We welcome other moves that have been announced, but we will want to examine the practicalities. For example, providing good mental health services to veterans requires better integration between defence medicine and the NHS, and although the aim of providing better access to NHS dentistry for service families is desirable, it will not be helped by the fact that the number of NHS dentists declined by a further 500 in 2007.
We would also like to re-examine the issue of the educational status of those leaving the forces, which the Secretary of State mentioned. Many of those who have taken an interest in this issue point out that the underskilling of those who leave the services early is often a greater problem than the one in respect of those leaving after six years. I hope that the Government will re-examine how such people might also be helped.
Finally, may I thank all in the media, in charities and among the general public who have campaigned so tirelessly for the better treatment of our service personnel and their families, and our veterans? Specifically, may I thank Freddie Forsyth and his team, which includes Simon Weston, for the work that they have done for the commission that was set up by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on service welfare? I hope that the Secretary of State will acknowledge what has been a great act of public service on their part.
How we deal with our armed forces is symptomatic of the values of our society. Ultimately, we will have to deal with the overstretch that contributes to many of the problems that those in our armed forces and their families face, but today there has been a welcome acknowledgement of how much needs to be done.
Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome of this package. I appreciate that he has not had the time to go through it in detail, but as he understands more about it and the impact that it will have, he will recognise that it faithfully represents the issues that members of the armed forces and their advocates, including those organisations he identified, have brought to our attention. We have been engaged in a detailed and ongoing consultation, which we announced last year.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that we should all avoid trying to stand on that small space normally occupied by The Sun, and claiming to be the persons wot dunnit. There will be significant competition for the credit for these proposals, but they are the result of a genuinely co-operative effort, which has been going on in some detail for a long time, to identify the needs of our service personnel. The announcement reflects the issues that service people and their families brought to us through various organisations and in several ways. For example, many people contacted us about their individual circumstances, but we have an obligation to keep those communications confidential.
The hon. Gentleman asked several questions about the uplift in the tariff rates of the armed forces scheme. I am satisfied that the tariff approach to a no-fault compensation scheme is the only fair way to conduct that process. He referred in passing to civil claims. When there is an allegation of negligence, one can treat the calculation of compensation differently, but when there is no fault, there has to be transparency and fairness, and some form of tariff. That is now well established in public policy, and previous Governments have had similar schemes.
I am satisfied that the scheme works and is fair. I am always prepared to consider reviewing it to make it more transparent and fair, but the doubling will go down to tariff level 6; the hon. Gentleman may be familiar with the structure of the scheme. Below that, there will be increases, but they will not be proportionately as large as those for the most seriously injured.
The hon. Gentleman asks when the changes will come into effect. He will know that, because it is a statutory scheme, they cannot come into effect until the relevant legislation has been laid. Secondary legislation has to be laid, and that requires a period of consultation. We will publish the detail so that people can see the effect of the scheme on the tariff levels as soon as we are able to do so. There will be a short period of consultation, and then I expect, because of the general welcome for the changes, that the House will approve the proposals. We will have a relevant benefit uplift for everybody who has made an application to the scheme since it started in 2005.
The hon. Gentleman asks me to do something that I am not aware any Government have ever doneto make the scheme retrospective and apply it to people who were compensated or supported under an entirely different scheme of compensation. I hasten to add that the previous scheme was inherited from the previous Government. There was dissatisfaction with that, and we have changed the scheme, but it is not appropriate, in public policy terms, to apply the changes retrospectively to people whose compensation or support was calculated under a different scheme, given that many peoplenot just those who have been in Iraqstill receive income under that scheme.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether additional resources will be provided. Substantial additional resources will be provided, but they will be gleaned from the budgets of other Departments. We joined with those Departments and the devolved Administrations to ensure that resources could be identified to meet the principles set out in this paper.
Finally, on the hon. Gentlemans specific questions, he asked about the civil claims. He will appreciate that I do not have that information with me, but I will ensure that he gets it and that it is shared with him and made available to all Members. I thank him for the tribute that he paid to our armed forces. He knows that I share his view that they are excellent people who do excellent work very bravely and professionally. I am pleased that there is such consensus of welcome for the changes in the House and I hope that we will all work to ensure that they are implemented as quickly as possible and that the Government are kept to their promises.
Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of the statement and for the statement itself. I, too, wish to pay tribute to those who have sacrificed so much for their country, including one of my constituents, Sergeant Scott Paterson, who was recently badly injured in Afghanistan.
Who could disagree with these welcome proposals, which are a great step in the right direction? The bus travel, the blue badges, the further and higher education and the compensation uplift, as well as the priority in housing, healthespecially mental healthand education for veterans, are all positive steps in the right direction.
I will withhold judgment, however, until I see the final details, because many of the proposals include proposals to change priorities and move people up lists. Because such changes are complex and fraught with difficulties, I would like to see the details of the proposals before making a final judgment on them. I can pledge the support of this party in making the proposals work effectively on the ground, where support from local councils, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly is required.
I was surprised that no proposals were made to speed up the upgrade of the notoriously poorly maintained single living accommodation. Nor was there anything on the rights of the Gurkhas. Especially given recent coverage of the issue, I would have expected something about their rights to live in this country.
I was disappointed, although not surprised, that no mention was made of the real issuethe elephant in the room. It is bunkum to suggest that these proposals will address overstretch in our armed forces. We are asking them to do too much on two fronts, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Until we address that serious issue, we will continue to see discontent among our armed forces. I urge the Minister to review our operations, especially in Iraq. The tempo of operations there is placing enormous pressure on our armed forces and their families, and unless the issue is addressed, including withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, we will for ever be fiddling at the edges.
Des Browne: I welcome the hon. Gentlemans warm welcome for the announcements, although he did get to the but eventually. I thank him for his tribute to the armed forces and recognise the special contribution that his constituent, Scott Paterson, made. I know of his circumstances, but as Secretary of State, I cannot single him out. He is one of many who have suffered injuries and borne them with great stoicism and courage.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that the implication of the proposals is that service people will move up lists. That may be the case, but the intention and the principle, which we have stated at the outset, are that members of the armed forces and their families should not be disadvantaged by their circumstances. No member of the armed forces came to me and said that they wanted to be able to jump up lists for treatment or for their children to be treated better than any other children. They said that they did not want their lifestyle, which they accept, to operate to their disadvantage. We are trying to find ways to ensure that that principle is observed. We are not asking for people to jump up lists and, indeed, members of the armed forces and their families would be the last people who would want to queue-jump. They are much more likely to stand back and let others go first, but they do not want to be disadvantaged. That is the point, with respect to the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned a failure to deal with the issue of accommodation. When he gets an opportunity to read the paper in detailthe devil is always in the detailhe will see that paragraph 3.5 and the following paragraphs are devoted to accommodation. In part, they point out what has been achieved, and that is something that I think that he does not appreciate.
We have invested £1.4 billion in delivering single-living accommodation, and to date that has produced 26,000 new bed spaces. A further 30,000 are planned, as part of a planned investment in accommodation in excess of £8 billion over the next decade. So it is not correct to say that we are not giving accommodation the priority that it deserves.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman identified what he considers the real issue, and I shall say two things in response. First, I regularly meet our forces doing their jobs in the operational environment. They never complain to me about their morale when they are doing their jobs, because that is when they are at their happiest, most content and most professional. There is no morale problem when we ask people to do what we have trained them to do.
Secondly, I recognise that our armed forces are operating at a tempo that is beyond what we planned for. I have said time and time again at this Dispatch Box that it is our intention to deal with that. In my term as Secretary of State for Defence, we have already drawn down significantly in Iraq. We are in transition, and we intend to do more in the way of draw-down to resolve the tempo problem.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. May I appeal for the co-operation and understanding of hon. Members? There is another important statement to come and some important business thereafter. May I therefore ask for precise, singleton questions and brief answers? That would be extremely useful.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I warmly welcome the Command Paper. I have visited troops in Afghanistan and Iraq in the last three weeks, and they, too, will warmly welcome this paper. How will the paper be put into practice? During the inquiry into health by the Defence Committee, it came to light that although the MOD had clear policies, they were not being implemented with the necessary vigour in places such as the devolved Administration in Scotland. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me and other Members that there will be some over-arching Government body to ensure that the very welcome proposals in the Command Paper are put into practice?
Des Browne: My hon. Friend identifies an important point. I pay tribute to him for the lengths that he goes to, along with some other hon. Members, to make sure that he knows exactly the circumstances of our troops, both in the operational theatre and otherwise. At the heart of the proposal and the infrastructure put in place to support it will be a committee, chaired by the Cabinet Office. Its membership will include representatives of the external reference group who were involved in advising us, as well as representatives of all the Government Departments, including the MOD, that are required to deliver on these promises.
The committee will meet regularly and report. It will have champions for delivery in each Department, and they will be at director level in the civil service. More than that, the committee will send an annual report on delivery to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and myself, and there will also be a five-yearly review. Finally,
given that the devolved Administrations also have a responsibility in these matters, the reports will be sent to the First Ministers in Scotland and Wales, and to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): May I echo the welcome that other hon. Members have given this Command Paper? However, will the Secretary of State reflect on the fact that people leaving the armed forces prematurely say that the single most important reason for their decision is the excessive separation from their families? That is a product of the fact that the armed forces have been operating well beyond the defence planning assumptions for most of the years since those assumptions were set in the 1998 strategic defence review. Is it not time now to have a debate about what the defence planning assumptions should be? Even if we were to succeed in withdrawing substantially from Iraq in short orderand I doubt that that is in our national interestit would not be long before another theatre of operations demanded our attention. That is the role that we pursue in our national interest. Can we have an open and public debate over the next few months about the defence planning assumptions, so that we can begin to recalibrate our defence policy to reflect the world as it is
Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the Command Paper. That means something to me, as he studies these matters in some detail and knows what he is talking about. He knows, too, that I constantly reflect on the issues that he raises. I do not accept his conclusion about Iraq, because we always make our decisions on the basis of the conditions. There are many opportunities to raise the issues that he mentions in the regular debates that we have in this House on MOD and defence issues. I should be happy to debate them at any time.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): First, on behalf of service personnel, their families and their extended familiesthat is, their parents and even grandparentsmay I thank the Secretary of State for the Command Paper? I consider it to be a major improvement in the military covenant for this country. In no way do I wish to appear churlish, but there is one matter that I hope my right hon. Friend will clarify. The Command Paper says that people who leave the service will get one years key worker status, but it does not mention anything about free higher or further education. When military personnel leave the forces it sometimes takes them two or three years to become acclimatised to civilian life. Will people be given the opportunity to go into free higher or further education even three or four years after leaving the services?
I welcome my hon. Friends welcome for the paper. He is a member of the Defence Committee and so has significant knowledge that qualifies his welcome. I admit that I am slightly embarrassed that I cannot immediately answer his specific question
[ Interruption.] It is a good point and, since I am the Secretary of State, I can tell him that there will be flexibility in this matter.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): May I say to the Secretary of State that these measures are extremely welcome? I wish that the paper had appeared slightly earlier, but I do not want to seem churlish about the measures that it contains. However, the right hon. Gentleman has not mentioned those people who are sick but continue to serve. There has been a huge erosion in fighting power, particularly in our combat arms. For instance, 20 per cent. of the strength of the 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery are unfit for operations, while 39 men in the 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment have been diagnosed with seriously injured hearing and cannot return to the front. That is a matter of grave concern, and it compounds the manning and staffing crisis that our combat arms are facing. Will the Secretary of State give a clear and positive answer about what we are doing about the problem?
Des Browne: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have invested significantly in the medical care of our armed forces, and at the heart of that is the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine. Our investment has built on reforms initially put in place by the previous Government, although we have radically accelerated those reforms. When the Select Committee examined medical care, it produced a report that I thought was very complimentary. I understand that we face a challenge when it comes to service personnel who are too ill to be deployed, for example, but he will know that Headley Court is the jewel in the UKs crown when it comes to rehabilitative medicine. We have announced an additional investment of £24 million in that facility. We continue to research and invest to ensure that we maintain the health of our armed forces. It is our ability to identify the problems and to respond to them through the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre that has inspired the compliments that have been paid to our defence medical services. However, there is still more work to be done.
Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent statement to the House, but may I ask him to pay particular attention to the mental health problems suffered by our service personnel? Often, they are not revealed for many years. Will he ensure that we have a system for keeping in contact with personnel throughout their lives?
My hon. Friend, who is a member of the Defence Committee, knows that we have been working in this area; in particular the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), has been working in this area with some vigour. Apart from the mental health pilots, which were extremely successful and which we are now about to roll out across the country, one of the things that we put in place early was the tracking system to enable us to keep in contact with our people, recognising that the symptoms of mental health problems sometimes have a late onset. So my hon. Friend can be reassured that we are developing that system and we have confidence that we shall be able to keep in touch with our people. Another of the innovations of our approach to mental health is that we now deploy with our troops mental health support staff,
both psychiatrists and psychologists to enable us to deal with these issues in the circumstances where early symptoms sometimes arise.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): May I warmly welcome the statement by the Secretary of State today? Our service personnel are doing a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances and they deserve all the help they can get when they leave the service or are injured.
An issue was raised with application to those who had been previously awarded compensation or previously had adaptations to their home. People will find it difficult to understand why some people will be treated differently now, compared with those who already received compensation at a lower rate. Will the Secretary of State look at that, because I think that that issue will become a bone of contention and undoubtedly will be raised with us by service personnel and their families?
Des Browne: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes in welcoming this announcement. This compensation scheme started in 2005. We have committed ourselves to a system of benefits that will ensure that all those who have been compensated under the scheme will have been treated in exactly the same way as all those who prospectively make an application to the scheme. Those who were dealt with under an entirely different scheme, which operated an entirely different method, are continuing to receive the benefits, although some of them have yet to receive the benefits under the qualifications in that scheme. I think it would be dishonest of me to suggest that any Government would be likely to apply the changes to one scheme retrospectively to an entirely different scheme altogether, but I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. There may be other ways in which we can support those people, and certainly some of the other improvements that are announced in the document that we have published today will be of benefit to them.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): May I join in warmly welcoming the way in which my right hon. Friend has worked with his colleagues across government and listened to people both in this place and outside, and more particularly, to the families? Since I was elected, I have been lobbied by the Army Families Federation and locally in the Crownhill family centre, and I am sure that there will be a very warm welcome for the statement. But may I ask himI scarcely need to ask him, I thinkto involve families in the external reference group?
Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend, who has a long track record of interest in and support for families of service people and, indeed, for service people, many of whom live in her constituency. The answer to her question is simply yes.