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29 Jan 2009 : Column 509

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not think that I can do better than that; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have repeatedly had the same experience whereby people are being supported from within the regiment—the appreciation is fantastic. At those times, the Army family or the regimental family—the RAF and the Navy are the same—wrap their arms round people in pretty much most circumstances. We can do better, and we must look to do better, in ensuring that visiting officers are appropriately trained and given all the skills and back-up that they need to deal with families in a bereavement situation and suchlike. The rear parties do a truly excellent job.

I mentioned Selly Oak, and we will not be complacent. We have an important stake in the new Birmingham hospital that is being built close by, which will open in 2010 and will include a new bespoke military ward. I should also tackle the myth that has arisen that there is a lack of priority NHS treatment for veterans whose ill health relates to their service. That is quite wrong. All primary care trusts have been issued with, and accepted, guidance regarding priority treatment for such veterans, and we are also ensuring that our people—the veterans—are made aware of their individual entitlement.

It is vital also that our people are not disadvantaged educationally. The children of our servicemen and women now enjoy priority access to state boarding schools, second only to children in care. Those with special educational needs benefit from guidance that has been given to all local authorities that they should ensure that service children experience no disadvantage in accessing the services that they require. Furthermore, from August this year, service leavers with more than six years’ service will be entitled to study for an additional qualification up to degree level, free from tuition fees. The armed forces are sometimes characterised as a way for many people from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve themselves and make their way in life. With the provision that I have described, that will be the case more than ever.

Bob Russell: The Minister refers to education for the children of service personnel. Will he and his colleagues examine the Defence Committee’s excellent report on that matter and relate it to what is happening in the real world? Notably, Essex county council decided this week to shut the very secondary school that military children go to, and to which the Committee went to get evidence.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not aware of the circumstances of that case, but I will of course examine the report. It has been studied, as are all the Committee’s reports. We talk to people all the time about service educational needs, and one issue dealt with in the Command Paper was that of statemented children with special needs. When their families were obliged to move because of their service life, they had to start the statementing process all over again. We are ending that and ensuring that those statements are transferable. However, I do not know about the particular circumstances that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

Mr. Jenkin: May I inform the Minister that Essex county council carried out a wide-ranging consultation about the future of secondary education in Colchester? The resulting decision reflects a lot of opinions that
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were fed in, not least by those who wanted to keep education in the south of the town, near the garrison. There will be a vocational school there, with which the garrison will be invited to be involved. I am extremely grateful to the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for receiving Lord Hanningfield, the leader of the county council, to discuss how the military might be more involved with Colchester’s schools than ever before, and particularly with the new vocational college. I fear that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) is now rather isolated on this issue.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman has said what he has said, and I have given him the opportunity to do so.

We recognise that one of the main concerns of service personnel and their families is the state of service accommodation. Although some of it is very good, much of it is not, as the result of decades of underfunding. Addressing that matter is a huge undertaking, but we are making progress. Since 2003, we have delivered about 30,000 new or improved single living accommodation units. A further 25,000 are planned by 2013, and 90 per cent. of service family accommodation in the UK is now in the top two standards, in marked contrast to the situation a few years ago. By the end of this financial year, no service family will have to live in the lowest standard of accommodation.

We are also tackling home ownership. All military personnel in England now qualify as key workers and are eligible for affordable housing up to 12 months after leaving service. Work is also ongoing to explore the feasibility of a bespoke forces affordable homes scheme.

To ensure that all the measures in the Command Paper are implemented, we have an external reference group, which includes representation from academia, the service families federations and key service charities. The group has a clear remit—to hold the Government to account for their progress on implementing the commitments of the Command Paper. In line with this, 10 Departments and two devolved Administrations have appointed senior armed forces advocates to ensure that the needs of service personnel are fully reflected in developing and implementing policies.

Mr. Gray: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am sorry, but I have given way a lot and taken time from others who want to speak.

It would take far too long to describe the entire Command Paper or the many other strands—pay awards, operational and deployed welfare packages and the procurement of urgent operational equipment, to mention a few—that contribute to our personnel policy. Our policy seeks to fulfil our obligations to our armed forces. However, as I have said, it is a work in progress. It is too serious a business to be complacent about it. It will never be complete—indeed, it should never be complete. We must constantly strive to do more, to do better, to detect emerging problems and to prevent regression from our achievements in recent years. The work needs to be done at every level and requires the support of many organisations. Only in that way will we truly discharge the debt we owe to the armed forces of our nation, and ensure that it continues to be discharged in the years ahead.

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3.32 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I start by declaring my registered interest as an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve.

I welcome the opportunity to debate our armed forces today. I pay tribute to the men and women who serve our country so well under the most difficult circumstances.

I also pay tribute to our Defence Ministers—I had not realised how hard they work, but the Library informs me that they responded to no less than 4,592 questions in the previous Session. We can debate the quality of some of the answers; nevertheless, that is a lot questions. The breakdown is even more interesting: 2,853 questions were asked by Conservatives and only 605 by the mighty Labour party. Even the Liberal Democrats did better than Labour Members. Given the interest from Labour Members, we should not be too surprised that the Government Whips could not muster more foot soldiers, even if quantity is offset by quality.

I thank Ministers for adopting suggestions floated by the Leader of the Opposition’s military covenant commission. Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery, and we welcome some of the familiar good ideas that appear in the service personnel Command Paper—transferable waiting lists are a particular favourite of mine. My right hon. Friend’s commission, which is chaired by Frederick Forsyth and staffed by a wide range of experts, including Simon Weston, has made an important contribution to the debate, as has the service personnel Command Paper. We owe a debt of gratitude to all involved, and the service community has welcomed both papers. I want to mention some of the issues that they raised.

First, it is worth reminding ourselves of the provenance of today’s debate. Before Christmas and on 13 January, the Leader of the House conceded that the subject matter for consideration today should be broad, as is traditional in such debates, subject, of course, to Mr. Speaker’s discretion. Clearly, we can no more discuss armed forces personnel without mentioning equipment than we can discuss doctors and nurses without mentioning hospitals, or teachers without mentioning schools. The Leader of the House understood that full well.

In December, our soldiers, sailors and airmen learned from a written statement of the revised in-service date for important bits of military hardware. Perhaps the Minister will now admit that the bumping of the naval programme, with all its defence posture, training, personnel and career implications, had nothing to do with the availability of aircraft, and everything to do with the Government’s desperate financial situation.

Apparently, we cannot use the word “carrier”, but suffice it to say that grey, flat-topped things displacing 65,000 tonnes take some bumping—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to make, but I hope that he will understand the ruling that I have already given. I have explained that this is not a simple matter, and the House has to have rules. There will be a further debate, specifically on equipment, in due course, and I ask him to bear in mind what I have said.

Dr. Murrison: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Heaven loves a trier, and I got further than I thought that I might.

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Given the statement of 11 December, the Minister’s remarks today, and the fact that defence will not feature in the Government’s economic stimulus, the men and women of our armed forces will be awaiting the conclusion of the Gray review and the Ministry of Defence’s current planning round in March with trepidation.

I should like to turn to the subject of combat stress. On 12 January, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), said that he was “shocked and surprised” that I had not understood what his Government had been doing for veterans with combat stress. I pay tribute to everything that has been done for people with post-traumatic stress disorder, but the Minister’s apparent complacency shocked and surprised me. What did not surprise me so much was the British Medical Association’s briefing note that was circulated in advance of today’s debate, which featured combat stress prominently. The charity, Combat Stress, has rightly pointed out that the Minister’s rebuttal relied on the research programme run by King’s college, London. The work of Professor Wessely is very important, but the Minister should know that it is a long-term population study, and that it does not necessarily reflect the scale of mental distress sustained on intense operations. The Defence Analytical Services Agency, in its explanatory notes to the data on which I think the Minister was relying on 12 January, sounds the same cautionary note.

I have two requests for the Minister that touch on mental health. First, will he look at the burden of proof and the time limit for claims under the armed forces compensation scheme? Unlike in the war pensions scheme, the burden of proof lies with the claimant, and claims are timed out after five years. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) rightly raised that point earlier. The Minister will understand that mental illness is often far more difficult to relate to a specific insult than physical injury, and that it can manifest itself many years after the provoking incident. It seems to me that the occupationally mentally ill will be relatively disadvantaged by the new arrangements, and I am sure that that is not the Minister’s intention.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): May I reiterate what we have said about this? We have asked for examples, following the points raised by service charities and others, but we have received none. If we get any, we are prepared to look at them, but, to date, we have had none.

Dr. Murrison: I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. He will know that, following the Falklands campaign, the average length of time for people coming forward with combat stress was 13 years, so we will not yet have the examples to which he has referred. However, the burden of proof will remain as it is. I ask him to look at the overarching arrangements again, so that we can perhaps avoid certain unintended consequences. I will leave it at that. [ Interruption. ] The Minister says that he has not had any examples, but I would point him to the evidence from the Falklands and other conflicts, which suggests that combat stress can crop up many years after the provoking insult. If the Minister would like to come to the Dispatch Box and say that he will waive any out-of-time provision under his new arrangements, I would be very happy to take an intervention from him.

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Mr. Kevan Jones: May I stress again to the hon. Gentleman that my predecessor, other Ministers and I have said to the service charities and others that, if there are examples—the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the Falklands—we will look at those individual cases? We need to deal with actual cases, however, and I am prepared to do that. I keep repeating that to the service charities, but I have yet to see a single example.

Dr. Murrison: Of course the Falklands cases were dealt with under the war pension scheme; that is the point.

Mr. Gray: Is my hon. Friend aware that there are currently 8,500 ex-service personnel in prison? In a written parliamentary answer dated 24 November 2008, the Ministry of Defence admitted that it did not know how many or whether any of those 8,500 ex-service personnel in prison were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse disorders or alcoholism. Surely any one of those 8,500 people released goodness knows when from prison might well fall into the category that my hon. Friend is describing.

Dr. Murrison: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Minister for the Armed Forces did not mention it in his opening remarks, but perhaps the Under-Secretary will do so in his summing up. The Home Office is conducting a study of the prison population with regard to mental illness among veterans, and I very much hope that some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire will be dealt with as part of that study. We look forward to its reporting later this year.

Secondly on the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder and combat stress, will the Minister consider adopting another idea from the military covenant commission—the piloting of active case finding so that psychological illness attributable to service in the armed forces can be discovered and people can receive the treatment they need in a timely fashion? I would be delighted if Ministers cracked on with that in pilot form—if they do not, in due course we will.

It is recognised that a period of decompression after leaving theatre contributes to good mental health and domestic harmony. The Minister mentioned decompression in Cyprus. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office gives its personnel a full two weeks; what is more, they can fly at taxpayers’ expense to wherever they like for their decompression. Poor old Tommy Atkins gets a lesser deal and has to make do with 24 hours at Dhekelia barracks in Cyprus. I have to tell the Minister that a couple of tinnies, a medal and a pep talk from a general does not pass muster when set against two weeks on a beach in the Caribbean. What conclusions are the men and women of our armed forces to draw from the fact that some public servants appear to be far more equal than others?

Bob Russell: I do not want to go down the line of what civilians are doing, but when I met people during their 24 hours in Cyprus, I found that they not only welcomed it, but were anxious to get home sooner rather than later. The experience fed back to me is that 24 hours is just about right; two weeks is the last thing those people want.

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Dr. Murrison: In fact, they do not always necessarily get the 24 hours. Perhaps the picture is mixed: some get rather longer, some less. The point that I am trying to make is that if we are providing two weeks’ decompression for one group of people and 24 hours for another group, there is clearly a very big difference between them. They probably cannot both be right. It would be good to try to work out what is best practice in relation to decompression. One thing that we can agree on is that decompression is a welcome innovation. It appears particularly to improve domestic harmony among returnees, but we could perhaps look a little more into the question of precisely how it is played out.

Mr. Benyon: Does my hon. Friend agree that increased time under decompression should come off deployment rather than off the other end? If soldiers returning from operations believe that that is their own time and that it is eating into the time that they can spend with their families, they will, of course, want less. If, however, our armed forces were not quite so overstretched, we could afford them more time in decompression and they would return to their families in a better frame of mind.

Dr. Murrison: That point is well made, and I shall deal with the issues surrounding it later in my contribution. It is worth reflecting on the studies that have rightly looked into incidents of domestic violence and general unhappiness among returnees. It appears from that work that decompression is a good thing. I have to say that I would be a little cautious about laying into decompression, but I entirely accept my hon. Friend’s point.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): This is an extremely interesting subject, but should a distinction not be drawn between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence? Members of the armed services who go in for decompression do so within their units. Because they are part of a group, that is part of the decompression. The same does not necessarily apply to Foreign Office personnel. There are very distinct types of decompression.

Dr. Murrison: That is a very good point. We could also cite members of the reserve forces, who are traditionally deployed as individuals or small units. I suppose that their position would be similar to that of people deployed by the Department for International Development or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

During the summer, the Minister of State wrote to the Leader of the Opposition in, if I may say so, slightly hubristic terms, saying that our complaint that servicemen were spending part of their leave in departure lounges was wrong. I am sure that the Minister remembers that exchange of correspondence. It appears that the Chief of the Defence Staff understands the problem, even if the Minister does not. In October, he said:

I hope that the Minister has been adequately rebriefed by the Chief of the Defence Staff. Perhaps he could tell us what action he proposes to take. I hear him chuckling; perhaps I can take that as an indication that he has indeed been rebriefed.

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