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4.33 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I shall be brief, as there are just two topics on which I shall speak. The first is what happens to people as they leave the armed forces and afterwards. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) raised the issue of ex-service personnel in prisons and what can be done by the Ministry of Defence and other Government Departments to help.

Some good work has been done with people who are leaving the armed forces. Recent research examined homelessness in London and people living on the streets. The study was funded by the Ministry of Defence and the Royal British Legion. It found that the popular picture of the homeless squaddie was not matched by what is happening now. Ten years ago, about 22 per cent. of people living on the London streets were ex-services personnel, but this study found that just 6 per cent. were. That is a significant improvement. It does not mean that the numbers are not still significant—they are. One of the things that came out clearly was that a higher proportion of the ex-services people who were on the streets had alcohol problems, or problems of physical or mental health, than did the general homeless
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population. Furthermore, some were less inclined to seek help; perhaps there was a view that there was something shameful about being in such a position. They did not necessarily seek help.

What was encouraging was that those homeless ex-services personnel who had left the armed forces relatively recently were much more aware of the help available and of where they could go to get it. It seems that the Ministry of Defence resettlement budget has had a positive effect on those ex-services personnel who become homeless.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): Recently I was in Afghanistan as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. We talked to a number of the front-line troops and saw that they were recording incidents that could cause them mental stress. They felt that doing so would help them to balance their lives when they came out and to understand the nature of their problems. They also had advice on where to go and who to talk to.

Mr. Gerrard: That was a useful intervention. It makes the point that things have improved, although there are still problems. One problem among the homeless people interviewed was that some of those who had not been on active service in a war zone did not really regard themselves as veterans; they somehow thought that they might not be as entitled to the same help as someone who had.

The question of ex-services personnel in prison was mentioned earlier. The National Association of Probation Officers did some work on the issue fairly recently. It got case histories from about 22 probation areas, and they showed a significant problem. The prison in-reach project—again, sponsored by the Ministry of Defence—is doing a scoping survey at the moment. In one small pilot study in Dartmoor, more than 16 per cent. of the people surveyed had undertaken military service, although other surveys have come up with rather lower figures.

The NAPO survey made it clear that in all those probation areas, probation officers were reporting that they were dealing with ex-services personnel. Furthermore, in their view, the majority of such people with whom they were dealing had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and there had been no real attempt to identify the problem—either when those people were discharged from the services or when they were arrested and charged. The other point that came out clearly has already been referred to: a very high proportion of those people had been involved in heavy drinking or drug taking at some point.

Some good little projects are starting. Staff at Everthorpe prison have put together a pack that deals specifically with ex-forces personnel, and work on Army welfare is going on in North Yorkshire. There are examples of good practice, but there are also gaps in our knowledge: we know that the problem is there, but we do not know its precise scale. I hope that the Minister accepts—I think that the Ministry of Defence accepts—that we need to look into this problem and put more information together. If there have been successes in dealing with people becoming homeless, we should look at how that can be transferred into helping them not to end up in prison.

My second point, on which I may not get the same support from the Minister that I hope to get on my first, concerns recruitment, specifically the ages at which
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people are recruited. I would not dispute that a career in the armed forces can offer young people real opportunities, and I have no problems with young people seeing soldiers; the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) talked about soldiers going into schools. However, we must face the fact that many non-officer recruits into the Army are people with relatively low educational attainment living in poor communities and that a significant number go into the Army as a last resort. I see the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), shaking his head, but a survey carried out in 2004 suggested that up to40 per cent. of Army recruits were doing it because they could not find anything else that they wanted to do.

Irrespective of that, about a quarter of all recruits in 2007 and 2008 were aged under 18. We are unusual among members of the European Union in recruiting people into the Army at the age of 16; most countries do not do that. Yet when we recruit people under the age of 18, the regulations mean that they are signing up for a longer period than someone who joins at the age of 18. We have a rule—it had been lifted and was then brought back in regulations that came into force in August last year—that requires young people to serve for a minimum of four years beyond their 18th birthday. Somebody who signs up when they are 18 could sign up for four years, but if they sign up at 16 or 17, they are signing up to serve for four years beyond their 18th birthday. I wonder how that will sit with our debates on the Equality Bill later in this Session. In the first six months, there is an absolute right to discharge whereby someone who is unhappy can choose to leave voluntarily without a problem, but after that it is discretionary. We should consider moving to an age limit of 17, or at least enabling people to leave at any point before they are 18.

4.43 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who made an extremely congenial neighbour when I was Member of Parliament for Wanstead and Woodford. He made some valid points. I will sit down before 10 minutes to 5 in order to give other right hon. and hon. Members the opportunity to speak, because I get a fair crack of the whip in these debates.

I have to start by saying an enormous thank you to our armed forces, who show such qualities of selflessness, resilience, good judgment and humour. In the past, I have made the mistake of saying that they do what they do for us. If one suggested to any member of the armed services that they might be doing it for politicians, one would be met with an immediate raspberry. In fact, they are doing it for each other. They are fighting for their mates; that is an important part of their ethos. We are the beneficiaries of that, and we must do our utmost to preserve the coherence of their units, which give them their strength and their abilities, which are unmatched anywhere in the world.

That leads me on to the suggestion that trickle posting may have an inherently destabilising effect on our armed forces. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will bear very much in mind the binding nature of the groups within our armed forces.

The words that we say in praise of our armed forces must be backed up by policies on pay, family support,
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medical care, basing and so on. Pay has improved, although there is a concern about the joint personnel administration system, which has caused the MOD’s accounts for this year to be qualified. The qualification is serious, as the permanent secretary to the MOD admitted to the Defence Committee. The JPA was raised with the Committee when we went to Iraq, and last year when we went to Afghanistan. It is an electronic system that is produced by EDS, a good and thoroughly worthwhile company in my constituency. It has been trying to produce an electronic system to take the place of a paper system that had become unwieldy and was wrong in many respects. We are often too quick to blame EDS for mistakes that were inherent in the system.

Nevertheless, the MOD may have been a bit too quick to reduce the number of personnel officers who were there to help the forces through the calculation of their allowances and pay. I hope that the Ministry will consider that matter and also whether the system is appropriate given that, as I understand it, it is a pull system. In other words, if someone does not know what allowances they are entitled to, the system will not prompt them to claim them. That is not acceptable. In November, the permanent secretary came before the Committee and we expressed our dissatisfaction with some of the serious glitches that had appeared in the system. We will report on that soon.

Another important matter for armed forces personnel is basing. The MOD is constantly going through reviews of where bases ought to be. Recently in Hampshire, Portsmouth fortunately fought off the threat of closure. However, RAF Odiham, in my constituency, is still ploughing through Project Belvedere. Only a few years ago, a study concluded that it would not be cost-effective to move the Chinooks away from RAF Odiham. We in north-east Hampshire like the Chinooks. We are proud of what they do in Afghanistan and astonished by what they manage to achieve in Sierra Leone.

The town of Odiham has made a significant financial contribution to the families of those who have served their country abroad in recent months, and last summer the people there held a parade and party for the wonderful men and women of RAF Odiham. Returning to their base, they were reported to me as “walking on air”. Well, they are the RAF. We are not just proud of the Chinooks, we actually like them. We like the noise that they make and are used to it, and I suggest that that would not be true if they were moved elsewhere in the country.

Mr. Gray: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Arbuthnot: I will give way on this point, but I shall claim an extra minute.

Mr. Gray: I understand my right hon. Friend’s point, and I intervene briefly to say that if the worst were to happen from his point of view, and under Project Belvedere the Chinooks were to move to RAF Lyneham in my constituency, we would certainly welcome them. I was encouraged by what he said about noise, and from our point of view I very much hope that that is what will happen.

Mr. Arbuthnot: My hon. Friend will understand if I say that I hope that will not happen. By and large, my constituents moved to their houses well after RAF
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Odiham was set up—it was opened in 1937 by, interestingly, the chief of the Luftwaffe, General Erhard Milch. That may be why I get no more than one complaint a year from my constituents. I suspect that the same would not be true if the Chinooks descended upon my hon. Friend’s constituency.

The cost of reproviding the services and facilities that work well and are well established in Odiham scuppered the previous attempt to move the Chinooks. That reason remains valid. Please will the Minister acknowledge that constantly repeated reviews of such matters are a distraction to the armed forces, upsetting to local communities and an unhelpful waste of the Ministry’s money, which, as we all know, is scarce?

I will finish in one minute by referring to one or two of the Select Committee’s current inquiries. We are holding inquiries into: defence equipment; the MoD’s annual report and accounts; the defence support group; UK national security and resilience; recuperation; Russia; the Service Complaints Commissioner; helicopters; and the comprehensive approach. In view of all that, I pay particular tribute to the Select Committee staff, who bear the burden so knowledgeably. We are extremely grateful to them.

4.51 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): It is a privilege to speak in this debate and to follow the considered contribution of the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot).

My right hon. Friend the Minister rightly reminded us of the debt we owe those who serve in our armed forces and of their excellent work. I have met men and women stationed at Weeton barracks near Blackpool and learned of their experiences in Sierra Leone. I have spoken to soldiers at Fulwood barracks in Preston and members of the Territorial Army at Kimberley barracks in Preston, who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan. They are proud of what they do, and we should be proud of them. That is why I am so pleased that we are holding this debate.

I applaud the Government’s commitment to members of the armed services, service families and veterans, which has transformed the debate. The Government have created structures that reflect and, year after year, build on our support for the services.

Today is my first opportunity to congratulate formally the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), on his appointment as Minister with responsibility for veterans. I am being nice to him now because I will ask him some detailed questions later. He brings with him a well-deserved reputation for a no-nonsense approach to good governance of the armed services. On the Defence Committee, he pursued duty of care issues with determination. I am sure that he acknowledges the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who spearheaded the cause of fair and proper treatment of veterans.

As chair of the all-party group on Army deaths, I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary and his predecessor. They have dealt with bereaved families with courtesy and respect, whether the deaths occurred in barracks at Deepcut, Catterick or overseas. My hon. Friend has also attended meetings of the new all-party group on
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veterans, of which I am an officer, and has spoken again to the people who attended about the importance of making progress on veterans’ issues.

Since we last considered such issues in detail, the Command Paper on support for service personnel, families and veterans has begun to produce change. We have a framework for better recognition of the armed forces and opportunities to show support. The national armed forces memorial and national armed forces day on 27 June supplement remembrance events in November. We have begun to move to a new system of military justice under the Armed Forces Act 2006. The appointment of a Service Complaints Commissioner is an important step towards independent oversight. The conduct of service personnel and the quality of their leadership are important to the reputation of the armed services. Today’s armed forces must be effective in war and in peace.

I want to concentrate my remaining remarks on the theme of independent oversight, but first, I would like to record my appreciation of Dr. Susan Atkins, the first Service Complaints Commissioner. She has met the all-party parliamentary group on Army deaths twice, and she has listened attentively to the concerns of bereaved Army families. Within her powers, she has done what she could, and I look forward to reading and discussing her first annual report. However, her powers are not as extensive as I, or the Defence Select Committee in its reports on duty of care, wanted them to be. Nor are they as extensive as bereaved families want them to be.

I therefore want to ask the Minister to look into the restriction on the power of the Service Complaints Commissioner to receive a complaint relating to the death of a soldier or its subsequent investigation. The commissioner has been advised that complaints relating to these matters are ultra vires on the ground that the deceased is no longer a serving member of the armed services. When we discussed this matter during the passage of the Armed Forces Act 2006, I do not think any of us understood that that would be an issue, and I do not believe that that was the intention of Parliament. May I ask the Minister to address the problem?

I want to say a few words about the press. Although there is seen to be a lack of effective oversight, our media get actively involved. Newspapers produce a regular commentary on matters such as the ill-treatment of trainees or detainees, shortages of equipment, the hardships of veterans and the failure to provide medical care for casualties of war. I should also like to mention “The Undercover Soldier”, which was broadcast in September by the BBC. The documentary focused on disturbing allegations of ill-treatment of soldiers in training, and of casual racism at Catterick barracks. Those allegations have led to a military police investigation. I know that in recent years there have been many improvements in how the staff in our training establishments behave, and in the kind of training that is offered to young trainees. Sadly, however, we are still seeing allegations such as those shown in the “The Undercover Soldier” programme. We are also seeing the theatre getting involved. I will not list all the plays that have been produced about the deaths at Deepcut, but many of them have won theatrical prizes for the way they have portrayed what were tragedies for those young people and are still tragedies for the families involved.

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I shall ask several detailed questions about structures for independent oversight. First, the Adjutant-General established a number of independent advisory panels in 2006, in order

Such a proposal stopped well short of that advocated by the Deepcut & Beyond families group for the establishment of a lay visitors’ scheme, in which Army mums and dads could enter training establishments and see the behaviour of the trainees. What assessment has the Minister made of the independent advisory panel scheme? How many panels have been established? Who sees their reports? Service families complain to me that external involvement in the panels is restricted to what they call local bigwigs. What outreach will the Minister undertake to involve ordinary families, particularly those bereaved by deaths in barracks?

Secondly, there has been much debate on the issue of an armed forces federation. Other countries have self-organised membership groups to represent the interests of serving soldiers and their families. I have been told by senior Army officers that such an arrangement would undermine the chain of command. That seems to be their regular response to many of the issues that bereaved families, and the families of serving soldiers, raise. Will my hon. Friend look into whether there is a way of pursuing such a proposal?

Thirdly, in response to public concerns over the deaths in Deepcut barracks, the Secretary of State asked the adult learning inspectorate to oversee the regime and quality of Army training. That role has subsequently passed to Ofsted. What plans does the Minister have to provide for the continued monitoring of training? Will he consider tasking such a body to undertake studies in areas such as race awareness?

Fourthly, the Deepcut & Beyond families group has suggested the establishment of an office of Her Majesty’s inspector of the armed forces—along the same lines as Her Majesty’s inspectors for the police and the prison services. Such an inspector would be outside the chain of command and would be charged with a duty to report directly to Parliament. He could look into the sorts of issues raised by service families and by the families of soldiers who have died. Will the Minister give further consideration to that proposal?

Fifthly, we come to whistleblowers. In workplaces up and down the country, employees routinely do a public service by disclosing workplace malpractice, and the Government have put in place laws to encourage whistleblowers in the public interest so that whistleblowers know they cannot be victimised if they raise issues of malpractice in the workplace. Again, the military traditionally argues that whistleblowers undermine the chain of command. I am not so na├»ve as to deny that comradeship, obeying orders and having strict discipline are crucial in the Army, but, sadly, we do have occasional incidents—they are not widespread—of things happening that should not happen. With modern information and communications technology, anyone can use a mobile phone to take photos and then put them on a website. Will the Minister look further into protecting genuine whistleblowers who have real concerns? I would expect him to act against those behaving in either a frivolous or dangerous way, but if the cases are genuine, will he look into them further?

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