Session 2010-11
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General Committee Debates
Northern Ireland Grand Committee Debates

Armed Forces Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr James Arbuthnot 

Cunningham, Alex (Stockton North) (Lab) 

Docherty, Thomas (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab) 

Doyle, Gemma (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op) 

Ellwood, Mr Tobias (Bournemouth East) (Con) 

Francois, Mr Mark (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)  

Jones, Mr Kevan (North Durham) (Lab) 

Lancaster, Mark (Milton Keynes North) (Con) 

Lopresti, Jack (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con) 

Osborne, Sandra (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab) 

Pincher, Christopher (Tamworth) (Con) 

Robathan, Mr Andrew (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence)  

Russell, Bob (Colchester) (LD) 

Wright, David (Telford) (Lab) 

Georgina Holmes-Skelton, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill 

Thursday 17 February 2011  

[Mr James Arbuthnot in the Chair] 

Armed Forces Bill

New Clause 1 

Veterans ID card 
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall institute a Veterans’ Identification Card to assist former members of the armed forces in obtaining the access to public services to which they are entitled, including priority treatment on the National Health Service and other services which may become available to them from other organisations.(2) In this section “veteran” is taken to mean former members of any of Her Majesty’s Forces who are ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom.’.—(Alex Cunningham.)

10 am 

Brought up, and read the First time.  

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab):  I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time. 

I start by reassuring the Minister that this is a probing new clause; I would like to hear the Government’s view. A veterans identity card would be a way to ensure that veterans who had risked their lives for their country were valued by the community in a practical and clear way that would be welcomed by our veterans. It would make them easily identifiable, so that we could ensure that they received priority treatment in areas such as health care and housing, as well as various financial benefits. An extension to that could be access to services from other organisations, public or private, that might choose to recognise our service people’s contribution to our country by offering concessions for everything from theme parks to the local butchers. 

We owe it to our veterans to ensure that a system is in place that allows them easily to obtain the services to which I have referred and the benefits to which they are entitled. That would be a small acknowledgement of their hard work fighting for their country. It is particularly relevant now, as many veterans have served in recent conflicts and suffered serious injuries. For the period 7 October 2001 to 31 January 2011, 241 UK military personnel were categorised as very seriously injured from all causes excluding disease, and 252 UK military personnel were categorised as seriously injured from all causes excluding disease. 

Similar systems exist in the USA, Canada and France. In the USA, there are several veterans card schemes. Most are run at state level. Benefits depend on the state, but can include financial assistance for home ownership and further education, as well as free hunting and fishing licences. I am not suggesting that any of us should endorse hunting, but I am sure that the Committee knows exactly what I am getting at. Our nation states might want to provide different benefits, as US states do, but I do not see that as a problem for the proposal. 

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Hew Strachan’s “Report of the Task Force on the Military Covenant” recommended a veterans privilege card: 

“Currently veterans have no convenient way to identify themselves. A recognised identity card would allow veterans to identify themselves to service providers and to claim any discounts offered by private companies.” 

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab):  Would it be a useful mechanism if such a card was endorsed by and linked to the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, which would have a record of who was a veteran, to stop the terrible practice, which unfortunately occurs, of people purporting to be veterans when they are not? 

Alex Cunningham:  It most certainly would. My hon. Friend is totally correct. Of course, he is much more experienced in these matters than I am and will recognise the benefits much more than I can. 

Lieutenant-General Sir Freddie Viggers was reported in The Independent in March 2009 as welcoming a veterans card. He said that service people very much regretted handing in their service card: 

“It is about value and self worth, not about a piece of plastic. We carry these cards for the whole of our service and when we leave we are required to hand them in. Psychologically, it is a bad thing. It is a little bit of plastic but it represents who you are and what you did.” 

Clearly, Sir Freddie Viggers believed that a veterans card would help to restore and retain the identity afforded by the service card. I believe that such a card would help with the transition from leaving the armed forces to becoming a civilian again, with the many challenges that that poses for our people. 

A veterans card has also had support from Conservative MPs. The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who is himself a distinguished veteran, welcomed proposals for a veterans ID card in 2009, saying in the same article in The Independent: 

“It is about bloody time. At last, a reasonable, sensible minister”— 

that was my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham— 

“who listens to ideas from across the political spectrum.” 

Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con):  I have some sympathy with the new clause. The problem I have is with the definition of “veteran”. I speak from experience, as someone who commanded a TA squadron. Quite often, we would have people joining the TA who would come in, attest and officially join the Army. We would then never see them again, or see perhaps only 10% of them. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that, according to his definition of “veteran”, somebody who attested and was in for perhaps one day would be entitled to the card and all the benefits? 

Alex Cunningham:  No, I am not suggesting that at all. We need to be very clear, and I will comment further on who we could include in such a scheme if we were to go ahead with it. The Government have been reluctant to commit to this idea, with the Veterans Minister ruling out ID cards for veterans in letters to hon. Members. In the House in December last year, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire asked the Minister about a veterans card scheme. The Minister replied that 

“it is difficult to identify who has been in the armed forces over a period of perhaps 60 years, and to ensure that it is feasible”.—[Official Report, 13 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 645.] 

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I agree with the Minister, which is why I think it would be best to roll a scheme out over time to all new veterans as they leave the service, having done proper service, and perhaps to those from modern-day conflicts, such as the 500 injured service people I mentioned earlier, rather than trying to identify all 4 million veterans who live in the UK. 

The previous Government were in discussions about introducing a veterans card, and the Labour party manifesto pledged to introduce such a scheme. As I am sure hon. Members remember, the manifesto said: 

“A Veterans ID card will help Veterans access their improved benefits and will be free to service leavers.” 

Last week, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Nick Bourne, announced proposals to introduce such a card. The card would include an expansion of the existing free bus pass scheme to include veterans, as well as free entry to local swimming pools, but Labour in Wales pointed out that many of those benefits were already in place in Wales, so it is critical that, whatever happens, the card offers real and additional services to our veterans, on everything from education and health care to employment support and leisure. 

In 2009, the Royal British Legion welcomed plans to propose a veterans card. If the USA, Canada and France see fit to fund schemes, why do we not do so? 

A veterans card would also provide a useful database of veterans that would help us to monitor, and potentially improve, the services that veterans are using. In the evidence session on 10 February, Bryn Parry, the chief executive officer of Help for Heroes, said that we need better co-ordination in helping veterans. I think the ID card would help with that. 

A veterans card would be a very real symbol of our gratitude to those who have served in the armed forces. It would be easy to use and would guarantee veteran entitlements. It would ensure the official connection to the armed forces that many veterans feel is missing once they leave. People across the UK have demonstrated again and again their appreciation for the very difficult job done by our armed forces—attending parades, signing petitions and raising many millions of pounds to support our serving members of the armed forces and their families, as well as our veterans. 

I am pleased that in the north-east of England there is some brilliant leadership in this area. A great deal of hard work has gone into a regional review of the health of the ex-service community, a collaboration between the 12 local authorities in the region. That report represents the culmination of intensive work by the members and officers of the north-east’s joint health overview and scrutiny committee, working in close partnership with a wide range of individuals and agencies. 

The report is due to be considered for action later today by Stockton-on-Tees borough council, of which I was proud to be a member for more than 11 years. The council’s cabinet is expected to endorse the 47 recommendations, including one that applies to our own business today: 

“Her Majesty’s Government should consider the potential for an individual’s NHS or National Insurance number to be used to identify their veteran status to improve identification of needs and services that may be available. This might be considered alongside the proposal by the Task Force on the Military Covenant for the creation of Veterans’ Cards.” 

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A veterans card is very much needed. We have the opportunity today to indicate that Parliament is in tune with public opinion, and also values our veterans by providing them with a card that they can be proud of. 

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD):  I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the measured way he spoke and the research he has put into the new clause. I am sure that the principle behind it will be supported everywhere. It may be that the wording needs to be refined, not least following the observations made by the hon. Member for North Durham, the former Veterans Minister, who in that job had experience of people who claimed to be former members of the military but were not. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North pointed out the potential shortcomings, but the spirit is absolutely spot on. I hope it will be possible to find some way of taking this measure forward, even if it is not included the Bill. 

It is now more than 60 years since national servicemen—they were only men—were recruited. One of the great successes introduced by the previous Government in helping former military personnel was the veterans badge. I know the pride people feel in that badge, whether they did national service or volunteered to join Her Majesty’s armed forces in subsequent years. I consider this proposal a continuation of that badge, but with substance. I hope that, by the end of this Parliament, a veterans medal will be introduced for the same reasons that the veterans badge was introduced. However, that is not part of the Bill. 

I ask the hon. Member for Stockton North to reflect on the use of the phrase 

“who are ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom.”. 

Many people from the overseas territories serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces. Some remain in the United Kingdom while some return to their home countries and visit. I like to think that the new clause would affect somebody from the island of St Helena, for example. I believe that, at the last count, there were about 40 people in military service from that small island, from a population of 4,500. Per head of population, more people from St Helena serve in the British Army than do people from mainland Britain, and I like to think that they would qualify under this measure. 

Lastly, there is another category of people who have a special place. Hon. Members will recall a question that I put to the Prime Minister and have raised subsequently regarding the change in pension arrangements for war widows—and they are war widows. There is a young war widow in my constituency, but she has no documentation that says she is a war widow. She receives a military pension, but she is not seen as a war widow because she is a young lady, not an old lady. People cannot grasp the fact that we have war widows who are young. They need some form of recognition or documentation to prove that they are what they say they are. 

I like the sentiments behind the new clause, and if it is not possible to include it in the Bill, for whatever logistical reasons, I hope that the Government will revisit the matter. I am sure that the idea would command respect from the British public, as well as from those who serve and those who have previously served. 

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Mr Jones:  I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North on the new clause. When I was Veterans Minister, I was very much in favour of a veterans ID card and got tantalisingly close to introducing one. The reason I support a veterans ID card and think we need one is that, if we are to follow through on our commitment to veterans, in terms of special treatment in the NHS and other benefits, we need a tangible way to identify them, whether to councils or the NHS. 

10.15 am 

Mark Lancaster:  Having considered the matter during his time as Minister, will the hon. Gentleman give the estimated cost of the card? 

Mr Jones:  I was going to do it—and if the election had not been called and I had had another month I might have introduced it—on the back of the national ID card system, which unfortunately has been abolished. That was because I had spoken to representatives of service charities and the armed forces, and they did not want another piece of plastic to go in a wallet—another discount card. They wanted something meaningful for identifying individuals, which could not be mass produced and would give other benefits. It was proposed that we give the new ID cards, with an indication on them that the holder was a veteran, to all service leavers. 

The reason for dealing with the matter in that way has to do with the issue that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North raised about cost. To distribute the card straight away would be impracticable and expensive. I think about 22,000 people leave the armed forces every year; a lot more will be leaving under this Government’s proposals. My proposal was that people would get the card as they left, and, with the support of charities and using the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, veterans of other conflicts could apply for the cards. 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan):  This is a very reasonable discussion, but of course, the devil is in the detail and the technicalities, so if, for instance—as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North suggested, and going by the definition used by the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—someone left the services with one day’s service, or after a week, would that person also be entitled to the veterans card in the same way? 

Mr Jones:  That is the definition that we use for identifying veterans, and I am not aware that this Government have changed that definition. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North: there is a big difference between someone who had been in action and was severely wounded, and someone who perhaps left after a day, but the service charities’ opinion is that if we tried to sort out a system based on those who had served six weeks—or six months or six years, or 22 years—it would get difficult to arbitrate on where to draw the line. I thought that the simplest approach was to follow the definition already outlined. 

I proposed, and had Home Office support, to offer the card to those who were now leaving. The estimated cost was about £2 million. Clearly, it would cost much

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more now because of the abolition of the national identity card scheme, which would have subsumed some of the costs. The option for veterans of other conflicts was to ask whether they wanted to apply. I had time to get agreement from the large service charities, including the RBL, to help to fund that. It would be an expensive exercise to go all the way back to second world war veterans. 

The charities were quite keen to be involved, because they saw the benefit to them in people getting access to their services and because of our promises on the health service. That is even more important now, because of this Government’s proposals on the health service. At present, we have strategic health authorities, primary care trusts and others that can follow through on policies on priority access set out in the Command Paper, and, I think, supported by the Government. Under the new system there will be GP commissioning, and it will be difficult to hold individuals to account, or to ensure that GPs know who veterans are. From that point of view, this is important. 

Another point, which I agreed with, was raised by the service charities. It was about something that appalled me when I was Veterans Minister, which is the large number of individuals who claim to be veterans when they are not. Sometimes they do that because of a psychological problem, or in some cases, people are trying to bend the system to their advantage. The Howard League for Penal Reform keeps talking about the huge numbers of veterans being in prison, but those numbers are rhetoric that keeps being repeated. 

We have done the research, which I know the Minister has seen: it is a comprehensive study that cross-matched data from the three services, going back as far as 1968, with Ministry of Justice records, to find out exactly what the population of veterans in prison was, and who they were. However, when I spoke to the governors of Durham prison, they said that if everybody in Durham prison who claimed to be a veteran or a member of the Special Air Service actually was, the SAS, for example, would number many tens of thousands. It is very important to help services such as prisons to identify veterans. It is not hard for us to find out who exactly has been in one of this country’s services. 

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con):  Although I understand and appreciate the sentiments behind the new clause, it seems to me that, instead of going down the road of more bureaucracy and having the costs of setting up a new scheme, which would give the boys—or the men and women—another bit of plastic to carry, the sensible option might be allowing people to keep their MOD 90. That would prove that they were veterans and it would be cheaper, although there may be security implications. 

Mr Jones:  I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that point, because in the huge process of trying to push the policy through, we looked at all the options, including that one. One of our proposals—which may be a good alternative for the Government now, unless there is a cost—was to let people keep the cards, which could be etched with some kind of veterans ID-type mark. That option is still open to the Government. We need a veterans ID card. The national ID card system would have been an obvious solution. Although it would have

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cost about £2 million to roll such a scheme out, an opportunity has been missed. If the result of the general election had been different, that is certainly a road we would have gone down. 

I welcome the new clause and the opportunity to have this discussion. The Government need to look at the issue and ensure that they do not invent another piece of meaningless plastic. 

Bob Russell:  Can the hon. Gentleman tell us the result of the survey that was done with the Home Office on prisoners who claimed to be veterans when they were not? He told us that it had happened, but did not mention the outcome—I apologise if I missed it. 

Mr Jones:  I think the figure was between 3% and 4% of the prison population. What irritates me—I think it irritates the Minister, too—is the fact that individuals, even in this place, repeat the nonsense that 15% or 20% or more of the prison population are veterans. That is just not true, and I find it frustrating that people are not looking at the facts. It was even stated a couple of weeks ago by Tim Collins on “Panorama”, and he is a respected individual. He repeated the suggestion that, somehow, a huge number of veterans are in prison. Part of what we need to do is link to the facts. Are there emotions when we talk about veterans? Yes, quite rightly. However, what I have tried to do—in fairness, the Minister is trying to do it, too—is deal with facts. 

In debates on this matter and on mental health, some of the rhetoric has gone ahead and people have believed the urban myths. That has not been helped by certain politicians repeating them. One repeated on numerous occasions—with no evidence—is that more Falklands veterans have committed suicide than died in conflict. There is no evidence whatever for that. I urge all Members to look at the evidence. I commissioned the work on veterans in prison because those claims were being made. All those matters require hard evidence. To be fair to the Department now, it does have hard evidence. That allows us to put policies in place to help that small number of individuals who get into difficulties. I make the same point about mental health: the numbers might be small, but each one is a personal tragedy. 

We have a duty of care as a nation to look after those individuals, and an ID card would enable that to happen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North on raising the matter and urge him to follow through—as I think it is in the Hew Strachan report—on whether it is, as the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke suggests, a way to adapt the military ID card. That is something we need to do to ensure that veterans get the priority access to services that we all want. 

Mark Lancaster:  I have great sympathy with the broad thrust of the new clause, but, as I have already hinted, I have a couple of problems with the way it is drafted. I appreciate that it is difficult to define a veteran, but we must come to the heart of that matter. Veterans come in all shapes and sizes. Now we have incredibly young veterans in their early 20s, which people do not appreciate, as well as middle-aged veterans, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East, and much older veterans, such as the Minister. 

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None the less, we have to define the term “veteran”. I have concerns from my experience. On benefits that are now available to veterans, I was delighted to discover that, as a serving member of the armed forces and a veteran, I get a 30% discount at Nando’s, which is fantastic news. However, that raises a serious point. When I commanded a TA squadron, we would get people— 

Mr Jones:  Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, for the benefit of the Minister, will he explain what Nando’s is? 

Mark Lancaster:  It is a very popular restaurant, to which I am sure I will be taking the Minister in due course. 

Mr Robathan:  I am grateful to my hon. Friend for explaining about this popular restaurant. Does he think that the food served there would fit in with the public health policies of not eating junk food? 

Mark Lancaster:  I am only too aware that, as a senior veteran, my right hon. Friend is concerned about his waistline; I do not think that I should encourage him to go there. 

My point is serious: given the benefits that can now be acquired as a veteran, I see loopholes, as in the case I have highlighted, whereby it is relatively easy to turn up at a TA centre, be attested one evening and never be seen again. Of course, the TA and the reserve forces operate very differently, which is why I would like the definition of “veteran” in the new clause to be tightened up. We have to look at that seriously; it is not something that should be given away. I would not want to create a burden for the armed forces, whereby people were encouraged to join for a short period and go through all the administration, as I experienced in the TA, to get a veterans card. 

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab):  Does the hon. Gentleman think it would be fair to deny a card to genuine veterans, for the sake of a small minority who might try to work the system? 

Mark Lancaster:  If the hon. Lady listens to the argument, I think she will accept that we have to. I cannot accept the proposal as it stands because we have not defined clearly enough what a veteran is, but I have sympathy with the broad thrust of where the hon. Member for Stockton North is going. I hope she accepts that that is a reasonable point. 

Jack Lopresti:  Thinking back to my basic training, I rushed it through in a year, when normally it can take up to two years for TA recruits. From memory, I did not get my MOD 90 until I completed basic training. Returning to what we have said about perhaps using the MOD 90 as the card, if it were necessary to complete basic training to obtain a card, that would to some degree eliminate the possibility of people joining and signing on the line to get their veterans card. 

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10.30 am 

Mark Lancaster:  My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point, and that is exactly the sort of discussion that I hope the Minister will have, perhaps seeking advice from his predecessor. Perhaps this is an area that the Department can pursue. I repeat that I have great sympathy with the thrust of the new clause, but as it is currently tabled I cannot accept it. There is also the question of cost. We must be mindful of cost, given the current situation. Although I cannot support the new clause as it is currently written, this is an area that I encourage the Minister to look at. I hope that, in the future, we can find some way forward. 

Mr Robathan:  May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Arbuthnot, particularly as this is probably the last formal sitting that we will have—God willing? 

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stockton North for introducing the new clause, because we have had a reasonable and sensible debate. Unlike the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire, I do not view him as an exile at all, because I think that we are all Unionists here. 

Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op):  It is Scottish Conservatives who are forced to be exiled to England to pursue their political careers, not Scottish Labour Members. Labour supporters in Scotland may quite easily find themselves elected to Parliament, just as easily as they can south of the border, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North has said. 

Mr Robathan:  I have to say that that is very interesting. 

Alex Cunningham  rose—  

Mr Robathan:  Oh, go on then. 

Alex Cunningham:  For the record, I would like it to be known that my parents brought me to England at the grand old age of 11 and a half. It was 1966, which was punishment itself for any young man coming into England, when England had just won the World cup. Having said that, my accent has strengthened from being in contact with people such as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire. Even if I were representing a constituency in Scotland, I could not be any more proud than I am to represent the people of Stockton North. 

Mr Robathan:  I am very glad to hear that clarification from both the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman. I think that that is quite a twisted version of exile, but never mind; I think that we have all quite enjoyed it. 

I have great sympathy with the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman has been saying, which is borne out by other members of the Committee. On the point that he made about injured personnel, he is absolutely right. The Committee—certainly, myself and the Government—is determined that those who have returned from Afghanistan, often having suffered horrific injuries, should get absolutely the priority that they need in the national health service, for instance, and they will need it. 

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During our debate, we have drawn out the difficulties that are involved, such as whether we should treat such a person with grave injuries in the same way as we might treat someone who is discharged after one week of training. We all know what our inclination is, but as the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire has said, it is pretty difficult to know where to draw the line. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester has already tried to widen the scope to widows and perhaps families. That is where the difficulty arises, and the previous Government encountered the same difficulty. 

The hon. Member for Stockton North has particularly brought out the fact that we might get concessions for hunting and fishing, which has very much turned my view on these matters, and perhaps I shall look at them rather more closely. 

The hon. Gentleman has also talked about the entitlement to education. Again, we need to look at how it would work specifically and at how the public would view it. Let us imagine two people—both, say, fathers aged 45—one of whom had served in the Army between the ages of 18 and 21. If some greater privilege or entitlement was given to the children of the person who had served in the armed forces some 20-plus years before, it might lead to some resentment, which is exactly what we do not want. [ Interruption. ] The former Minister grimaces, but entitlement to education is what he mentioned. 

Mr Jones:  I do not quite follow the Minister’s logic. It would surely be helpful in ensuring that those that leave after six years, who are entitled to assistance with higher education and other services, are dealt with and that institutions can identify those individuals in the education system. 

Mr Robathan:  The hon. Gentleman has just helped my argument, because the point is that this is a confusing issue. What exactly would the veterans ID card entitle someone to in terms of education, which is one example of many that I used? 

Mr Jones:  The fact of the matter is that they are entitled to certain things already—unless the Government change them—such as priority treatment on the NHS. The idea of the veterans card is that, as benefits for veterans are developed, it would be the access point for them. Charities are certainly in favour of the card, because it would be a way for them to expand the privileges that they could negotiate with, for example, Nando’s or with local councils, so that they know exactly who the veterans are when they are applying for services. 

Mr Robathan:  Again, the hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. Supposing that he has two constituents aged 45, one of whom served for three years in the Army and left at 21, should that person get priority treatment on the NHS? 

Mr Jones:  Yes. 

Mr Robathan:  Should they get priority treatment on the NHS over the other person, leapfrogging them in the waiting lists, when that has nothing whatsoever to

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do with their service? Perhaps it could be appendicitis—that is a bad example—or some chronic issue that has nothing do with their service. Should that take preference? The hon. Gentleman says yes. 

Mr Jones:  Yes, I do. I am sorry, but that is the core thing that I believe in. If someone has served their country, they should get some special treatment. It is quite controversial to say that that allows them to get benefits that other citizens do not, but they should. That came out in the debate yesterday. If people are prepared to serve their country, whether they see action or not, the ultimate thing is that they may give their life for their country. Should they get special benefits for that? Yes, they should. 

Mr Robathan:  They should certainly get special consideration where necessary, but we will agree to differ on that. I was about to say what a change it was to have a consensual debate this morning. 

The hon. Gentleman referred to prisons. He put in hand the Defence Analytical Services and Advice examination of exactly what part of the prison population had served in the armed forces, and the figure that came out was just over 3.5%. When tied up with their service numbers and records, it transpired that over 50% of that population were over the age of 45—which is interesting, because it is counter-intuitive—and, indeed, 30% were over 55. If they reflected the general population at large, we would expect 43% more ex-service personnel to be in prison than there are at the moment. Those are the statistics. We all know about statistics, but I am willing to go along with those. 

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North for bringing both his experience and a realistic attitude to the debate. 

I have great sympathy with the spirit of what the hon. Member for Stockton North has said, but there are no plans to introduce a veterans ID card. It is important to make clear what the significance of such cards might be. If they are intended to guarantee that a public service will be provided to a person who produces the card, they are, in effect, a proof of identity. Their production would have to take careful account of the risks of misuse if they were lost or stolen, which hundreds would be. Therefore, they would be expensive to produce and administer, so there must be a clear need for such a card. The Government have already made clear their position on the problems of providing public services based on ID cards. We take a different view on national ID cards from the previous Administration, and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester takes the same view. 

Bob Russell:  I was consistently opposed to ID cards when the Conservative party supported them. [ Interruption. ] Well, I served on the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and I can assure Conservative Members that it was Conservative policy then. 

We agree on the sentiment behind such an ID card, but I have two things to ask the Minister. First, although we must acknowledge that the new clause is not practical for the reasons stated, will the Department seriously consider what lies behind it? Secondly, as the former Veterans Minister, the hon. Member for North Durham

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indicated, costs could be minimal if ID cards were adapted. Punching a hole in the card, as happens on the railways, would prove that it was no longer the ID card of a serving member of the armed forces. 

Mr Robathan:  I was going to come on to that, as I am quite attracted by the idea of clipping the corner off an MOD 90, for instance, as happens with passports. People could then prove that they had served, but there would be no cost or security threat. 

Mr Jones:  If the Minister is going to consider the idea, may I suggest not clipping off the corner? There is a mechanism by which something can be etched on the front of the card, which would be better than simply clipping off the corner. 

Mr Robathan:  We will not go into the technical details. I assure my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester and for Filton and Bradley Stoke, who also made the suggestion, that we will look into it. 

No public service, including the NHS, specifically needs former personnel to provide ID cards. All service leavers are provided with the form F-Med 133, which provides information on their medical history while they were in the services. It is intended to be handed to GPs to ensure that civilian medical practitioners are aware of the medical history of former service personnel. 

Mr Jones:  Last year, I signed a memorandum with the Department of Health to ensure that medical records would be transferred to the NHS when people left the services. Has that continued? 

Mr Robathan:  I have been briefed on that and will continue to be briefed. One problem, as the hon. Gentleman may remember, was that the IT system the previous Government brought in for the NHS was marginally expensive and in a pretty big mess. 

Mr Jones:  Do not fall for that one. 

Mr Robathan:  It is not a question of falling for it—I go to my GP from time to time and find the IT system in a complete mess. However, in the medium term, I suspect that this will be done much more easily and without too much trouble. I do not think that we need to get into the weeds on this. 

Mr Jones  rose—  

Mr Robathan:  Go on then. 

Mr Jones:  I am trying to be helpful. I suggest that the Minister push back very hard on the civil servants in the Department of Health if that is their excuse. I got that excuse, and, frankly, I and the Health Minister at the time knocked it down. 

Mr Robathan:  I am always grateful for the voice of helpful experience. I seem to have heard a lot of it over the past couple of weeks. 

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The F-Med 133 also provides guidance on how GPs obtain individuals’ full medical records. For those who no longer have the form, proof of status as a veteran is available through a number of documents, including discharge papers, which most people keep. Replacement service papers, service medical records and discharge papers can be obtained, if necessary, through the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency. 

In addition, we have put in place special arrangements for service personnel who leave service because of injury —something particularly mentioned by the hon. Member for Stockton North. In September, the MOD, the Department of Health and others put into effect a protocol to help to ensure a transition from service to NHS care. It provides for a multidisciplinary team, consisting of MOD representatives, local service providers and veterans’ welfare service representatives, to be brought together at least three months in advance of the discharge date to ensure that a care package provided by local service deliverers is in place from the moment an injured service leaver is discharged. That is important because it will go on not only for this year, but for 20, 30 or more years for the many people whose needs continue. 

Gemma Doyle:  I am somewhat concerned that the Minister has reiterated that there are no plans at the moment to introduce the veterans identity card. That was his position some months ago, when he wrote to hon. Members who had contacted him about the matter. Since then, we have had the report of the Task Force on the Military Covenant, and his Department is looking at its recommendations. Will his Department look seriously at the matter? Helpful comments have been made today about how we could proceed. 

10.45 am 

Mr Robathan:  I do not think that the hon. Lady should be concerned that I have not changed policy during this debate. As I have said, we are certainly looking at the matter. There are ways in which we could proceed with it that would be helpful, take account of security and be cost-effective, without any great problems. I have never understood why people must hand in their MOD 90 when they leave the armed forces, not least because one gets quite attached to it. Indeed, I still have mine in my pocket. I know this will be difficult to believe, but it has a photograph of a rather good-looking young man, aged 22. 

Gemma Doyle:  Whose card is it? 

Mr Robathan:  That was a rather good riposte. 

Professor Strachan has pointed to the possible use of veterans ID cards to gain access to military bases. We shall respond to that, but I should make the point that there are already adequate arrangements for anyone with a legitimate reason to gain access to military bases. Providing ID cards that allow all veterans access to bases would raise serious problems in relation to security and the use of such powers. 

Mr Jones:  Is the Minister aware that that is the case in Germany? I introduced the fact that the local ID card allows veterans who live in Germany to access military bases there. 

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Mr Robathan:  Part of the reason for that is that one must have an ID card in Germany. That is German law. We have taken a different view from the Germans on many things, as the hon. Gentleman may know, over a number of years. 

I do not think that a veterans ID card is necessary, even in relation to access to commercial discounts. I refer the hon. Member for Stockton North to the defence discount scheme, which already operates effectively without the requirement for a card. Before I came to this job, I did not know anything about it, but now that I know about the 30% discount at Nando’s—wherever that may be—I shall, of course, rush there. Many discounts are available, and we are trying to publicise them more, so that serving personnel, their families and veterans can access them. The scheme is quite good for car hire and so on, so I am rather attracted to it. Some commercial schemes use their own privately produced veterans cards. They may be useful for the companies and charities involved, but that is not enough to justify a statutory duty on the Government to introduce veterans ID cards. 

Although the Government still have no intention of introducing a veterans card, we are still considering the idea suggested by Professor Hew Strachan’s Task Force on the Military Covenant report that a non-governmental organisation might provide a veterans privilege card, which could be used in conjunction with discounts offered by private companies. If we consider that to be useful, we would consider supporting such an initiative if it proceeded at no cost to the public purse. There is an appetite among some businesses, especially in difficult economic times, to attract business, so they give concessions. However, businesses should produce the discounts. For example, although it is not for veterans specifically, Tickets for Troops is a good scheme whereby people who wish to show their appreciation can do so without great cost, because the tickets are usually ones that might not be used otherwise. 

Bob Russell:  I am sure that what I am about say is not unique to the garrison town that I represent and that it happens wherever serving personnel are deployed on missions overseas. Currently, in Colchester, under a scheme organised by the local newspaper, the Daily Gazette, businesses are doing just that. Numerous businesses offer discounts and so on to military personnel and their families. 

Mr Robathan:  I welcome that. It is admirable and ties in very much with what the covenant taskforce has said about local initiatives. One could introduce an element of controversy to the Committee and say that it is part of the big society. 

We have been discussing need, and I do not think that the need for a veterans ID card has been established. I should like to make a point about demand. People say, “Oh, public opinion is behind this,” and some people are behind it. We have had a reasonable discussion this morning, notwithstanding the rude comment about the photograph of me at 22. Of course, we will consider the proposal and perhaps look at moving forward in one way—indeed, I have already asked my officials to ensure that we do. However, it would be a mistake to overestimate demand, because most of the 4 million or 5 million people who have served in the armed forces are not hammering on the doors of Whitehall, demanding that they have a card to prove it. We will believe them. 

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I return to another consensual point. The hon. Member for North Durham mentioned people from the SAS. Just down the road from me in Leicestershire—I believe, in Burbage—a fellow paraded recently wearing his SAS beret. I did not recognise him, but his medals stretched from the Korean war—possibly the Crimean war—all the way through to Afghanistan, which proved some longevity in a man who did not look much older than 50-odd. He certainly was never in the SAS. 

Alex Cunningham:  With the early consensus that seems to be breaking out, perhaps I made a mistake by suggesting that the new clause should be intended only to probe. As a new Member, I acknowledge that one has to learn their way and that perhaps the wording of clauses and so on should be tightened up. As the hon. Member for Colchester said, other issues must be considered that relate to overseas veterans and war widows, and as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North said, we have to understand that definitions need to be clear. 

Such things cost money, but it is a price worth paying. The suggestion by the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke that old ID cards could be retained is a good one, and I hope that, when discussions take place in the future, he will press that as a way to save money but still allow our veterans to have their ID cards. 

The Minister mentioned the big society. Many of our veterans do not feel part of any society, yet it is so important that they feel part of something. Anything that we can do to foster that has to be good. I am reassured by the Minister’s saying that he will take the proposal forward in some way—loose words, but I hope that they will lead somewhere. 

Bob Russell:  May I suggest that the subject of a future Defence Committee inquiry could be how to bring to fruition what the hon. Gentleman and other Members on both sides of the Committee wish to achieve? 

Alex Cunningham:  That is a matter for the Chairman of the Select Committee, but the idea is a good one, and I am sure that the British Legion would certainly welcome such an inquiry. I am reassured that it appears that Members could work together on this in the future. In that spirit, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause. 

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.  

New Clause 2 

Enlistment of minors 
(1) The Armed Forces Act 2006 (c. 52) is amended as follows.(2) In section 328 (Enlistment) the words “without the consent of prescribed persons” are omitted.(3) In section 329 (Terms and conditions of enlistment and service), after subparagraph 2(c) there is inserted—“(ca) enabling a person under the age of 18 to end his service with a regular force by giving not less than 14 days’ notice in writing to his commanding officer;(cb) requiring that a person who was under the age of 18 at the time of enlistment and who on attaining that age wishes to continue his service with a regular force shall be required to enlist in the manner and form to be prescribed by such regulations;”.
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(4) After section 329 (Terms and conditions of enlistment and service) there is inserted—“329A Report on military service by minorsThe Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament annually a report showing the numbers of persons who have been—(a) recruited under the age of 18; and(b) retained on reaching the age of 18for each of the regular forces during the preceding 12 months.”.’. —(Alex Cunningham.)

Brought up, and read the First time.  

Alex Cunningham:  I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time. 

Again, I reassure the Minister that this is very much a probing new clause at this stage. The intention is to bring armed forces recruitment policy into line with national legislation and international standards on the rights and welfare of young people. Concerns about those issues have been raised by previous Armed Forces Bill Committees, the Defence Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. They have all made recommendations for much needed reform. The new clause would implement those recommendations. 

Subsection (2) of the proposed new clause would raise the minimum recruitment age to 18—a fundamental question—and could be phased in incrementally over a suitable period to allow for necessary adjustments. The proposed changes in minimum entry requirements for recruitment identified by the Task Force on the Military Covenant and the large numbers of individuals now coming forward for recruitment make this the ideal opportunity to raise the recruitment age, but there are other reasons to do so, too. 

Even this week, trainees and other serving members of our armed forces have been made redundant for budget reasons. Surely, it makes sense to retain trainees, such as those in the RAF who are being thrown on the scrap heap before the end of their training, and experienced officers, rather than relying on young people under 18 coming through the system. 

International best practice has set the minimum recruitment age at 18. That age is adhered to by more than 130 countries and the UK is now one of fewer than 20 countries recruiting at 16. The practice isolates us amongst our allies. No other state in the EU recruits at 16, nor does any other permanent member of the Security Council. There is no demographic reason that would justify an exception for the UK. 

In maintaining such a low age, we are defying the express recommendations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and our own Joint Committee on Human Rights to raise the minimum age to 18 years. Following the Deepcut review, the Defence Committee called on the MOD to consider raising the minimum recruitment age. The new clause would implement those recommendations. There is substantial evidence that recruitment of under-18s puts young people at unnecessary risk and is a poor investment of resources. 

The recruit trainee survey shows that under-18s are less likely to enjoy training than older recruits and are more likely to drop out. Younger recruits are more likely to commit suicide or self-harm and be bullied or harassed. They are also more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course, there are individual success stories of young people who thrive in the forces,

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but there are far too many who do not. The armed forces offer many opportunities and a fine career to the right candidates, but that does not mean that everybody who joins will benefit, and it certainly does not mean that the earlier someone joins, the better. 

Bob Russell:  Will the hon. Gentleman confirm two things? First, no one under the age of 18 is deployed to theatre. Secondly, not every young person under the age of 18 who joins Her Majesty’s armed forces is engaged in activities that would put them in the front line. 

Alex Cunningham:  Indeed. I most certainly recognise that that is the position. 

Many personnel say that the armed forces are a vocation, not a job. Any individual with a true vocation for such a career will not have lost interest in it if they have to wait until 18, rather than 16, to enlist. On the contrary, those who are put off will be those who would have enlisted for all the wrong reasons. Arguably, we are in danger of losing many motivated, talented and committed recruits because they sign up before they are ready, have a bad experience and leave. Those individuals could have proved valuable long-term members of the forces if they had joined at a more mature age. 

We have to recognise that a forces career is a commitment that must be entered into with due solemnity by mature individuals who are prepared to shoulder the burden it places upon them. Sixteen-year-olds are barred from the police and the fire service because they are not considered to be physically or psychologically ready. It is insulting to suggest that joining the armed forces is less challenging. 

Mr Jones:  I accept what my hon. Friend says about the police force. Some of the quite senior police officers whom I know—I think that this is the case for the previous deputy chief constable of Durham—started as police cadets. That was a good entry system into the police force for people who were, in many cases, from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Alex Cunningham:  The police cadet system is a good one, but being a member of the armed forces is very different, given the restrictions placed on people who join. I will address that later in my speech. 

Bob Russell:  I think that I am right in saying that those under 18 must receive parental support before they can join. By the same token, people can get married at 16 with parental support. 

Alex Cunningham:  Indeed. They can also do all manner of other things at 16, but they still do not have the vote. I would have them vote at 16 as well. If people can join the Army at 16, surely they should be able to vote. 

We have talked a lot about the welfare of armed forces personnel in relation to the military covenant. Our service personnel of all ages deserve proper treatment. It would be hypocritical to implement changes without addressing the fact that those under 18 at the time of enlistment form an obvious category of service personnel who suffer more than most. Although we can legislate

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for housing and health access, we cannot legislate for the fact that young people are inherently more vulnerable than adults. It is irrelevant that they do not go to the front line until they are 18. Armed forces life is a challenge from the day it begins. 

Some believe that young people should have the opportunity to join the forces. I agree, but they should have that opportunity at a suitable age. Society and young people have changed since the recruitment age was set at 16. It used to be the case that 16 and 17-year-olds could go into combat. Nowadays, of course, that is unthinkable. The recruitment age also needs to evolve with the changing times. 

11 am 

Sandra Osborne:  I agree with the general thrust of what my hon. Friend is saying, but I worry when I think of some of the young people in my constituency who come from very poor former mining areas. Some young people join the Army because they see an opportunity that they do not have at home. 

I think that we have learned many lessons from the Deepcut situation. After that, some Members went to speak to trainees who were under 18. I remember one boy saying to me that he had joined to get away from horrible circumstances at home. There are two points of view. Certainly, some people are not ready, but for many young people, joining the forces is the making of them. 

Alex Cunningham:  My hon. Friend makes a good point. My problem is that young people should not run away to the Army as a way to escape difficult circumstances. I know that I might defeat my own argument by suggesting that, given the ending of the future jobs fund and other initiatives begun by our Labour Government to encourage people into education and training, even more young people will now find their way into the Army, but I still do not believe that that is the answer. We should be developing our education and training systems to deal with them 

Mr Jones:  Does not my hon. Friend recognise that, for many individuals, joining up is not about escaping life circumstances? It gives them life and education opportunities that they might never otherwise get, because, in many cases, the education system has failed them. 

Alex Cunningham:  The failure of the education or training system is no excuse for young people finding themselves in the Army, where all sorts of complications are involved if they want to change their career path. I will address that under subsection (3) of the new clause, which relates to the right of discharge. 

The Ministry of Defence, through the unhappy minors provision, recognises the desirability of granting discharge to any recruit under the age of 18 who wishes to leave the forces. If that is indeed the policy, it should be clarified and formalised as a legal right, rather than be maintained in its current weakened form. As there can be no justification for holding a minor in the armed forces against their will, there is no advantage to maintaining an element of discretion in the discharge system for young recruits. The decision whether a young recruit should remain in the armed forces should be taken by the recruit and their parents, not a third party. 

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Making it clear that the discharge of under-18s is a right would ensure that young recruits maintained power over and responsibility for decisions concerning their own lives, that they clearly understand the options available to them and that they were not led into drastic measures to obtain a discharge. It would ensure that current professed MOD policy was implemented consistently and with no room for doubt or favour. 

Even the Minister was unclear on the matter in his reply to a written question on 10 January, highlighting the confusion at the MOD over its own policy: 

“Service personnel under 18 years who have completed 28 days of service have the right to discharge at any time before their 18th birthday provided they give the required 14 days notice. A service person under the age of 18 years three months who registered before their 18th birthday, their clear unhappiness at their choice of career can request permission to leave the armed forces.” 

Those are two different things: one is a right and one a request. The reply continued: 

“They do not have discharge of right at this age but it is exceedingly rare for such an individual to be refused permission to leave. These safeguards help to ensure that young servicemen or women under the age of 18 years may, if they wish, leave the armed forces and that any commitment to service is both considered and voluntary.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 3W.] 

Making the right of discharge statutory would also take an unnecessary burden of responsibility away from commanding officers, who are caught between their moral obligations towards unhappy recruits and their professional responsibility to maintain adequate staffing levels. 

A further argument is that as no person under 18 can be bound by a legal contract in civilian life, they should not be bound by an enlistment contract. Given that a parent cannot withdraw consent for enlistment after three months have expired, a young recruit who has passed the period for discharge may be held in the armed forces against their parents’ will, as well as their own. That cannot be satisfactory. 

Extending discharge as of right for all young recruits would not introduce any new rights to existing regulations. It would simply extend the existing right of discharge by up to 18 months to ensure that minors were dealt with in accordance with their special legal status under national law. It would not require a change of Government policy. It would be a formalisation of existing practice—the unhappy minors provision. 

Twenty years ago, our predecessor Committee had already expressed concern about the implications of holding a minor to a legal contract and suggested that the six-month window for discharge as of right be extended or that recruits should re-enlist at the age of 18 if they wished to continue in the service. Proposed new sub-paragraph (cb), which would be inserted by the new clause after proposed new section 329(2)(c) of the Armed Forces Act 2006, sets it out that there should be no further delay in implementing that recommendation to amend a loophole that is entirely inconsistent with national law regulating the legal obligations of minors. Any person who believes that young people should be able to join the armed forces must also agree that they should be able to leave. 

At this time, we cannot ignore the question of cost. The statistics clearly show that the youngest recruits drop out faster and in greater numbers than older recruits. We can no longer afford the millions of pounds

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of wasted expenditure involved in deliberately recruiting and training large numbers of individuals who we know are much more likely to leave the forces without offering a full return on that investment. In 2009-10, 33.2% of under-18s withdrew from the armed forces during their training period. That is nearly double the drop-out rate for trainees aged 20 to 24. 

The MOD should review recruitment policy to ensure that it focuses on recruiting and training those candidates who will offer the best long-term return on our investment in their training. Subsection (4) of the new clause would facilitate a more targeted recruitment strategy by keeping a record of return on investment. It makes the following proposal: 

“The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament annually a report showing the numbers of persons who have been— 

(a) recruited under the age of 18; and 

(b) retained on reaching the age of 18”. 

As I said at the start of my speech, the proposed changes are intended to bring armed forces recruitment policy into line with national legislation and international standards relating to the rights and welfare of young people. Surely it is time for the Government to do that. 

Mr Jones:  I disagree with the new clause. On the question whether it is right that people should not go into combat until the age of 18, I agree that that is the correct approach, although having met, when I was a Minister, the mother of an 18-year-old who was killed in Afghanistan, I have to say that it is very difficult to deal with the fact that young people are killed in action. That mother was very proud of what her son had achieved. I am sure that the Minister has had the same experience as me: when we get the phone call saying that someone has been killed in Afghanistan and see that their age is 20 or 21, it is very difficult. I know that we are a different generation. Certainly, going back to the second world war, a visit to the war graves in northern France shows the young age of some of those individuals. It cannot be right for those who are under 18 to serve in combat. 

When I was a Minister, I constantly tried to knock on the head the idea that joining the armed forces is somehow bad for someone. Joining the armed forces is a life-changing experience for many people, and it gives them opportunities that they would never otherwise have had. I say that due to two different experiences. First, I grew up in a mining village in south Yorkshire, and I saw individuals who entered the armed forces and had careers and opportunities that they would never have had without that experience. 

Secondly, in my constituency, I have seen men—and women these days—join the armed forces and get opportunities. I spoke last year to one young lady whom I first spoke to when I was newly elected—that shows how old I am getting. She said then that she was entering the Royal Navy. Nine years later, she has just left the Royal Navy and now has a good job as an administrator in a school. The Navy has given her change and life experiences that she can bring to civilian life. We should not forget that point. 

Bob Russell:  The hon. Gentleman brings to the debate his experience of being a Minister. Setting aside the military combat role of a young person, does he agree

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that everything else—the crafts, skills and training that Her Majesty’s armed forces offer to someone who is 16 or 17—is on a par with, if not better than, the training and qualifications they would get outside the military? 

Mr Jones:  Very much so, and that is the point I was moving on to. If people want to see what the armed forces do, they should go to Harrogate college, which trains those 16-year-olds. One great privilege of being a Minister was attending a passing-out parade at HMS Raleigh. I saw the young men and women involved, and the pride of their parents, who said that individuals had completely changed in a matter of 10 weeks. 

If this measure went ahead, we would stop access to education as well. Another good part of the MOD is the Welbeck college system, which allows people in the sixth form to get qualifications. Those are exactly the people we want in the armed forces, in terms of technical and engineering expertise, but this provision would mean that that was closed off. 

We are asking people to become professional soldiers, sailors and airmen, but we should perhaps also see the armed forces as an integral part of the education system. Harrogate college deals with individuals from a variety of backgrounds, including some from very poor backgrounds. At Catterick, adult literacy and numeracy can be studied. Again, that shows the failure of the education system in a lot of areas, especially with respect to the infantry. At Catterick, there is a link with Darlington college, and the way that people’s reading ages are brought up from seven or eight to an appropriate level is remarkable. What would happen to some of those individuals if they did not get that opportunity? We must look at the armed forces not as something that does damage to individuals, but in many cases as a way to improve people’s life and education chances. 

I accept that there is an issue of how we treat young people, and the MOD and military would admit that we got that completely wrong a few years ago. We are now post-Deepcut, and we have had the Blake inquiry and the investigation by the Defence Committee, which I was a member of at the time, into duty of care of young people. That year-long inquiry informed the debate. To be fair to the three services and the MOD, a lot of the recommendations were taken on board, such as the Service Complaints Commissioner, the inspection regimes that are now in place within training facilities, Ofsted inspections and other things. That has raised the game, which needed to be done. 

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North: if there is to be a duty of care for very young people, we need to ensure that they receive the best possible treatment. That is in place. 

11.15 am 

I want to knock on the head another myth that has been repeated. For the age group that my hon. Friend talked about, the suicide rate is lower in the armed forces than in the general population. That came out of the Manchester study, which was produced a couple of years ago. There is an issue with 21 to 25-year-olds in the armed forces, but for younger people the suicide rate is lower in the armed forces. That might be because those young people have a focus in life and support. 

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On discharge, as a former member of the Defence Committee and a former Minister, I never came across an individual whom the Army, RAF or Navy wanted to keep against their will, and I never came across a set of circumstances in which they would. 

We need to knock that myth down. Yes, people join and later regret it. Whether it be at Catterick, HMS Raleigh or the RAF training facility, yes, some people make mistakes. People join when they should not. All three services have put a lot of effort into ensuring that the recruitment mechanism is realistic about what is expected of people. 

I went to Catterick with General Rollo when he was Adjutant-General, and we met some day three or day four recruits. The general and I walked in the room and they all sat around. When their corporal walked in, they all stood up, clearly on the basis that the only important people in their lives at that time were the corporals. The general and I were quite amused by that, but it showed that a lot had been put in place for training the trainers, which came out of the Defence Committee report. Training the trainers ensures not only that trainers are sympathetic to the individuals and their circumstances, but that if people are unhappy there is an exit route. Some people make mistakes. 

Bob Russell:  I wonder whether, between us, the hon. Gentleman and I can reassure the hon. Member for Stockton North. On one of the two occasions that I did the armed forces parliamentary scheme, we went to Pirbright, where, quite quickly, it was established, on a one-to-one basis, that some young men had applied to join the Army under family pressure. It is not always the individual who wants out, and the experience of Pirbright is the ability to establish who does not want to be there and finding a way to fail them. 

Mr Jones:  There is that. People join the armed services under many different pressures. The other thing we have to be careful of is the situation that is referred to as the shock of capture. I have talked to recruits at Raleigh, and in the first week or so of training, many recruits are pretty unhappy and want to leave. Once they get into it, they are okay. If we are not careful and do not have a limit, people might make mistakes. They could be unhappy in the first week or so, because of the shock, and leave. That might be a mistake. I have talked to recruits in different places, and I know that it is some people’s experience. This is a whole new world for recruits. 

Allowing 28 days makes sense, but, having talked to all three services, I am not aware that they want to keep people against their will. That impression needs to be resisted at all costs. The system works. Have we improved it? Yes, we have improved the duty of care. Can we keep improving it? Yes, we should. The commitment of the three services, as shown through the establishment of the Service Complaints Commissioner, is to driving up standards, and we need to continue doing that. Do we need to stop recruitment at 16? I do not think so. It would be a retrograde step and would limit life chances for a lot of people who would benefit from being a member of the armed forces. 

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con):  It is a pleasure to contribute to this interesting debate. I am pleased that the new clause is probing, because, if I may say this politely, I think that the hon. Member for

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Stockton North misunderstands the tailoring of training in our armed forces today. He made a comparison with other nations across Europe and in the world to say that they do not have the same approach. One could say, some aspects put aside, that we have one of the best armed forces in the world and there are reasons for that. We can be very proud of our training systems and processes. 

The former Minister, the hon. Member for North Durham, spoke of his visits to various depots and so on. There is a sense of foreboding on arriving to sign up for the armed forces. I remember when I turned up at Sandhurst. My sister dropped me off and there was a sense of doom—that I was signing my life away for a number of years. That really was quite moving, but it lasted all of five minutes, because when I walked into Amiens company at Sandhurst, half my university Officer Training Corps was inside, so I was among friends and that feeling disappeared straight away. However, there was certainly apprehension: “My God, what am I doing with my life?” I felt trapped in something that I could not get out of that easily. 

It is important to stress that those who join at the age of 16 have that opportunity to leave of their own accord before they sign on the dotted line. However, it should be stressed that the military is a young person’s game. The average tour of duty is only about three years. We expect a lot from our soldiers, sailors and airmen, and it is no walk in the park. We ask them to dig deep in a way that they probably would not do in any other part of society. That reflects the debate we have just had on what the nation gives back to those very soldiers, sailors, and airmen, who are doing something quite extraordinary. 

We should be proud of the structure we have, which is tailored to recognise the sensitivities that individuals go through. The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire made an important point about the footprint—where many recruits come from. Thinking back to the platoon that I had in 1st Battalion the Royal Green Jackets, about half of them probably come from very difficult backgrounds; there is no doubt that they were running away and trying to find something else in their lives. They had heard about the armed forces, visited a recruitment centre, gone through all the processes—again, this is recognised—and the platoon, the company, the regiment then became their family. That became the unit that they bonded with, in the same way, sadly, that schooling is often the escape for young children from very similar environments. I really think that we can be proud of that process, but that is not to say that we can be complacent or ever stop considering how we can improve it. 

My duties as a platoon commander—others who have served will be aware of this—involved not just training or operational work, but being concerned about the welfare of individuals. It is often said that the platoon commander is the father and the platoon sergeant the mother—they are a combination. We are only as strong as our weakest link, and if one or two individuals are unsure of themselves, that brings down not only morale, but the capability of the whole platoon. 

Aside from that, the nation benefits in so many ways from those who do not make it through full training or stay in the armed forces for only a short time. The armed forces create individuals who are far more confident, resilient and robust, and who also have real direction

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and determination in their lives. The soldiers I had the pleasure and honour of working with came with no skill sets whatever, little direction in life and little self-control, but by the end of three years, while some would stay on and some would decide to depart, they had a real sense of purpose and pride in their country. That came about only because of the training they had received, some of which had started at the age of 16. We have a very robust system that we can be proud of. I would not accept the new clause in any shape or form and we should leave things as they are. 

Mr Robathan:  Again, we have had a relatively consensual and useful debate, teasing out a few ideas. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stockton North for initiating the debate on the new clause, although I am not sure he has much of a consensus supporting him, even on his own side of the Committee. That is life; I find that a lot of the time. 

To pick up on what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East, I remember a Scots Guards Sergeant from Glasgow called Joe Farrer, a very good man, who at 17 was told by a magistrate in Glasgow, “Join up tomorrow or go to prison.” In those days, one could do that. Sadly, not now. 

Alex Cunningham:  Does the Minister think it is justice for a young man who has made a mistake in life to be forced into the armed forces, rather than take a civilian punishment? 

Mr Robathan:  I can only give the experience of the conversation that I had with Sergeant Joe Farrer, a thoroughly good man who made a life for himself in the Army. I do not know what he is doing now, or even if he is still alive. His point was that the Army gave him the opportunity to get away from the ghastly conditions in which he lived at home, where he was getting into petty crime. 

I will cite another case. I do not think I am betraying a confidence, because I am sure that the person involved would not have told me this if it were confidential. I went to Frimley Park last year. I do not know whether other Members have visited it. I would recommend that they do so, and I am sure that a visit could be laid on for the all-party group or the Select Committee. 

Frimley Park is the headquarters of the cadet movement, based at a rather nice, small and marginally decaying country house near Camberley. It is run by a man whose name currently escapes me, but who is probably the officer most decorated for gallantry in the British Army. He has two Queen’s Gallantry medals and, I think, an MBE—a remarkable man. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, who is not here, might run down people from privileged backgrounds, but this man used to live in Barnsley and he spent the night before he enlisted as a boy soldier—he was under 18—in the cells of the local police station. 

That man’s service has given him huge kudos, a fascinating time and a real life. I would recommend that everyone here, but particularly the hon. Member for Stockton North, talk to someone like that to see how the armed forces can be a great force for good in the lives of such individuals. I was incredibly impressed by that guy. 

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The hon. Gentleman said that his proposal is a much-needed reform, but I disagree because I support allowing keen young people to join up and gain what they may, even if it be just four years of adventure. I also disagree with his logic about under-18 recruitment. Most people say that we should have votes at 16 because we let people join the armed forces at 16. I note that the hon. Gentleman says we must have votes at 16 but not let people join the armed forces at 16. I would disagree with the former position. He also wanted to know whether we would look at recruitment policy, and I can assure him that we continue to do so. 

We take pride in the fact that a career in the forces, especially for somebody under 18, provides challenging and constructive education, training and employment opportunities for young people, as the hon. Member for North Durham said. We equip them with valuable, transferrable skills. We recognise the need for special care in recruiting and training those under 18. The days of the drummer boys being beaten round the head are long gone. There are currently no plans to revisit the Government’s recruitment policy for under-18s, which is fully compliant with the optional protocol to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, on the involvement of children in armed conflict. 

11.30 am 

All recruitment to the UK armed forces is voluntary and no person under 18 may join unless their application is accompanied by the formal written consent of their parent or guardian. Defence policy is that no service person under the age of 18 is knowingly deployed on any operation outside the UK that would result in them becoming engaged in or exposed to hostilities. That applied to Northern Ireland, and in my experience, when 17-year-old soldiers were told that they could not go to Northern Ireland, they were gutted, because they were desperate to go out there and join their mates in doing a worthwhile job. 

The armed forces take very seriously their duty of care to all recruits, in particular those aged under 18. To that end, parents or guardians of all younger personnel, as well as the applicants themselves, are given comprehensive written and face-to-face guidance on the terms and conditions of service and right to discharge during the selection process. This occurs at various times before the parent or guardian provides formal written consent for their child to enter service. 

As regards ending service below 18 or continuing service after 18, the new clause is inappropriate. Under the existing terms and conditions of service, the basic position is that all new recruits, regardless of age, have a right of discharge, as we have discussed, within the first six months of service by giving not less than 14 days’ notice in writing to their commanding officer if they decide that the armed forces is not a career for them. I liked the idea of—what was it? 

Mr Jones:  Shock of capture. 

Mr Robathan:  That is it. I remember the shock of capture when I joined the Royal Marines—certainly before the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire was

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born—in 1970. My hair was cut in a way that would make even the worst haircuts in the House of Commons—there are some pretty shocking ones—look really good. 

Bob Russell:  I see the Minister has kept it. 

Mr Robathan:  Thank you. 

The Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household (Mr Mark Francois):  Did they take a photograph? 

Mr Robathan:  I do have a photograph, which I found in my late mother’s house recently. I showed it to my son, who is now 14, because the resemblance is quite striking, although he has much longer hair. 

Any service person who makes it clear before their 18th birthday that they are unhappy with military life can request permission to leave the armed forces up to three months after their 18th birthday. The policy is to treat all such cases with great sympathy, because nobody wants unwilling soldiers in a volunteer Army. They are actually a nuisance, because they stir up trouble. That does not give an absolute right to discharge after the first six months of service, and it has been considered that it would be wrong to give that as a right. 

Like the hon. Member for Stockton North, I see an anomaly, and I understand why it is there. I will raise it with officials, and particularly with the Chief of the General Staff, next week, because I can see that it is slightly untidy that we let people go but do not give them the right to go. I will look at that matter, but I am not minded at the moment to change the policy. I want to get it clear in my head that this is the right way forward. 

Pragmatically—I am a great pragmatist—anybody who wants to leave basically is allowed to leave on the unhappy minors situation. If we were to go further and provide for a right of discharge on 14 days’ notice for ever under the age of 18, that might be likely to reduce the services’ chances of solving the problems that a young recruit faces. As we have heard, many of them become very unhappy when they are contacted from home because something has gone wrong at home, and suddenly they want to leave. If they are given a cooling off period, they often change their mind, because young people are sometimes quite volatile. 

The reporting requirement in the new clause is unnecessary, because DASA—Defence Analytical Services and Advice—annually publishes strength, intake and outflow data for regular personnel by age group. 

The situation is, in practical terms, perfectly satisfactory. This is an important matter for us and I intend to look at it a bit further. For now, though, the new clause is clearly not necessary. Although we have had a useful discussion that has, unlike the first three sittings, been very consensual, I hope that the hon. Member for Stockton North will withdraw the new clause. 

Alex Cunningham:  As the Minister says, there is very little consensus about the idea, but I make no apology for proposing it to the Committee. At this stage, I would like to acknowledge the contribution that has been made by hon. Members who have served in the services. I have never done so myself, and the very thought

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frightens the life out of me. I am full of admiration for people who actually go out there on the front line. I would never underestimate the armed forces and the contribution that they make to our country and to the development of our young people, as hon. Members have said. 

I recognise that our services are the best. They are well-trained and extremely well-equipped, and we must continue to be proud of them. However, they are bad for many young people. One in three of them are leaving, but they can only do so with permission, which I will come to shortly. It is great to see young people benefit from training and education, but we need to make civilian training and education right and attractive to young people, so that they do not think that they need to sign up for several years in the Army instead. Joining the Army needs to be a positive choice, rather than an escape. 

Mr Robathan:  May I say how much I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that? It is important that we get training outside the armed forces right, but we do not need to damage the current situation, where training outside the armed forces is perhaps not quite so good. 

Alex Cunningham:  I understand and acknowledge that. I am grateful to the Minister for his comments about discharge. Young people know how unhappy they are; they should not have to rely on a commanding officer’s opinion. I am pleased that the Minister will look at that issue. As he has already said, he expects me to withdraw the clause, so I beg to ask leave to do so. 

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.  

New Clause 3 

Closure or realignment of Armed Forces bases 
‘(1) Prior to commencing a programme of closure or realignment of Armed Forces bases the Secretary of State must—(a) prepare a base closure report;(b) lay a copy of the report before Parliament.(2) The Secretary of State may not proceed with any realignment or closure of armed forces bases without the approval of both Houses of Parliament.(3) In this section a “base closure report” is the recommendation of the Ministry of Defence for the future Armed Forces basing requirements of the United Kingdom and British overseas territories including the criteria used when reaching its recommendations and the priority given to each criterion.(4) In this section an “Armed Forces base” is a base or series of installations consisting of facilities necessary for the support of the British Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force including security, communications, utilities, plants and systems, or property for which the Armed Forces have responsibility.(5) In this section “realignment” means any action that alters the function of a base or any action for the purpose of transitioning the base to serve another branch of the Armed Forces.’.— (Mr Kevan Jones.)

Brought up, and read the First time.  

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.—(Mr Kevan Jones.)  

The Chair:  With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 10, title, line 2, after ‘Police’, insert 

‘to provide for parliamentary control of proposals to close or realign bases for the armed forces.’. 

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Mr Robathan:  The new clause is unwelcome at a time when we are trying to streamline the Government and conduct operations. It would require the prior approval of both Houses for any alteration in the function and any closure of our bases, anywhere in the world—Germany, Cyprus, the Falkand Islands or Afghanistan—and that would hamstring our operations. As an aside, I used to be based in the Chelsea barracks, which has been sold, and the Duke of York’s headquarters, Stirling lines in Hereford and Fallingbostel have all gone. 

Sandra Osborne:  Does the Minister have any idea of the alarm that has been caused in places in Scotland where bases are under threat of closure or, indeed, have already been announced as closing without so much as a by-your-leave? That came as a total shock to the communities, which will be effected economically and socially. In the past few days, we have talked a great deal about the military covenant and the public’s role in it, and that has been abused in such circumstances by rushed and ill-considered announcements and decisions. Does the Minister not believe that it would be far better to have a considered process that was subject to scrutiny in the House? 

Mr Robathan:  First, I absolutely understand the uncertainty that has been caused in Scotland or anywhere in the United Kingdom by the regrettable measures that we have had to take in the SDSR. Do not think that Ministers or civil servants and officials in the MOD are not well aware of the impact that such a closure may have on not only members of the armed forces, but the civilian population and the surrounding communities. We take that into account. 

An awful lot of work goes on to ensure that closures are done sensitively and that units can perhaps be transferred. As the hon. Lady will know, we intend to bring all troops back from Germany, which was the long-term intention of the previous Administration. Military bases may not look the same, but that does not necessarily mean that they are not still open. 

On due process, I assure the hon. Lady that we are going through a tortuous, lengthy and considered process in the MOD on future basing. If we were to go down the route of the new clause, it would involve publicly revealing our plans and a lot of highly sensitive information. Even if I assume that the real intention of the new clause is to refer to bases in the United Kingdom alone, that would still be inappropriate. In practice, any major base closure or realignment would be notified to Parliament. The Department already undertakes a significant amount of consultation on estate sales with local authorities, interest groups, trade unions and local MPs. The hon. Member for North Durham knows that, because such things happened in his time. 

Base closures and changes are already subject to a number of legislative requirements—for example, planning consents and the necessity for sustainability assessments. Parliament already has ample opportunity to make its views known to the Government about proposed major changes, and it does so vociferously, whether one is in opposition or in government. Parliament and, indeed, the nation will no doubt hold the Government to account for the decisions that are taken. The right approach, however, must be that the Government should take those decisions. Requiring advance approval would abandon

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the Government’s responsibility and make vital strategic decision making difficult or, indeed, impossible. Providing the detail required in a base closure report could well risk prejudicing the Department’s negotiating position before obtaining a fair value for sale. 

Amendment 10 seeks to amend the Bill’s title in accord with new clause 3. In my view, the new clause is not wanted for the reasons that I have given, so there is no requirement for amendment 10 either. In light of my points, I hope that the new clause will be withdrawn. 

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Mr Jones:  I thank the Minister, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion. 

Clause, by leave, withdrawn,  

The Chair:  That concludes the formal consideration of the Bill. The formal report to the House will not happen until the Committee has considered its special report, which will be done in private. 

11.42 am 

Committee adjourned .