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21 Apr 2009 : Column 19WH—continued

I am grateful to Frederick Forsyth, Simon Weston, Sir John Keegan and the other members of the Military Covenant Commission set up by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to look into some of the issues that we have debated today. The commission has made a number of important recommendations that we
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are working through. I hope that the Government, in the spirit of consensuality that has characterised this debate, will consider some of those points as well, if they have not done so already.

It is important that we consider the definition of “veteran”. If we really mean it when we say that we want to give veterans something tangible to mark their service and recognise the debt that we owe them, we need to separate the men from the boys, if I may put it that way. There is a big difference between those who have served for only a day, which enables them to be defined as veterans, and those who have served in the second world war or more recent conflicts, have done their 22 years and are veterans in the truest sense of the word. I accept the expediency of the current inclusive definition, but I do not think that it is helpful if we want to make veterans special and mark them out as such. I see the Minister nodding; perhaps he might like to comment on that later. I appreciate the difficulty, but we need to get to grips with it.

During the Easter break, the Minister went head to head with the Minister for care services, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), about the “New Horizons” strategy, sans veterans. It is remarkable that such a document should include no reference to veterans, servicemen and their families. From the comments that I have read in the press, I know that the Minister feels strongly about it, and I have no doubt that he has had the meeting that he was reported to have demanded with his colleague. If he can share the contents of that meeting with us, it will be interesting to learn what it came up with. I congratulate him on taking that action.

Mental health is the tip of the iceberg. We have a particular obligation to people with post-traumatic stress disorder. To be ever so slightly critical of the Minister, he has been guilty in the past of saying that the number of people with combat stress is small. Although he is technically—numerically—correct, none the less, we owe a particular duty of care to people who experience the condition. Post-traumatic stress disorder is an occupational illness, and we have a duty to make it right for sufferers if we can. We also know from experience of the Falklands, Vietnam and so on that we are probably experiencing the tip of the iceberg. The issue will become more and more prominent, and we need to get to grips with it. We also need to discover cases proactively, and the official Opposition have made a number of proposals for doing so.

Homelessness is an issue for veterans. Last month, I visited Veterans Aid in Limehouse and Alabaré Christian Care in Plymouth, which is setting up a project for homeless veterans. However, the streets are not lined with homeless veterans. That is almost a cliché. Veterans Aid is quite clear that it is not a massive problem in our capital city and other centres, but that is not to underplay its importance. We owe a duty of care to those who have served, particularly when their service may have contributed to the state in which they find themselves.

There is, however, a sub-group within that population of which I hope the Minister will take particular note: non-UK nationals who have served in the armed forces. Service charities—particularly the estimable Veterans Aid, with which I know he has also been involved—say that there appears to be a particular problem with people who are not UK nationals but who have served in the armed forces, sometimes for very short periods,
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and have left or been slung out. The Army then considers its job done—at the gate, that is it, and they are on their own. Inevitably, they melt into society and contribute significantly to the homeless ex-service population. We need to be more imaginative in handling such people, for their good and the good of our general homelessness situation.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned the prison population. Once again, we must be careful about the numbers involved, but if we are serious about the rehabilitative elements of the criminal justice system, it behoves us to determine whether there are common factors specifically related to veterans in prisons, such as those itemised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, that could be amenable to more bespoke management to maximise such prisoners’ chances of making a proper return to society.

On employment after leaving the armed forces, there was a time when certain occupations were reserved for veterans—usually low-paid, low-skill jobs, such as lift attendant, when we had lift attendants. Today’s veterans expect rather more. They are often highly skilled or looking for skilled opportunities. We might consider ex-soldiers in schools and colleges, for example. It might be helpful if the Minister considered the Troops to Teachers proposals. The Centre for Policy Studies and the charity Skill Force have done important work on the issue, and the American T3 programme points the way. We are looking for role models these days, particularly in schools, and ex-servicemen might provide helpful role models in some school settings.

The Minister will have expected me to mention Normandy and D-day. I will say ever so gently that I do not think the Government have won many brownie points with their handling of the 65th anniversary D-day celebrations so far. The parsimony—rectified at the last minute—had all the hallmarks of a civil service briefing note untrammelled by the political savvy that is sometimes necessary to apply a human face to Government. Announcing that the Ministry does only 60th and 100th anniversaries is not helpful to octogenarians, because by 2044 not only they, but their grandchildren, are likely to have joined the choir celestial. The belated few thousand pounds from the lottery for its “Heroes Return 2” programme is nevertheless most welcome.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) on securing this debate. As the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) said, the debate has been consensual and has highlighted the importance that we all attach to veterans.

In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned the newest veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq ill or wounded. I join him in paying tribute to the men and women of our armed forces medical teams in theatre, whom I have met. Before Christmas, I met the aerial medevac team at Lyneham that has brought back people who, in other circumstances, would not have survived their horrific injuries. I pay tribute to the staff and supporters of Selly Oak and Headley Court. I thank the Soldiers,
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Sailors, Airmen and Families Association for the work that it is doing at those locations to find homes for visiting relatives.

The debate has covered a number of issues. I might not be able to cover them all in the time that I have, but I will try my best. Hon. Members know that I have taken a special interest in mental health since being appointed to this post. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Westbury that I downplay the issue. I think that I am on the record as saying that every case of a veteran with a mental illness is a personal tragedy for that individual and for their family. We must ensure that we provide all the support that it is possible to give.

There are six mental health pilots. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) mentioned the Cardiff pilot, which I was privileged to visit before Christmas. The fantastic team are showing that the process works. I will be in Scotland on Thursday when the Scottish mental health pilot is launched. It is important to get the language right. Emotive language about bow waves of people presenting with mental illness in the future has been used. The figures are small and there has been too much concentration on post-traumatic stress disorder. The studies done by the King’s college centre for defence studies show that the biggest issue is not PTSD but other mental health issues. We must ensure that we have the services in place to provide the assistance that individuals need. The mental health pilots and Dr. Ian Palmer’s medical assessment programme at St Thomas’s hospital are good first steps towards that.

A number of hon. Members have asked how we can ensure that local GPs know about these issues. One of my jobs in Government is to be an advocate for the armed forces. I am determined to get other Departments thinking about veterans when they come up with policies. On occasions they will forget, but I make no bones about the fact that it is my job to remind them forcefully that veterans should be at the centre of their policies. Last year’s Command Paper, which has 40 different work streams, was designed to get work done across Government. Some success has been achieved. It is my job to ensure that that continues. One issue is how we track veterans. With the Surgeon General, I am looking at how we can track people in the health service once they have left the service. There would have to be an opt-in system rather than a mandatory one. I hope to make an announcement on that later this year.

ID cards have been raised. I am determined to introduce them. The hon. Member for Westbury said that that would be tokenism. Obviously, he does not know me very well because I am not into tokenism. If it is tokenism, it will be a waste of time. It must have real benefit and meaning for veterans.

The transition of early service leavers was mentioned. A bigger piece of work that I will complete later this year is my welfare pathway. That will try to join up all the strands of work not only in the Ministry of Defence, but in other Departments, to ensure that when people leave the armed forces, the services are there to help them through the transition. We are working closely with the armed forces charities, which I have great respect for. Government cannot do everything and I am sitting down with charities to ensure that there is a joined-up and seamless service. A key point that was raised is that we must get the transition right.

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The increase in armed forces compensation is welcome and it has been welcomed greatly by the service community. The burden of proof issue has been raised time and again. It was raised when I sat on the Public Bill Committee. I set a challenge to people to come back with a single case in which that has been an issue. I am still waiting. On date of knowledge, the five years is not a fixed date. If people present after that with conditions related to their service, they can still make a claim.

The issue of inquests was raised. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) for her work with bereaved families. Like the hon. Member for Westbury, I am not in favour of feeding lawyers. What we must do, as we are doing, is ensure that we have the greatest possible support for bereaved families at those inquests. We already provide support for three members to attend and for others to attend in exceptional circumstances. I do not want there to be a feeding frenzy for lawyers. I want the money to be spent directly on the bereaved families.

The Gurkhas have been raised by a number of hon. Members. I was in Nepal last week. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) mentioned a fair and honourable settlement. There has been a lot of ill-informed debate on this issue. The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who speaks with great authority on the matter, raised an important issue. If we are to make it so costly to recruit Gurkhas, there will be a question mark over whether we continue to do so. As I said last week in Nepal, I believe that we should continue to recruit Gurkhas.

I ask hon. Members to look at what we are doing in Nepal. Over £50 million a year is paid directly into Gurkha pensions. We pay another £1 million to the Gurkha Welfare Trust. I pay tribute to the work that that organisation does not just with Gurkhas but in the community projects that I saw last week. This year alone we have increased the Gurkha pension by 14 per cent., and by 20 per cent. for those over 80. Those in receipt of a service pension have a good standard of living in Nepal. That pension is equivalent to the pay of
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a GP or a chief of police. I ask people to think of the consequences of these decisions and what is happening in Nepal. I was impressed by the work of the Gurkha Welfare Trust.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood mentioned the all-party veterans group, which I addressed earlier this year. I thank her for the work that she does on that group and for the success of armed forces day. Many colleagues are taking part in it and I wish to enthuse them to encourage councils and others to take part. The veteran’s badge was mentioned. That has been a great success and more than 650,000 have been issued. Many people wear them with pride.

I agree with the hon. Member for Westbury on the issue of homelessness and pay tribute to Veterans Aid, which is a fantastic organisation that deals with the capital’s homeless veterans. Only about 6 per cent. of the homeless are veterans, but as the hon. Gentleman said, there are some sub-groups that need to be counted. Veterans Aid has raised with me the issue of Commonwealth veterans who have served in the armed forces. I will address that with the Home Office. There are some simple things that we could do to address the needs of that sub-group.

I thank the people of Wootton Bassett. I thank the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) for the support of the all-party Army group and for the parades that have been held. I agree with him on the changing of names. As a former chair of highways on Newcastle city council, I know that there is nothing more controversial than changing the names of streets.

On the issue of D-day veterans, the policy on the recognition of the anniversary was in place under the Conservative Government. The 60th anniversary was the last large event that the Normandy Veterans Association wanted to have. I am pleased that the lottery has been involved and that the MOD has supported events this year in Normandy, as it has in other years.

I am sorry that I have not been able to cover all the points that have been raised in the time available, Mr. Gale. I thank hon. Members for a well-informed debate. We have once again raised the importance of veterans. It is a privilege to have this job. One of the most interesting parts of it is meeting veterans both old and new.

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Transport (North-West)

11 am

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): First, I thank the House for allowing this important debate to take place. There is no greater or better region than the north-west, and the time is right to put the case for why we want more investment and better transport for the people whom we represent. It is good to see my colleagues turning out for that purpose.

I shall start by talking about free bus travel for pensioners, which started with local authority free travel, and has been extended to a nationwide local bus scheme. That important scheme has been a huge success, and has transformed pensioners’ lives. It allows them to get out and visit, to have healthier lifestyles and to spend the money that it saves them. It is good for the economy, and it is good for us. It has also been good for a local bus manufacturer, Optare, which is reaping the benefits of providing new buses because of the new way in which people are travelling. Public transport is being reinvigorated as people are getting back on to it. We ought to congratulate the Government on that, and I do. I also remind them that when I started the campaign, back in 1997, with a petition in Chorley saying, “We want free local bus travel,” the Government listened. It took them a long time, but they listened and delivered.

Following the success of the free bus travel scheme, I ask the Government to extend it to regional train travel, so that pensioners can also enjoy that. The village where I live, Adlington, has a railway station and trains that connect straight to Preston, Blackpool and Manchester, and people could benefit from free regional train travel.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to his next campaign, may I drag him back to his first? Although it is great that a lot of pensioners now have the opportunity to travel free around their areas, does he recognise that there are vast tracts in the north-west, particularly in my constituency, where there are no bus services in many villages? If we are to ensure that all pensioners can access what he has talked about, rural bus services in the north-west need to be enhanced.

Mr. Hoyle: I totally agree, and I back the hon. Gentleman’s plans to spend more money on local buses, because that is important. I represent an urban-rural area that could benefit from the extra buses that would connect those pensioners and people who wish to use public transport, so we are at one. We both congratulate the Government on what they have done, and we both want that to be expanded, so it is quite right that I should back the hon. Gentleman on what he has said.

Like me, the hon. Gentleman has railway stations in his constituency that would benefit from an extension of the scheme to allow people to use trains. It is good for older people to have such a choice. Believe it or not, Mr. Gale, some of our rural villages do not have bus transport, but they have a railway station. However, some pensioners cannot use that transport because they do not have the same free travel. The Government could take that idea on, and it would be welcomed by people across the country. Free regional train travel for pensioners would be a great initiative.

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Given how successful the bus travel scheme has been in transforming pensioners’ lives, will the Minister consider extending free bus travel to young people? I do not know why we do not do that. It is a huge success in London. The Minister has seen the benefits that are brought by young people being able to travel in that way. In London, pensioners can use the underground, buses, overground trains and the docklands light railway. They have reaped all those benefits, and we want that to be replicated in other parts of the country. The same has been done for young people in London, and we want that to be extended to our young people as well. Why is there a postcode lottery for transport? If people are in London, they get the benefits, but if they live in the north-west, they do not. The Government should show us that they are listening.

Young people and families would benefit from the change because it would be free for them to travel to school. That would get young people interested in using public transport, and if they are brought up using it, that will ensure that they continue to use it in future. We talk about car congestion, but people have a real alternative to car travel, and they know how to use public transport. I can see the benefits: people at school and students would really like the benefits of that free travel and we ought to give it to them. I hope that all this will be taken on board.

Our north-west has been built on the three cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Preston, and we want our region to have an economy that is second to none. It houses the UK’s second city, or, at least, if that is stretching things, England’s second city.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is a great champion for transport in the north-west, and for his constituency. On the north-west as a whole, the three cities and the economy, does he agree that one of the key transport projects around at the moment, which is due to go to public inquiry shortly, is the new Mersey gateway bridge? The project is expected to create about 4,000 to 5,000 new jobs and to ease a lot of congestion. It will benefit not only the nearby Merseyside and Cheshire regions, and my constituency, but the north-west as a whole. Does my hon. Friend agree that the scheme is very important for the north-west as a whole?

Mr. Hoyle: I totally agree. When I have travelled to watch Widnes lose against Warrington at rugby, I have seen the benefit that a new bridge could bring to that area. We have waited too long for that scheme, for which my hon. Friend has rightly been a champion. We want to see that Ministers are listening, and we need that bridge sooner rather than later. The economic benefits that it would bring cannot be overestimated.

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