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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 21 April 2009

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Armed Forces Veterans

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Helen Goodman.)

9.30 am

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): May I take this opportunity to say what a privilege it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale? We have always had interesting and open debate under your stewardship and I am sure that we shall have the same today.

I am delighted that I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to raise the important issue of armed forces veterans. Service in the armed forces, while providing a rewarding career for many, often involves risk and injury, in training and on active service. Current engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved very demanding for our soldiers, who have been deployed much more regularly than was planned.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech. I declare an interest as a member of the Royal British Legion. Five hundred years ago today, Henry VIII acceded to the throne on the death of his father, and one of the many products of his reign was what eventually became known as the military covenant—a common bond of identity and loyalty between a nation and those who serve in its armed forces. We have an excellent Minister for veterans here this morning. Does the hon. Gentleman believe, as I do, that although we have made a fair amount of progress on areas such as housing and employment for veterans who have left the armed forces—he mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan—a good deal remains to be done on mental health support for those who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder in those two conflicts especially? We—

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. Before we proceed any further, let me make it clear that I expect interventions to be interventions, not speeches.

Mr. Roger Williams: Thank you, Mr. Gale. I also thank the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) for his early intervention. He will know from his membership of the Royal British Legion that it has produced a report on the covenant, which focused on mental health issues. I hope to return to that matter later.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; he has brought an important matter to the House. In Hadleigh and Canvey Island, there are two excellent Royal British Legion clubs but, like RBL clubs throughout the country, they are suffering a general demise with the fall-off of members. I wonder whether the Minister could enable the Ministry of Defence to send letters to all veterans in each constituency, so that
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they could be invited to constituency British Legion clubs to meet Members of Parliament to see whether we can find a way to boost the RBL clubs themselves.

Mr. Williams: The Royal British Legion plays a very important part in the voluntary sector on veterans issues. I hope to return to that matter, too. We want to encourage people to come to and join the Royal British Legion and to meet Members of Parliament. I had that opportunity in my constituency when there was a threat to the British Legion home at Crosfield House in Rhayader. We met members of the local British Legion, and luckily we have secured the continuance of that facility in Rhayader, for the time being at least. The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point about the British Legion and the voluntary sector.

Death and injury have been regular occurrences in recent times. Far too often, Prime Minister’s questions have started with the roll call of our soldiers, sailors and airmen who have made the ultimate sacrifice. However, many young men and women who have been injured in battle have been brought back alive to this country due to the enhanced medical facilities that are now available on the front line. Many of them have suffered grievous injuries whose effects will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Many will have suffered mental damage. That will sometimes exhibit itself early on in their lives, but sometimes later on as well.

The duty of the Government is to support our soldiers not only during the acute phase, but in the long term. The voluntary sector does a wonderful job in that respect, but the Government should not rely on the generosity of the public to cover their responsibilities and duties. I am grateful that the Minister has made himself available to reply on these issues today. Although he has been in his post for only just over six months, he is developing a reputation for being a good Minister on veterans issues. However, Government thinking on these matters is not properly joined up. Some of his colleagues in other Departments appear not to recognise the importance of veterans in society and the Government’s duty to support them. I refer to an article in The Independent on Monday 13 April, which described this Minister’s concern about the lack of consideration of veterans’ needs in the recent Department of Health strategy for mental health, “New Horizons”.

Since November 2007, NHS priority treatment has in theory been extended to include all veterans with an injury or illness related to their service in the armed forces. The Department of Health’s assertion that a consultation is taking place later this year and that all issues raised will be considered is simply not good enough. Armed forces veterans should be automatically considered for priority treatment. The Department of Health should not need a time-consuming consultation to establish that. I am grateful to the Minister for raising the issue with his ministerial colleagues and will be interested to hear what response he has received from the relevant Minister and the Secretary of State for Health. He will, I hope, have some positive things to say on the issues that my colleagues and I are raising.

The armed forces play a key role in the life of our nation and in furthering our national interest. Even when the public are not in full support of a particular action or conflict, their support for the armed forces
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remains high, as witnessed during the ongoing Iraq conflict. It is a shame that the high regard in which armed forces personnel and veterans are held by the public is not always reflected in the Government’s action and support. All too often, armed forces veterans are forgotten about when they have finished active duty and left the services. Often, those brave men and women have problems in finding employment, obtaining training, finding housing or obtaining health care. The support network for them is too limited, often leaving those most in need to slip between Departments and be forgotten.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I apologise to hon. Members: I have to attend a Committee sitting and will not be able to stay for the whole debate. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) about the large number of people from the services who are in prison? According to the most recent reports, the figure is 8,500—10 per cent. of the prison population. Does the hon. Gentleman think that more could be done to divert service personnel away from the courts and give them the proper support that they require?

Mr. Williams: I hope to come on to the point raised by the hon. Gentleman. I know that his hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) wanted to be present, but is unable to be here. He has spoken to me about these issues as well. I have had reports that veterans who find themselves in prison often come out of prison no better equipped to have a life in society than when they went in. That is a great shame and the Government should address it.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Of course, veterans come in all shapes and sizes and can be young or old, but does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, with the increasing reliance on the use of members of the Territorial Army on operational service, all too often when those personnel return, they do not receive the same support that their regular counterparts do and that although improvements have been made in recent months, much, much more needs to be done?

Mr. Roger Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. Figures show that certainly GPs are not aware that special measures should be put in place to deal with mental health issues raised by reservists returning from what has probably been prolonged action for which they were not really prepared when they enlisted.

When servicemen and women leave the armed forces as a result of injury or planned retirement, it is important that they are fully prepared for civilian life. Many very young men and women who leave the Army or other forces early in their careers may have no experience of running their own homes, paying their utility bills or providing for themselves. Furthermore, some of those below the age of 25 will not be fully eligible for housing benefits, and I ask the Minister to consider whether
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they could have more support with such benefits than other young people so that they can establish themselves in civilian life.

David Taylor: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way for what will be a rather shorter intervention, Mr. Gale. On housing, does he, like me, find moderately often that former military personnel have no special priority on local authority housing lists and that they have not been able to establish a longish period of residence in the area concerned? Should there not be a way of recognising their service at home and abroad by means of the points that they receive on the local housing list when they return to their home area?

Mr. Roger Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. As I understand it, that has been a problem, and it remains a problem to a certain extent now. As a result of representations that I have made, I understand that it may now be slightly easier for those leaving the forces to get on the housing list and that they may now be able to establish a link with an area through their family or as a result of the time they were stationed there.

The Royal British Legion has run an excellent campaign called “Honour the Covenant”, which has drawn attention to the gaps in health and welfare support for armed forces personnel and their families. The Government have a duty to provide lifelong support for those who have risked their lives for their country, but they have failed to do so in many key areas. Mental health is one area that is too often ignored.

Some 11,500 war pensions are entirely or partially related to a mental health condition. Although the Government have launched a two-year pilot on community mental health schemes, they have been slow to advertise those and other services that are aimed at the personnel who are most in need. In fact, a recent Royal British Legion survey discovered that of 500 GPs in England and Wales, 85 per cent. knew nothing about the reservists mental health project and 71 per cent. knew nothing about the MOD’s medical assessment programme. There are just six community mental health pilots, and it is not clear how much funding will be available to set up additional centres once they have finished or what support will be provided if and when such centres are established.

Another positive step that the Government have taken is to double the maximum award under the armed forces compensation scheme to £570,000 for the most serious injuries. I welcome the recent decision to award full compensation for each injury, which is a great improvement on the previous system. I welcome the Government’s changes to the system, which have put about £7.5 million into the pockets of injured service personnel. However, there are still problems that need to be resolved. First, the burden of proof has been shifted to claimants, when it should lie with the Secretary of State. Secondly, claims must be made within a five-year time limit, although there may be some exceptions. Although the majority of claims will be for significant physical injuries, which can be readily identified, other claims may be for mental health issues, which may take years to become apparent. That time limit should surely be lifted in all cases, regardless of the injury. What action is the MOD taking to ensure that all injuries are
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covered in future, not just those identified within a certain time frame? What advice and support is it giving serving personnel on the scheme’s requirements?

On health care, there should be a greater commitment to supporting the physical and mental health of service people and their families. We need to improve the handover of injured service personnel from the MOD to the care of the NHS. We also need to address the provision of family accommodation, which is currently for seven to 10 days. I recently spoke to the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, which told me that it had successfully established family accommodation in a number of the units to which service personnel go for medical attention.

On mental health, there is a desperate need to increase the monitoring of psychological problems among personnel who have been deployed for 13 months or more in a three-year period; to undertake in-depth health surveillance for all service personnel; to provide voluntary health surveillance for families; and, perhaps most importantly, given the age group involved, to ensure that there is priority care for war pensioners, which has supposedly been Government policy since 1953.

Unfortunately, the death toll in Afghanistan has increased substantially in recent months, and more than 150 UK troops have lost their lives. There should be more support for bereaved service families. In particular, legal advice, representation and advocacy should be provided at public expense whenever an inquest takes place.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Does he, like me, meet bereaved families who are deeply concerned about the fact that when they attend an inquest, from which they want to find the truth, the MOD is represented by an array of barristers, while they have no legal representation? Does he agree that that situation cannot continue?

Mr. Roger Williams: The hon. Lady makes an important point, although perhaps the Minister would like to reply to her—he is probably in a better position to do so. However, what she says certainly reflects my experience.

Pensions are another issue on which more could be done to assist veterans. Royal British Legion research shows that the oldest ex-service personnel are often the poorest, with 75 per cent. of those aged 75 or over receiving an annual income of less than £10,000. That 75 per cent. represents 384,000 people, of whom 16 per cent. receive less than £5,000. Some 38 per cent. of veterans, spouses and widows or widowers are reported to receive below the minimum income for healthy living, which is just over £7,000 for a single person and just over £11,000 for a couple. Furthermore, 15 per cent. go without full central heating and 10 per cent. lack enough money to buy the necessary food. Injured servicemen and women often need additional heating before they reach pension age because of the nature of their disabilities. Has the Minister considered providing a heating allowance for war pensioners before they reach state pension age?

In partnership with Help the Aged and Age Concern, the Royal British Legion has called on the Government to rebrand council tax benefit as a council tax rebate, because they believe, and I agree, that that would lead
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to greater take-up of that facility. A stigma may be attached to council tax benefit: many armed forces veterans will be proud of what they did for their country while in the service, and claiming a benefit in later life may be a blow to that pride. Indeed, in his report on local government, Sir Michael Lyons suggested that

If that was done, and there was an increase in take-up, nearly 20,000 ex-service personnel would benefit and be taken out of poverty.

A major problem regarding armed forces veterans is the complete lack of data on those who are homeless, those who are seeking employment and even the number of those who are in prison. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) mentioned the number of ex-service personnel in prison, but I am not sure where he got the figures from. I understand that the Ministry of Justice has no dedicated national identification system for ex-servicemen held in custody and that it has conducted no research on the factors that result in veterans going to prison.

Hywel Williams: Those estimates came from the National Association of Probation Officers. The association also estimated that 3,500 ex-servicemen are on parole or serving community sentences, so there is probably a large number of ex-servicemen in the criminal justice system.

Mr. Roger Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that explanation, but the point is that if we are to address the issues strategically we need good data not only on the people in prison, but on those who are homeless.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I apologise for missing the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. As to the National Association of Probation Officers figures—whether the figure we are dealing with is 8,500 or 3,500—there is an interesting sub-set: the Government have no idea how many prisoners suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism or drug abuse. Surely at least the Prison Service can tell us how many of all the known ex-military people in prison suffer from those things.

Mr. Roger Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, which is well made. We need the data on the issues in question to be well set out before we begin to formulate policies that will deal with them and bring improvements for veterans.

Saturday 27 June is armed forces day. Would not it be most fitting for the Government to make a series of announcements about steps that they are taking for armed forces personnel, both in service and ex-service, in the run-up to that date? That might include expanding the community mental health scheme, undertaking proper research on the data, carrying out research on the financial situations of former serving personnel and monitoring how veterans cope with civilian life.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I declare an interest as a trustee of Help for Heroes. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one area in which the Government can help is the transition from service to civilian life?
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Many of us were offered a variety of courses when we left, and it is right that those should exist, but there is something much subtler involved, because people are going from a very tight-knit family, where they have full support, to a cold world where often they do not. Many of the people coming to Members’ surgeries would, if they were helped earlier, never have got into debt, become homeless or, in some cases, got involved in criminality. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if more could be done at that crucial transition stage, we would cut out a lot of the problems?

Mr. Roger Williams: The hon. Gentleman speaks from experience, not because he had any problems when he came out of the armed forces—although he ended up in this place, I suppose—but rather from dealing with other people, and he makes a good point. Certainly the transfer from military to civilian life is difficult for a number of individuals. I know of the good work done by the welfare officers in the Army, and indeed, by those outside the Army, who exist to give assistance.

I want to move on to consider the voluntary sector, which has a role to play after people leave the armed forces. The sector plays a major role in ensuring that individual veterans are supported in times of need. Hon. Members will be aware of many instances of fine work being done in their constituencies. In mine, ex-service personnel such as retired Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Lewis and retired Major Nick Paravicini are active with SSAFA in raising money locally to support voluntary caseworkers and in finding funds to help veterans who have fallen on hard times. Retired Lieutenant-Colonel Charlie Nutting is a driving force in the Army Benevolent Fund, which raises substantial amounts of money. The British Legion is a major fundraiser, which can often supply the resources that are needed in the most difficult times, and retired Captain Jonathan Morgan has done sterling work with the Combat Stress organisation, which is particularly supportive of veterans with mental health difficulties. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) has already mentioned one of the newer organisations, Help for Heroes, which has raised a substantial amount of money as well.

Such people lead organisations, but they are well supported by other volunteers from both military and civilian backgrounds. The Government would do well to reflect on how much of their responsibility is shouldered by those voluntary bodies. However, I am told that locally the Government’s response is improving.

My purpose in securing the debate today is to encourage the Government to do even more for veterans of all the armed forces and give confidence that our veterans have the security of Government support in the times ahead.

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