As a soldier leaves this foreign land”.

“Bravery” is a word that is all too often used, but rarely earned. Those words speak of our bravest men and women, who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country—not in pursuit of personal gain or individual glory; not without knowing the risks; not while surrounded by the comforts of home; but in a foreign land where danger and uncertainty are, in fact, the only certainty.

For me, this weekend—and this debate—is simple. It is about the families at home, with their loved ones serving overseas. It is about veterans who live on, carrying the scars, mental or physical. Most of all, it is about the fallen. For two minutes tomorrow Britain will stand united, shoulder to shoulder in remembrance. Tomorrow, I will be remembering all who have served our country, but in particular I will be remembering my own regiment, the Parachute Regiment. Among others, I will also be remembering the soldiers of the Yorkshire Regiment and the soldiers of the Light Dragoons.

I will be remembering the late Corporal Bryan Budd VC of the Parachute Regiment, and his family. I will be remembering the late Corporal Mark Wright GC of the Parachute Regiment, and his family. I will be remembering the late Barnsley-born Captain Martin Driver of the Royal Anglian Regiment, and his family. I will be remembering the late Major Matt Bacon of the Intelligence Corps, and his family. I will also be remembering the late Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe of the Welsh Guards, the highest-ranked fatality in Afghanistan, and his wife, Sally, who joined me and other colleagues in Parliament earlier this week. Tomorrow, I will also be remembering in particular the soldier from 4th Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment who was killed in Afghanistan only yesterday. I am sure that I speak for right hon. and hon. Members across the House when I say that our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this most difficult time.

Every life is equally precious and should be equally remembered. For those of us who have had the great honour to serve, despite leading very busy lives, every day brings quiet moments of reflection and remembrance. For me, they happen in this place every single day as I am walking down the long Westminster corridors, in the lift on the way over to the Chamber, or sitting behind my desk late each evening. For us, it is not just about the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Every day, I find myself pausing to remember friends with whom I served, who never made it back to their loved ones. Every day, I find myself thinking about my own children, and about what might have been, had I not enjoyed the luck that I did. Every day, I am very

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grateful, and every day, I remember the families who will always be missing a mother or father, a husband or wife, a son or daughter.

I knew 10 of the first 100 men and women killed while serving in Iraq. At that point, I stopped counting. I felt that I had to. Despite what many believe about the wars and their implications for global security, for international legitimacy and for the nature of UK-American relations, no one should doubt that those who have fallen were among our very best and our very bravest. They are at the heart of all that is still great about Britain today.

I believe, however, that we must strive to do better as politicians in shaping the debate about defence, to ensure that the forces community receives the support that it needs and deserves.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): My hon. Friend is moving on to the point that we need to do more for those who have not adjusted as well as he has after coming out of the Army. I have seen many people not only with physical injuries but with the kind of mental scars that often do not appear until many years later.

Dan Jarvis: My hon. Friend makes a useful point, which has already been highlighted by other Members in the debate. The reality is that those people who have served in the most difficult circumstances in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere often do not present symptoms from those experiences until many years after the conflict has finished. It is therefore incredibly important that we, as a society, as politicians and as a Government, keep a close eye on those people.

We must remember the last 10 years in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, contentious though they have no doubt been. Support from the Government, in Parliament and across the UK for our veterans and their families must always be unequivocal. We must remember the value of charities such as the Royal British Legion, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, Help for Heroes and many others, all of whom contribute so much. For more than 90 years, the Royal British Legion has been a constant, a continuing pillar of strength for those who have served and for their families. I believe that its call, which was shared by many others, to leave the chief coroner out of the Public Bodies Bill was the right thing to do for our armed forces and their families. We should have listened to the legion when it made that important point.

We must also remember that, when the shots stop firing and the last bomb has detonated, our support for our forces must be absolute and unending. When Afghanistan and Iraq are consigned to the history books, our armed forces’ physical injuries and mental recollections of those wars will live on for ever.

Our veterans deserve not adequate, not better, but the best support. On Friday, a veteran and his wife, Mark and Helen Mullins, were found dead, having killed themselves in despair. We must not forget those who served but now struggle, those who fought but now feel forgotten, those who stood-to but now stand alone. We, on all sides of this House, have a duty to protect our armed forces and to ensure that public support for them endures.

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I quoted earlier from Sergeant McFarlane’s poem, which concludes:

“Reveille sounds and the parade is done

The hero remembered, forgotten by none

They leave to start the journey back

In a coffin draped in the Union Jack”.

Mr Deputy Speaker, the fallen. We must not forget and we must always remember. I know that I am enormously proud to have been in our armed forces for 15 years. I know that this House is enormously proud of our armed forces. I know, too, that this weekend, our country will demonstrate our pride in the best armed forces in the world.

3.11 pm

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): It is highly appropriate that we conduct this defence debate only a few hours after armed forces veterans gathered at their own private commemoration in the churchyard of Westminster Abbey, where His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh was present.

I always wear a poppy between 1 and 11 November, but I do not need to wear a poppy—it is actually on my heart. The date I particularly remember is not this weekend but 6 December 1982, when six men were killed and 35 wounded under my command in Northern Ireland.

This debate is about personnel, so I shall concentrate on that. Getting the manning right is crucial for defence. When I commanded the Cheshire Regiment, I commanded about 600 people. When I joined it, the Cheshire Regiment had 700 people. In my time, tank regiments went from having 56 main battle tanks to having 42. Commanding officers are expected to do just as much as before, but with fewer people.

Of course, reducing manning has a direct impact on operational effectiveness. The strategic defence and security review suggests that Army strength should be at 82,000 with 30,000 reservists. I remain worried about how we shall get 30,000 reservists within a few years. The strength of the Royal Air Force is planned to be 39,000, with only 2,000 reservists. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who is worried and thinks that the RAF has to rethink the matter of reservists. He made the point to me privately—and I think he mentioned it in his speech—that it was reservist pilots who were the most effective in the battle of Britain.

I am worried about how the fitness levels of reserves will be monitored. Will they pass their annual fitness test and their annual personal weapons test? How will they do that? What about their dental records? They have to be dental fit, ready to go almost immediately. Mobilising reserves is not necessarily cheap—certainly not as cheap as some people might think.

The armed forces are still quite top heavy. Apparently, there are more than 250 officers of one-star rank in all three services. During the second world war, a three-star officer—a lieutenant-general—used to command about 100,000 people. That is the current all-out strength of the Army today.

I understand, although I am open to correction, that there are 33 officers of two-star rank and above in the Royal Navy. There are two full admirals, six vice-admirals,

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and 25 rear-admirals. If we include one-star officers, that means that the Royal Navy has more than one admiral for each of its 40 fighting ships—and, by the way, each officer of one-star rank or above receives a salary of about £120,000 a year.

I will not leave the Army alone, however. The Army has five four-star officers, who are generals, and, although I am not sure, I believe that it now has 17 three-star officers, who are lieutenant-generals.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan) rose—

Bob Stewart: The Minister is about to correct me, so I shall sit down and listen.

Mr Robathan: Off the top of my head, I think we have four three-star officers in the Army at present, although I share my hon. Friend’s concerns.

Bob Stewart: I thank my right hon. Friend. I am sure that he is correct. However, I am not trying to give exact figures; I am merely trying to draw attention to a trend, and to suggest that our forces are top-heavy.

Dr Murrison: Does not part of the difficulty lie in the MOD, whose civil servants, during both my hon. Friend’s service and mine, have been keen to equate themselves with starred officers? I believe that that has driven some of the current inflationary pressure. Does my hon. Friend agree that the first priority for Ministers must be to deal with that management overhead?

Bob Stewart: I entirely agree, and I am sure that the Minister does as well. We must get that under control. Someone told me—again, the Minister probably has the figures at his fingertips—that the Army has some 1,700 lieutenant-colonels. If that is the case, they could man three battalions, and we have only 38 of those.

I will not go into the same details about the Royal Air Force, but the principle is the same: it remains quite top-heavy. I know that the Government intend to have a crack at reducing the problem. What we want in our armed forces are people coming in at the bottom—that is, people who actually do the business, rather than those who are in the background sitting behind desks.

Mark Lancaster: My hon. Friend is advancing a powerful argument, with which I agree. Does he believe that the only solution to the problem is for us to slow down the career progression of officers in the Army?

Bob Stewart: That is the dilemma. We want to encourage people to stay in the Army; we want to retain the experience of senior officers; and, in the event of something that we may not care to mention—a general war—we will require those officers to expand the Army, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury suggested.

As for the basing of our troops, I am still worried about where they will go when they come back from Germany, if we have to get them all out by 2020. The details of how many will go to which places are yet to be planned. I am particularly concerned about where those extra troops will be trained, because the training areas already seem to be mightily over-booked. Cost is another issue. Converting Kinloss, which is currently an RAF

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station, to enable it to house, say, an Army battalion, will not be simply a case of “All out, one in”. We should also ask where the families will go. As was said earlier, it would be a good idea to try to enable them to live further away, but there will be a problem with morale when there is a deployment and wives and children are separate from the main unit.

Finally, let me say a little about Afghanistan. I have heard an increasing number of complaints—some as recently as this week—about the suggestion that a quota of reservists are going there while regulars are being left behind. That quota, which may not be formal, is nevertheless causing some resentment. I ask the Minister to check on that. It costs more to deploy reservists; as regulars are already being paid for, they do not cost as much.

I am very concerned about reports this week that the United States will be withdrawing from Helmand. That has manpower implications. The gains from 2007 onwards might be in jeopardy, and who will take up the slack? It must not be us. We have three years to go before we are formally committed to withdraw from operations in Helmand and Afghanistan generally, although we will stay there in a training role. If the Americans withdraw, the commander in Helmand will have fewer manoeuvre units and fewer available reserves. I do not want us to reoccupy bases we have occupied previously, such as Sangin, Musa Qala and Now Zad.

It is also crucial that we maintain our own security as we withdraw. I know the Minister realises that; I am not trying to teach him to suck eggs. Withdrawing from an operational theatre is very complicated, however. It is often much easier to go in than to come out, and that can be very dangerous. We do not want to take pointless casualties, and we must not repeat the mistake of 2006, when we allowed our troops to be put into isolated locations unsupported. When we are withdrawing, we must not leave a thin line at the front and thin out from there. We must withdraw properly. I will not talk in detail about the tactics, but we must not leave our troops isolated and in a precarious situation as we withdraw.

I shall conclude now, but I should first apologise to the House as I must beg leave to be absent from shortly onwards as there is a constituency event I must attend. I do not wish to leave the Chamber, but once I have done the decent thing by listening to the next speech, I would like to be allowed to depart. Please forgive me, colleagues.

3.22 pm

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): I am sure the engagement that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) must attend is a pressing one, and I do not wish to detain him.

Some hon. Members have served in our nation’s armed forces, and there are others who have not served themselves but who have close relatives who are serving. As I fall into neither of those categories, I shall keep my comments as brief as possible.

My concern is as a constituency Member of Parliament. Last week, I brought to the Prime Minister’s attention the concerns of my constituents Alan and Linda Eastwood, who are very worried about the Government’s plans to abolish the post of chief coroner. Their son, James, is a

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corporal with 1st Battalion The Rifles; he is 28 and has a wife and a two-year-old child. This week in a local newspaper, Mr Eastwood made the case for keeping the post of chief coroner much better than I could, so I shall quote his comments:

“James has only just returned from Afghanistan. We are one of the lucky families. James has colleagues who have been killed and colleagues who have come back with no arms or legs. I just cannot understand the Government’s position at all. To upset people who have suffered the loss of one of their family... I cannot see how the Prime Minister can justify it.”

It is no secret that I am a Labour politician, whereas Mr Eastwood tells me that he has never voted Labour in his life. I do not personally hold that against him, but I hope that I might be able to change his mind. Even if I cannot, partisanship is not the point in this issue. As a layperson, I believe that the point is that if Parliaments and Governments are to decide that young men and women are to be sent to situations where, in worst-case scenarios, they may have to make the ultimate sacrifice, the very least we can do is listen to those service personnel, those families and those organisations with the know-how—the people who know best. That is why I sincerely hope that the Prime Minister will listen to families such as the Eastwoods and to the Royal British Legion on this most important, personal and sensitive of matters.

I have one brief further point to make. Before I came to this House, I worked in the voluntary sector for 15 years, latterly for housing and homelessness charities. Nobody works for organisations of that nature without coming across the problem of the number of ex-service personnel who become homeless. In 1997, a well publicised survey from the Ex-Service Action Group on Homelessness found that about a quarter of street homeless people had a background in the armed forces. I remember that there was outrage and intense media scrutiny at the time, as indeed there should have been.

Jointly, Government action and Government action in partnership with many extraordinary voluntary organisations reduced the problem—one study by the university of York found that this action led to a fall in homelessness from about 22% to 6%. I accept that producing such figures is not an exact science, but everyone accepts that a significant reduction was made. None the less, any homeless figure, however welcome any reduction achieved, is still too many. I know that many today fear that the Government’s caps on housing benefit and cuts to homelessness provision, and the significant job cuts within our armed forces, are likely to make the situation much worse. I therefore hope that the Government will not reduce the MOD’s resettlement programme and that they will carefully consider the arguments I have made today. Finally, I hope that they will also reconsider their decision to abolish the post of chief coroner.

3.27 pm

Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): I start by declaring my interest as a member of the reserve forces. I regret that I cannot make the same declaration of interest as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) as an Army pensioner, but that is probably because he is rather more senior than I am. [Interruption.] I am delighted to

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hear that, apparently, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) is an Army pensioner.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), who made a very powerful case on behalf of veterans and especially their families, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who has just left the Chamber. I must say that I am not convinced that his readjustment to civilian life is best served by becoming a Member of Parliament, but that is another matter.

In discussion just now with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), I realised that I first wore a uniform in 1983—that can probably be bested only by the Minister—when I joined the combined cadet force in Kimbolton school, where I hope to return briefly this weekend. Every year since then—so for some 28 years—I have either marched or worn a uniform on Remembrance Sunday. This Remembrance Sunday, I will be in Newport Pagnell in my constituency for the eighth consecutive year. Above its war memorial is a small plaque, which is easy to miss, commemorating George Walters’ Victoria Cross. He was born in the town on 15 September 1829 and earned his Victoria Cross on 5 November—appropriate for me as a firework manufacturer—in 1854, some 157 years ago.

In those 28 years of attending Remembrance Sundays in uniform, I have seen an interesting transition. In the early days in the 1980s, attendance was probably not what it should have been, but over subsequent years, it has grown and grown. There has also been a change in the perception of the general public, from imagining that veterans were old men, recalling images of the first world war, to realising now that veterans come in all shapes and sizes—I am not looking at my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham when I say that—and some are very young indeed. I feel obliged to say that to my hon. Friend, as there was a suggestion earlier that reservists—I say this as I suck in my stomach—were being mobilised without passing their combat fitness test. I reassure him that that is not the case. The act of remembrance on Remembrance Sunday is now embraced by a far wider community than it was 20 years ago. That has to be a very good thing and one that I hope we all continue to encourage.

Earlier this year, it was an honour to serve on the Armed Forces Bill. There have been some comments about whether or not the armed forces covenant was enshrined in law, as well as some slightly party political comments about whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, who voted for it and who did not. I take the view shared by most members of the armed forces: I do not really care one way or the other. I repeat what I said earlier in the year: this Government will be judged not on words, but on actions. In years to come, this Government and their successors will be judged on whether the armed forces covenant was effectively enshrined in law by what is done, not by what is said.

The Bill dealt with three principal subjects, the first of which is housing. I welcome the fact that £61.6 million will be spent on service housing this year, but if one goes to Lympstone, for example, one sees that an awful lot more money will have to be spent in future years if we are to get the standard of housing up to the level that our armed forces deserve. The £400 million Firstbuy

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scheme, which will allow some 10,000 service and veteran families to get access to housing, is equally welcome. That is very good news, but 10,000 families is only a start; the scheme will have to be continued in years to come.

Secondly, on education, I welcome the £3 million being put into the pupil premium to help service families. Some years ago, when I was on the Defence Committee, we had an investigation into education. Such a policy was suggested at the time, although it may not have been called a pupil premium, and it is good news that it has been implemented.

Thirdly, on health care, I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire is no longer in the Chamber, because he has done a tremendous job in highlighting the mental health issues of servicemen and veterans. I have seen for myself the very good work that is being done and it is right that we pay tribute to successive Governments for that work. It has not been done instantly in the past 18 months; it has been done over a number of years, and I trust that that will continue in years to come.

I turn briefly to the strategic defence and security review. I was on HMS Portland about two weeks ago, where I came face to face with a young sailor who had been told that he would be made redundant, not voluntarily, but compulsorily. Members of Parliament should come face to face with people in that situation. It was a difficult conversation, which put the whole subject to the fore of my mind. He accepted what was happening, and I found it deeply encouraging that a redundancy programme is being put in place over the next 12 months to ensure that that young man will have the training and resettlement assistance that he needs to go back into civilian life. That is vital and I urge the Government to do more. Under no circumstances can that resettlement package be cut.

In my last few minutes I shall look forward to the future composition of the Army. We are set to have some 112,000 members by 2020—82,000 regulars and 30,000 reserves by 2015. I am particularly interested in the future of the Army in the context of contributing to the Government’s building stability overseas strategy. As we slowly withdraw from Afghanistan and end our commitments in Iraq, there is an acceptance that in future we will have to look at upstream intervention in fragile states. The comprehensive approach across Government, with the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence all coming together like three strands of a rope, will be vital to this country’s future interests. If I am honest, though, I feel that the Government document is slightly light when explaining how that upstream intervention will be carried out.

We all know that every £1 spent upstream can save £4 downstream, and I am delighted that DFID is committing 30% of its future investment in fragile states, but how exactly will we do that? How will we increase defence engagement in future years and grow the capacity of other nations? Will it be done by setting up a series of courses that we can support? With our current UN involvement, only a handful of British armed forces members are in the Democratic Republic of Congo or doing UN monitoring missions around the world. I believe that once we draw down from our commitments in Afghanistan, we can begin to make a real contribution

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to upstream intervention, and in the months to come I would like exactly how that will be done to be fleshed out.

I will finish with a few comments on the reserves. It will be challenging to get 30,000 reserves by 2015, but it can be done. Of course, only seven or eight years ago we had well in excess of 30,000 members of the reserve forces, and in the 1990s we had 58,000. I am convinced that in our society people are prepared to join the reserve forces, but it will not be straightforward. We will have to invest. We also have to realise that often the only link between Members and the armed forces in their constituencies is perhaps a cadet unit or Territorial Army unit, but the footprint we currently have, which forms such a strong link to our society, might not be the exact footprint we will have in future. It will be hard to find that balance, so it will be testing for hon. Members to find out what that footprint will be in future. Just because we are getting bigger does not mean that the footprint will automatically get wider.

I want to pick up on a point my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham made about mobilisations of reservists being almost compulsory. As a bomb disposal officer, I hosted a dinner here on Saturday night for 156 other bomb disposal officers. My old squadron, 217 Field Squadron (EOD), is now part of one of the hybrid regiments, 33 Engineer Regiment, which is a regular regiment. A couple of the young officers—I will not name them, because if I did they would be in front of their commanding officer next week—told me that they are under pressure to ensure that reservists are mobilised rather than their own regular forces, which is causing minor resentment. That is something that the Ministers needs to ensure we address, because the future of our armed forces must be as one Army, in which we work together without resentment between the regulars and the reserves.

3.37 pm

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): Let me start by adding to the tributes paid by Members on both sides of the House and offering my sincere condolences to the family and friends of the soldier from 4th Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment who was killed yesterday while on patrol in Afghanistan and to the family and friends of Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham, the Red Arrows pilot who died on Tuesday, whose dedicated service to the RAF included several operational tours in Iraq. Our thoughts are with them at this most difficult time.

As we approach Remembrance day, it is important to remember all those who have served our country. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today and delighted to follow the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) and many other hon. Members who made moving speeches, including my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis).

In my constituency I come across many people who remind me of the courage and determination of so many in the east end during the second world war. I will never forget the elderly lady who survived the blitz but lost her family overnight, or the many other stories of sacrifice and loss. The night of 7 September 1940 marked the start of a sustained bombing attack on London by the Luftwaffe. On the first night alone, 430 civilians were killed and 1,600 were seriously wounded in east

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London. The structural damage to London was enormous, and the east end was so badly hit that when Buckingham palace was attacked at the height of the bombing, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, said:

“It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”

In the Bethnal Green tube disaster, my constituency suffered Britain’s worst single loss of civilian life during the second world war. On the night of 3 March 1943, a large crowd tried to take cover in the tube station during an air raid, but, tragically, on entering the station via the steps on the south side, about 300 people became trapped, and as they slipped and fell on the steps there was a crush, leaving 173 people dead and 60 injured and needing hospital treatment.

In March this year, I joined my constituents and many others from throughout the east end to commemorate the 68th anniversary of that disaster and to remember those who lost their lives so tragically. Their memory is served by the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust, which is working hard to establish a fitting memorial to remind future generations of the sacrifices made, and I appeal to the Minister to lend his support to that important campaign, which requires another £200,000 for the project to be completed.

We must honour the memory of those who served our country, and do so not only with our words but with our actions. It is therefore right that we protect the memorials that have been established in honour of those military personnel and civilians who lost their lives. My Labour predecessor, Oona King, fought tirelessly through the Civilians Remembered campaign to establish a memorial to those east enders who lost their lives during the second world war.

The Hermitage memorial garden in Wapping, in an area that my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) represents, commemorates those civilians who died during the blitz, but recently the memorial was vandalised and protective gates have had to be erected around it. It is of paramount importance that we ensure memorial sites such as the Hermitage garden are protected from vandalism and continue to serve as a reminder of those who sacrificed so much.

By the end of 2014, UK troops will have completed all combat operations in Afghanistan, marking 13 years of UK involvement there. The sacrifice of our armed forces has been great, and we will never forget the 385 UK military personnel who, with their lives, have paid the ultimate price for our country.

The welfare of our troops is paramount, and we must ensure that they have the support they deserve during active service and in retirement. We must ensure also that their families have the support they need. I welcome the Government’s decision to enshrine the military covenant in law, but, as other Members have pointed out, it was disappointing when they failed to support the amendment that the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) tabled to the Public Bodies Bill to retain the office of the chief coroner, which the previous Labour Government proposed.

My constituents are concerned that, without that office, there will be no independent and impartial advice for bereaved families, who should have the right to challenge the findings of any inquiry that they consider to be insufficient.

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One of my constituents, Gareth Turkington, who lost his brother, wrote to me and said:

“Our family lost our son and brother Lt Neal Turkington 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles on 13th July 2010 in Nar-e Saraj, the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.

Neal selflessly committed his life to helping make our nation safer and to help make a difference by bringing freedom and prosperity to Afghanistan. His death was as a result of an Afghan National Army soldier carrying out a well planned and executed attack within the ISAF/ANA shared patrol base PB3. This happened despite three similar conflict related attacks at US/ISAF bases, resulting in 24 deaths and up to 40 injured.

My family and I were at his inquest. It was one of the most harrowing experiences of our lives. Today you have the chance to help ensure that both bereaved Armed Forces families and bereaved families in general don’t have to go through everything my family went through.

You have the chance to signal your personal support for all bereaved families by voting for Andrew Percy’s amendment to remove the Chief Coroner from the Public Bodies Bill.”

I appeal once again to the Minister to think again and support those families who are calling for that action.

Finally, our armed forces are among the best in the world. This is a poignant time to remember the huge sacrifice that our servicemen and women have made to defend our country. We must do everything to ensure that our freedom and liberty is protected by supporting them.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I was not going to intervene on the hon. Lady, but I remind Members to refer to current serving Members by their constituencies.

3.46 pm

Mr Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I am not a regular contributor to such debates—not least because I am usually outranked and certainly outpensioned by half the people who speak—although they are very important. I was in the Combined Cadet Force in the 1970s and my main contribution was trying to avoid carrying the Bren gun over the Brecon Beacons whenever we were on exercises.

My constituency has some very proud associations with the military—for example, with the Rifles in the Army and with HMS Cattistock, which is one of our minesweepers; its skills are admired by all, including the US navy. Indeed, we have a Royal Marines base in Poole, where the Special Boat Service is based. That service includes some of the most professional and admired specialists in the world.

Like many hon. Members here, I will be attending a Remembrance day ceremony in Poole park. I have done so more times than I care to remember. In my early years as a Member of Parliament, it was clear that the vast majority of people at the ceremony were world war two veterans, although some people had done national service and there was the odd person who had served in Northern Ireland.

What has changed is the number of young families turning up with photographs of fathers or mothers who have been killed in action. That has been the biggest change during my time in Parliament and it makes me think very carefully about the decisions we, as politicians, make about war and peace, and life and death, because people have to deal with the consequences of the United

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Kingdom’s policy. Given longevity, some of the youngsters who have lost fathers may well be around for another 70, 80 or 90 years—long after we have gone. Our legacy must be not only to support the military covenant, but to ensure that we look after those families who have lost a loved one. We must provide the best possible support we can to our armed services, which we all value so much.

Service accommodation is a very important issue. Over the past few years, there has been a great effort to improve the standard of all housing in the United Kingdom. A lot of money was spent on council housing to bring homes up to the decent homes standard. Yet much service accommodation remains not that good. I have had many conversations with the wives of Royal Marines in Poole, some of whom work as nurses or health visitors. They often say that when they visit people on benefits in Poole, their housing conditions are substantially better than those of some of the people in the Special Boat Service. Many have often said that they are a little ashamed to ask people back to their home because the standard is not very good.

I understand, as I think we all do, the economic situation that our country is in and the fact we have to make economies. However, as soon as money becomes available, we need to invest in providing decent housing standards for the families of people in the armed services. When we commit people, as we have done in the past, to 12 months in Afghanistan, we want them to be able to leave their families in a home we would all be proud of. Therefore, much work needs to be done on that matter.

Mr Arbuthnot: One of the problems that my hon. Friend highlights is that the armed forces are the only people who have to compete for funding in terms of their housing and the provision of weapons to keep them alive. It is not easy to work out how to resolve that dilemma.

Mr Syms: My right hon. Friend makes a good point; of course, he is very experienced in this area. That raises the question of whether another organisation should be supplying the housing instead of the Ministry of Defence. Having looked at the resources made available to Poole Housing Partnership, which deals with the several thousand council houses that we have in Poole, it is clear that it could easily maintain and upgrade the hundreds of MOD houses if there were some kind of tie-up or support. We need to think rather more creatively about how we can channel the resources that are available. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) made a powerful point about a case in his constituency of homes on two sides of the road, some of which are being done up with public money and some of which are not, because their funding happens to come out of different pockets. It should not be beyond the wit and wisdom of our country to find a way through this.

It is terribly important that we understand the angst of service families who leave the service having been unable to buy a home because they have been serving in different areas, and so have to go on the social housing list and then find that they cannot be allocated housing. I hope that changes made at the end of the time of the previous Government and under this Government will make that somewhat easier. Most ex-military people should be at the top of the housing queue, not at the

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bottom. My general view of what has been happening with my constituents suggests that there is now a much better understanding of that, and that housing authorities are much more willing to find accommodation for them.

We all know about the difficulties there have been with people who are in combat one minute and getting on a jet to fly back to the United Kingdom the next. Within a day or two of being in combat, they have to adjust to being home. I am pleased that this country has done a lot more as regards the military hospitals and mental health back-up needed for the people in our armed services. I was also pleased to hear what has been said about resources to help service families and their children in relation to education.

We seem to be finding our way to a far more holistic approach towards support for the various aspects of the lives of those in the military. Certainly, there is a much better understanding of the importance of our military. Like many Members, I am sure that when I am in Poole park on Sunday for our usual parade, many more people than we saw years ago will turn out to commemorate service personnel. There is much more public support for the military. We must maintain that support for, and investment in, these very brave and exceptional people. As has been said, the United Kingdom armed forces are second to none; they do our country proud. We must invest in them and their families, and I hope that this debate plays some small part in progressing that.

3.53 pm

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): I am honoured to follow the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms), who talked passionately about the importance of supporting the families of servicemen and women in this country.

I think that I bring a slightly different dimension to the debate because I am possibly the only person here who is the partner of somebody within our military, and therefore feels absolutely passionately—

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con) indicated dissent .

Stella Creasy: I apologise—I see the hon. Lady shaking her head. I was not aware that she had a connection as well.

Sheryll Murray: Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) is married to a member of the armed forces?

Stella Creasy: Absolutely. My point in raising this is simply to say that the concern for all of us who are interested in the welfare of our armed forces is not only about the people who serve but about those who support them. We have to support not only our armed services but those in their families who are affected by what they do.

Each of us is here today to remember the sacrifices of those who have served within our communities and our country. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) admirably put on record our gratitude to the people who, unfortunately, have lost their lives in the past few weeks alone. I echo those

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sentiments. I also want to put on record the gratitude that I am sure we all feel towards the people from my own community in Walthamstow who gave their lives. Let us therefore say to the family of Regimental Sergeant Major Darren Chant of the Grenadier Guards, who gave his life for our safety on 3 November 2009, that we will never forget his sacrifice.

I also want to recognise the contribution of those who have served and come home. In particular, I put on the record my thanks to Rob Richier, who retired recently after 35 years of service in the forces. He is now leading the Royal British Legion in Walthamstow. I was honoured to host a dinner for 150 people for his retirement and in support of the work that he is doing in Walthamstow. I have seen at first hand from working with him what a difference he is making to support members of the armed forces in Walthamstow.

I wanted to speak in this debate to raise a particular concern that affects forces families. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) referred to the tragic case that many Members will have seen in the press yesterday of a serviceman and his wife who felt so forgotten that they took their own lives after they had fallen badly into debt and were struggling with their financial situation. A critical issue that we must address in dealing with the welfare of our armed forces and their families is their finances. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) raised the particular concern of homelessness in relation to the armed forces. I want to consider the experience of the armed forces in accessing finance. I will draw on evidence of how the American military have dealt with this issue and of their concern about how armed forces personnel manage their money.

In 2006, the Department of Defence in America conducted research into the impact of payday lending on servicemen and women and their families. It recognised that companies were targeting them because of a number of factors, not least the relative youth of the military and the cash-flow fluxes and shortages generated by life in theatre and at home. Another factor was that the American military took a strong line on indebtedness among their members, which meant that many of them did not seek debt advice and counselling early on to avoid debt problems.

What is particularly striking is that the American military recognised the problems of debt among their servicemen and women as a threat to military readiness. They recognised that debt was the second most stressful aspect of the military lifestyle and that it outpaced separation from families and being on deployment. In particular, they recognised that because military families were not necessarily able to access credit in the way that the rest of can, they were particularly vulnerable to a reliance on high-cost credit. The research found that the average borrower in the American military had taken out nine payday loans in a year and was paying back $834 for a $339 loan.

Consequently, the John Warner National Defence Authorisation Act was passed in 2006. It closed the loophole that allowed American lenders to exploit service personnel and introduced an interest rate cap to make it impossible to lend to military personnel at more than 36% APR. Clearly, there are still problems in America with indebtedness in military families, but awareness

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about the issue has been raised, as has the protection for those families. Indeed, America’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau now has a special service dedicated to soldiers, the Office of Servicemember Affairs, which is headed by Holly Petraeus. One of her many acts is to promote credit unions to service people.

I raise that example not simply to say how much the Americans have done to support the families of those who serve in the military, but to raise my concern that exactly the same problems are happening among military families in the UK. The payday loan companies that have exploded in the UK in the past 18 months are already targeting the military. markets itself as the forces loan finder.—the title alone is a giveaway—makes a virtue of lending to service personnel in the UK with poor credit histories. QuickQuid, whose interest rate is 1,734%, states on its special military site:

“You provide security and protection for your country—shouldn’t your armour against financial problems include access to military loans when you need them?”

The consequences of that targeting are becoming all too clear, not least to the Royal British Legion, which has a dedicated benefits and money advice service that does fantastic work to help service personnel and veterans with debt problems. That service is up against it in the current economic climate, especially given the rate at which the high-cost credit industry is growing. It is particularly striking that whereas in its first year of operation in 2007 the service helped 2,500 army personnel, last year the figure rose to 11,000. It predicts that the figure will keep rising. The most telling point for this debate is that nearly a third of the service’s clients turn to it because they have taken out unsecured loans.

We know that high-cost credit is increasingly used by those who have no access to mainstream credit. Indeed, research in Sheffield found that 40,000 people in that city alone were in that position. We know that a worrying proportion of people taking out payday loans are doing so just to make ends meet. One in four of them need the money to buy food or essentials, with 44% of them using it just to pay off other debts. In that context, people who are financially fragile because they or a member of their family serve in the military are particularly at risk.

The Royal British Legion states that debt problems tend to be much more complex for Army personnel than for civilians, and that they require a higher level of debt advice. It estimates that 63% of the debt advice that it offers is classified as specialist advice, compared with just 12% of the casework of normal citizens advice bureaux. Such figures demonstrate not only the importance of what the Royal British Legion’s money advice service does but the uniquely complex nature of the debt problems that many of our service personnel face.

We know that the payday loan industry is growing rapidly in this country, and that the risk of its targeting our military service personnel is increasing. We know, too, that we could act quickly to regulate the market as a way of providing real protection not just to service families but to the 6 million people in our country who are financially fragile. That was why I wanted to raise the issue today.

I hope that I can encourage the Minister to consider doing exactly what the American military have done, and at least commission research into the nature of debt

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in our forces’ families in the UK, so that we can understand the consequences of payday loan companies and the difficulty that those in the military face in making ends meet. I also hope that when he has seen that research, or even the work that the Royal British Legion is doing on welfare advice, he might be persuaded to speak to his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to talk about how it would be possible to introduce a cap on the cost of credit to protect people. I also encourage him to consider how to ensure that we have a credit union that serves the UK military and their families, so that they can access affordable credit.

We all remember today the service of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and given their lives for a better tomorrow. I have simply raised my points to ask that that better tomorrow does not include debts, and that we as a Parliament act as quickly and appropriately as we can to ensure that we give all our citizens protection from payday loan companies.

4.1 pm

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak, especially on the eve of Armistice day. I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces for naming Plymouth earlier this year as the venue for next year’s national armed services day events. I am sure the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) also welcomes that. Plymouth, needless to say, is a very proud city with a very fine Royal Marine and Royal Naval heritage. The authorities there will most certainly handle armed services day with enormous professionalism, and it will be incredibly well organised.

Tomorrow, 3 Commando Brigade, which is based in my constituency, will march through the city. I am absolutely sure that there will be a very big turnout of people who wish to demonstrate just how loyal to the brigade they are, and how proud they are of the service personnel who have acted in Afghanistan during the past few months or so. Tomorrow and Sunday will provide an opportunity for us to show our respect, alongside civic leaders. It will tinged with sadness, of course, because there have been some casualties, including Corporal Mark Palin, whose funeral I attended in the summer, who lived in Devonport and made the ultimate sacrifice.

In passing, I wish to thank FIFA for deciding, eventually, to allow our English footballers to wear their poppies. That is appropriate, because in 1915, in no-man’s land, there was a ceasefire at Christmas, so the soldiers could play football. Unfortunately they did not play cricket or rugby, but they decided to play football. That is a clear indication of the part that football has played.

Today’s debate is about how we value our armed services, and valuing them is very important. As a Navy brat, with a father who served in the Royal Navy and was partly responsible for getting the gold and the King of Norway out of Norway in 1940, and with a whole series of family members who have served in the services, I can safely say that I think I have had a fairly good understanding of what it is like to serve in the armed forces and make the ultimate sacrifice.

Not only do I represent one of the principal naval ports, but as vice-chairman of the armed forces all-party parliamentary group with special responsibility for the

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Royal Marines, and through my participation in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have gained a much better understanding of how the armed services play such a significant part in the defence of our country.

During the summer on a trip from Malta to Majorca with one of the ships, I had the opportunity to see first hand how our Royal Navy people go about their jobs. One thing they talked about was how they felt let down that they did not have the opportunity to receive a medal for their anti-piracy work. They said that they got one from the EU but were not allowed to wear it because it has not been approved by the Queen. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister ensure that that situation is looked at?

Mrs Moon: I understand that there is to be review of the body that is responsible for giving medals, which is an obscure and almost secretive organisation. Should not that responsibility lie with the House and not with some obscure group of flunkies somewhere in a back room?

Oliver Colvile: The body should be asked to give advice, but perhaps ultimately, the decision ought to be made here.

Mr Robathan: The Honours and Decorations Committee might be obscure, but it exists to give advice to Her Majesty the Queen, who is the fount of honours and who gives medals, not this House. In my opinion, with which hon. Members may disagree—the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) is right that we are having a review—it is important that politics and party politics should not be involved in decisions on medals, because that should be done in the chain of command. I have been under pressure to intervene in gallantry awards for people whom I have never met. However, the granting of honours must be decided not by politicians, but by others who are involved in campaigns.

Mrs Moon rose—

Oliver Colvile: If the hon. Lady wishes to intervene again, she is very welcome to do so.

Mrs Moon: Transparency is essential, and the big problem with the Honours and Decorations Committee is that it is not transparent.

Oliver Colvile: It is the job of the Queen to make decisions on who gets such honours.

In the few minutes available to me, I want to concentrate on the mental health of those members of the armed forces who serve to defend our country. Other hon. Members have spoken with some knowledge of that, especially my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), whose paper on mental health and combat stress, “Fighting Fit”, has made such a significant contribution in helping us to determine our armed forces covenant and the Armed Forces Act 2011.

There is a great deal of difference, however, between passing legislation and ensuring that recommendations are put into action. For many, serving in the armed services will be one of several careers that they will have. It is important that they do not find themselves handicapped from having other careers and doing other jobs. Some

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might go into teaching and others might go into security or whatever, but it is important that we ensure they can go into other jobs.

A great deal of publicity was given to the fact that a significant minority of servicemen and women suffer from mental ill health as a result of their experiences. It is important that we ensure they are capable of going into other jobs, but according to research by the excellent Combat Stress, which, as my right hon. Friend the Minister knows, was set up in 1919 and which currently helps 4,600 veterans, suggests that of the 191,000 personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 4.6%—about 7,600 people—could develop post-traumatic stress disorder, and that another 37,600 people, or 19.7%, could be battling other debilitating mental health problems, such as depression, mood disorders and anxieties. It can take up to 13 years for mental illness to become apparent. We must not waste any time in finding a solution and putting a strategy in place. I welcome the Government’s changes to the delivery of our health services, but I am keen that there be a strategy to ensure that our general practitioners and other health professionals think through how to handle those mental health issues, especially in a garrison town such as Plymouth.

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said about the incidence of mental ill health and the need for the health service and other bodies to cope with the mental health needs of those in the armed forces. Does he agree, though, that younger people in the armed services suffer more from mental health problems as a result of their involvement in combat after the age of 18? Given that the United Kingdom is the only country in Europe that still recruits soldiers from the age of 16—last year, 17.4% of new recruits were aged 16 and 29.8% were under 18—is it not time to review the age from which we recruit? Should we not recruit over-18s only?

Oliver Colvile: If I may say so, that is a non sequitur. A range of people, from across the board, regularly come into my office suffering from a mental health issue, and it is important that we look after all of them, not just a small number.

In preparing for this debate, I spoke with representatives of Combat Stress, who told me of their concern about the lack of detail in the Government’s approach, and asked for assurances that either health care or other policy areas would cover the mental health of armed forces personnel and veterans. It noted that the stigma surrounding people with mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, was still preventing veterans from seeking help.

Last month, I attended, in the Speaker’s apartments, the launch of Combat Stress’s anti-stigma campaign, which aims to highlight the plight of veterans suffering from mental illnesses owing to the scars of war. I was told that 81% of veterans felt ashamed or embarrassed about their mental ill health, and that their fear of stigma and discrimination meant that more than one in three did not feel able to tell their families or friends about their problems. The other day in Lympstone, I met a Royal Marine who told me of his experience. He went home and told his wife about his problems, but she

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said, “Don’t talk to me about that. I had to deal with 200 e-mails today. I have a lot on.” He went off to find his mates, but that was not good enough either, so ultimately he had to find his fellow Royal Marines. We need to ensure much better connectivity for those people.

Finally, I am concerned about how the reservists are taken care of. We have in place a very good system under which regular armed services personnel can get a lot of help, but I am told that there are problems for reservists leaving theatre and re-entering their community, and that we do not necessarily do as good a job looking after them. I urge my right hon. Friend to do something about that. Reservists take time off from their normal jobs, and their employers expect them to go straight back again, which they will almost certainly do. However, can we do something about that? If we do not sort this out, we risk creating a ticking time bomb that will need much more resources and attention further down the line.

4.14 pm

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): The wonderful thing about defence debates in this Chamber is that they are so well informed. When we stand to speak, we feel that we are really speaking to people who have expertise—people who served in the forces; people who are partners of people in the forces; people who serve on the Select Committee on Defence.

I cannot start a speech in a defence debate without congratulating the Royal British Legion. Yesterday, attending Prime Minister’s questions, regardless of whether I agreed with what the Prime Minister said, I could not help but notice the sea of red poppies on both sides of the House. The Royal British Legion truly deserves to be congratulated on the success of its campaign and on making the poppy a fixture every November. As an aside, I pay tribute to its “Time to do your bit” campaign. On Sunday, I did my bit by running seven miles along Cwmcarn scenic drive, which, as anyone who knows it will agree, is very hilly. I think I speak on behalf of my parliamentary researcher Dave when I say that, rather than just doing our bit, we were both in bits by the end, but there we go.

Since I became a Member of Parliament, the most amazing thing—a great honour, too—is that I am invited to so many remembrance parades. This weekend I will join people in Oakdale, Pontllanfraith and Meas-y-cwmer as they come together to remember the war dead. However, when we think of remembering people, we should be aware that there is a group of people in this country, only 1,011 in number, who have a case to be remembered that is rarely heard in the House of Commons. They are, of course, the nuclear test veterans—those who suffered illnesses related to the nuclear bomb tests in the Indian ocean in the 1950s and 1960s.

We are proud in Islwyn that we have the only commemorative stone to mark the commitment of those veterans to our forces; it sits in the memorial garden in Risca. I cannot mention it without paying tribute to a local councillor, Stan Jenkins, who is responsible for the stone. When he was the mayor of the old Islwyn borough council, he met with a nuclear test veteran and was so moved by his plight that every October he organised a march through Risca, with the whole community coming together to show its support for those boys, and this

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year is the last year it will be held. Their standard has been placed in St Mary’s church in Risca, and until it turns to dust over time, the cause endures and the fight goes on.

We as politicians are rarely faced with serious decisions, but in years to come, when children go to the memorial garden in Risca with their parents or grandparents and read what it says on that stone—a simple sentence: “Justice is all we ask”—and when they ask their parents or grandparents, “Did those soldiers have justice?”, what will we say? Will we say, “No. The Government stood behind judges and law courts and they kept frustrating them, so that they died without being compensated”?

Mr Kevan Jones: When I was the Minister for veterans, I made an offer to settle those cases. It was the lawyers representing the nuclear test veterans who rejected that settlement proposal. I feel—I know the current Minister feels this too—that the injustice in this case is not helped by the lawyers representing those veterans.

Chris Evans: I thank my hon. Friend for that. Coming from a mining area, he knows as well as I do how much the lawyers frustrated justice for our miners too. I say this to the lawyers: if the Government have made an offer that is fair and acceptable to the veterans, they should accept it.

Mr Robathan: I am grateful to hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. May I suggest that he says that to the lawyers in terms—not just in the House of Commons, as it is well known that anyone who wants to keep a secret should reveal it on the Floor of the House, but in the “Risca Herald”, or whatever it is called, and that he also talks to a firm called Rosenblatt?

Chris Evans: I agree, and I have said it before. I digress from the debate, but the miners’ compensation scheme was a wonderful scheme, yet it was frustrated by the claims farmers and other bloodsuckers who came along and tried to make money out of it. I think I have the support of the whole House in saying that. However, we have an opportunity to give those veterans justice. The Government need to stand up to the lawyers, and we need to do something about them.

When we discuss veterans, we often hear people in this House talking about “the forces family”. When I hear such phrases, I hope that they are not marketing speak or—dare I, a Labour Member, say it?—spin. I hope that they mean something. A member of a family is cared about regardless of what they do in their life; they know that help is available to them. Yet I hear all the time about veterans who leave the forces and receive no help, and in 2005, the Royal British Legion produced a report that stated that 6% of those leaving the forces had welfare issues and nowhere to go. I want the Government to do more.

It is easy, especially at this time of the year, to think of veterans as the old folk who walk in remembrance of their fallen comrades, but a veteran can be anyone—a 21-year-old or a 60-year-old—and we must do all we can to honour them. It is time for the Government to honour them properly, and that means creating a department for veterans. In the United States, George H. W. Bush said:

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“There is only one place for the veterans of America, in the Cabinet Room, at the table with the President of the United States of America.”

That is what we should have in this country: the voice of veterans right next to the Prime Minister. At the moment, the Minister for veterans also has responsibility for forces education and accommodation. When my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was the Minister, I think that he was even in charge of the weather. My predecessor as MP for Islwyn was also a veterans Minister, and he always said that, in the year that he was Minister for veterans and in charge of the weather, the sun always shone and we had the sunniest summer on record. I do not know how true that is.

Veterans need a voice to stand up for them. We have a wonderful organisation in Veterans-UK, but people do not know about it. Its name should be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, just as those of the BBC and many other organisations are. More should be done to advertise it, so that when people leave the forces, they know that there is an organisation that can help them.

I really should not say this, but I am going to give the Government a bit of advice. If they really want to be popular and if they really want to see their poll ratings go up, there is one thing that the Minister could do, right here, right now. He could make veterans day, on 27 June, a bank holiday. In that way, everyone could celebrate, just as they did during the royal wedding. They could celebrate veterans by holding street parties to thank them for all that they have done. That is the least we can do.

We ask our servicemen and women to do a job that most of us have no idea about. We are not asking them to join Barclays bank, or Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s, to do a job of work from nine to five. We are asking them to make the ultimate sacrifice. It is therefore right that, on Sunday, and tomorrow during the two-minute silence, we stand together to thank them and celebrate them. Let us do that in the summer as well; let us put a smile on everyone’s face for once. That is the least the Government can do.

4.23 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I am delighted to inform the House that this year’s Remembrance Sunday “Songs of Praise” will come from the garrison town of Colchester. It will be broadcast on BBC1 at 5.25 pm on Sunday. Tomorrow, we will have the two-minute silence, and on Saturday there will be the festival of remembrance in the Royal Albert hall. There is also the field of poppies next to Westminster Abbey. On Sunday, in cities, towns, suburbs, villages and hamlets the length and breadth of the country, we will remember those who have fallen in the two world wars and in other conflicts over time.

This time last year, 16 Air Assault Brigade, which is based in the Colchester garrison, was in Helmand province on its fourth deployment to Afghanistan. I had the great honour to visit it at Camp Bastion in March this year. Along with many other Members, I was also able to welcome representatives of 16 Air Assault Brigade when they came to the Houses of Parliament on their return. There was a huge welcome home parade, as we would expect, in the centre of Colchester where many thousands of residents came out to say, “Thank you, and welcome home.” There was then a most moving service of thanksgiving and commemoration at Bury

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St Edmunds cathedral. The most dramatic moment in this moving service was, for me, a song from a choir of Fijian men and women who serve in 16 Air Assault Brigade—evidence of how our armed forces have thousands of young people from the various countries of the Commonwealth serving with us.

I have already referred to family housing, and it is my hope that the Defence Committee, to which I have recently been appointed, will hold an inquiry into all aspects of service housing. At my advice bureau on Saturday, the wife of a serving soldier shortly to be deployed elsewhere told me how the state of her house, an Army house, is an utter disgrace, and that her infant child is crawling over mouldy carpets. On the education side, I am delighted as a Liberal Democrat to say that the pupil premium has been a real plus for the children of our military personnel who are serving our country.

This is a debate on military personnel. When we were in opposition, we complained to the Government of the day that our armed forces were overstretched and under-strength. Clearly, that situation has not altered. In fact, it is going to get worse. I asked the Library for comparative figures on the size of the Army and Navy in 1911 and 2011. I was informed that in 1911 the Royal Navy had 106,245 serving members, while today it is 35,430 and falling. The size of the Army in 1911 was 168,239, while today it is 101,300 and falling.

I am not necessarily a great fan of the Daily Mail, but on Thursday last week Steven Glover wrote an article with the headline, “I simply fail to understand how a Tory-led Government can’t muster a single warship to protect this nation’s shores”. He said:

“When you go to sleep at night you may imagine that somewhere out there in British waters there will be one or more warships flying the flag, and keeping an eye on possible dangers to our national security. Indeed, there usually is and has been for as long as anyone can remember. And yet since the beginning of October there hasn’t been a single British frigate or destroyer fulfilling this task. The Royal Navy, once the mightiest in the world, could not muster even one vessel to protect our shores.”

The article goes on at great length, but let me read out just one small further excerpt:

“The truth is, that the Government has so reduced Britain’s naval and military resources that we can no longer play the part of even a minor world power.”

Let none of that detract from our pride in the professionalism of our serving members.

Mr Ellwood: I feel obliged to intervene because it really is misleading to use a bit of the Daily Mailto pursue an argument in that way. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman used it, he clearly believed it and tried to make a point with it. What it shows, dare I say it, is a level of ignorance in his understanding of how the British Isles is defended. We have the Tyne-class sea patrol vessels, which do a fantastic job. There is also the point that if we were to surround Britain with warships, we would still not be able to cover much mileage. We cover our sea and air space with aeroplanes, which do a fantastic job. I hope the hon. Gentleman will consider that.

Bob Russell: I am obviously grateful for that informed observation. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have

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ensured that that has been conveyed to the

Daily Mail

and Mr Glover in particular so that the record can be put straight.

All Members can take pride in the armed forces covenant. We should be thinking not just of current members of the armed forces, but of those who have served in the past and their families. In that context, I remind the Minister that the Equality for Veterans Association is calling for pensions for all who have served in the forces, and has presented a petition to No. 10 Downing street.

I also think that we should link armed forces day, for which the last Government can rightly claim credit, with the armed forces community covenant and with the need for an armed forces service medal, which I mentioned earlier.

Mark Lancaster: Does my hon. Friend agree that on 5 or 6 February next year—I forget the exact qualification date—some members of the armed forces will be potential recipients of no fewer than five different medals for non-operational service?

Bob Russell: I was not aware of that. All I am saying is that a campaign has been organised by people who are seeking recognition.

Let me say something about the work of the independent medical expert group and “The Review of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme—One Year On”, which refers specifically to the issue of noise-induced hearing loss. Earlier this afternoon, I had a brief meeting with representatives of the charity Action on Hearing Loss, formerly the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. They told me that the United Kingdom’s compensation scheme involved a high threshold, and that in the United States personnel with a level of hearing loss half that required in the UK were entitled to compensation. I sincerely hope that that will be addressed in the Defence Committee’s inquiry into the armed forces covenant.

I should like the Minister at some stage to make a statement to the House on the future of the Ministry of Defence police. The last Government slashed the size of the MOD force in Colchester from 30 officers to three. That has had a significant effect on the policing of the Army estate, because the burden has fallen on the Essex constabulary, who do not have 27 officers to pick up the slack.

As for anniversaries and special events, reference has been made to the need for us to prepare for a commemoration, in 2014, of the start of the great war. I hope that we can begin preparations for another commemoration the following year, that of the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. I am sure that—in a spirit of European unity—the French, who joined in our commemoration of the start of the great war, will also join us in commemorating the Waterloo anniversary in 2015.

We have all been shocked in recent weeks and months by the theft of war memorials listing wartime events and the names of those who have died. I cannot come to terms with how anyone could steal such a thing, but they would also have to sell it to someone, and there must be dealers out there who know full well that a memorial of that kind must come from a dodgy source. I think that Government and Opposition should come

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together to produce legislation preventing people from dealing in that sort of scrap metal, because metal dealers must know that a bronze plaque marked “1914” and listing names and ranks has been stolen.

The issue of the chief coroner has been discussed. It is my understanding that the MOD believes that there should be more specially trained coroners so that the military get a bespoke service by having multiple coroners. It is thought that that would be a better deal. I hope that we can work together on this issue.

I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion, on its 90th anniversary, for all it has done, and to all the other veterans groups for all they do. I also pay tribute to ABF The Soldiers’ Charity—formerly the Army Benevolent Fund—the War Widows Association, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, Veterans Aid, Combat Stress and Help for Heroes. Without them, the lot of our current and past military personnel would be much poorer. Let me finally say that it is a special pleasure to represent a garrison town.

4.36 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank those Members who were responsible for securing this debate and, in particular, the Prime Minister.

It appears to me that more poppies have been worn this year than in previous years, and I find that heartening. That is certainly not down to “The X Factor” and the sparkly bright poppies that are worn by those who appear on television, but more young people are wearing poppies and it does my heart good to see that. Reference was made earlier to the Royal British Legion and there being, perhaps, an age barrier. It might have been the case that young people did not respond very much to past conflicts such as the first and second world wars and Aden, but the young people of today clearly do relate to the Royal British Legion. Those who are serving in Afghanistan and have served in Iraq recently are of their age group.

I can only imagine how good it must be for those who have family members serving, or those who have served themselves, to see younger and older people alike wearing the poppy with pride. That is a show of support for the services, and it signals that at this time of year the nation remembers those who have served their country and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

I recently had the privilege of attending a coffee morning in a local town hall to raise funds for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. That event is held annually and it is a practical expression of support for the troops. By holding it, the people of Ards and Strangford have contributed more than £10,000. Everyone who entered the hall and donated, and had their coffee or tea and sticky bun—they were all home-made, I understand—did so for the same reason: to show support and express thanks to the troops. The window of the local wool shop in Newtownards carries an advertisement telling people that the store will contribute free wool to knit hats for our serving troops, and that it will send them out to them, too. Hundreds have already been knitted and sent out. In all our local shopping centres there are dedicated Royal British Legion personnel standing at poppy stalls. I see that the vast majority of people in the town are supportive of our troops, and I now have an opportunity to speak for them in Parliament.

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The latest figures show that Army recruitment is up across the board in Northern Ireland. That is noteworthy. In these times of economic uncertainty, people are having to look outside their normal comfort zone to find work, and it appears that the Army is filling a gap. There has been a rise in recruitment everywhere but particularly in what would have been nationalist areas. That speaks volumes about how members of the younger generation see themselves today.

When Newtownards celebrated the homecoming of the Irish Guards recently, one soldier remarked that the troops had been told that they could not parade through the streets of Belfast. They were bemused by that as many would have been returning to their home town. I was told that religion was not an issue between the troops, and I knew that would be the case anyway. When people put on the British uniform and serve in the British Army, they are our brothers—or sisters—full stop.

As these soldiers marched, there was a real buzz about the town, with thousands of people lining the streets to say thanks and to cheer on those who are out there fighting for Queen and country. For many of those involved it was a homecoming as they come from Ards. The Ards and the Strangford area has the largest Irish Guards association in the whole of Northern Ireland and, indeed, the United Kingdom. One’s heart could not fail to be touched by the mothers who were crying and smiling at the same time. It is not impossible to do that, as I very clearly witnessed. Among the familiar faces that we all saw, I also met some young men who had been injured on the battlefields in Afghanistan. Despite Northern Ireland having a population of only 1.8 million, 20% of all serving personnel—soldiers and those in the Air Force or the Royal Navy—hail from my own beautiful Northern Ireland. We have every right to be proud.

The service at St Mark’s before the parade was poignant and touching, as we sat with the soldiers and heard them pray for each other. They also prayed for the Afghans that they had met. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) mentioned the special qualities of the British soldier and they are just that. The British soldier does his job in uniform and he very clearly does his job afterwards as well.

Mr Havard: In January I had the privilege of meeting members of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment in Nad Ali, where I witnessed them starting the new initiative of local policing. The reason they could do that was because of the very qualities that the hon. Gentleman talks about. They could speak to the local people about their agricultural development in a way that they could relate to, and they were doing fantastic work in terms of not only security, but of building consent for a new Afghanistan.

Jim Shannon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. He gave me his card and he said, “You can speak in English or in Welsh.” As an Ulster Scot, I choose English. I was not sure about the other bit, because I would probably have got it wrong.

The number of people lining the street from St Mark’s through the town was incredible, and the streets were glowing with pride as crisp Union flags flew from every shop and every house, and were in the hands of many of

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the people who were there. There was a sense of pride and honour, which permeated through gender, age and religious barriers. All were united when they considered our troops and what they had done, and thanked them for it. That raises the question that we have the opportunity to speak about today: how can this House be more supportive?

As we come to Remembrance Sunday, we have a timely reminder of the sacrifices that allow us to stand in this Chamber and debate any topic—we are here because of what has happened before. My childhood favourite, Winston Churchill, stood in this House debating the merits of war and the need for war in eloquent fashion on numerous occasions, as the history books show. I do not do that today; today, I stand for our troops and say, “Recruit them, train them, equip them, feed them, speak with them, help them and support them.” For me, and I believe for everyone in this House, “We will remember them” is not a phrase but a promise.

We have had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan on a number of occasions through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, of which the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney is a member, as indeed are other Members here today. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), the Secretary of State for Scotland and Lord Maginnis were part of the group that went out there in March. Our troops need help on the battlefield, and we were much impressed by Camp Bastion and the medical facilities that were available. People there say, “If you ever get injured, make sure it is in Afghanistan and close to Camp Bastion, because you would not get the same medical help if you were involved in a traffic accident back home.” That is what we were seeing. On that occasion, two helicopters arrived—this was not planned, it was just the way things happened—with some American casualties and we witnessed at first hand the injured being taken into the medical centre and saw clearly the good work that is being done. I commend the staff for that.

The shadow Minister said that wherever we go in the world there will always be a soldier from Merthyr Tydfil. Wherever we go in the world there will always be a soldier from Strangford too. I say that because when I was in Afghanistan I had the opportunity to meet a young lady in the military police whose father I had helped with a planning application and whose mother I had helped with other issues. I also met a sergeant-major in the Irish Guards, who was from outside my constituency but whose uncle and aunt were personal friends of mine. I also had a seat at the Royal Irish barbecue there—for the record, it was a dry barbecue in Afghanistan, as there is no drink there. It was the first time that I can recall being with an Irish regiment at a barbecue where it was all water and lemonade. I sat across the table from a young guy who said, “Jim, it’s nice to see you here. I voted for you.” A guy in Afghanistan is able to tell me that he voted for me. I said, “That’s the reason I’m your MP—because you voted for me.” The service personnel asked me as a parliamentarian, and I believe they have asked every Member of Parliament, to be their spokesperson in the House, and I want to speak for them.

I also had the chance to be on a five-day exercise with the 1st Mercian Regiment in Catterick in north Yorkshire,

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which gave me the opportunity to speak to the troops and hear what they wanted. They are looking for security of their pensions and for continuity of service. They want the uncertainty of where they are posted to be sorted out quickly. They are looking for their housing issues to be resolved, for confirmation of their jobs and training, and for contact with their family. The Minister spoke earlier about wi-fi and the phone system. We witnessed that clearly in Afghanistan. The voice down the phone was their wife, their mum, their dad or their family and friends, and we noticed how important that was for the troops. We also witnessed the fact that they need a great deal of support.

The troops mentioned an issue which I hope the Minister will address in his closing remarks. They told us that they get 14 days leave, and sometimes on their way home they may find that they have to spend two days sitting in Cyprus, for example. That is two days lost out of their 14 days.

Mr Robathan: We have now ensured that if service personnel lose some of their 14 days’ rest and recuperation on their journey because of problems with the air bridge, the weather or whatever the reason may be, those days are added to their leave at the end of their tour. That gives people extra leave without disrupting the operation.

Jim Shannon: I thank the Minister for that positive response, which will take care of some of the concerns that were expressed to us when we were in Afghanistan and by other soldiers.

I commend the Minister and the MOD for the work they do for those who are injured, who experience life-changing events, who are emotionally or mentally traumatised, or who have to come to terms with the loss of limbs. I met two such soldiers with the 1st Mercians some time ago, and I have to say that the work done within the MOD was tremendous. The improvement was clearly visible, and the work continues afterwards. One may see the physical changes resulting from the injuries that have taken place, but one does not always see what is happening inside. That is what concerns me.

In conclusion, we send our service people out and ask them to do and to see things that most of us here would not have the stomach or the understanding to see or do. What do we need to give them in return? I believe the unanimous voice from the House will be that we need to give them support. We must support them, and I appreciate the motion being brought before the House. We need to do more than consider our armed forces personnel, as the motion says, but I believe it goes further than that. A commitment has been given, and I believe everyone will support the motion, as I certainly will.

4.48 pm

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Armed forces personnel issues are very close to my heart. My daughter serves as a Royal Navy officer and I grew up in my constituency with the knowledge of the importance of HMS Raleigh. I have heard first hand the concerns of Royal Navy personnel throughout that time, but I have recently learned of issues that concern me and I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to provide me with some answers today.

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One area where civilians frequently come into contact with our armed forces personnel is search and rescue. According to a Library paper of 22 February this year on the search and rescue service, the RAF has 16 Sea King mark 3 or 3A helicopters in service, with 272 personnel currently employed in roles directly related to search and rescue activities, and that the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm has nine Sea King mark 5 helicopters, with 81 similarly employed personnel. That means that the average number of service personnel for every search and rescue helicopter is 17 for the RAF, but nine—almost half—for the Royal Navy. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister explain this difference between the two services?

The figures seem to suggest that some services are already more efficient than others and, therefore, that there is less fat to cut. A parliamentary written answer on armed forces deployment confirmed:

“Each service operates different harmony guidelines. Royal Navy personnel should not exceed 660 days deployed in 36 months, the Army 415 days in 30 months, and the RAF 280 days detached in 24 months.” —[Official Report, 14 December 2009; Vol. 502, c. 820W.]

Those figures equate to a diverse average deployment length across the three services. The separated service figures show that the term “overstretched” means three different things to the three services. Coupled with the reputed average deployment length, the Army deploys for around six months at a time, the RAF rarely deploys for longer than three months and the Royal Navy deploys for around six to nine months. This suggests that the deployment burden on certain sections of the three services is higher than others.

As a result of the differences in separated service, the frequency of deployment also varies between services. A Royal Navy warfare or engineering rating, or a warfare officer, can expect to deploy repeatedly year on year. I know of one warfare officer—not my daughter—who has deployed for seven to eight months in each year from 2008 to 2011. This deployment burden should be taken into account when demanding redundancies, as any squeeze that increases the burden further could have consequences for manning those key positions.

Finally, I want to address the redundancies. Royal Navy personnel were informed of the outcome of the redundancy selection boards on 30 September this year, almost a month after the RAF and Army announcements on 1 September, placing all Royal Navy personnel at a disadvantage. It meant that they were the last to register in the career transition partnership, which will be working at maximum capacity anyway to manage the surge in service personnel taking redundancy. I understand that the delay allowed financial resources to be drawn from two financial years.

The disadvantage was confirmed in a letter I received from my constituent, Mr Spencer. He wrote to me about the recently announced redundancy tranche implemented by the Royal Navy. His stepson is a serving Logistician Steward and has been given 12 months’ notice of redundancy. He was informed at the end of September and it is now proving extremely hard to place him on any meaningful course to prepare for civilian life. Most college apprenticeships and other vocational courses start at the beginning of the autumn term, in September, and he is finding that the best training courses are fully subscribed until the end of the summer term 2012. Mr Spencer feels that little thought

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appears to have been given to this by the MOD, and I believe that it has done Royal Navy personnel a major injustice by badly timing the date on which individuals were informed. His stepson also approached the local armed forces careers office in Plymouth to inquire about entering the RAF as a regiment gunner or the Royal Navy to pursue a career as a Royal Marine. Both branches are recruiting new entrants, but he was told that he will not be able to apply to join either service for 18 months from the date on which he was informed of his redundancy.

Mr Spencer feels that that rule is rather narrow-minded, and the armed forces careers office was unable to give him the reasons for it. He points out that his stepson is fully trained in weapons handling and first aid, has the other basic military skills that one would expect of him and presents a low training risk. More importantly, he loves life in the forces, and, although he accepts the reasons for his redundancy, he considers it ridiculous that he is not able to apply for other branches of the armed forces when they are actively recruiting. Perhaps the Minister, when he sums up, will provide me with some answers to those questions.

4.55 pm

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): I should like to put on the record my admiration for our armed forces and, of course, for the service of our veterans. We have the best armed forces in the world, and with Remembrance weekend coming up, when I shall attend two parades, in Runcorn and in Widnes, I put on record my appreciation of the Royal British Legion, and its work not just to raise millions upon millions of pounds through the poppy appeal, but to support throughout the year, every day, our armed forces, their families and veterans. Halton British Legion, in particular, does an excellent job locally through its support for service personnel, their families and veterans.

There are many organisations, however, that do not receive the same recognition as the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes, but organisations such as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, the British Limbless Ex Service Men’s Association and Combat Stress are very important. The regimental associations also do a tremendous amount of work to support serving personnel, their families and veterans—particularly at this difficult time.

I work closely and have a close association with the Irish Guards, which do a great job of supporting families, service personnel and veterans, and I shall attend their service on Saturday evening. I have a close association, too, with the South Atlantic Medal Association 1982, which represents those who fought in the Falklands and also does an excellent job.

On Sunday morning, I shall be at a parade in Widnes, standing opposite the war memorial where I will be able to see the name of my great uncle, who died in 1917 from his wounds. My grandfather also fought in that conflict, and he was awarded the military medal for his outstanding bravery as a stretcher bearer and was, himself, wounded.

I make that point, because I was most honoured to be made the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence and also veterans Minister. One thing that drove me to do my very best in that job was the fact that

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my grandfather, like many of his comrades, died in poverty and was buried in a pauper’s grave. That was a common experience, and he did not get the support that he should have received, or that he was promised by people such as Lloyd George.

Today, with the support that is available through the MOD, the Veterans Agency and the many service charities and voluntary organisations, I do not believe that anyone should be in that position. They can and should get help, but we know that people slip through the net, and it is important that we do as much as possible to—I hate this word—signpost or make available information not only for our serving personnel and their families but for our veterans, so that they can get help and support when they need it. There is lots of it out there now.

The previous Government did a lot to improve services for veterans, and for our armed forces personnel in terms of medical support, treatment and rehabilitation. Not enough was done, but some improvement was made to housing, and that was crucial. As a Minister I saw some of the housing, and I was quite appalled by it, so more needed to be done.

On mental health, the previous Government also took up a number of initiatives, and they were important in dealing with the issue, which had not been dealt with properly before, so I was very pleased that that work took place. Many good things happened, but we must always look to make improvements, so it is important that we continue to press the Government to make those improvements.

I would like to make a point about the National Memorial Arboretum. I am pleased that the Minister has confirmed that there will be no cuts to its funding. It is a tremendous memorial to the sacrifices of our armed forces’ personnel and anyone who has not been there should make sure that they go because it is truly stunning. Just a few weeks ago, I was there with veterans of the Greek campaign in the second world war. They have not received the recognition they deserve for that campaign. In Crete, we nearly inflicted the first proper defeat on the Germans—it was a very close run thing.

What concerns me is that a lot of negative things are being said about the Greeks as a result of the current economic crisis. We should not forget that the Greeks defeated a larger, better equipped Italian army and suffered as much as anyone under Nazi rule. In Crete, it was a Greek regiment that allowed many of our Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen to get away and be evacuated. We should remember the sacrifices and help of the Greeks in the second world war. They fought with us in 1941, and it is important we give due recognition to that.

I am aware we have limited time, so I shall just make a couple more quick points. I do not support the Government’s cuts; I am against them. We need armed forces that can be deployed anywhere in the world in our national interest for whatever reason. That will not happen under the Government’s current strategy and with the cuts that are taking place. We should have strong armed forces across the piece—Navy, Air Force and Army—and there should be support for them.

I also do not agree with the policy of giving a date for when we pull out of Afghanistan. I cannot recall an historical equivalent when we have said to the enemy in

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the middle of a battle, “We’re telling you when we’re leaving the battlefield.” However, that is what has happened. We must recognise the bravery and sacrifice of our armed forces, and the improvements they have brought about in Afghanistan. We should not be leaving Afghanistan until we are absolutely sure we have done the job properly. We should support the Afghan people and not leave them, possibly in the future clutches of the Taliban should they return. I am opposed to the cuts that are being made by the Government and supportive of ensuring that we have strong armed forces.

In conclusion, as I said, I am privileged and honoured to have been a Minister in the MOD and to have seen first hand on visits to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere the amazing work our armed forces do. They deserve to be supported by all parliamentarians, and I will continue to do all I can while I am a Member of Parliament to do so.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. The winding-up speeches will begin at half-past 5 and we have four Members who wish to speak. I call Tobias Ellwood.

5.2 pm

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): It is an honour to participate in this debate. I begin as others have done by declaring an interest as a member of the Territorial Army and by paying tribute to the brave and dedicated professional troops we send into harm’s way. It is appropriate to have this debate the day before Remembrance day. I wish the best to my old regiment, 5th( )Battalion The Rifles, which is now deployed in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick 15. It is commanded by Colonel Tom Copinger-Symes and is now based in Nar-e Saraj as part of 20th Armoured Brigade led by Brigadier Patrick Sanders.

I congratulate the ministerial team on the work it has completed in just over 15 months. My goodness, what a situation it inherited: the finances were in a state and there was an absence of Whitehall leadership and interest in the MOD, and a lack of clarity in strategy. We have heard today the usual sounds from Labour. They have complained about the contents of the strategic defence and security review but, of course, they did not have one for more than a decade. Earlier today they quibbled about the detail of the armed forces covenant, but they failed to provide any form of legislation in 13 years in office. They talk about the morale of the armed forces, yet they led us into two very complicated campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan without a coherent post-conflict plan.

What has changed? First, the SDSR has provided clarity and strategy. The costly procurement overruns are now under control, thanks to the new major projects review board. The long overdue restructuring of all three services has now taken place, and today we have had the first announcement on the troops returning from Germany. Our defence export programme has expanded. Very importantly, the injustice done to the pilots killed in the Mull of Kintyre tragedy and their families has been reversed.

Specifically for armed forces personnel, we have doubled the operational allowance, we have provided more than £60 million for upgrading accommodation, council tax relief has been increased by 50%, and—this is very

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important and welcome to the armed forces—university and further education scholarships have been created to assist the children of service personnel killed on active duty. I think that Main Building is starting to look, feel and operate like a modern, professional and effective organisation, and I am grateful to the ministerial team for achieving that.

Let me turn to Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) served diligently as a Minister in the Department, and my comments are not directed at him because I know that he was very passionate about the armed forces and continues to be so. He raised concerns about cutting costs while we are still involved in a campaign and said that we should be doing the job properly. I would suggest that we did not send our troops into that campaign properly, and that we are now testing the nation with the length of time that we have been engaged in it—more than a decade. Although we can be proud of what is being achieved in Helmand, we do not work in isolation and it has taken us a long time to get Helmand right. A series of brigadiers were going out there, one after another, redefining and reinventing the wheel of what they should be doing.

Derek Twigg indicated assent .

Mr Ellwood: I see the hon. Gentleman nodding. That is not the way that we should be using our armed forces personnel—sending them into danger. There was a lack of clarity in that mission, as well as mission creep, and there was no strategy.

I visit Afghanistan and Helmand province regularly, as do other hon. Members, and I have got the message that there was almost a conspiracy of optimism—telling us what we wanted to hear. I am afraid that that comes down to the level of interest, direction and clarity from Whitehall. It is all very well for our armed forces to do an incredible job in creating an umbrella of security, but we have to be concerned about what happens underneath it.

There are two aspects to counter-insurgency: working on economic development and reconstruction and on governance. Neither of those things happened while our service personnel were in Helmand, and in that vacuum they have had to do that job themselves. Our platoon commanders have been going into villages and townships, setting up jirgas with the elders and trying to get local and district governance working. That is way beyond what a platoon commander is instructed or taught how to do at Sandhurst.

It has taken a long time for the Department for International Development to recognise its role in providing support for governance and reconstruction and development—getting roads built so that the locals can use them and we win over hearts and minds. I am pleased to say that the culture in DFID has changed completely. That is not only because of what happened in the latter years of the previous Government but because of the leadership of the new Secretary of State for International Development.

If we are to task our service personnel with going into these places, there must be a coherent plan—a strategy. We must bear in mind what we do with our armed forces these days. It is not simply about kinetic war fighting. When there is a foot and mouth outbreak here in the UK, it is the Army we lean on. When the fire

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brigade goes on strike, it is those personnel who drive the Green Goddesses or the fire engines. If there is an earthquake in Haiti, that is not about war fighting—it is very much about support and humanitarian work—but it is the military we lean on. The skill sets that our service personnel now require are quite varied, and we must bear that in mind.

I have three observations to make about that. First, the versatility that we now expect from our armed forces is quite staggering and very different from years gone by. Secondly, given that we must now conduct operations that are not limited to the armed forces alone, we need to think about more interoperability with other agencies and Government Departments. Thirdly, we must focus a little more on strategy—on educating our officers and soldiers about these aspects.

General Charles Krulak wrote about the “three block war”, in which soldiers in an operation move from war fighting to peacekeeping and then to nation building. Nation building requires an understanding of how the United Nations, non-governmental organisations and the Department for International Development operate. Those are skill sets that we need to expand on. At the moment, we are just touching on those areas and there is work to be done.

On interoperability, I believe that winning the war fighting is only half the battle. We should remember President Bush standing on the USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003 and saying, “Mission accomplished,” in reference to Iraq. How many years later did we actually get some peace there? We need to think about post-conflict operations and planning. We need to arm our service personnel with the skill sets they need to achieve that and to work with other organisations.

My final point is about improving strategy. We used to be very good at that. I ask the Minister, how can we hang on to knowledge after a conflict? How can we keep an open mind in dealing with the latest conflict and not use the strategy, tactics and doctrine from the last conflict, which might be out of date? How can we better prepare for the next conflict, wherever that might be? There are various ways in which we could do that. I would like to see an improvement in the role of the defence attaché. At the moment, they are like the major character in “Fawlty Towers”. They get sent to various embassies as passed-over senior officers to see out the end of their careers, but the role of the defence attaché is pivotal in establishing upstream relationships, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) mentioned. Those skill sets are worth developing.

How can we select our brightest and best, which is not necessarily the same as the most academic, to develop those strategy skills sets? How can we nurture the next Alan Brooke, Ismay, Parker, Guthrie or Richards? These are things that we need to get good at. We used to be good at them and we can excel at them again and offer those skills within NATO. It is not just about reading Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, which all military personnel do as they grow up. It is no coincidence that the word for general in Greek is strategos. Strategy is something that we need to work at.

I will end where I began in my first intervention: on the damage that there has been to war memorials. I pay tribute to those who have served and who continue to

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serve in our armed forces. I hope that those thugs who choose to rob the very memorials around which we will gather tomorrow realise what an insult they mete out to those, past and present, who have given so much to our country.

5.12 pm

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Bearing in mind your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall tailor my remarks and speed of delivery accordingly.

It is always a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). It is also a great challenge to follow such eloquent Members as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and the ever-eloquent hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who is not in his place. He is truly the heir to Aneurin Bevan—at least I am sure that is what his memoirs will say.

First, may I put on the record my admiration for the work of my local battalion? The Staffords, the 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, have just returned from Afghanistan after a 10-month tour of duty. They will be proudly marching through Tamworth on 29 November and I, for one, will be there to welcome them, to honour them and to remember Private Gareth Bellingham, who unfortunately lost his life during the tour.

Because I appreciate that time is brief, I will simply focus on the message that I heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) and the hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell) and for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) about service housing. There is an old joke that soldiers like to grumble, but it is no joke that on the very day when the Government took office, 36% of those living in services accommodation said that they felt it to be inadequate. The biggest complaint that I hear from serving soldiers in my surgery and from friends and relatives who are serving is about services accommodation. I hope that when the Minister examines the Strachan report, and when we debate it, he will consider closely the recommendations about housing.

I was very pleased and honoured to serve on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, and then on the Public Bill Committee. I believe that enshrining the military covenant in law is a huge leap forward, but I would like the Minister to focus on housing. I do not want to repeat and reheat what others have already said, but I wish him to consider three things in particular.

First, will the Minister consider enhanced accommodation allowances for our service personnel? Secondly, will he consider developing the shared equity scheme that the previous Government piloted? Thirdly—this one will cost him nothing—will he encourage the Chancellor of the Exchequer to sit down with banks and encourage them to offer forces-friendly and flexible mortgages, to help our servicemen and women? They need a stable, fixed address and the opportunity to put their feet on the property ladder. If they can do that, it will help us to reduce the £285 million a year bill on the 50,000 units of service family accommodation, which often needs to be upgraded. These people have put their lives on the line for us abroad. The very least we can do is offer them the opportunity of having a good home at home.

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5.16 pm

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): I begin by acknowledging, as many others have, the welcome and historic breakthrough of enshrining the armed forces covenant in law. However, as the Prime Minister himself has said, the challenge is to make the Government live up to the obligations in it in reality. It is critical that we bring the aspirations that we all have for the covenant together with the realities that we are faced with in trying to deliver it.

The awful reality is that members of the armed forces and their families may have to face death or injury while they are serving. If the worst happens, it is extremely important to ensure that the right processes are in place and to make certain that the wishes of those who have been killed or wounded are carried out. I wish to focus my few remarks on that.

All armed forces personnel are advised in pre-deployment briefings to make a will. A form, MOD 106, is provided for the purpose. Unfortunately, no advice is given on making the will, nor is there any compulsion to do so. Little information is given to those serving on the risk of mental incapacity following a tour of duty, or on the fact that if there are such complications, the management of financial affairs will not be sufficiently dealt with by a will. In reality, members of the armed forces would need to have a legal power of attorney document to be used in those circumstances, but it must be registered before the mental incapacity happens to make it valid for use when an injury occurs.

Many complicating factors conspire to mean that in many cases, our service personnel may not be properly legally protected in such situations. First, there is a cultural battle. Many young men and women who want to serve are less likely to make a will, because they feel invincible before a tour of duty after undergoing sustained training, or sometimes because they do not want to tempt fate. Secondly, a will speaks only from death. Many personnel are under the misconception that a will covers all eventualities, including mental injury, but it will not. That means that there is a real need to deal with the legal power of attorney option properly.

The consequence of not having a legal power of attorney document can be far-reaching and cause enormous problems for those left behind. I have been made aware of the case of a young man who tragically lost his life. He had made a will, but did not have legal power of attorney in place in the right way, which caused some difficulties. The will was also out of date, which meant that the benefits did not go the people he intended them to. Similarly, another person was in the middle of an acrimonious divorce, and his will did not work as he wished. The outcome was that it did not accurately reflect his updated wishes, which caused major complications for his family.

As we know, more people who serve in the armed forces are surviving terrible injuries that they would not have survived 10 years ago. Some are unable to manage their affairs when they have recovered from physical injuries, which means that someone must do so on their behalf. An LPA would solve a lot of problems in such cases. It is true that an LPA pack can be downloaded from the Office of the Public Guardian, but it costs £130 to register the LPA when all the forms are completed. That will seem like a lot of money to service personnel, many of whom are young people who might believe that nothing will happen to them—an LPA is probably

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the last thing they want to spend their money on. Defence instructions mention that document, but I am given to understand that they lack detail and contain errors.

If no LPA is in place, a deputyship must be applied for on behalf of the injured service person, which can be extremely expensive, as can the ongoing maintenance costs of a professional deputyship. I am aware of one case of a deputyship costing about £60,000 per annum to service. Solicitors who manage compensation claims will choose to instruct a professional deputy when a lay deputy is perfectly viable, which drives up the costs that take away from compensation schemes—they will have to borne by the MOD.

I see this as a specific covenant issue: if we are prepared to send young people off to fight and possibly die or be gravely injured for their country, and if we invest so heavily in the correct equipment and training for them while they are on operations, we must also have a duty of care to ensure that their affairs are in the order that they would wish them to be in if they are injured or killed. We have concentrated on equally important matters until now, but this issue needs to be looked at again in more detail as part of the pastoral care package that is offered to service personnel.

I am not seeking to embarrass the MOD or the Minister—this is a constructive suggestion on which I have worked with hon. Members on both sides of the House—but the Mental Capacity Act 2005 made this issue real, which is why it needs further examination. What should be done? I would like all those on deployment, and ideally all service personnel, to have an up-to-date will and LPA in place. It would be best to have a will pre-enrolment, but personnel should certainly have one pre-deployment.

I have also had meetings with a group who have a proposal for an organisation called the services trust—I met the group earlier this week. They would like to assist the MOD and serving personnel with information on some of the gaps to which I have drawn the House’s attention. The group could also help with processing LPAs and could act as deputies if necessary.

It would be useful to train admin officers to give relevant information on the consequences of not writing a will or of having no LPA. In fact, the Office of the Public Guardian held a consultation on what groups of people should be exempted from the £130 LPA fee, but it did not include the MOD. That unnecessary oversight needs to be corrected.

It should be feasible to spread the cost of an LPA over a number of months and to take it from the wage packets of personnel at source. That is done for a variety of costs, and it would be a simple matter to add it to the joint personnel administration system. Payments could even be taken out with payments for the armed forces insurance scheme.

To return to where I began, the Government have made a commitment to the welfare of the armed forces by enshrining the covenant in law. It is essential that that commitment is extended to ensure that not only their financial and operational needs are met, but their legal needs. I respectfully ask the Minister to give an indication of whether he is prepared to meet me and other hon. Members, and representatives behind the services trust proposal, to establish what can be done to address that proven need in our armed forces.

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Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I remind the next speaker that she must resume her seat by half-past 5.

5.24 pm

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I declare an interest as a Royal Navy reservist, and I would add, for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who is no longer in his seat, that I am a reservist who has to run 1.5 miles in a particular time each week and who, if she does not have an in-date fitness or swim test, is no longer trained, let alone deployed.

I wish to make a few brief points. The first concerns redundancies, particularly Royal Navy redundancies. As the picture becomes clearer, anomalies are emerging, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) alluded to. I am concerned about certain ships’ companies that have been particularly hard hit. I understand that as many as 10% of one ship’s company might be made redundant.

I am also concerned about badly hit families. For instance, one person in a couple, both of whom are serving, has volunteered for redundancy and the other has been made redundant. Both will lose their job and, because they are in service accommodation, their home as well. I have been reassured about how the redundancies are being managed, but I would like the Minister to reassure us that, as those things crop up, they will be dealt with.

The second point concerns the military covenant and local government representation. I urge the Minister to work with his colleagues in local government to ensure that, when they consult on local matters, such as planning, traffic-calming measures and so on, they take into account our servicemen and women, who might not be able to go to public meetings and vote on those things. Some straightforward things can be done to ensure that they are properly consulted and included in their community life.

The third point concerns the deployment of reservists. I want to stress to the Minister that, like the regulars, reservists join to be deployed. That is why we join; that is why we train. I urge him to ensure that our reservists get sea time and flying time. It is why they do the job.

I want to make a general point about the need in the House to broaden, as well as deepen, our understanding of the armed forces. I was proud to co-host, with the shadow Secretary of State, the House’s first-ever Trafalgar night a few weeks ago. One of our colleagues, who kindly came along to the event and was keen to help and learn more, approached a Royal Marine and, bravely, asked him what the hell the Army was doing at that event and what it had done at Trafalgar. That incident shows that someone is keen to learn more about our armed forces, but it also shows that there remains much ignorance in the House about what the armed forces do, who they are, the different colour uniforms and so on. I encourage all Members with an interest in defence to ensure that we learn more about our armed forces.

We have heard this afternoon that we have too many admirals and that the admiral-to-ship ratio is not as it should be, but I would really like an admiral to be looking after our nuclear deterrent. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) referred to the fleet-ready escort, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) mentioned other ways

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in which we protect the UK. I can reassure them that the fleet-ready escort has, is and, I am sure, always will be a standing commitment of the Royal Navy.

Finally, I want to put on the record my thanks to all the armed forces personnel who live and work in Portsmouth. I am optimistic about the future. I smiled when my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East caricatured our defence attachés, but I am sure that our latest appointment as defence attaché to the United States has nothing in common with Basil Fawlty.

5.29 pm

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Once again, we have had a good debate. Like others, I want to begin by expressing my condolences to the family and friends of the soldier from 4th Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment who was killed in Afghanistan and the family and friends of Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham, who was so tragically killed in an accident.

Like others, I want to pay a personal tribute to the men and women of our armed forces and to their families, who are an integral part of what they do. As has been said, this day—the day before Armistice day—and the days before Remembrance Sunday could not be a more appropriate time to have this debate. I am sure that all of us in the Chamber today will take the time tomorrow to observe the two-minute silence and remember all who have paid the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country, in the many foreign lands where they served, to enable us all to experience the freedoms that are taken so much for granted.

Over the years this Chamber has witnessed many defence debates, in which strong views have been expressed in all parts of the House. However, the one aspect of those debates on which there has been general consensus is the paying of tribute to all who serve our country. That said, it was only natural that we would witness some dividing lines today, especially when so many right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the reductions in the future numbers serving in our armed forces, and when many other elements arising from the debate on the strategic defence and security review have been raised.

In mentioning Remembrance Sunday, I also want to put it on record that the correct decision was reached in allowing the many holders of the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal to wear it proudly at the many services being held across the country on Sunday.

Let me turn to the many fine contributions that were made from both sides of the House. I want first to highlight the speech by the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who started by talking about turmoil in the Ministry of Defence, redundancies and changes to allowances. He clearly laid out the role of his Committee—a good Select Committee, one that, frankly, does the business. He encouraged us to think about the debate about wearing a poppy. He said that he lays a wreath—let me tell him that he is worthy of laying a wreath—on behalf of his constituents. We all wear our poppies, as a public acknowledgement of that debt, respect and thanks. We wear them with pride in our country and for those who have given their lives.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) surprised me somewhat when he talked about canvassing in Kabul. I am sure that Members in all parts of the House would ask themselves, “Does this man have no boundaries at all? Is there no line that he wouldn’t cross?” He talked about the array of skills that people pick up, as he said, by default. It was interesting to hear about the concept that the Americans train warriors, whereas we train soldiers. We know that those we train and whom we put on the front line have additional work to do beyond that. There is a peacekeeping element that we train our military for. My hon. Friend is right, and what I think he wanted to do today was make a plea for more time to debate defence issues. When we look back at the number of debates we have had and what is happening with defence in this country, we see that we need more debates.

There has been a rich variety of contributions today. Let me turn to the speech of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier)—who, with perfect timing, has just appeared, as if by magic. I congratulate him on the part he has played in studying the whole issue of the reserves. He has what I would describe as limitless knowledge of the reservists, as he indicated when comparing them with reserve forces from other nations and how they prepare and perform. He has done a tremendous job. He was also critical of dysfunctional systems, and rightly so.

Another member of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), also contributed to the debate. It was interesting to hear that she spent Remembrance Sunday last year in Poland, and saw the commemoration of many aspects of the Polish resistance. We should never neglect our constituents or the work that we have to do in our constituencies, especially on Armistice day, but we should, if we can, take the opportunity to see how people from other nations view their history and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. I was among several Members here tonight who gave up some time the other evening to listen to the RAF presentation team talk about Operation Ellamy, and it was interesting to hear the recognition of the support for and from our NATO allies.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the problems of short notice to deploy, and of families feeling isolated when they are left behind. Help is really important in those circumstances. I do not come from a military family, but I know from talking to my constituents and from contacts in my area that, when people are left alone, perhaps with children, it is more than family help that is required. We must be able to give families further support.

My hon. Friend also expressed disquiet—I will put it no more strongly than that—at the treatment of the Royal British Legion in the light of its struggle over the covenant. At the end of the day, however, I think that we, as a Parliament, got there, and that is what matters more than anything else.

The “forces’ pensioner”, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), was right to say that the covenant must be applied right across the country, and that there must be no differential between one location and another. It must be there for all. I saw him last week in Westminster tube station collecting for the poppy appeal. All credit to him and others who did likewise. When I left London last Thursday morning for Swindon,

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I saw a Guardsman doing the same on Paddington station. When I returned some eight hours later, he was still there. He was in uniform, and he was attracting people to make a significant financial contribution. It is through such sterling work that people show their support for the poppy appeal.

Mr Robathan: People collecting at tube stations is a new addition, and the hon. Gentleman might be interested to learn that the London poppy appeal has already raised more than £430,000. I think that that is the correct figure.

Mr Brown: If that is the case, we should congratulate all those who have made the effort to reach that sum.

The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire also mentioned 2014. We often commemorate wars coming to an end, but he is right to suggest that we should commemorate and reflect on the outbreak of the great war. I fully support his proposal. I must, however, share with the House a certain anxiety, because 2014 is also the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, and I suspect that some people—not necessarily from my party, but from others—might wish to celebrate that as well.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) made a poignant speech in which he clearly impressed on all of us the significance of this weekend. That was not lost on anyone. The hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) has had to leave for another engagement but he said that it was important to get manning levels right. We are expected to do just as much as before, but with less, so the manning levels have got to be right. He shared with us his concerns about the reservist figures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) referred to her concern about the chief coroner’s office and the issue of homelessness and resettlement, which a number of Members have raised.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) spoke about the covenant, housing and health care. As to the strategic defence and security review, he made it clear that when it came to redundancies there should not be a cut in the resettlement package.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) referred to the tragedy in her constituency during the second world war. As others emphasised, she too highlighted the need to protect and preserve memorials and I say to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) that legislation that might be relevant is already in place—though I stand to be corrected—regarding the handling of stolen goods. The question is how honest those in a position to receive something are going to be about reporting the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow also mentioned the chief coroner’s office and said, basically, “Think again.”

The hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms) mentioned the Special Boat Service, his support for the covenant and the importance of overall assistance for families. He also referred to social housing and housing waiting lists. Let me share with the House the fact that one of my registered social landlords has, thankfully within the last two or three weeks, agreed that when people know they are about to leave the forces, he will treat them as

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having been in tied accommodation and make a serious attempt to house people before they leave the military. That, I think, is the first registered social landlord in the whole of Scotland who is doing this. I hope that good practice like that can be shared with others. People who have served in the military should not find themselves homeless on leaving it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), whose partner is currently serving, talked about the vulnerability of individuals. This was a speech I would have expected from her because of her deep concern about the debt problems that people can face. There are issues there: with the Royal British Legion ending support for people with debt problems, more needs to be done.

I am conscious of the time and want to hear the Minister speak. Let me quickly say that there were good contributions from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), who spoke about mental health issues and combat stress, while my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) made loud and clear a plea for the veterans who were victims of nuclear tests.

Incidentally, the Minister pointed out that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was responsible for the weather when he was the Minister, but I have also been assured that he was the Minister for UFOs—but we will not go into that.

The hon. Member for Colchester mentioned military accommodation, as we would expect, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) paid tribute to the Royal British Legion and local support for military personnel. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) raised her concerns about search and rescue and the important matter of the length and frequency of deployment. My hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) spoke about regimental associations and service charities, and the need for ongoing support for veterans on all fronts.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) was the first to speak about the inheritance with which his Government was left and he also spoke about the strategic defence and security review. Only time will tell how strategic it is, but let us hope that there will be no serious consequences.

The hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) spoke about service housing, which, as he said, is a vitally important subject. I thank the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) for allowing me to attend the meeting on the services trust the other day. I sincerely hope that the Minister will take all that on board. The hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) made important points about redundancies, and about those who should qualify for the diamond jubilee medal.

I must end my speech there, although there are other issues that I should have liked to raise. We have heard some excellent contributions that gave us plenty of food for thought, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.