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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 6 December 2011

[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

Sport and Youth Crime

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

9.30 am

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. Today’s debate on the effects of sport on youth crime falls, in some ways, in the shadow of last summer’s riots, and from his appearance yesterday on “Newsnight”, I know that the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is up to speed with the subject. This debate is set against a longer-term concern about the rising problem of disengaged youth, which has disturbed Governments of all persuasions for decades, and a belief by many in the sporting community that sport can and does play a positive role in re-engaging young people and refocusing their lives.

Nelson Mandela has said:

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire… It speaks to youth in a language they understand. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down social barriers”,

and I want to use this debate not just to say that sport is good for its own sake, although many people believe that numerous benefits come with it. Studies of the benefits of youth participation in sport suggest that sport in and of itself is not enough to refocus or turn around the lives of disadvantaged young people and that what is required is a structured programme of support alongside the sporting activities. It is not simply a case of putting on ad hoc sporting events or creating new sporting facilities, but about how programmes are managed.

This is not simply a way of saying that Government intervention is necessarily a bad thing, or that Government agencies and public bodies are unable to deliver programmes that successfully intervene in young people’s lives. Support, including financial support, from the Government and their agencies is incredibly important to the success of such projects, but a good deal of new evidence suggests that sporting organisations and brands that have credibility in the eyes and lives of young people are often more successful in achieving the breakthrough that we all seek.

There has been a debate among people with an interest in sporting interventions in the lives of young people. People instinctively feel that such interventions are the right thing to do, and they have anecdotal evidence that they make a positive difference, but if there is any criticism, it is that there is perhaps a lack of robust data about exactly how they reduce criminal behaviour. I want to highlight some case studies that show the positive impact of such interventions on reducing crime and on antisocial behaviour and in improving the general well-being and educational performance of young people. The studies, of necessity in some ways, focus on relatively small numbers of people in relatively small

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geographical areas, and I would like the Government to consider some broader research that would seek to demonstrate the value for money and the performance of sporting interventions with young people.

I want to thank a number of sporting and other young people’s organisations that run such programmes and have provided information about them for the debate today—in particular, the Premier League, with its Kickz programme; the Manchester United Foundation; Charlton Athletic Community Trust; the Rugby Football Union; Sky Sports; the Sport and Recreation Alliance; First Light, which works in the arts; and Catch22. Their formal programmes are largely delivered by volunteers from the communities that they serve, and so I also want to thank the many volunteers who make them a success and the hundreds and thousands of people who work every day to deliver youth sporting projects, not just for disadvantaged young people but for all young people across the country. Their work is incredibly valuable and important to us all.

I want to look at four important areas that are of relevance to the debate: sporting programme interventions that help to reduce crime and antisocial behaviour; interventions that engage young offenders, both in young offenders institutions and after release; programmes for improving school attendance and attainment; and initiatives that help to rebuild young people’s self-worth.

We must consider costs; none of these programmes is delivered for free, although many are delivered with the support of the private and charitable sectors. We must also consider the costs of doing nothing, of maintaining the status quo. Based on 2010 figures, the National Audit Office has calculated that more than 200,000 criminal offences a year are committed by people aged between 10 and 17 at an annual cost to the country of up to £11 billion. It costs up to £100,000 a year to keep someone in a young offenders institution, and the number of 15 to 17-year-olds in prison has doubled over the past 10 years. During the five days of riots in August, 26% of the rioters were under 17, and 74% were under 24. There is not a male bias in the programmes and activities—they are open to boys and girls—but it is worth noting that 90% of the rioters were male.

First, on reducing crime and antisocial behaviour, one of the longest running and most successful projects is Kickz. It has been run by the Premier League for five years, has involved contact with more than 50,000 young people across 113 projects in some of the UK’s most deprived areas and has been supported by 43 professional football clubs. Kickz targets 12 to 18-year-olds, and its projects are football-led but include other sports and programmes designed to encourage young people’s awareness of health issues. The schemes typically take place three nights a week throughout the year, which is important in that they are frequent and have a very fixed structure. Kickz and the Premier League believe that one in 10 of the young people who initially attend the programmes as participants go on to volunteer, delivering the programmes for other young people, and they say that 398 people have gained full-time employment in some of the professional football clubs that have run the projects.

A report published last year by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and New Philanthropy Capital, entitled “Teenage Kicks”, looked at a project run with Arsenal football club in Elthorne park in London and discovered

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that the investment in the project potentially created £7 of value for every £1 spent, with the savings coming from the reduced costs to the state of the reduction in criminal behaviour, with less police and court time needed to put people in detention. One participant said that he thought that 25% of the kids on the estate would be in jail without the programme, and he highlighted the nature of the problems that many young people face. He was someone who came home from school to find not a fridge full of food and people waiting for him, but nothing for him at all and an empty time in his day.

Interestingly, the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation also commissioned a report looking at the role of sport in gang culture. Young people involved in the research gave reasons why they might get involved in activities that would keep them out of trouble, and the top reason was that the activities would simply give them something to do. We should not underestimate the importance of that.

Returning to the study of the Elthorne park Kickz project delivered by Arsenal, it suggested that there had been a 66% reduction in youth crime within a one-mile radius of the project. Even taking into account other interventions—through community policing, for example —and after looking at national youth crime reduction trends for that period, the study’s authors thought it reasonable to suggest that at least 20% of that reduction was directly related to the project.

The Manchester United Foundation has delivered similar projects, with its star footballers working with youth workers and volunteers to deliver football-based recreational projects for young people in Manchester. Some of its research suggests a similar pattern of behaviour to that found in other research. It believes that in its Salford project there was a 28.4% reduction in antisocial behaviour during the session times when the foundation was working, and a 16.3% reduction in Trafford.

There are other smaller projects that in some ways work with people with more challenging needs, and I want to highlight—this has been highlighted in the Laureus report and by other people—the work of the Tottenham boxing academy. Members who know more about boxing than I do might take part in this debate, so I will not dwell too much on this. The project was designed for 14 to 16-year-olds. Physical impact sports—boxing and rugby—seem to be particularly effective when working with people from troubled backgrounds and certainly with those who have been involved criminal activity. There were 17 people on that project. Eight of them were known to have been offenders in the past, and based on normal intervention programmes, two thirds of those young people would normally be expected to reoffend within a year. However, in that instance, only two did. It is a small project, but it suggests that sporting projects help to re-engage people. They engage young people through a sport and then allow the youth workers delivering the project to engage with them about the other issues that they might have.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He has spoken a bit about curing those who

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have committed youth crime. Does he accept that prevention is also an issue with youngsters who might otherwise be attracted into criminality?

May I make a quick plug for the club that is probably nearest to where we are sitting now? About 300 yards away is St Andrew’s club at Old Pye street. The club has been around for 130 years, runs 12 football teams on a weekly basis and has an indoor gym. It works well with Westminster school, which has put a lot of money into ensuring that the gym is up to the highest standards, and it makes an impact in the vicinity. St Andrew’s club operates not too far away from what would otherwise be a quite troubled area of social housing.

Damian Collins: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. St Andrew’s club is indeed a great success. I know that it has his support as well as that of previous lord mayors of Westminster, who have made it their annual mayoral charity. Its work is greatly appreciated by people in central London.

The project Hitz is delivered by the Rugby Football Union, the premiership rugby clubs and the police across 10 London boroughs, and has 750 participants. Again, the sessions are led by youth workers and run frequently, twice a week for 50 weeks of the year. In the Haggerston park area of Hackney, where the project was delivered, the fall in antisocial behaviour calls was calculated at 39% during the project.

Such projects often encourage people not just to take part in the project itself, but to take their interest into a more structured environment and perhaps into full-time participation in the sport. The Hackney Bulls rugby club recruited six new players from people involved in Hitz, and overall, the programme has taken 41 young people into full-time participation in rugby.

In my area, Kent, the Charlton Athletic Community Trust has done excellent work with young people over a number of years. Certain projects that have sought to re-engage young people and refocus their lives have caused similar falls in antisocial behaviour, including a fall of 35% in Aylesham and 59% in Buckland. The trust also does good work on alternative curriculum provision to re-engage young people with their studies, and I will come to that in a moment.

Good work can be done in the community to help direct young people away from the path of criminality, as my hon. Friend highlighted. There is also some evidence on work being done to engage young people in the prison environment, often at low cost, as many prisons and young offender institutions have good sporting facilities, and it is a question of bringing in the right people to engage young offenders. Those programmes use sport to help bridge the gap between life inside an institution to life outside it afterwards.

A project called 2nd Chance has worked in the Ashfield young offenders institution. Drawing on professional sports clubs around Bristol, such as Bristol Rovers and Bristol rugby club, it has worked with 400 offenders a year and is a low-cost provision. It has been calculated that, if just one offender with whom the programme works is kept out of prison, that will pay for the delivery of the entire programme for a year. When we consider that the current reoffending rate for young offenders in Ashfield is 76%, it seems a risk worth taking.

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As part of the study of its work, 2nd Chance has asked that it and groups like it have access to information about reoffending rates for people who have engaged in such programmes, to demonstrate whether they offer a value for money return. At the moment, it is difficult for those groups to access that information, as all sorts of data protection issues rightly surround information that can be traced to individual offenders. However, could general information be given to make that link and demonstrate the payback of such projects? The project within Ashfield was delivered for less than £80,000 in a year of operation and worked with more than 400 young people.

The Rugby Football Union has a programme called Try for Life that has worked with young offenders in numerous institutions, and a programme called Prison to Pitch that trains young people in prison to play rugby and then helps them gain placements with rugby clubs outside prison. As with the programmes run by the Premier League, individuals who do not go on to work within the sport go on to volunteer to help deliver programmes for other young people.

School attendance and attainment is particularly relevant to a case from my own constituency that I want to cite: the work of the Charlton Athletic Community Trust in New Romney. It is worth noting in the data from the riots that 30% of rioters were persistently absent from school. In New Romney, the Charlton Athletic Community Trust has taken over alternative curriculum provision, a mainstream piece of provision offered across the country. Charlton Athletic won the contract to deliver it. It uses its role as a football and sport club to re-engage young people, but it also delivers studies in maths and English, as well as a broader basic curriculum.

The project opened in New Romney in September. I attended, along with my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and the Olympics. During the two or three months since it started, the rate of attendance of the young people involved has improved significantly. The project gave me statistics. The attendance rate of one of those young people went from 1% at their previous institution to 55% now. Another student’s attendance rate went from 26% at their previous institution to 100% now.

Such projects help to reduce antisocial behaviour, as some statistics demonstrate, and a broader, fuller study by the Government would be welcome. I have cited examples showing how they can intervene successfully in the lives of young people in prison and re-engage those who have had trouble at school with their studies. There is also much to be said about the projects’ ability to help rebuild young people’s sense of self-worth and make them feel happier in their working and school environments.

The charity Greenhouse does a lot of work across London. It was supported by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their wedding guest list and by The Times s Christmas appeal. In the research based on its 41 full-time sports and performing arts projects across London, some things that stand out strongly are improved school attendance, improved timeliness for the projects and increased happiness in school. An evaluation commissioned by Greenhouse from external valuers showed that 87% of the young people with whom the charity worked reported being happy at school as a result of the new programmes in which they were taking part, compared with just 52% before the start of the

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programme. Those might be softer measures of improvement, but they are important when we consider that we are dealing with people who are, on the whole, quite disengaged from their environment and from formal learning areas and practices.

The Manchester United Foundation calculated that its project had worked with 500 young people. Of those 500, seven got jobs with Manchester United, 14 were recruited as volunteers, 30 gained accreditation in music and IT production projects, eight completed football level 1 and 2 qualifications, 12 won boxing tutor awards and 30 became junior football organisers. That is not a bad rate of return for engagement with 500 young people, and the project was delivered at relatively low cost, for less than £50,000 a year.

In conclusion, I ask the Government to consider the issues raised by my remarks and the case studies that I have mentioned. The Government should shift their priorities generally—they have already signalled a shift—so that they do not just increase participation in sport for good but consider how targeted intervention by sporting projects can help change the lives of some of the most hard-to-reach young people. They should consider how to create a unified approach to delivery across Departments. The work touches on the role of the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government, all of which have some interest in the delivery of such projects. A unified approach is needed, probably with a lead Minister to take responsibility for and an interest in how those projects are delivered.

There should be a review of some of the rules and regulations about the delivery of sporting projects on the ground. Many sporting clubs cite problems with Criminal Records Bureau checks and other forms of bureaucracy that make their work more difficult. We should certainly look at that. All the national sporting bodies should prioritise the development of coaching qualifications and the training of people to help deliver projects.

To return to what I said at the beginning of the debate, a good starting point would be to build on the work that is being done by many sporting and charitable organisations, take up the research that they have done, complete a fuller study and analysis of the benefits and the rate of return from this type of intervention, and then consider the potential basis of further Government support via Government agencies, local government and the police—through crime prevention strategies—to make this a fuller programme for the country. The need to re-engage with young people is strong and evident, and the riots over the summer demonstrated that clearly to us all. Through the fog of this despair, there is evidence of some incredible and successful interventions that are turning around the lives of young people. We should draw from that and build for the future.

Several hon. Members rose

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, it looks as though four or five other Members would like to contribute. I intend to call the shadow Minister at about 20 minutes to 11.

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9.50 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Thank you, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this debate. I hope that hon. Members will not feel too much of a sense of déjà vu after I have finished, because I will make many of the points that he has already made, although I will use examples that are local to me in order to illustrate them.

The debate’s title could have been recast and centred on the effect of sports leaders on youth crime, because I think that sports leaders are what really do it in terms of reducing crime. Clearly, the sport itself plays a part, but I think it is the sports leaders who have the impact, and that is because of the discipline that they can instil, their important mentoring role, and the values that they demonstrate in leading young people, whatever their sporting activity. The Government have to get on top of the mentoring role. I believe that there is an issue about which Government Department should take responsibility for mentors. There is a clear need for them in, I would suggest, large numbers, but there seem to be difficulties in securing them, so that is an area for the Government to focus on.

Sport is also central to reducing youth crime and engaging young people in positive diversionary activities. Sport is all about team play—working together with others—which might be something that they have not experienced before. Moreover, exercise undoubtedly helps address the anger management issues that some young people may have—it is a lot harder to be angry after three hours of intense sporting activity. Sport is also about sportsmanship and being able to demonstrate to other young people the value of fair play. Wrapped up in all that is the issue of diet. Addressing dietary failures is necessary not only to succeed at sport at almost any level, but particularly if alcohol is an issue.

There are many examples of very successful sports schemes—or schemes that use sport, which are slightly different—that are used to tackle criminal behaviour or reduce the risk of offending. The hon. Gentleman has referred to Kickz, which is a very good project, and I will refer to a couple of statistics that highlight its success. There has been a 60% reduction in antisocial behaviour in areas in which Kickz is active, and up to a 20% reduction in the crimes that are most often associated with young people. Clearly, the project has the metrics to demonstrate that it is successful, but, like the hon. Gentleman, I think there is an issue about being able to demonstrate what types of projects are in fact successful. Anecdotal evidence is, of course, very good, but if the Government, the voluntary sector and charities, or social entrepreneurs want to invest in something, we need more than anecdotal evidence to support what is and what is not successful.

I am fortunate to have Cricket for Change based in my constituency. It does a lot of work on street cricket and engaging young people, both boys and girls, in it. Such is the success of its programmes that it has exported them to other countries around the world, such as Jamaica, Sri Lanka and South Africa, so it has taken the idea to challenging deprived areas and has bound people together. It has just finished a three-year programme targeting the 10 communities in London with the highest

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levels of youth crime. I want to see what that project’s metrics say about the outcomes, because it may have been very successful.

Another local project is Community Inspirations, the importance of which is that it can provide wraparound for some young people who have fallen out of education. They may, for instance, be training locally at the Skills and Integrated Learning Centre—SILC—in plastering, tiling and other skills. There is often an issue about what they do during the school holidays. The typical activities of organisations such as Community Inspirations centre on sport. It often takes a group of young people who may never have stepped outside their postcode to another part of the country to meet other young people and play in competitions. It is having an important impact.

I had a chance meeting last night on my way to the Akash Tandoori, an establishment that I would recommend to anyone who finds themselves in Wallington. It is run by Yawar Khan, who is the president of the Federation of Bangladeshi Caterers and with whom I do a lot of work. Incidentally, I think that the Government and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government could perhaps give him credit for the idea of setting up a curry college in the UK, because he and his federation have been pushing for it for a number of years. He certainly sees the value in training young people here, as opposed to bringing them over from abroad. I will not pursue that line of inquiry, because its link with sport is tenuous.

Mr Khan was hosting a fundraiser for the Royal Marsden at which I happened to meet Mike Fleet, who runs Croydon Harriers. It takes its role in education very seriously, to the extent that when it takes young people on a coach to an athletics meet, the team managers go around and ask the young people, “Where’s your homework? Are you doing it? Do you need some help with your Spanish?” It is, therefore, very hands-on in its support for those young people, as well as in coaching them in their sporting activities and techniques.

I asked Mike why he thought sport was successful and whether it was because the young people win and it gives them a sense of worth. He replied that that was not necessarily the reason, because, of course, they do not all win. He said that it is actually about things such as feeling that they are part of a family. They see a group of young people and adults on a regular basis who can provide them with support. Croydon Harriers work with a range of young people, from perhaps some of the most challenging in Croydon to pupils from Whitgift—whose behaviour I do not think is particularly challenging—and provide them with support and a family environment. In fact, they will often bring in a young person’s actual family and provide an environment in which they can work together, with sport as the coalescing factor. Young people can also see their own progress—they start out achieving a certain distance or time and can then monitor their progress and realise that they are taking positive steps.

Members may not have expected this, but the final project that I would like to mention is the work of the Angling Trust on urban fishing and getting young people from areas that we would least expect involved in fishing. However, a blogger responded to my suggestion that this was a good thing by saying that they did not want oiks to ruin their fishing, so there may be some issues

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about ensuring that regular fishermen and women do not feel threatened, but the project has an important part to play.

I have given examples of some very good schemes. Finally, I would like to go over the same ground as the hon. Gentleman. There are statistics and hard facts about what is successful, and a lot of anecdotal evidence, but we need to channel that into a strong body of evidence on which the Government and other groups can base decisions about what types of sports schemes they should support. That is true for the whole area of criminal justice, for crime prevention and detection, and for sport. I understand that a sports think-tank has just been set up. Andy Reed, who used to be the Member of Parliament for Loughborough, Lord Addington and a Conservative peer whose name, unfortunately, I cannot remember are on that think-tank. That organisation may want to consider the matter in terms of pulling together the evidence. We need some joined-up government.

This is my last point. We know that the cost of sending people to prison is £40,000, and up to—who knows?—£200,000 for a very secure establishment. We want to see some hard facts about the success of these projects in diverting young people away from crime, so that we can offset the expenditure on those projects against the savings that will be derived by having fewer young people in our prisons. If the Government can achieve that, there will be a substantial improvement in our understanding of how we can tackle these problems.

10.1 am

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, in this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing it.

Anecdotally, we have all seen programmes that touch us in understanding how sport has actively intervened in people’s lives to put them on the straight and narrow or, indeed, to make them positive role models in their own communities and families. My hon. Friend has already set out in substantial detail the wide landscape within which many programmes operate. The Positive Futures programme in Suffolk is run as part of a national programme and has been a significant success. It is funded by the Home Office drugs strategy directorate and I hope that the Minister may have some evidence of its benefits. All of us can think of examples in our constituencies where such an approach has worked.

The Rugby Football Foundation, which has already been mentioned, is involved with the Prison to Pitch initiative. I have been impressed by Sally Pettipher from the Rugby Football Foundation, who has described that scheme to me. I have tried to help to organise some funding and she has been very diligent in trying to get the initiative going, which works with people who are in prison or a young offenders institute. The physical playing of rugby is a useful energy release exercise, but that is not the only beauty of the project. When people leave prison or a young offenders institute, they are invited to join their local rugby club. The intention is that, instead of perhaps going back to the so-called family or friends who lead them astray or back into crime, they can have a new family within the rugby club. Rugby is particularly well set up for that because it has

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more of a clubhouse feel and that community aspect is far more evident than perhaps with many football teams. Those teams do a great job across the country. Often—how can I put it?—they assemble on Hackney marshes on a Sunday and go for a drink afterwards, but the members of the teams do not necessarily see each other from one week to the next.

I want to encourage the Home Office and the Minister to try to do what they can to support that programme. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), who is responsible for prisons, was very supportive of the scheme and, indeed, still is. However, I know that Ministry of Justice officials were initially concerned that allowing a contact sport into a youth offenders institute would introduce safeguarding issues around children. We seem to have got over that, but I encourage the Minister to do what he can to try to stress the positive aspect of sports as opposed to erecting barriers.

A separate programme—the Wooden Spoon programme—essentially involves a group of teams that go out and play and raise money for community projects. That has been very successful; indeed, it has crossed codes, with the league and the union coming together to provide mutual support. The programme’s projects not only tackle things such as disability and opportunities, but, with the Young Men’s Christian Association, focus on NEETs. That has been successful in trying to tackle antisocial behaviour in deprived areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe is a big Manchester United fan. I happen to be a Liverpool fan. After the party conference this year, I was in Manchester, but I made the trip down to Speke in Liverpool. I was made very welcome there by the Liverpool football club community department. I pay particular tribute to Bill Bygroves who is the community officer. He has a focused team of people, and has shown true leadership since the scheme was set up in 2000. From what I could tell from my time there, the scheme has gone from strength to strength and is broadening out into a variety of functions, including addressing issues such as men’s health.

I want to focus on some of the work that the LFC community department does with children and schools. It employs some people who, by their own admission, have strayed off the straight and narrow path but have turned their lives around and have been encouraged by the positive association in the community with a brand as strong as Liverpool football club. That brand association has taken these programmes into places where things that are not very cool, such as a local youth service, might not reach. Of course, it is not only happening in Liverpool. We have heard about Manchester United and I know Everton do it. In addition, the excellent Kickz scheme has been mentioned. The LFC community department has done something very good in systematically associating something positive with a general challenge to attitudes and, critically, with talking about positive relationships.

I have been shown a variety of material that has been shared with many children across Liverpool. The scheme works in such a way that, essentially, children from a class will spend time at a particular sports centre and interact with people who work for the club. Various worksheets are used as part of its education curriculum, which talk about things such as “positive relationships,”

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“tactics for families,” “respect for all,” “truth for youth,” “drop the drugs,” “ban the bully,” “rule out the racist,” “shoot goals not guns” and “say no to knife crime.” As hon. Members can see, very positive messages are associated with leading football players such as Steven Gerrard and because Stevie says so, kids will stand up and take notice, which is very positive.

On other local activities, I must admit that I do not have children, but I always get a bit fed up when I meet younger people who say that there is nothing to do and blame this, that and the other. If we look around us, we can see the great work that is done in every community across this land, whether by volunteers who help to run the scouts and the guides and enjoy that kind of sport; those who are involved with work in lucky places such as Manchester, Liverpool and other main conurbations where football and rugby teams proactively go out to help their local communities; or people who are involved with the local Army Cadet Force or similar organisations. I genuinely believe that there is a lot out there for young people to do, but sometimes we just need to encourage them in the right direction.

Of course, many of those things are not seen as being very cool. Although the Archbishop of Canterbury talks about civic society, he needs to go and engage with these people. Something we can all do is direct people towards such organisations. One of the lessons we can learn is to associate positive brand ambassadors with these initiatives, whether they are at a football club or a local church school hall youth club that meets on a Thursday night. We need to have such positive brand imagery and to encourage all our local celebrities and respected local people—that may even include Members of Parliament—to fly the flag for the volunteers who are trying to make a difference with youth and sport.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): In case hon. Members are interested, for the record, I should say that I am a Glasgow Celtic fan.

10.9 am

Charlotte Leslie (Bristol North West) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for securing the debate, which could not be more timely or more important. I thank him and other hon. Members for illustrating so effectively the statistical basis we have to demonstrate why sport is so important in tackling youth crime.

There is also the value-for-money aspect. My hon. Friend talked in a learned manner about boxing and the Tottenham boxing academy. What is so fascinating is that, as an alternative pupil referral unit, it actually costs a lot less than a regular PRU and is significantly more successful. In difficult economic times, youth sport is not only a good mechanism to tackle one of the big issues of our time, which erupted in August, but an extremely valuable mechanism to deal with social problems that arise when we do not have much money to do so.

In my short time this morning, I do not want to concentrate on anecdotes, because there are many, or the statistics and value-for-money figures, because they

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have been given out very effectively. I want to outline briefly why sport is important. If we understand what sport is and why it is important, it becomes a no-brainer that it will perform the functions that we need to demonstrate statistically—because we are accountable politicians—before we spend money on it. It is very important to understand what sport is.

I am president of my local boxing club, The National Smelting Co Amateur Boxing club, and chair of the all-party group on boxing. As with many sports, boxing is so important for many young people who have fallen out of all the normal authority measures. They have fallen out of school because they do not see that it offers anything for them. They have fallen out of the council’s best attempts to engage them in its systems of social work because they feel that they are dislocated from authority. For many young people, the boxing club is the only rival identity to other less savoury identities that are offered to them. One young boxer said to me:

“My life was a cul-de-sac of going into a gang. If I wanted an identity, security, protection, feeling I am something, there was only one option for me and that was to join a gang. My local boxing club provided an avenue off that cul-de-sac where I could find a family and identity.”

Family and identity, particularly identity for young people, are massively important. We all remember our school playground days and how important it was to be a member of a group of friends for our own identity. Crucially, for many young people, sport is the first opportunity they have to have a traction on achievement. In the riots, we saw a whole generation of young people who felt that they had nothing to lose, so why not go off and do stupid things? They felt they had no traction on achievement in their lives. They did not actually know how to achieve. The word “aspiration” is bandied around a lot, and the concept, included in the document, “Five days in August”, of hope and dreams is also bandied about a lot. There is a big, big difference between having hopes and dreams, and having goals. A hope and a dream is something one might vaguely hope to get to. Lots of young people have hopes and dreams of being David Beckham, or a WAG. They do not have any idea of how to achieve those hopes and dreams.

Sport begins to give young people a ladder to climb, from where they are now to where they think they want to be. Not everyone can be David Beckham. He is a very talented footballer. The narrative that society gives to young people is that David Beckham became David Beckham by just appearing on TV one day in a football kit, but David Beckham became David Beckham by putting in hours and hours and hours of training and hard work. The immense value of sports clubs—particularly boxing clubs for kids who will not engage with other forms of society, because they feel they are too much part of authority—is that they provide the first opportunity to learn the very important lesson that my old swimming coach, Eric Henderson, taught me—no pain, no gain. To achieve something, one has to put in effort now, be it doing maths homework because one wants to be rich, have a fast car and a very attractive wife, or be it putting in a bit of effort going for a run and a sports training session that one does not really want to do—because it is early in the morning, it is raining and one feels tired—but one does because one wants to achieve something in sporting life later on. That, of course, applies to school, sport and life. It applies to getting a job. It

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applies to so many things. In fact, it is the citizenship lesson about work and achievement—about teamwork, learning how to win and learning how to lose—that is so often delivered in schools in a two-dimensional form on a piece of paper, but which we need to deliver to young people in a real form on our sports fields and in our sports clubs.

We have the most extraordinary opportunity on our horizon next year. It is a once in a generation event: the Olympic games. We have just come through a summer that has rocked our nation. There is a problem with youth disengagement that we all knew existed. My goodness me, communities up and down the country knew it existed, because it was on their doorsteps daily. It erupted with massive force in London in August. The whole country looked at our young people and asked, “How have we let this happen?”

Next year, we have the most iconic solution to that problem—we have the Olympic games. I beg Government—I will do everything I can to work with them—not to let the opportunity of an Olympic legacy go to waste. On the ground, people know that sport works. If we understand the basic psychology of kids and all human beings, it is very apparent why sport works. We urgently need statistics, and the statistics base around it, to justify expenditure we need to make. We need to put that at the heart of tackling the massive social problem that erupted this year. What better opportunity is there to do that than when our British Olympic champions stand up on those podiums with those medals that I have no doubt they will win, saying, “Not only is this a gold medal because I was fastest or jumped highest on the day, not only is this a gold medal to say I was the best, but this gold medal also means a lot to me because of all the work I put in to get there”? Not everyone can be an Olympic champion, but everyone has their own personal best that they can achieve. It would be a great message to have every British Olympian standing and inspiring our young people to achieve. We can only do that if they have the rungs on the bottom of the ladder in our communities at grass-roots sports level in our schools and in our amateur sports clubs.

Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe for securing this debate, which could not be more timely. We do not have much time to act and I urge the Government to address this issue with all seriousness.

10.16 am

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this important debate.

I am passionate about the positive role that sport can play in our local communities. I support that positive role through encouraging a healthy and active lifestyle that improves behaviour, teamwork and enjoyment. Sport can channel young people’s energy and boost self-esteem. Sport can be a forum for enjoyment, friendship and personal fulfilment. Sport can reach and change young people by improving their life chances, increasing educational attainment and building life skills. Sport can achieve some of the social outcomes that will help transform our society, and sport can be used a tool to benefit disadvantaged young children.

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The reason why I am so passionate about sport relates partly to my own background and partly to the fact that I was the lead member for leisure on Swindon borough council before I became a Member of Parliament. I went to a school that was bottom of the league table in Worcestershire. We had many of the challenges that are often raised in debates connected to this subject. Two of my best friends when I was growing up ended up spending time at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Some would say that, now that I am in Parliament, perhaps I did not do better than those other two people, but among our group of friends, the main reason why the majority of us did not follow my two friends who did go to prison was, frankly, that we were too tired at the end of the day because of sport. We were influenced by role models on television. We predominantly played football, but, if it was Wimbledon fortnight, out came the tennis racquets. If the Tour de France was on, out came the bikes from the shed. If it was the Ashes cricket, out came the cricket bats. This is a serious point: we were genuinely too tired to cause too much trouble. By the time the sun went down, we were more than ready to go home and be watered and fed.

I want to focus my comments on the opportunities that I benefited from and that we as a society can provide for young children. When I was first elected, probably one of my more controversial moves was to support the move to defend the school sports partnership programme. I was a big champion of that scheme, because its whole principle was to provide sporting opportunities for those who are not particularly naturally competitive. If someone is gifted at sport, invariably that is because their parents have encouraged them from a young age, and they will therefore have been provided with plenty of opportunities. The vast majority of children, however, need a bit more encouragement. The one thing that the school sports partnership programme does very well is offer a wide programme of opportunities. There is a sport for everyone. When I refer to sport, it is not always necessarily the obvious sports that we might see in the Olympics or on the television, but such sports as street dance—basically, anything that can make young people active and constructive.

We also need to encourage more coaches—a number of hon. Members have already touched on that—but also day-to-day volunteers. When I talk to sports clubs, their biggest challenge is to find someone to be the club secretary or treasurer, and someone to fill in all the complicated forms and to organise the fixtures. There is a real deficit of people to fill those roles. In a society, people who are not particularly sports-minded can still play a constructive role. I welcome the work of the Football Foundation with its funding; rather than only the traditional provision of a brand-new, shiny set of football kits for a variety of sports clubs, it is looking at the legacy and encouraging more coaches and volunteers, so that more people get an opportunity to benefit.

Charlotte Leslie: Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we are going to talk about the big society, for example, there are few areas where it is more prevalent than in sport?

Justin Tomlinson: I am passionate about the merits of the big society, and sport can be absolutely at the heart of it. We can all play a role, even if it is not the traditional one of leading on the front line in the sporting team.

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During the 10 years that I was a councillor, four of which were spent as the lead member for leisure, the one thing that I was most proud of was setting up the Sports Forum, which brought together about 60 different sporting organisations from throughout Swindon. They would meet once a quarter to share best practice, to identify additional funding, to help increase their presence in the local media and to share facilities. It was a huge success.

In a brief deviation, we had the extremely sad news that Roger Byrne, who was the lead officer for leisure, passed away last week. He was one of the main driving forces behind the Sports Forum, and during my 10 years on the council, he was easily the most respected officer that I and many others ever worked with.

From the Swindon Sports Forum, an example of how different organisations coming together can make a huge difference is Esprit Gymnastics, an excellent not-for-profit organisation promoting gymnastics. It used a facility that was full to capacity, with about 400 children a week benefiting, but it was so popular that the neighbouring units on the industrial park where it was based complained, saying that there was nowhere to park after school times, because all the parents were descending, and that either it should move away or they would move away.

Suddenly, a successful gymnastics organisation was faced with being homeless. Through the Sports Forum and Swindon borough council, an alternative facility was found—at the old Headlands school, which was being bulldozed to create a new academy, although a £4 million sports hall had only been built a couple of years earlier. We faced the embarrassing situation of bulldozing a relatively new £4 million sports hall, and to cut a long story short, a deal was done and Esprit Gymnastics moved into the sports hall site, while the school was bulldozed around it. Esprit paid a level of rent to the council and managed the facility.

I went to visit last Monday and not only does the site now have a much bigger gymnastics facility, but the Kirsty Farrow dance academy and the Leadership Martial Arts organisation are in place as well. From 450 children a week benefiting from a facility, we now have 2,000 children a week. This is all washing its face, and it is a fantastic facility. I met with parents who were dropping off one child for dance, one for gymnastics and another for martial arts. Some do different activities on different nights, and we even have a shop in the facility that provides all the specialist clothing. It is a really good example of organisations coming together, led by volunteers, to transform a number of young children’s opportunities.

Other opportunities go back to when I was younger and playing lots of sport: the absolute, desperate need for accessible, usable open spaces, which I talked about in my maiden speech. The turf on the football pitches does not have to be premier league quality. I played on an almost vertical hill that worked very well; because two of my friends, the twins Matthew and Paul Gilbert, were so much better than we were, they had the privilege of kicking uphill all day long, while the rest of us got to kick downhill—we still lost.

The other frustration that I saw when I was a borough councillor was to do with private finance initiatives and access. Schools in my old ward of the borough were PFI

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and, once the clocks hit 4, it cost an absolute fortune to get access to those facilities. I represented a high-density housing estate with limited open spaces, but with wonderful expanses of open space behind high fences priced out of the community’s reach. As a society, we need to look at that.

I welcome some recent Government measures—in particular, the introduction of a “troops to teachers” programme. When I visit schools, particularly primary schools, the heads are saying that their big challenge in providing sporting opportunities is not necessarily having a pool of teachers who have the confidence or the skills to deliver a wide variety of sport. If we can get some of those troops who become teachers into primary schools, they would be apt to offer such opportunities.

Insurance continues to be a big burden, particularly for young teachers who are extremely expensive to insure for school minibuses, which limits the opportunities to go and play sport in school competitions or at the regional or district level. I keep calling on the Government to broker a national agreement, with their collective power of hundreds and thousands of schools, to get a better deal for the younger staff.

Let us look at legacy and the schools Olympics. As has been mentioned, the Olympics are a wonderful opportunity to inspire young people who, however, then need the opportunity to play the sports in which we are successful. Whichever sports we are successful in are the ones that the children wish to replicate, so it is really important that the schools Olympics that we are driving forward are taken on board and utilised, so that everyone has regular opportunities, especially once the razzmatazz of the Olympics has passed.

There have been many mentions of mighty premier league football clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United, so I will throw in Swindon Supermarine of the seventh tier of the Football League, whom I worked with to secure funding for from Capita, to pay for a sports programme for the most challenging schools in both the Swindon constituencies. It was about not only providing an opportunity to play football but helping with nutritional advice—in some cases, the basic necessity of a meal—as well as providing kit. Again, that has been exceptionally popular.

Finally, sport needs to work more with the youth service. In the old days, the traditional youth service and the traditional sports club, which was for the most competitive and technically able children, would never mix. The two should be one and the same. In all local authorities, the head of sports should also be the head of youth. When I was head of leisure, I touched on the youth service briefly, and I visited a lot of those traditional youth centres, which might have only six or eight children on a Friday evening. Yet I would go to the ice-skating disco and 600 teenagers were whizzing around the rink, chasing whoever was their flavour of the month and keeping themselves active and constructive. It always used to frustrate me that sport could have been used to engage with children, whether street dance, ice skating or football. The youth service needs to get out of its fixed facility and park itself outside wherever sport is enticing children.

Recently, I spoke to Stratton parish council, which is considering spending somewhere in the region of £4,000 or £5,000 on graffiti walls, which I am utterly opposed to. I said that it would surely be far better to spend that money on hiring some coaches, whether for boxing or

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for football, who could come in on a Friday night—the council would not have to charge itself for opening up its own facilities in community centres and school grounds—and those coaches, on £30 or £40 an hour, could provide entertainment and a constructive outlook for young children.

My plea to the Minister is to keep driving home the need to create opportunities. The facilities do not necessarily have to be fantastic, wonderful or driven by the most efficient, sports-minded people, but give young people an opportunity—they are creative enough to take advantage of it. If we can keep them engaged actively, as I was, they will be too shattered to cause any trouble.

10.28 am

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I congratulate my fellow Red—in many senses, from what he said today—the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate, which is timely, as has been said. There is a large degree of consensus in the Chamber about the importance of sport to our young people. I wish to talk about that, about some of the challenges in achieving the outcomes that we all say that we can achieve through sport and about why that matters.

The first point to make on the record, perhaps with an exception for the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson)—I take issue with his humbleness about the impact of sport on his own achievements—is that we all recognise, as the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe said, that sport is not enough on its own. It is not about containing or diverting young people, but about the relationship that good, positive sporting activities and those who undertake them can play in securing achievement for our young people. Therefore, it is important to see sport not simply as a form of diversion but as a pathway to that achievement, and that is how we get the impact that we are all talking about. Not only do the coaches in our own communities keep kids off the street, but they keep them on that path towards the straight and narrow, towards the things that they could do in life.

This is not just about young people’s formal exercise activities—I take on board the points made by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and the hon. Member for North Swindon—but about the soft skills that they learn from being involved in sport and working with sports coaches and other young people. Those skills include team leadership, teamwork and participation, and what they offer not just on the pitch, but in the playground and the classroom. The importance of data and examples to prove what we have all known for many years—this applies especially to those of us who have worked in the youth voluntary sector—about those relationships and what sport gives to young people is vital to understand in whose interest investment in sport provision is and to secure those outcomes.

We have talked about different interventions, or alliterations, whether prison to pitch, cricket for change, or troops for teachers, and they all show that thinking smartly about how to bring those skills to young people—the right people to work with to engage them in those activities—reaps rewards that last not just while taking part in the sport, but for a generation. We also talked

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about the value for money of those programmes, which is a key point to which I shall return. If it is recognised that the benefits accrue not just in the short term, but in the long term, it is necessary also to recognise whose responsibility it is to support that work to secure the gain.

The challenge for us all is not to make the case for whether sport can play an important role in helping young people to achieve, thereby in tackling crime and under-achievement, but to say how to do that. The hon. Member for North Swindon mentioned school sports, and I pay tribute to the support that he gave to many of us who were deeply worried by the proposals to cut the school sports programme. I want to put on the record my personal thanks to my right hon. Friends the Members for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) for their work in improving dramatically the teaching of sport through schools and for having the far-sightedness to recognise its value.

School sports drove up participation in high-quality physical education for our young people from only 25% in 1997 to more than 90% in 2010. The school sport partnership, to which the hon. Member for North Swindon referred, was vital because it enabled the infrastructure that made participation possible to be put together, including the people who organised the games, provided the coaching and looked for the range of sports that young people want to take part in. When the Government foolhardily tried to dismantle that network, there was, rightly, an outcry. It is welcome that they have backed down to some degree, although many of us who still work with our local school sport co-ordinators are worried about the impact of those changes.

The issue is not just what can be done in schools. Critically, it involves the role of the voluntary sector. Some fantastic examples have been mentioned today. I have worked in the scouting movement, and I want to put on the record my support for voluntary organisations and the number of activities that they could provide. We are all clear that not just one sport is involved. Indeed, the scouting movement prides itself on being able to provide 200 different activities for young people each week and recognises that a range of provision is needed to engage with the range of young people.

I see the work of organisations such as Kickz in my community, and I want to put on the record my thanks to the Leyton Orient community sports programme for promoting that work. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe referred to the “Teenage Kicks” research. We know the impact of its work in pulling back young people who are at risk of antisocial behaviour, and we know that that makes a difference and is valuable not just regarding their antisocial behaviour but for their future achievement. He also referred to a social return on investment. Such programmes with the right people bring rewards that we could not achieve through sport provision alone.

I pay tribute to some of the grass-roots organisations. Many hon. Members have talked about fantastic large organisations that work with young people. I also pay tribute to Manchester United for inspiring me in many different ways. I share sympathy with the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) for her support for Liverpool, and I appreciate the work of the Liverpool

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community sport programme. Many of us know of smaller organisations in our communities, including Salaam Peace and Asianos in my constituency, that encourage young men to take part in football and cricket. They engage with young people with mentors from similar backgrounds who recognise the role of sport in providing soft skills and spend their lives encouraging young people to take part.

All such organisations—I want to turn to risks—show the importance of joined-up provision. The funding for such organisations often comes from a range of sources, including public and voluntary sources, and philanthropically from the private sector. That is a concern that I want to put to the Minister. We all recognise, because of the relationship to achievement, the value for money of investing in sport and providing sporting activities not just early in children’s lives, but throughout the critical periods of transition to adulthood, but how can we ensure that that happens not just for the few, but for all young people?

One of my concerns, having worked in the voluntary and community sector in providing for young people, as well as in local government, is the impact of some of the cuts on our ability to deliver such services. One challenge for local authorities, which often fund such work initially and are often a vital support for voluntary organisations at grass-roots and national level, is that the speed of the cuts means that they are cutting the very relationships that we all believe are important for young people, because there was no time to find efficiencies, to renegotiate contracts or to share services. Inevitably, funding for the voluntary sector, especially non-statutory services such as youth services, has suffered most. No one is denying that money must be saved, but it will clearly be a false economy if the very services and relationships that we know make a difference to our young people are the first to be cut.

Damian Collins: On priorities, the previous Government decided not to support Kickz from the investment budget of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport because the programme was not designed purely to increase participation. Some people may say that it had a stronger function, but that function has been recognised by the Home Office in particular under the current Government. Total money is important, but so is deciding on priority areas of spending.

Stella Creasy: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to talk about priorities, but he is being a little disingenuous about Kickz, because it received public funding from other agencies. This is not just about particular projects; the case that he made powerfully, with which I agree, is that it is about the activities that we ask youth providers to undertake. Indeed, I would be critical of those who simply offer sport without asking what it can do in the long term for young people and those who say that it is enough just to get young people off the streets. That is why I challenge the hon. Member for North Swindon, who suggested that all that mattered was that he was tired at the end of the day. I suspect that participating in sport, working with other young people and organising sport made a difference to his confidence and probably also to his life chances.

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We cannot get away from how to fund such activities. My worry today is that cuts mean that organisations and programmes such as Kickz and Leyton Orient’s community sports programme are under pressure as a result of some of the Government’s choices. If we all accept the case that good sports activity can provide that longer-term function in young people’s lives, we should be fighting for resources to go to those organisations and making the case for investment now and in the future, as a way to protect longer-term achievement.

The issue is not just the practical provision of services, but how that can help to reduce crime. The Minister may not be responsible for the allocation of budgets to the Department for Communities and Local Government, but he is responsible for community safety grants. We have seen a massive slashing of those grants and the very money that was helping the police and local authorities to work creatively with local community groups to provide outreach activities. For example, in Lambeth, one of the boroughs that was affected by the riots, the community safety grant has been reduced from £691,000 in 2010-11 to just £276,000 in 2012-13. Hounslow is facing a 32% cut in its youth offending budget next year. That matters because the funding allows people to think creatively about how to engage with young people and to do more than just tackle crime; it can prevent it by funding work with those young people, but that is under threat.

I want to flag up for the Minister the fact that the funding cuts for local government are a real risk to some of their key provision of facilities. The hon. Member for North Swindon spoke effectively about the importance of school buildings. The extended schools programme was doing exactly what he was asking for. It was encouraging schools to consider how to open up their facilities. I represent an area in north-east London, and I am conscious of the lack of space to undertake sporting activities. There is a relationship between playing sport at school and taking part in sporting events organised by voluntary organisations outside the school, but somewhere is needed to do that work. Will he make a case for revising that decision? I am sure that he will ask where the money will come from.

May I encourage the Minister to talk to his colleagues in the Department for Education about the national citizen service? There are questions about the scheme’s value for money, and the Education Committee has highlighted concerns about the costs versus outputs that we will get from the service as it is currently constructed. If the Minister recognises the social return on investment in sport in tackling youth crime and also in delivering achievement, I suggest that he work with his colleagues across the Government to make the case for a better use of the funding that is available for youth provision.

Charlotte Leslie: Does the hon. Lady recognise that much of the purpose of the citizen service scheme is to engage young people in the idea of volunteering and getting involved in their communities? On no planet will the Government be able to fund the entirety of amateur youth sport across the country. The national citizen service scheme plays a valuable role in introducing young people into their communities, so that they too can coach young people and play an active part in their community. It cannot be measured in the simplistic terms suggested by the hon. Lady.

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Stella Creasy: The hon. Lady ought to listen to her colleague, the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe, who talked about priorities. In a time of financial austerity, the national citizen service is a very expensive scheme for a very small amount of time. If we are not able to fund everything—yet we are all in this together—we have to look at what money is being spent on young people. I advise the hon. Lady to look at the Government’s commitment to fund the national citizen service for all 16-year-olds and the amount of money that that implies. She has made a powerful case about value for money and the cost of some of the alternative schemes that support young people, but perhaps she should consider which is the greater priority at this point in time. I have a background in working with a national scheme that provides exactly that sort of citizen service through the uniformed organisations. No one is suggesting that such schemes do not have merit, but in a time of financial austerity, it is absolutely right to ask about the Government’s priorities, especially given the powerful case that Conservative Members have made about the impact of sports provision and the importance of working with voluntary organisations and providing services not just for eight weeks in the summer but throughout a young person’s life, so that they can have mentoring and support, not just to avoid antisocial behaviour, but to secure achievement.

Dr Thérèse Coffey: The hon. Lady suggests that the systems that we have had seem to have worked. It is fair to say that this new initiative is a seedcorn project, but I think that it has great potential. We should not keep throwing money at projects that may not have had the impact that the hon. Lady suggested.

Stella Creasy: I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady, and I therefore advise her to read the Education Committee’s report on the national citizen service in which questions were raised about the scheme’s value for money and efficacy. That is the key point. If we all agree that sport makes a difference to young people’s achievement, we have to look at how we can use the resources that we do have to make sure that we get results. I will end on that point. The Minister needs to champion the work that we all agree is important and he needs to champion the resourcing, otherwise many young people will not have access to the opportunities that we all agree make such a difference, and we all recognise that Britain would be poorer for it.

10.43 am

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this debate and on speaking with great expertise and clear conviction about the importance not just of sport, which is something that we can all agree on, but specifically the role that sport can play in reducing youth crime. It is a profitable subject to debate and some positive contributions have been made. I noted with a certain amount of concern his suggestion that there needs to be a lead Minister to co-ordinate across government. He plainly put in a credible bid for his own potential role in that respect, so some of us will have to watch ourselves very carefully.

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We should acknowledge that most young people are not involved in crime. Often in our debates—for example, in yesterday’s debate about the causes of the riots—we ignore the fact that the vast majority of young people do not engage in crime. Sport has a value to them, which is separate to our discussion this morning. It is also important to state that, apart from recognising the value that sport may have for reducing crime, we are committed, as I am sure the previous Government were, to reducing youth crime. That will continue to be important for the communities affected by crime. We must prevent young people getting drawn into a life of crime and into a cycle of criminality from which it can be difficult to escape. Providing routes out and choices, which are so important at an early age, is what this debate has been about. Indeed, there was a lot of discussion about that in the context of the riots. What positive or alternative options can be given to young people who may otherwise be drawn into criminality? What alternative structures, as it were, can be offered?

Tom Brake: On the subject of routes out, does the Minister have the capacity to look at what sporting and diversionary activities the authorities in areas where the riots took place are planning? In Croydon, 500 people were arrested and 400 charged. I suspect that 200 or 300 will have gone to prison. They will be coming back to Croydon, because 80% of them were from Croydon. It is important that the Government monitor what will be in place to take those people on board when they return.

Nick Herbert: We will come to a discussion about who is responsible for providing such activity. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) described somebody who had gone into what he felt was a cul-de-sac as a result of gang activity, but boxing had been the avenue out. Routes out are important. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) spoke about the route that he found out of what might have been an alternative career option such as his friends pursued, which was time spent detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. He has found a different course, although many would suggest that there is not much difference between that role and that of his friends.

Nevertheless, there has been general agreement in the debate. There has been no dispute about the value of sport in having a positive impact on behaviour. It teaches control, self-discipline and the importance of teamwork. It unites people and provides opportunities for people, wherever they come from. Sporting activity is of huge value in preventing offending. Where offending has taken place, sport can play an enormous part as an intervention to break the cycle that I described. We must be careful to ensure that it is not the only intervention. There may be other causes of offending behaviour that need to be addressed in parallel. Whether there are learning difficulties or various addictions, sport can be one of the means to help an offender, but other interventions may be equally important.

There was also agreement about the importance of role models, particularly the powerful role models provided in sport. Such role models can of course provide a catalyst for change. My right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) talked about the particular value of sports leaders, but I am

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sure he did not mean to imply that those were simply national sports leaders. Of course, national figures in sport, as mentioned by other Members, have a significant impact on young people. The mentors described by my right hon. Friend work at local level and come from all sorts of places. They can show a leadership role, and assist and encourage young people to engage in sporting activity. That is equally important.

I spoke recently to a police community support officer who, in addition to his community work, devotes much of his private time to working with young people and providing coaching in local sporting activities. He felt that it was important to assist those young people to take part in a constructive activity that would prevent them from getting into trouble. Such volunteers and local heroes matter just as much as national role models; I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) when she said that it was important to fly the flag for volunteers, and to celebrate them and recognise what they do.

Damian Collins: In the United States there is a programme called Badges for Baseball—all these programmes have snappy names—in which the police organise baseball and softball league games directly with young people. Does the Minister feel that there may be additional scope for police to be directly involved with such programmes in the UK?

Nick Herbert: I am sure that there is scope. Equally, if I were to ask any of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, I bet that they would supply good examples of activities in which local police officers are already engaged. I am sure, however, that they would accept my hon. Friend’s encouragement in the right spirit. They play an important role in the community.

I reject the characterisation of the police that was offered yesterday in research commissioned by The Guardian. It suggested that some hostility to the police is necessary, but in fact the development of neighbourhood policing and the community interaction carried out by the police is important and something that we must maintain and continue to develop.

Stella Creasy: The Minister and I agree that it is important for the police to interact with young people over things other than criminal behaviour, so that trust can be built and young people can see the police as being on their side. What assessment has the Minister made of the effect that cuts to police numbers and the safer neighbourhood teams will have on the ability of the police to participate in sports games, to be on the street and to have that relationship with young people?

Nick Herbert: One departure from an otherwise consensual debate was the utterly predictable statement made by the hon. Lady when she laid at the door of the Government cuts that, in her assessment, will mean that none of the positive activities under discussion can take place. She described the choices that the Government are making, but we make such decisions because the economy is in difficulty and we inherited debt from the previous Government. Some contrition and responsibility for that on the part of the hon. Lady might make her

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position more credible. Like any Government, we have to find savings. When it left office, the hon. Lady’s party was committed to £40 billion of unspecified spending reductions and knew that savings had to be made. So far, the reduction in front-line policing numbers has been just 2%; there is no need for the front line to be affected, provided that police forces make savings in the right way. Such partisan points do not assist the debate.

Several hon. Members mentioned the importance of the Olympics in offering something of lasting—rather than just temporary—value to this country and its young people, and we want to harness the power of the games to provide new opportunities for young people to take part in competitive sport. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon mentioned the school games, and such activities will be particularly important. Since the issue of funding has been raised, I will point out that over £128 million of lottery and Government funding is being invested to support school games, and that is underpinned by continued investment to increase the numbers of new clubs, coaches and volunteers working in sport with young people.

Charlotte Leslie: Will the Minister recognise the work of the Football Foundation? It carries out fantastic work not only by efficiently using funds to renovate community sports facilities but by putting structures in place so that those facilities are more self-sustaining and do not require so much Government funding. That is the kind of long-term legacy that it would be good to see more of throughout the country after the Olympics.

Nick Herbert: I am happy to recognise that; there is clearly a role for civil society, sport clubs and organisations, as well as for the Government and bodies that provide public funding. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe mentioned Kickz and Hitz as examples of programmes that are driven by national sporting organisations and have a real impact on the ground. StreetChance is an initiative that promotes cricket, and StreetGames works with national governing bodies to support athletics, table tennis, handball, gymnastics, badminton and rowing. Through the initiatives of such national sporting bodies, it is possible to reach out and offer young people the opportunity to engage in a multitude of sports.

In the remaining time available, I wish to pick up on some specific points raised by my hon. Friend. He was clear that he was not calling for a general increase in sporting participation, and that targeted intervention—rather than just dealing with crime—was the objective. I agree with him. He specifically called for robust data on such interventions, and for research to identify whether they provide value for money. That general call is welcomed by the Government. The whole thrust of our criminal justice reform programme is to move to a situation in which we are much clearer about the outcomes that programmes deliver. When resources are tight, it is particularly important to ensure that money is being well spent, and that is why we are increasingly moving towards payment by results in the delivery of criminal justice interventions, so that we can be certain that we are getting the outcomes we need.

In spite of the challenge of public spending, Government- funded programmes are continuing, specifically in relation to youth crime. [Official Report, 20 December 2011, Vol. 537, c. 8MC.] The Positive Futures programme will

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continue until the end of 2013; thereafter, elected police and crime commissioners will have a budget that they can distribute for similar programmes, should they so choose. The Positive Futures programme delivers sports and arts-based activities that target and support vulnerable 10 to 19-year-olds in some of our most disadvantaged communities.

Although I accept my hon. Friend’s injunction about targeted interventions, it is important to ensure that school children have access to sporting facilities—my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon also raised that point—and that physical education is valued in schools. Physical education will continue to be compulsory for all pupils following the review of the national curriculum, and we are taking action to ensure that young people in local communities are not deprived of access to playing fields and sporting facilities.

As part of Sport England’s £135 million “Places, People, Play” legacy programme, the Minister for Sport and the Olympics, and Sport England, recently launched a protecting playing fields initiative—a £10 million fund to protect and improve sports fields across the country. The programme will fund projects that create, develop and improve playing fields for sporting and community use, and offer long-term protection of those sites for sport. Sport England will run five £2 million funding rounds over the next three years, investing between £20,000 and £50,000 in schemes such as buying new playing field land, improving the condition of pitches through drainage, or bringing disused sports fields back into use. That is important; the issue is not only about role models, access and funding schemes; we must also ensure that facilities are available both inside and outside schools.

Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe on securing this debate. The Government accept the value of sport in reducing crime, and that responsibility is shared by them, local authorities, and by members of civil society and sporting organisations. I am sure that all hon. Members will have listened carefully to the contributions made by my hon. Friend and others during the debate today.

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Mental Health (Veterans)

11 am

Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): I am very grateful to have secured the debate. It has attracted interest from hon. Members on both sides of the House, who have offered me their support. Many hon. Members, in all parties, have pursued the issues relating to veterans for a considerable time and have been very effective in securing improvements in the way in which the country looks after and supports veterans.

I am here today because of a very special young man, Mr Neil Blower, who is one of my constituents. He is here to observe the debate. Incidentally, that is because of much appreciated help from Virgin West Coast Trains. We are glad that he has been able to make it here today. Neil is 28. He served in the Royal Tank Regiment for six years. He served a tour of duty as a peacekeeper in Kosovo and he was involved in the invasion of Iraq. He was in his tank when it was attacked at a vehicle checkpoint in Basra and he had the terrible experience of watching his sergeant be attacked and killed. He saw for himself the real and terrible horrors of war.

In 2005, Neil was discharged from the Army, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the horrific experiences that he had undergone. When Neil turned up at my surgery, I did not know what to expect. I thought that there would be issues about the practical help for veterans with mental health problems—issues about housing, employment and all the things that we associate with people adjusting to civilian life. What I did not appreciate was that I would meet someone who is incredibly articulate, passionate, committed and determined. Neil Blower is a very special individual indeed. I wanted to help him as much as I could in any event, but our discussion was quite enlightening to me. He told me not only of the problems that he had encountered when he left the Army—finding a home, looking for a job and trying to pick up the pieces of a normal life—but that he had discovered a new talent, a passion for writing, which had helped him to come to terms with the horrors that he witnessed during his Army service. He gave me his book to read. It is called “Shell Shock: the diary of Tommy Atkins”. There is a warning on the front cover that it contains strong language, and it certainly does, but it also contains a deep insight and a profound humanity. I have read the book. It has the power to move people and to make them laugh. It certainly made me laugh, but it also moved me to tears.

As I said, the book is called “Shell Shock: the diary of Tommy Atkins.” We all know the words of Rudyard Kipling in the poem “Tommy”:

“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’

But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot”.

Neil’s book is the diary of an ordinary soldier who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, who has watched his friends die, who feels guilty that he has survived and who is struggling to come to terms with civilian life. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. That is why this debate is so welcome.

Luckily, combat stress and post-traumatic stress are now widely recognised by our armed forces, but that was not always the case. During the first world war,

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266 British soldiers were executed for desertion, 18 for cowardice, seven for leaving their posts, five for disobeying a lawful command and two for casting their weapons aside. Some of those men were no doubt victims of shell shock. Their families had to live not just with the loss of their brothers, husbands and sons, but with the shame, anger and humiliation of their deaths at the hands of the state. In 2006, a conditional posthumous pardon was granted in respect of those individuals. That was a big turning point in how the country approaches these matters. We have come a long way in recent years in recognising the problems experienced by those who have been in battle, and Governments of both parties have taken action to provide improved health services for both physical injuries and mental health problems, but there is still more for us to do.

I pay tribute to Combat Stress, which does a tremendous job in helping veterans and is the UK’s leading military charity specialising in the care of veterans’ mental health. It looks after people who have post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, sometimes phobias and certainly nightmares and flashbacks—all the things associated with having been in the heat of battle and having a mental wound as a result.

Last year, Combat Stress received more than 1,400 new referrals—that is the scale of the problem. It has a current case load of more than 4,600 individuals, including 211 who have served in Afghanistan and 583 Iraq veterans. In March 2010, its patron, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, launched the Enemy Within appeal on behalf of Combat Stress. That is a three-year fundraising campaign to try to ensure that Combat Stress has the capacity to continue to treat the increasing numbers of people who are now, happily, coming forward with the problems that they have developed. I understand that on average it takes someone who has developed anxiety and depression after having experienced the horrors of battle an unbelievable 13 years to come forward. For some, it will be longer, and for others it will be a shorter period, but that length of time indicates the embarrassment and shame that people still feel and the stigma that there still is around mental health problems. Of course, that is not limited to military life; there is still a huge stigma about mental health problems across society as a whole. But I think that, when people have been in combat situations, it is even worse.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I am delighted to hear the praise for Combat Stress, which is located in my constituency. The right hon. Lady mentioned the figures. Is she aware that the rise in applications is running annually at about 12%, whereas the percentage of Government funding is dropping quite dramatically? I hope that she will touch on that.

Hazel Blears: Yes. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The capacity of the people at Combat Stress to cope with the increasing number of referrals is of concern to all of us in the House, because they are specialists—they know what they are doing and are very effective. The best way to use Government funds is to put them into the services that we know achieve positive results, and Combat Stress has an excellent record. I will come to the issue of funding shortly.

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Combat Stress provides very practical help. It is establishing 14 community outreach teams across the country. It has three short-stay treatment centres and it wants to enhance the clinical care that it provides at those centres; it wants to provide better clinical care. That is one of the uses to which any additional funds should be put. These are very specialised areas of intervention, and giving people the highest-quality clinical support is very important indeed. Since 2005, Combat Stress has seen a 72% increase in demand for its specialist services catering for veterans’ mental health problems. The services are free of charge to veterans, so they have to be financed through fundraising and from public sources as well.

A number of veterans leave the armed forces with very severe psychological wounds. Post-traumatic stress disorder can go on for a long time—for years, in fact. These conditions are not susceptible to easy treatment. Therefore, there needs to be a sustained commitment to funding and support for organisations such as Combat Stress.

Combat Stress also offers a 24-hour helpline. That provides confidential help not just to people who have been in the military, but, crucially, to their families. We sometimes forget the huge impact on the families of veterans suffering from mental health problems. If people commonly have nightmares and panic attacks, lose their temper and occasionally become violent, the impact on families can be enormous. The 24-hour helpline is therefore a practical way for people to get emergency help when a situation gets out of control.

Combat Stress has an expanding outreach service. It has a team of mental health practitioners, community psychiatric nurses and regional welfare officers. It has three centres, in Shropshire, Surrey and Ayrshire. In September, it introduced a six-week veterans programme, which provides enhanced treatment for people with complicated presentations—it is intended really to dig deep and to delve into all the symptoms people exhibit.

Combat Stress also has a well-being and rehabilitation programme, which is available to all the veterans in the short-stay treatment centres. The programme uses a really structured occupational therapy model, which draws on best practice in civilian mental health. It includes employment mentoring and life skills workshops, and it deals with the practical issues of rehabilitation so that people can take up social activities in the community, which they may have lost touch with while they had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Combat Stress is absolutely the leading organisation in this field in terms of expertise. It now has a partnership agreement with the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health, and £350,000 of investment was recently agreed, which is, of course, very welcome. Despite that, however, Combat Stress is still feeling the pressure, as the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) said, and that pressure is likely to increase. I therefore asked it what it was looking for from Ministers, and I want to put to the Minister the points it raised so that he can address them.

First, Combat Stress is looking for increased recognition of the number of people who are beginning to disclose that they have post-traumatic stress disorder, especially given that an increasing number of servicemen are being withdrawn from the combat zones we have had in

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Iraq and Afghanistan. As these people come home, the pressures will build, and more and more of them will need services.

Combat Stress estimates that 960 of the service personnel leaving the armed forces in 2012 are likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, while about 4,700—a huge number to cope with—are likely to suffer from a more common mental illness, such as depression or anxiety. That is the nature of the problem. Combat Stress’s services are running at capacity and demand is going up, so my first question to the Minister is whether the MOD and the Department of Health, which is responsible for treatment, recognise that this problem, which will increase, should be firmly on the agenda.

Combat Stress’s second request is for increased capacity. The organisation is now extremely well known, so anybody who is in the circumstances I have described turns to it for help. The last thing Combat Stress wants to do is to turn people away because it does not have the facilities to cope. Can the Minister therefore tell us whether any planning is being done to deal with this issue? What proposals are there to meet the increased demand over the next few years? Where will the investment go? There will be investment in NHS facilities, but the facilities I am talking about, which are close to people and their families, can make a huge contribution in addition to that made by the NHS. I would therefore like to hear what specific proposals the Minister has to provide more funding, more resource and more capacity, particularly for Combat Stress’s outreach work and its 14 outreach teams, which will be extremely helpful for people suffering from the problems I have mentioned.

The third issue I want to raise with the Minister is the stigma around these conditions. There is much more to be done on this. Some 81% of veterans with a mental illness feel ashamed or embarrassed, which sometimes prevents them from seeking the help they absolutely need if they are to get well. One in three veterans—this is a very sad figure—are too ashamed even to tell their families about their mental health problems. I can only imagine what it must be like to live in a family with someone who becomes withdrawn, who is no longer part of the family, who suffers from all the symptoms I have described and who is often in a desperate state and too embarrassed to tell the other members of the family how they feel.

The Government—indeed, all of us—have a job of work to do to raise the profile of these issues and to remove the stigma around them. These things happen in conditions of war, and we should not be embarrassed or ashamed about them. We should do our utmost to help people in such circumstances. I welcome the MOD campaign on this, which is called “Don’t bottle it up”. It is a good way of starting to get rid of the stigma, but more could be done.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The right hon. Lady is talking a great deal of sense. Allied to the question of stigma is people’s failure to recognise symptoms in themselves. People often suffer some of these things many years after the incident that caused them. Does she agree that another role the NHS could usefully play would be to advertise some of the symptoms and causes of these unfortunate mental disorders so that people actually recognise what is happening to them?

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Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good and practical point. The NHS runs public health campaigns about a range of issues that affect people, such as smoking and obesity. If we could normalise mental health in that way to some extent, people would feel much more comfortable about coming forward and saying they have a problem. One symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder is that people often resort to drugs or alcohol and end up with alcohol problems, not recognising that there are severe mental health problems underneath them. The prisons have recognised that about 50% of ex-service people in prison could well be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that is estimated to cost the nation about £300 million a year. This is a good example of a public health issue, and taking the approach I have described could not only result in significant savings, but contribute to the well-being of all those who are suffering. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.

Sir Paul Beresford: On the same sort of theme, when veterans leave the forces, it is frequently 12 to 14 years before they present, as Combat Stress says. In the meantime, as the right hon. Lady has said, families, communities and so on can face havoc. The United States and the United Kingdom have a decommissioning period in which they help people leaving the armed forces, but ours is very short. The United States actually targets individuals so that they can be picked up and referred before they get into the community. The funding that she talks about will come predominantly from the NHS, and the Minister cannot really speak for the Department of Health. However, he can speak about what the Ministry of Defence can do to catch people early, before they do any damage to themselves or others.

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman touches on a good point, which relates not quite to prevention, but certainly to early intervention before problems get worse. I am coming to the funding that will be supplied by the Big Lottery Fund, which will specifically target this issue, and it, too, is a good step forward. One issue is how we co-ordinate all the funding going through the NHS, Combat Stress and the Big Lottery Fund to make sure that we provide a really good wraparound service.

I want to say a word about the Big Lottery Fund investment. Over the next few years, the Big Lottery Fund will put £35 million into this issue. It is setting up a trust called Forces in Mind, which will provide long-term support and advocacy across the United Kingdom—it is important that ex-forces personnel have someone to speak on their behalf. The trust is about people making a successful transition back into civilian life. It will work with the people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will look at mental health, family breakdown and alcohol-related problems, which are absolutely pressing.

The trust involves a partnership between the Mental Health Foundation, the Centre for Mental Health, the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations and the Shaw Trust. It therefore includes a number of good organisations that have reach into these areas, which is positive.

The trust had its business plan approved by the Big Lottery Fund board last month, and it has three early projects, which I will say a quick word about. The first is

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the early service leavers trial, and the hon. Member for Mole Valley touched on the issues it deals with. It is called “Future Horizons” and it is an enhanced transition programme for those who leave the services early, but who currently get no support from the armed forces. One thousand such people recruited from across the UK will go to Catterick garrison. They will get 12 months —this is a long-term programme—of enhanced support with finding jobs and accommodation, as well as guidance with educational problems and mental health issues. Twenty-six different community organisations are involved, so, again, there is good local reach. That is the beginning of what the hon. Gentleman seeks—an enhanced transition. It is no good giving people help for six weeks when they are looking for a job, trying to find a home and trying to get back into life. A 12-month programme will therefore be very helpful.

Another project will involve SSAFA Forces Help, which was the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. It will work with the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation, TimeBank, Shoulder to Shoulder, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and Help for Heroes—again, it is a big consortium. Working with Cruse Bereavement Care, it will support people who are bereaved. Cruse is renowned for working with bereaved families. It is expert in counselling and support and will be a crucial part of the partnership, which will work with the widows, widowers, partners, children and siblings of those who have been killed, covering the whole range.

The other project, which will come on stream quite early, is with mentoring organisations. It will involve early service leavers who are under 24, so very vulnerable young people will get a specific mentor to help them through the transition—a buddy to be side by side with them, if you like. Younger people are often more vulnerable and their problems can be very long term. If we can intervene early, perhaps the transition can be more effective. The money from the Big Lottery Fund is therefore very welcome, but in my view it does not absolve the Minister from looking at other Government resources that might help. I am sure that we will all be interested to hear from him.

Neil Blower, my constituent, has made me much more aware of the problems faced by people than I ever was before, and I am grateful to him for that. I asked Neil, as I asked Combat Stress, what one thing he would really want to happen. What is his wish to help veterans in such circumstances? Neil has been lucky enough to be admitted on to the degree course in creative writing at the university of Salford and he has had his first book published—something that many budding authors never achieve. He hopes to go on to have a career as a writer, and I am sure that he will be successful. He wishes that there were a Tommy Atkins scholarship fund, and I would like the Minister to consider that seriously. It would be akin to the GI Bill in America, whereby the American Government paid for servicemen and women, after the Korean war, to go to university when they left the forces. That helped them to go from combat to classroom. Supporting some of our forces to realise their talent and potential through access to higher education would be a tremendous step forward.

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Neil is busy costing the project and I am sure that we will come back to the Minister at a later date with a detailed proposition. Giving people the chance to have an outlet into higher education, whether to enter teaching or another important area of life, would help them with job seeking and give them more skills and a better chance in the labour market. Neil felt that, for him, education was a great way to deal with his mental health issues. It helped him enormously. He felt that he was doing something worth while, it made him feel as if he belonged and made him feel part of society again. The power of education therefore can be of tremendous benefit.

I am not on a sales trip, but Neil’s book is available and I urge as many Members as possible to get it. I did not know what to expect from that little volume. It is short, but incredibly moving, and I want to finish with a quote from it. I do not want to give away the ending completely, but in the book, Tommy Atkins is at the end of his tether. He has come home and life is terrible. He breaks up with his girlfriend, his mum and dad break up and a series of terrible events happen to him. I am sure that such things happen to an awful lot of people in these circumstances. He gets to the point where he is absolutely desperate and it is so difficult for him to carry on that he thinks of taking his own life, but then something kicks in inside his head: “This was a coward’s way out. I was a British soldier and we don’t do that. We never surrender and we never give up. That is for other people. I realise that, despite all the pain and heartache and suffering that there is in the world, there is good as well—there is good in this world. The love of another, the bonds between family, friendship—these are the things that I fought for. These things are still worth fighting for and they are worth staying alive for. I will love my mum and dad whether they are together or not. I just want them both to be happy. I will meet another girl and fall in love again. I will always remember the friends I’ve lost—Kev, Johnno, the serg, Jamie. I will honour their memory by living, by leading a good life. I stood in the mirror and looked at my medals, then I did the bravest thing I have ever done. I picked up the phone, I rang Combat Stress and I told them about me. I told them what I was feeling and I felt a great weight lifted from my shoulders.”

That, for me, is the best summary that I can give of the experience of Tommy Atkins and all those thousands like him. From this book, we can all rededicate ourselves to ensuring that we press for better understanding and better support to improve the lives of those who have given so much for all of us. I am grateful for being granted the debate this morning.

11.25 am

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) on securing the debate. It is on an issue that I have spoken about on one or two occasions. I am delighted to say that in my maiden speech I gave warning and notice to my right hon. Friend the Minister that I was likely to carry on banging on about it. I am therefore grateful to have the opportunity to do so. A big problem with such debates is that the issues are covered by not only the Ministry of Defence

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but the Department of Health, and it would be helpful if we could, at some stage, get a Minister to come to talk about the health implications of what we want.

The right hon. Lady has given a very good briefing on Combat Stress, and I, like her, have been to talk to that organisation. It has been incredibly good at ensuring that I am kept informed and have an understanding of exactly where the problems are. Of course, we have heard a lot about the concentration and focus on veterans who have come out of Iraq or Afghanistan, but we must remember that people who were involved in conflicts in Northern Ireland will also need help. They also make up a significant number of the casualties who were created from that long and bloody conflict.

We talked at some length about how there will be an increasing number of people dealing with combat stress over the years. The Government have announced that we will withdraw from the Afghanistan conflict by 2014, but activities will continue there. During a trip that I made to Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago, I was told that although the troops will not go out on patrol, we will almost certainly need to support and help those in the Afghan army and police, who will need guidance. I am in no doubt at all that elements in the Afghan resistance will seek to ensure that our troops are subject to many attacks.

I grew up with these issues. My father went into the Royal Navy at 14, and was awarded the distinguished service cross for his activities in Narvik. He told me, when I was a child and a teenager, of how it was that he had been responsible for trying to take the head of one of the people he had served in a cabin with to throw it over the side when it was blown off in action. Fortunately, that did not have an impact on us as children. He was a very normal man and lived a full and active life until he was 89, but there was a real chance that such activity could have had a significant impact, not only on my mother, who, I have to say, had the most wonderful sense of humour, but on us, as children. We have all come out, I hope, reasonably sane and balanced.

The other day, I visited the Royal Marines in Exeter. One person told me a sad story of how when he had served abroad in action, he came back and wanted to talk to his wife about what he had faced. He wife looked at him and said, “Don’t start talking to me about any of that. I’ve had a damn awful day as well. I’ve had to deal with 300 e-mails, so that’s my priority”, so he did not talk to her about it. He tried to talk to his mates, who were not involved in the armed services, but they found it very difficult to understand, so he had to find his fellow servicemen—Royal Marine friends—who lived in Aylesbury, where he came from, and talk to them. It was only by having that opportunity to share his experiences that he saw what was going on.

I represent Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, and it is a great pleasure to do so. We have just, literally, had 3 Commando Brigade come back from Afghanistan, and I think it also has some of the scars that come with that.

I am delighted that we have accepted the military covenant into law. I hope that the Secretary of State’s regular reports on that issue will be informed, and that we will be able to talk about mental health. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on writing the paper called, “Fighting

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Fit”. I think that that was the benchmark for ensuring that we were able to produce a strategy, and we are taking the issue more seriously.

I am also concerned about the reservists. We are enormously good at talking about regular service personnel, but we do not talk too much about reservists, although I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) has been doing an extraordinarily large amount of work on this. I was talking to the British Legion the other day, and it told me how it did not seem possible to share information on reservists with charities that are delivering support and help. Could we look at that? Can we make sure that the information is much more readily available, so that people such as Combat Stress and the British Legion are aware of exactly where the issue is going to?

Mr Gray: There is a particular problem regarding the Territorial Army and reservists in general. Whereas a regimental family closes around someone among the regulars who is bereaved or has mental problems, and regulars tend to live in the same place as where they are serving, reservists often come from right across the land, and there is a much less strong regimental hierarchy to look after them. Reservists need particular help from the Ministry of Defence.

Oliver Colvile: I was just about to make that point. Those people work and live in isolation. The problems that they have with decompression are enormous. When they come back, they do not necessarily have the same amount of time as regulars do to unwind and be debriefed. We need to look at that issue. When I was talking to a senior Royal Marine the other day, he said that it would be helpful if the decompression time for reservists could be longer. I urge the Minister to consider that.

Another issue that we need to look at is how the national health service is dealing with the matter. As I said, the question is not just about how the MOD deals with the issue, although the Minister has been doing excellent work on veterans. I support the way in which we will change the structures of the NHS. I voted for the legislation, and I think it is the right way of going about it, but will our general practitioners and commissioning boards be able to manage the matter? If GPs commission such services, how far up the agenda is the mental health issue going to be? How will policies be implemented? Will we have lead GPs taking an interest? I will most certainly be asking my GP commissioning board down in Plymouth how it is proposing to manage the issue. We must think the matter through. We in this place can pass legislation easily, but we must ensure that it is implemented and that we monitor the results.

Sir Paul Beresford: That issue was raised with the previous Government. Some time between then and now, national commissioning of Combat Stress long courses was introduced. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the recommendations of potential patients and about the other niche groups and niche courses. The Department of Health will need to look at the issue.

Oliver Colvile: I think that that is right. Local authorities also have to be involved. They will now take increasing responsibility for the matter. I was talking to the leader

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of my council last week, and she explained that until recently, the primary care trust had not been that interested in engaging on some of those big issues. I will be interested to know how that will happen. The whole story of mental health, as the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles said, is an important issue.

We closely support our armed forces and veterans. Some of us—I happen to agree—are not convinced that we have handled the politics of what is going on in Afghanistan particularly brilliantly. However, if we are going to support our armed services, we must ensure that we look after them properly and that they come out with good results. How we deal with the issue of mental health will be paramount. As others have said, there are issues regarding licensing. In Plymouth, we have significantly more licensed premises than in Liverpool. That is a big issue. When people get depressed, they end up turning to alcohol and other substances. We must ensure that there is a joined-up and co-ordinated approach.

If we do not deal with the issue, we will have problems with our infrastructure, not only of the health service but of education. I heard a story that it is not mainly what comes out in the health stories but what happens in the home that is absolutely, utterly and desperately important. That is where all the problems kick off, and they do not become apparent until significantly later.

Mr Dobbin, thank you for allowing me to talk about the matter. I feel absolutely serious about the issue. It has been a great pleasure and honour to follow the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles.

11.36 am

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I, too, add my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) on securing this important debate today. Raising the profile of the matter will in itself do much to enhance public recognition of the issue, and she spoke passionately and poignantly about the need to achieve that.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) made an excellent point in his comments, which is that we must cast the net a lot wider than the immediate conflicts that we are aware of in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not be unusual for Members to hear me speak about what has happened in Northern Ireland. We have a walking community of forgotten heroes who have served the nation well and with gallantry, from the Ulster Defence Regiment, the Royal Irish Regiment, the British regular Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Only today, as the situation has normalised, has there been a true opening and unfolding of the trauma and devastation in the lives of individuals who gave service to this nation, and the effect that the conflict had on their families. Families lived with service personnel who not only served our country but lived within the community that they were serving—it was a double impact. It is only now, in this new Northern Ireland, in a more peaceful society, that that is starting to unravel and unfold. We must ensure, as we have started to peel back the issue and look at what could be an appalling vista, that we as a country recognise that we have a responsibility to address the concerns that we are starting to discover.

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Several former soldiers, from the Ulster Defence Regiment in particular, visited me in my constituency office. They had stopped serving in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and yet they were still talking about things that they saw that are impacting their lives now. They look back and recognise that the awful pictures that flash in their memory have had an impact on how they have lived their lives in the past 20 years, and on members of their community and family.

Mr Gray: What the hon. Gentleman is saying with great passion brings to mind an episode yesterday. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) was entertaining on the Terrace of the House of Commons one of the widows from the outrage of Ballykelly all those years ago, when 20-odd souls were killed in a pub. My hon. Friend was reminiscing about how he cradled his lance corporal in his arms. His lance corporal had lost all four limbs before he died. What sort of effect does that have, not on my hon. Friend—I am glad to say—who is remarkably well-balanced, but on any less well-balanced soldier? What possible effect will that have on the rest of their lives?

Ian Paisley: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I also had a constituent who visited me about this problem. He was a big, strong, tough frame of a man, but he was like a quivering autumn leaf when he started to tell me about what he had seen and what he remembered. Indeed, his constant memory was the sound of the scrape, scrape, scrape of the shovel that he had used to put his comrades and colleagues into a waste disposal bag after an outrage by the Provisional IRA. It is a burning memory that he will never forget and that woke him in the dead of night, leaving him soaked in sweat and crying out in fear, and yet it is a memory that he has had to bottle up and carry with him.

As a nation, we must take responsibility and recognise that there are things that can be done for these people we are talking about. They are not hopeless people; they are people whom we can actually give hope to, if, as the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles said, we first help to remove the stigma, and help people to recognise that there is help available and that they will not be stigmatised by going for that help. In fact, that help will only be of benefit to this community, this nation and indeed the NHS, which will have fewer problems to deal with as the years go on.

I hope that the passionate words that the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles put to this House this morning will be recognised and that we also recognise that post-traumatic stress disorder is not only about the immediate battles that we are aware of today but about the long-term problems that our country faces. More than 100,000 gallant soldiers from our nation passed through Northern Ireland in service and we are just starting to scrape the surface of this issue when we recognise that, 20 or 30 years after the conflict ends, there could be people who will come forward to say, “I have a problem because of what I saw, because of what I witnessed and because of what I went through as a serving personnel officer in Northern Ireland.” We must ensure that that issue is properly recognised.

The right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles spoke about the capacity to take on board the cases that will come forward. I want to see that capacity extended, to

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ensure that the needs of Northern Ireland and of the soldiers there are also taken on board. The Big Lottery Fund money—the £35 million—that has been brought to our attention today will be a welcome spend and of course it must include spending on people who served in Northern Ireland under Operation Banner, to ensure that their issues are properly addressed.

I want to make a final point about the issue of stigma. We need a public champion who can be identified with this issue and whose association with it will give a boost and encouragement to those soldiers who are sitting at home, and perhaps staring into an empty glass, contemplating self-harm or having a fight with their children or other family members. That public champion will give those soldiers the ability to say, “There is someone who can help me; there is an organisation addressing what has affected me, and I can now see that I have someone to shoulder this burden and someone who can be a help or a crutch”, at the most important time—when they are at their most vulnerable. I hope that that public champion can be identified.

In addition, I love the idea of a GI Bill or something similar for the UK. There would be so much opportunity with such a Bill that we could build on, and I think that we could do things even better than they have been done in the US because this is a nation of people who come up with even better ideas than people in other nations do. We could learn from what has been done in the United States and come up with something really tremendous. I hope that this debate itself acts as a springboard and is a very hopeful and positive start to something that we can take great pride in.

11.44 am

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): Thank you very much, Mr Dobbin, for calling me to speak. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) on securing this very important debate and on the passionate way in which she outlined her case on behalf of her constituent.

I think that we all know that there are about 5 million veterans in the United Kingdom and that a further 20,000 personnel leave our armed forces each year. Having recently returned from a visit to British forces in Afghanistan—a visit I was joined on by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile)—I will take a moment to praise the work of the men and women in our armed forces. They put themselves in harm’s way and they do a terrific job under very difficult circumstances. Of course, it is not only the right hon. Lady’s constituent who is a hero, although I am sure that he is a hero; all the men and women in our armed forces are heroes and heroines too.

In addition, I think that we all know that the transition from military life to civilian life will always be challenging. Of the 20,000 personnel who leave the armed forces each year, about 10%, or 2,000, are discharged for medical reasons and of that number about 10%, or 200, are identified as having one form of mental illness or another. That group of approximately 200 personnel are only 1% of the number of personnel who leave the armed forces each year, but these numbers that I am citing are not insignificant. Last year, 164 personnel had to leave the armed forces due to psychological

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problems and of that number 35 were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. We have heard a lot this morning about PTSD, but it is not the mental health illness that is most commonly experienced by armed forces personnel. Depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse are far more prevalent, especially among young men leaving the service early. Indeed, those young men who leave the armed forces within four years of enlisting have been identified as a particularly vulnerable group.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) for securing this debate. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one very important issue in this debate is homelessness among veterans, which is closely linked with other problems affecting veterans? When I worked for a housing charity in London, I was struck by the fact that I did not have to speak too long to people working in night shelters before they made the point that there is always a certain percentage of veterans who are homeless on our streets, and that homelessness is a problem that is related to the other problems affecting veterans.

Stephen Gilbert: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention, and she could not be more right about that issue. I chair the all-party group on housing and I have made it a particular business of mine to look at homelessness; in fact, I have applied to speak in an Adjournment debate on that very issue, Mr Dobbin. When I talk to organisations such as Centrepoint or St Mungo’s, it is absolutely clear that there is a particular problem with people who leave our armed forces and who are unable to adapt to civilian life and stabilise their housing needs. The hon. Lady makes a point that I hope the Minister will find time to address when he winds up the debate.

Mr Gray: I just wanted to intervene on that particular point, before the hon. Gentleman moves on. It is often anecdotally said that there are more people living on the streets who are from a service background than there are civilians and it is also anecdotally reported that there is a higher proportion of people in prison from the armed forces than there should be. However, I suspect that there has not been a proper statistical analysis of either of those issues and perhaps one of the things that the Government could usefully do is to come up with some hard facts to establish whether or not the anecdotal reports about those issues are actually correct.

Stephen Gilbert: My hon. Friend steals one of the key points that I was going to ask the Minister to respond to, but hopefully the fact that we are both making the same point will be better than just one of us making it, and so I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention.

The risk of suicide in army males under the age of 24 is two or three times greater than that of young males in the same age group in the general population. A recent study of 9,000 veterans showed that 20% of them had symptoms of common mental health problems and that 13% had symptoms of alcohol misuse. The right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles is absolutely right that we should be entirely clear that mental health issues can affect anybody in any part of the population, and that

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we should try to move away from the stigma that is all too frequently associated with those issues. Indeed, it is my understanding that 25%, or a quarter, of British adults experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any one year, and that one in six experiences such a problem at any given time. Mental health problems are very pervasive in our society and we must tackle the taboo about discussing them.

I have spoken before in the House about the harm that alcohol abuse can cause, and that same study of veterans showed that 40% of the veterans who responded met the criteria for heavy drinkers; 27% of them met the criteria for very heavy drinkers; and 15% of them were classed as problem drinkers. Again, young men in the armed forces are more at risk than young men in the general population, with 36% of 16 to 19-year-olds in the armed forces drinking harmful amounts compared to just 8% of 16 to 19-year-olds in the general population.

It is right and proper that we do all we can to help those who have served our country, and not only while they are serving but after they leave the armed forces. That is why I welcome the recent pilots by the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence to ensure that NHS health professionals have the appropriate support and available expertise to treat veterans with mental health problems. The four national health Departments, the UK Ministry of Defence and the charity Combat Stress have been working together closely to develop and pilot a new model of community-based mental health care, and I particularly welcome the fact that one of the pilots is in Liskeard in Cornwall, which is close to my constituency.

Nevertheless, we need to see what else we can do. At the moment, the support offered for the reintegration of former service personnel into civilian life is proportionate to the time they have served but, as we have seen, those with mental issues and other illnesses often need the most help, and we need to consider whether we have right the balance between the time we are putting into their transition and their needs. We also must ensure that when people leave armed forces medical care, their transfer into the NHS is seamless. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport made it absolutely clear that we need to look again at what happens to our reserve and territorial forces when they are demobilised, as they are increasingly part of our war-fighting mix. I welcome the previous Government’s reserves mental health programme, which aimed to tackle some of these issues.

We must redouble our efforts to raise awareness in the NHS, to help veterans who are concerned about their mental health. And it is not just within the NHS; there is an issue closer to the Minister’s own Department. The MOD’s website has only one link buried within it to a charitable organisation that can help with these kinds of issues, and I ask the Minister to undertake to see whether the website could be looked at, and the links made more prominent, so that people who are clicking through will be better signposted towards help.

In all the defence establishments that I have visited during the 18 months I have been an MP, and before that as a parliamentary candidate, I have seen awfully large numbers of posters, notice boards and other ways of conveying information to our forces, and I wonder

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whether they are being adequately exploited to signpost our armed service personnel to the help that they need. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) pointed out, we need more analysis and research into the wider consequences, and into whether we are providing the seamless support that we should, and to families as well.

Our service personnel never let us down. We ask them to do a difficult job under very difficult circumstances and they are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, so it is vital that this Government maintain the military contract post their departure from uniformed service. We must not let them down either.

11.52 am

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I did not intend to speak, and I see the little time available to us, so if I may I will hold the House for just a few minutes before the shadow Minister does her bit and the Minister, from whom I very much look forward to hearing, speaks.

First, I pay a warm tribute to everyone who has spoken so far in the debate, in particular to the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears). She and I might not agree on many subjects, but on this one I think we are entirely ad idem. Everything she said was absolutely right. This issue is terribly important and she has raised it in a timely way. I also pay particular tribute to my next-door neighbour, in constituency terms, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), whose seminal work on this subject fulfilled a coalition agreement commitment to do something about the mental health conditions of the armed services. His report was extremely good, and it has given the Government a series of pointers as to what they can now do about this terrible problem.

I think that we are unanimous about the fact that there is this problem. I was struck by a conversation I had yesterday with my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who sends his apologies for not being here. He was having a drink on the terrace with a young lady who was the widow of one of his soldiers. He recounted how when he was digging into the pub in Ballykelly, she insisted on calling him “sir” throughout the time she was struggling to escape from the mud and dirt, and how he said, “You don’t need to call me ‘sir’ under these conditions. Your husband is dead beside you; we can forget the ‘sir’.” What kind of effect can that kind of episode, in which someone cradles a dying soldier who has lost all four limbs, have on those who are left behind? My hon. Friend is one of the most well-balanced individuals I know, and I am not for a second suggesting that he has any such problems, but how many people will have had similar experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how many soldiers who have had such an experience know what effect it will have on them in later life?

I remember speaking to a 19-year-old sniper when I was visiting Afghanistan last year. I asked him, “How many confirmed kills have you got as a sniper?” and he replied, “I’ve got 34 confirmed, and a further 26 probables”, so something like 50 or 60. I asked, “Doesn’t that worry you?” and he said, “No, sir, it’s no trouble at all. It’s a blur at the end of the sight, and I pull the trigger and do my job and that’s that. It has absolutely no effect

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whatsoever.” Who are we to say whether when that young lad is 50 or 60 he will have some form of effect from that experience? It is therefore incredibly important that we address this grave issue. I pay tribute to Help for Heroes and to my constituents in Wootton Bassett and across the area, who have done great stuff with bereaved families and soldiers coming back from theatre of war with injuries, but this is a much more invisible problem. We should be just as aware of it, even though the average time before a patient realises his problem is 14 years after the incident, and it may well be 20 or 30 years. It is important that as a society we do something about the problem.

Having agreed that—I am sure that everyone here today will strongly be in agreement—it is much more difficult to say precisely what to do. It is very easy to say, “Isn’t this an awful problem? Mustn’t we do something about it?” Well, yes, but what do we actually do? Two or three interesting proposals have come up in the debate. The first, and as I come from the Territorial Army myself I think this is very important, is that we should ask the reserve forces carefully to consider precisely what they can do. Very often, TA people coming back from the theatre of war leave the reserve forces within a year or two. They do not particularly want to carry on much beyond that, and they then disappear into civilian life and are gone for ever. We do not know where they are or who they are, and they may well be suffering from these same problems. We must find a way of pinning down where our reserve forces go when they retire, and do something about it.

[Mrs Linda Riordan in the C hair]

The second problem that people talked about very convincingly earlier was that of stigma and of people feeling that they do not want to come forward, and I think that that particularly applies to the testosterone-filled young men we send off to war—and women to a degree, but not the testosterone. They come back and do not want to say, “I’m a bit daft. I’ve gone a bit loopy. There’s something wrong with me.” The ethos is not to say that, and we have to find a way of encouraging them to believe that it is a normal thing to do, that they can perfectly sensibly bring themselves forward and say, “I’ve got a problem here, and I need some help.”

One thing we might want to think about doing is this. Some 10 or 15 years ago, our servicemen coming back injured from the theatre of war felt very uncomfortable being in civilian wards in Birmingham. No one is saying that they were not well looked after, but only a year or two after the conflicts began the previous Government introduced military-style care in Birmingham. Armed servicemen feel at home and relaxed in such an arena, and I think that something similar has to apply to mental health. Too many civilian mental health workers do not understand the problems, which may well present many years after the incidents that cause them. Particularly in areas such as mine and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), where there are very large numbers of armed servicemen, we have to find a way of saying to our primary care trusts, “This sort of problem is coming your way over the years. You have to find a quasi-military way of dealing with it. You have to realise that military life is different from civilian life and that these are different problems from civilian mental health problems, so let’s find a specifically military way of dealing with

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them. Let’s keep in touch with the armed services and find out precisely what they know about post-traumatic stress disorder and the rest of it, and let’s find a military solution to what is a military problem, albeit within a civilian environment.”

This has been a useful debate. We have raised the issue very satisfactorily and the armed services, which are aware of the problems, will, I think, be grateful to us for having done so. But it is very easy to do two things. First, it is easy to exaggerate the problem, and it would be useful if the Minister could initiate a statistical analysis of how many people it affects in a real sense. Earlier, we discussed prisons, alcohol and homelessness. How much of that is caused specifically by combat, and how much is in the normal run of human beings? There are 200,000 people in the armed services. A number of them will be drunken or homeless. That is the nature of the beast. How much of that is caused by military service, and how much is incidental to it?

So first, we must not exaggerate the issue. Secondly, we must not just take political capital from expressing our sympathy and concern; in debates such as this, we must make specific proposals about what we can actually do to lessen this problem in our society. I look forward to hearing from the shadow Minister and, perhaps more importantly, from the Minister, on what we can do about this dreadful problem.

12 noon

Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) on securing this debate on an important and topical issue. More importantly, I thank Neil for coming along today and allowing us to hear his story, which has both provided a context for our discussion and put a face on the issue that we are debating.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan). We have spent much time during the past year discussing the Armed Forces Bill and the armed forces covenant. The Bill has now received Royal Assent, so it is perhaps fitting that as we come to the end of the year, we are again discussing the welfare of our brave serving personnel and veterans and the impact on their families.

My right hon. Friend painted an honest and vivid picture of the problem of veterans’ mental health. It is easy to be preoccupied with the scenes from Afghanistan that we still see and not to pay as much attention to the issues facing service personnel and their families when they leave the forces or return from theatre. We know that they are skilled, highly trained and resilient people, but more than 180,000 personnel have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as we have heard, and a significant number will have returned with mental ill health or will, sadly, go on to develop problems later in life. We should be prepared to deal with that and ensure that the right facilities and support are in place to diagnose and treat such conditions.

Significant progress has been made in recent years, particularly through mental health pilot schemes and work done since then, to improve support and treatment for personnel suffering from mental health problems, but no party has a monopoly on wisdom when it comes

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to improving services for our forces. We have all met constituents who have told us about their experiences. We have heard about some of those and about Members’ personal experiences of the issues.

I emphasise the importance of the current campaign by Combat Stress about the stigma attached to mental health, which my right hon. Friend mentioned. Combat Stress provides an invaluable service to veterans around the country. Its centres and outreach work allow veterans to get the help and support that they need in a specialised environment, along with other veterans going through similar experiences. Combat Stress’s “The Enemy Within” campaign seeks to tackle the stigma that, unfortunately, can be a barrier to people getting the support and help that they need.

However, the work of Combat Stress and of many other important organisations and charities such as the Royal British Legion should not give the Ministry of Defence or the Government an excuse to opt out of their responsibilities, or indeed ours. It is important that we do not view the services offered by the voluntary and charitable sector as a replacement for acting ourselves. Such organisations should complement, not replace, the services that the Government offer. The voluntary and charitable sector is facing a tough time at the moment. Forces charities are spared some of that pain by generous ongoing public support, but we should not assume that those services will always exist and will always have enough funding to run.

Government should decide what services they have a duty to provide and should fund them properly. The Government need not always be the vehicle to deliver those services, as we have heard, but they can fund experts such as Combat Stress to do so on their behalf. This Government should also consider how mental health services for veterans or anyone else who needs them can be guaranteed when their national health service reforms are removing accountability. Again, we have discussed that already.

Those in the forces are trained to be strong, resilient and able to push through any challenge that stands in their way. That does not lend itself easily to admitting that one needs help because of a mental health problem. My right hon. Friend highlighted the high proportion of veterans suffering from a mental health condition—a staggering 81%—who are embarrassed by or ashamed of their condition and do not feel able to come forward. We have also discussed the average length of time it takes people to present in search of support, which is about 13 years. I understand that there are examples of people who have waited up to 40 years to get help. We must do all that we can to change that situation. We cannot just let it continue.