek Twigg: That is why we are looking at mental health pilots to see how we can develop a system around the country so that people can get treated near to home. Although we are currently offering the medical assessment programme at St. Thomas’s, we pay travel expenses for someone to go there. That support is important. Our doctor there, Dr. Ian Palmer, who is a former Army medic, will be able to link in with the individual’s GP to help to advise on the best course of treatment for that individual. If my memory serves me right, I think that I have written to the hon. Lady about this issue, and I urge her to advise her constituents to take that advice.

3. Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): What assessment he has made of the adequacy of ongoing care provided for servicemen and women wounded on operations; and if he will make a statement. [190360]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I am confident that the enhancements we have made to the ongoing care for service personnel have created a first-class service. The House of Commons Defence Committee agrees, declaring in its February 2008 Report “Medical Care for the Armed Forces”:

We are not complacent and continue to examine what further improvements we can make in the medical care and welfare of our service personnel.

Mr. Benyon: Alarming stories are emerging from servicemen who are being treated, under the MOD’s contract for trauma stress, with The Priory Group. We have heard stories of people being told not to talk about their experiences for fear of upsetting civilian members of the group. We also heard of one case where an individual was sitting next to a woman who was receiving bereavement counselling for the loss of her cat. Does the Minister accept that it is not entirely appropriate that the psychological welfare of servicemen traumatised by war is being subcontracted out to an organisation such as The Priory Group?

Derek Twigg: Hon. Members will remember that we heard similar stories about various cases at Selly Oak. I will be happy to look at any individual case for which the hon. Gentleman can give me evidence. The Priory Group has, rightly, been treating our service personnel, but it works very closely with our department of community mental health, which visits it on a regular basis. Personally, I have not had any complaints, and I meet very many veterans, some of whom have been to the Priory. That is not to say that things do not go wrong on occasion. If the hon. Gentleman, or any other hon. Members, can give me details of specific cases, I assure him that I will have them investigated. As I say, we heard the same sort of stories about Selly Oak, but we have just had the report back about the
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medical services that are provided there for our injured service personnel, which are first class. I am not suggesting that we can never improve anywhere, but the Select Committee looked at current mental health care provision as well, and said that it was very good.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Following on from the previous question, if all personnel returning from war-torn areas are subject to counselling, what is the quality of that counselling?

Derek Twigg: The process is that if someone who is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan develops a mental health problem, they can go and see a community psychiatric nurse and, if necessary, a consultant. Many can be treated or cared for in operational service out there, and some will need to be sent back to the UK. We have our departments of community mental health around the country, which can provide them with support, and eventually, as we have just heard, they could be admitted to the Priory for further intensive care. In addition to that, our service personnel go through a period of decompression before they come back, which is very important. We also have in service the new trauma risk management system—TRiM—which was originally used by the Royal Marines and now by the Army. All the feedback on that from service personnel says that it is very good and helps people. There is effective support in theatre and back in the UK as well.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I pay tribute to the treatment that Lance Corporal Nick Davis, of my constituency, has received both at Selly Oak and at Headley Court. Although his amputation has been traumatic, he has been treated well, but I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that his family found it extremely difficult to visit him. His mother has been living with him in Birmingham, and then down in Epsom, but his father has had no support, with the children or with his job, to enable him to visit his gallant son. May I ask the Minister to consider giving support in these circumstances?

Derek Twigg: I give the hon. Gentleman a clear assurance that I will look into the case. When wounded services personnel are taken to Selly Oak, families are given funding to visit, and there is accommodation there for families. That provision is based on medical need, which is obvious when an injury first takes place and the person in question is admitted to Selly Oak.

With regard to Headley Court, if there is a clinical, medical need for it, support for families can be given. The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association— SSAFA—has just invested in a house for families there. I am surprised to hear what the hon. Gentleman said, but if he gives me the details I assure him that I will look into the matter and get back to him.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Following on from that answer, I understand that an appeal is being launched in Birmingham to extend facilities where families can stay to support those in Selly Oak. Can the Minister assure me that his Department will support that appeal as much as possible?

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