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I am conscious that other Members wish to get into the debate, so I will abbreviate my comments. I want to talk about the work of Veterans in Action, a classic charity, which is run by individual veterans. For a number of years, they have been providing in-depth support, which they have found is, sadly, lacking in the system. They tell me that there is no generic way to collect veterans’ information and that it is collected very much on a local, case-by-case basis. Similarly, they say it is extremely difficult to get organisations to work together. They also tell me that the Big White Wall is not being used as it was intended to be and that people are using the Combat Stress helpline as a first point of contact.

A great many smaller, third sector organisations and charities set up by veterans are having similar problems. With no national directory or local directories of such organisations, it is immensely difficult for individual veterans who are constantly moving around—who have problems with housing and with all the dislocation that goes with that—to harness the efforts of such organisations. Therefore, just as successive Governments have done amazing work looking after individual veterans’ health in conflict zones, we should do more to look after their mental health after they have left those conflict zones.

Several hon. Members rose

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Order. I intend to call the shadow Minister at 3.40 pm.

3.11 pm

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on opening this important debate.

I must admit that I am not a natural when it comes to defence-orientated debates. I do not come from a garrison town and I have no experience of the forces—I suspect I am naturally too insubordinate to fit into them. However, I have a genuine interest in this issue. It is spurred not so much by constituency cases, although a soldier came to see me who was severely traumatised by the conflict he had endured, and the atrocities he had seen, in Aden. It was an awfully long time ago, but it had scarred his whole life, traumatising him, driving him to alcoholism and creating huge mental health issues. I also dealt with a case in which a gentleman who had been advised by the Ministry of Defence to assist it with research at Porton Down on the common cold subsequently had a lot of worries that were quite unrelated to his exposure to the common cold.

What really sparked my interest, however, was my experience on the Public Accounts Committee, which produced a series of interesting reports on and around this area that showed up some quite distinctive and worrying issues. The report I want to dwell on was called “Ministry of Defence: Treating injury and illness arising on military operations”. It showed quite categorically that the forces were excellent at dealing with people’s physical ailments in the theatre of war and subsequently—the profile and the results were good, and the medical treatment was exemplary. When it came to mental health, however, there were some very odd results. For example, it appeared that American and British soldiers exiting the same theatres of war had widely disparate experiences

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in terms of their mental health, with more Americans reporting themselves, or being reported, as having mental health problems by a considerable margin.

Even more strangely, the figures coming out of the British forces for mental health problems showed soldiers were experiencing no real anxiety at all; in fact, they showed that troops were in just as good mental health as the ordinary population, which was odd. During the PAC inquiry, I told Sir Bill Jeffrey, who was permanent under-secretary at the time:

“I think we would all accept that war is extremely stressful and people see some horrid, fearsome things that would disrupt the psychology of almost anybody. What surprises me”—

then and now—

“is that the referral of the Forces appears to be lower than the referral rate of the population as a whole.”

I put it to him that that was intrinsically implausible:

“You would have thought there would be more mental health issues amongst a population of people who see quite traumatic scenes than amongst those who do not.”

More brutally, I said the rate of referrals

“is actually lower than the population at large. In other words, it would appear…that in the confines of Committee Room 15”,

where the PAC was meeting,

“we are far more vulnerable to mental health stress than people in the operational theatre of war.”

It can be pretty torrid in the PAC at times, but I suggest that result shows that something is going awry in the forces’ reading of troops’ mental health post-war.

Equally puzzling was the disparity between people coming out of the Iraq and Afghanistan theatres of war. Lieutenant-General Baxter, who was then the deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, explained:

“I think you have to look at the nature of combat…When you are being shot at and you can shoot back, it is a lot less stressful than when you are being bombed or suffering indirect fire.”

I do not know whether that is true, but it invites serious questions about the level and quality of screening when people are discharged.

Other reports that the PAC produced at the time were equally troubling. They showed, for example, that squaddies were far less well prepared for the outside world than they could have been when they were discharged. There were also troubling statistics, with which we are all familiar, about high rates of alcohol problems, imprisonment and homelessness among people leaving the forces.

That is all very troubling, and the causes are fairly complex, but one thing is absolutely clear: the screening of soldiers exiting the theatre of war was very poor in the British forces. Often, it was done simply through self-completed questionnaires, but people do not ordinarily volunteer any deep psychological problems they may think they have in such a questionnaire.

There was also evidence in the PAC report that I quoted that support for people in the theatre of war was relatively poor. The most that they seemed to get out there most of the time was three community nurses, along with one consultant psychiatrist every three months. If people showed up with problems in the theatre of war, those problems were unlikely to be fielded especially well. There are particular issues here, and we must be

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prepared to face up to them. One, although I have only anecdote to go on, is that some people enter the forces because the structure that they provide is exactly what their personality needs. When they leave the forces, however, that structure simply disappears. Often, their homes will have gone, and their families will sometimes have gone, too, so they find themselves in difficult territory.

A second suggestion is that there is necessarily a culture of mental toughness in the forces, so people are slow to own up to whatever problems they may have. Those problems might therefore go unrecognised and be submerged for quite some time, and that is at the root of some of the problems that were so well analysed by the hon. Member for York Outer.

We in this place have clocked these problems, and quite a lot has been done about them. Since 2010, when the PAC report I quoted was produced, there has been a surprising amount of really good progress. On 6 April 2010, the previous Government committed themselves to providing £2 million of new funding. They can be credited with increasing the number of helplines and endeavouring to increase the education and training of GPs. We also pay tribute to the Murrison report, which represented excellent progress. Before that, the Ministry of Defence even did some research, which helped everything along. There is strong cross-party commitment to recognising these problems and doing something about them. In a sense, therefore, Parliament can justifiably credit itself with having done something about a very real and clearly identified problem.

I would like to conclude by thinking about where we go from here. My concern is that most of the solutions that were proposed following the previous Government’s deliberations and the Murrison report involved something along the lines of specialist health service commissioning. I do not want to talk about the difficulties of the legislation currently going through Parliament, but such specialist commissioning is an issue. The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) has advocated as a solution getting round specialist commissioning to some extent by means of an agency that is a one-stop, catch-all arrangement. Creditable though that suggestion is, it will not get us out of the business of specialist commissioning, because the problems will show up locally in many diverse settings. I wonder whether the Minister will say something about that.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): When I was the Defence Minister with responsibility for such matters, we set up pilot schemes with the NHS, with which Combat Stress was involved. Delivery issues are important, because in most respects the treatment is exactly the same whether the patient is a civilian or not, but some members or former members of the armed forces would prefer to talk to someone with experience in the armed forces. That is why we involved such people in the pilots.

On the other hand, other people from the armed forces did not want to see someone who had also been in the armed forces, because as far as they were concerned that life had finished, or they wanted to move on, or they had had a bad experience. It is a difficult issue to come to terms with, and that is why there is a need to mix and match support and clinical help. It is important for people to have that choice.

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John Pugh: I defer to the hon. Gentleman’s experience, and he is probably right in advocating that solution. The question is who will secure that proper mix.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Pugh: The Minister is going to tell us.

Mr Burns: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Given that I will not have very much time to speak, can I deal with the question of who will commission veterans’ mental health services? It will be the responsibility of the NHS Commissioning Board.

John Pugh: I am relieved that it is placed within an appropriate body, although the board has an awful lot else to do.

3.21 pm

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on bringing forward such a sensitive topic, and I associate myself with his remarks about today’s tragic news about the loss of life in Afghanistan.

Like many hon. Members who have attended the debate, I am encouraged to participate following a meeting a month ago with a constituent of mine, Mr Paul Marston, an ex-serviceman. He expressed serious concern about the lack of recognition for servicemen leaving the armed forces who are affected physically and mentally. That prompted me, as it did many other hon. Members, to look into the situation.

Approximately 22,000 armed services personnel leave the service to return to civilian life every year. There are an estimated 5 million veterans in the UK. For many of those people, who are used to support within the armed forces family, it is often difficult to cope outside the military framework. Veterans face a range of problems associated with mental health, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) drew our attention, ranging from the failure to hold down employment and problems in their personal lives to alcohol or drug misuse and contact with the judicial system. Given the contribution that veterans have made to our country, it is vital that the Government should do all in their power to provide a dedicated mental health service for veterans.

I have a further interest in the matter, as a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Like many other hon. Members, when I first arrived here I knew nothing about the armed forces, and through that scheme I have had the pleasure of visiting troops abroad and have learned something of their lives at first hand. I have met some of them at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. I have recently returned from a trip with the scheme to the Army training centre in Kenya, where I met soldiers taking part in a hot climate training exercise in preparation for a tour of Afghanistan later this year.

Having met the servicemen and listened to my constituent and other people, I welcome the Government’s commitment to act on the review carried out by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). I understand that there were four key recommendations, including an increase in the number of mental health

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professionals providing outreach work for veterans and the introduction of a veterans information service, deployed 12 months after a person leaves service.

The Government have also, of course, published the armed forces covenant, which sets a framework on how the armed forces community can expect to be treated. It includes improving veterans’ access to mental health services, such as building a greater focus on mental health into discharge and examination. My constituent made the point to me forcefully that early intervention is the key. We need to ensure that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health-related issues are spotted early, and I am pleased that the Government recognise that.

It is important to work to remove the stigma that is in many ways attached to mental health trauma, particularly for veterans. Such awareness could be raised by a national memorial to those who suffer mental health problems because of combat. That is not my idea, but the idea of Mr Marston, who is frustrated by the treatment of veterans. I pay tribute to his dedication to that cause. He has told me about a new veterans contact point close to where he lives, but says there is little awareness of it in the veteran community, or even the wider community. That facility has the potential to be of massive benefit to all ex-servicemen, but Mr Marston believes that it has not been sufficiently publicised.

Mr Marston would like the idea of such a monument to be pursued, and he has registered an e-petition on the No. 10 website, calling for such a memorial to injured soldiers. There are, of course, many memorials to those who have fallen in war, but the one suggested by Mr Marston would be particularly for those who suffer from physical or mental health problems, and it would raise the profile of veterans with health issues. It would also be a worthy endeavour in itself. I acknowledge that that is outside the area of responsibility of the Minister who is responding today, but it will be of substantial comfort to Mr Marston and many of his colleagues to know that consideration is being given to recognising in that way the contribution that veterans have made.

3.26 pm

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I was not planning to speak, Mr Dobbin.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): No, I did not think that you were.

Andrew Percy: I will speak only for three or four minutes, which I think will give the shadow Minister and the Minister longer than they were expecting; but as there was not a line of hon. Members waiting to speak, I thought that I would add my voice to this important debate. I apologise, Mr Dobbin, for not dropping you a note.

I congratulate my near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), on securing this important debate on a vital issue. There are no party politics involved; we all agree about the sort of services that we want provided for ex-service personnel. I just want to tell the story of a constituent of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). He is the gentleman whom I mentioned earlier, Charles Brindley, who is the vice-chairman of the Royal British

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Legion in Brigg, in my constituency. He has been trying to put together a project in the area to establish better mental health and support services for veterans. He is trying to co-ordinate through the councils, and I am pleased that North Lincolnshire council has taken him up on his offer of working with it.

There is so much involved in trying to bring everything together. The e-mails that we have had from Charles Brindley and the discussions that we have had with him have been quite enlightening. He has been trying to work with the Prison Service, and he found out that one prison does not have a dedicated individual to respond to ex-service personnel there. He has been trying to work with the primary care trusts and GPs on the very point that I raised with my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman): raising GPs’ awareness of what is available through the NHS for ex-service personnel. He has also been trying to work with other organisations that I would not even have thought of, such as Age UK, which has told him that older people may now be starting to present with mental health problems that go a long way back.

A range of organisations and institutions come across ex-service personnel at different points in their lives and provide them with services, and the fact that they are not necessarily always joined up concerns me. Some of what is happening can certainly be brought together under the auspices of the local authorities, but I echo the idea of a dedicated veterans agency. The example that is probably most similar to what we want are the incredibly dedicated services, including specialist health services, provided to veterans in the United States, where veterans seem to be provided with a lot of support that we in this country sadly do not give.

As many Members have said, it is often far down the line that mental health problems start to rear up. This summer, I met one of my ex-pupils walking through the town centre. I had not seen him since I taught him when he was about 16, and I asked him what he had been doing since then. He said, “I’ve been out in Afghanistan.” I think he was in a Yorkshire regiment. He said, “I got shot. I’ll show you.” He then rolled up his trouser leg to show me his bullet wounds. I asked him if he was okay, and he said, “I’m absolutely fine. I’m going to get paid out now. I’m going to get a better pension, and I’m going to get a house. Everything’s fine.” He may think that he is fine now, but in 10 or 15 years’ time, with his career in the military effectively ended, a mental health problem, as we know, could rear its head. What will there be to support that individual then? He is getting a lot of support from the Army at the moment—he had no criticism of that—but in 10 or 20 years’ time, that support might not be there, or he might not know how to access it.

Jessica Lee (Erewash) (Con): I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that another consequence of delayed stress and trauma for veterans can be the impact on their family relationships. Representing families in courts, I have seen over the years that that has caused difficulties. It has been largely a case of fathers having a less meaningful relationship with their children and being less able to take responsibility for them.

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Andrew Percy: I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says. We have probably all seen examples in our surgeries of military service sometimes leading to breakdowns, which are then presented at our constituency surgery for assistance. I am reminded of the old saying: while the physical wounds may heal, the mental scars never quite go away. So I endorse what has been said by other Members today.

John Pugh: One of the themes in the debate today has been whether we do or do not have a veterans agency. Somebody said that the veterans agency is an American model, but the Americans do not have our GP system. Even with the existence of a veterans agency, is there not a problem with how that then interacts with the GP, who will often be the first port of call when problems occur?

Andrew Percy: That is exactly the point that the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) accepted. In creating anything, there will always be interaction problems. We all know where we want to be; how we get there is probably a bit more difficult. Now that the shadow Minister and the Minister will have a little more time, I am sure that they will expertly plot a course forward to deal with these issues.

3.32 pm

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): As always, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this important and topical debate. We have heard the sad news today that six of our service personnel are missing and presumed dead in Afghanistan. It is a poignant reminder of the reality of serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families at this time.

I note that we had a similar debate on this subject last year, proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears). It explored many of the important issues surrounding the mental health of veterans. It is right that we should again take the opportunity to discuss the welfare of our serving personnel and veterans and the impact on their families. For veterans’ mental health, we need to look at the true picture of how people are affected after they have left service. Indeed, we should be paying as much attention to the issues that face service personnel and their families when they leave the armed service as when they are actually in service.

The UK’s armed services are among the best in the world, and we can rightly be proud of them. We owe them a great deal of gratitude for the work that they do in our name. The charity, Combat Stress, has shown that a significant minority of servicemen and women suffer from mental ill health as a result of their experiences. A study in May 2010 into personnel who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan showed a 4% prevalence of probable post-traumatic stress disorder. An estimated 180,000 troops have served in those two operations: if 4% develop PTSD, that equates to 7,200 more sufferers.

The study also highlighted a prevalence of 19.7% for common mental disorders, and 13% for alcohol misuse. We must look into ways in which we can deal with that and ensure that the right facilities and support are in

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place to diagnose and treat such conditions. Admittedly, improvements have been made in recent years. Mental health pilot schemes have improved support and treatment for personnel suffering from mental health problems.

In 2007, the Labour Government extended priority access to NHS services to all veterans whose medical conditions or injuries were suspected of being due to military service. Priority access had previously extended only to those claiming a war pension, and efforts were made to raise awareness of that. As has been mentioned in the debate, we now have the armed forces covenant enshrined in law, which I think all hon. Members welcome.

The interim report on the covenant summarises the Government’s approach, taking forward recommendations in the report by the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), “Fighting Fit”, which I also welcome. I understand that the report’s recommendations were rolled out over the past year, many of which were introduced as pilot programmes to be reassessed after their initial trial periods. I would welcome an update from the Minister on the pilots and also an assurance that his Department has been promoting them among serving personnel and veterans’ communities.

Most Members will have met ex-service constituents who have been directly affected and heard about their experiences, some of which we have heard in the debate today. We should rightly recognise the important work done by organisations such as Combat Stress, which 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 who are going through similar experiences.

The Enemy Within campaign run by Combat Stress seeks to tackle the stigma that, unfortunately, as we have heard today, can be a barrier to people getting the support and help that they need. Currently, they have a caseload of more than 4,800 veterans, including 228 who have served in Afghanistan and 589 who served in Iraq. The majority are ex-Army: 83.5%. Their youngest veteran is just 20. The invaluable work of Combat Stress and other organisations, such as the Royal British Legion, is to be warmly welcomed, but the Government should also take on their fair share of the responsibility. It is important that we do not view the services offered by the voluntary and charitable sector as any sort of replacement. That work should complement, not replace, the services that the Government offer.

Indeed, as we already know, the charitable sector is facing an incredibly tough time at the moment. Even though organisations such as Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion have continued to have generous support from the public, we should not assume that those services will always exist and always have enough funding to run. The Government should decide which 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 and the Royal British Legion to do so on their behalf.

The Government should also consider how mental health services for veterans can be guaranteed, when their national health service reforms are creating so much uncertainty. I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), although I am

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reassured by the Minister’s reply that a single commissioning body, the NHS Commissioning Board, will be responsible. I think that that is the right way forward.

Clearly, those in the armed forces are trained to do a tough job and rightly have to develop a tough mental attitude. This, of course, can mean that it can be harder for people coming out of the services to admit that they have a mental health problem, let alone talk about it. We should also take into account how long it can take people actually to get the support that they need. Combat Stress has suggested that the average length of time is 13 years. In some cases, it has taken veterans 40 years to seek out the help and support that they need. That is far too long, and we should do all that we can to shorten the time and to let people know that help is available for them now.

Combat Stress has also provided detailed evidence involving cases of individuals who have faced marriage break-up, unemployment, social isolation or substance abuse because they were unable to deal with their mental health problems. However, as with all mental health conditions, a great deal of stigma still surrounds it, which can make it much harder to talk about openly. Until we tackle that stigma, it will be difficult to make significant changes.

I appreciate that it is hard to establish the level of need without a tracking system. As we know, there is no record of how many veterans are being treated for mental health problems on the NHS. Clearly, if we cannot quantify the problem, it is difficult for the Government to quantify the true cost of treating mental illness among former members of the armed forces.

Nor should we overlook the impact of deployments on the mental health of our reservists, as has been mentioned. As we know, the Government’s Future Force 2020 plan showed that the role of reservists will increase significantly in the coming years, mirrored by reductions in the number of regular service personnel. It must make sense for the Government to ensure that support is in place for reservists prepared to take on those extra responsibilities.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I commend my hon. Friend for his speech. Is there not a problem in the offing, given that the Army is being reduced to 82,000 soldiers and certain regiments are being disbanded? We need to know what the NHS Commissioning Board and the Department of Health are doing to aid those who will soon be former soldiers entering civilian life and to determine their mental health issues and what type of help the NHS can provide.

Andrew Gwynne: I absolutely agree that we must ensure that ex-service personnel are supported. I am sure that the Minister will respond to that in his closing remarks.

One recommendation in the report “Fighting Fit” stated that a veterans’ information service should be deployed 12 months after a person leaves the armed forces and that regulars and reservists should be followed up approximately 12 months after they leave. Will the Minister update us on how that is developing, and what plans the Government have for the future funding of the Combat Stress-led 24-hour support telephone line for veterans? Will the Department provide an evaluation

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of how the funding for “Fighting Fit” has been spent, what it has achieved and what will happen for future funding? What additional steps is the Department taking to raise public awareness of issues that relate to veterans’ mental health?

Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): While my hon. Friend is on the subject of funding, is he, like me, keen to hear from the Minister whether he supports our call for a £1 million fund for research into legacy issues from Afghanistan and Iraq, with a focus on mental health? That could be paid for by a reduction in generals in the forces.

Andrew Gwynne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Labour Front-Bench defence team has made that commitment, which is laudable. Redistributing part of the saving to serve veterans’ mental health shows that the issue is a priority for us.

This debate has provided us with the opportunity to explore the issue of our veterans’ mental health and welfare. I pay tribute to Combat Stress, the Royal British Legion and other groups that, along with many service organisations and charities, play an outstanding role in supporting the whole armed forces family, for which we should thank them. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer on securing the debate. We must ensure that our servicemen and women receive support after their tour of duty is finished. Surely, we as a nation owe them that.

3.43 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am delighted that the House once again has the opportunity to debate an important issue, although it is sad that we are holding this debate against the backdrop of tragic news from Afghanistan. We await the final details of what has happened over there, but we must give full consideration to the families and friends who might be suffering at this terrible time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this debate. I also thank the other hon. Members who have taken part. The number of hon. Members in the Chamber for a Westminster Hall debate shows how important it is and why a debate is justified after we had one only three months ago.

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Guy Opperman), for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) on their contributions, and I thank the hon. Members for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and for Southport (John Pugh) for theirs, but I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer on the measured, informed and caring way in which he introduced the subject. It became clear as I listened to him that it is important to him as both a constituency Member of Parliament and as an individual. That came through during the course of his remarks.

As hon. Members will be more than aware, members of the armed forces put their lives on the line for their country, but it is we as parliamentarians who send them into combat. It is therefore incumbent on us to do everything that we can to protect their health and

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well-being, that of their families and that of veterans. There is no issue of greater importance for this Government, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it one of his priorities.

It is crucial and universally accepted that the health care provided by the Defence Medical Services to serving members of our armed forces is second to none. It is equally important that services are provided for our veterans for the rest of their lives when their health is affected as a result of their service, and that those services should be second to none. That is why I am pleased that in recent years, great strides have been made. I was particularly delighted to see in the Chamber a former Minister who had responsibility for veteran affairs during the previous Administration: the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who was here to listen to and participate in this debate. While he served in that post, he had a record of which he could be justifiably proud.

Several Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, raised the question of funding. Real-terms funding for the NHS as a whole is increasing, as we all know, but we have invested more than £7 million of funding in veterans’ mental health over the spending review period. I reassure hon. Members that we will continue to fund veterans’ mental health initiatives for the lifetime of this Parliament.

The focus of this debate is on raising awareness of veterans’ mental health. I feel strongly that we are now tackling the issue from a far more informed position than we once did. Thanks to charities such as Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, awareness of the well-being of the military community is high both in Parliament and, fortunately, among the general public.

I highlight the work of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), to whom many hon. Members referred. The report that he produced will push forward the agenda to improve and enhance veterans’ health. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked my hon. Friend to conduct a study on the relationship between the NHS and the armed forces, including former service personnel, in terms of mental health. The result was the report “Fighting Fit”, which I commend to those who have not already read or seen it, although, judging from my hon. Friends’ speeches, a disproportionate number of hon. Members in the Chamber have read it.

I am proud to say that both the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence have been working on the report’s implementation ever since it was published, which represents a milestone in the effort to improve mental health care for ex-service personnel. For me, one of the strongest themes of the report, and a factor that is particularly relevant to the topic of this debate, is the effect that service care can have on the mental health and well-being of those who have served. Some obvious themes emerged from the findings of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire, echoed in research by some of our partner organisations, in particular our strategic partner, Combat Stress. Its research shows that the average ex-serviceperson can take up to 14 years to seek help for anxiety and depression that has developed as a result of their service in the armed forces. Combat Stress put it vividly, and said that

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“those veterans suffer terribly in silence, often for years, before seeking help”,

a fact that was echoed in hon. Members’ speeches.

We must keep that in mind when services are designed. The help that we offer must be accessible throughout veterans’ lives, not just when they return from duty. We must also remember that today, we may just as well be designing and delivering care for Falklands veterans as for those who have served bravely in Iraq or Afghanistan. We owe it to all groups of veterans to get things right, to understand that mental health issues can come into an ex-serviceperson’s life long after they have been discharged, and to communicate that message to the public. It should be a key part of any awareness campaign.

“Fighting Fit” makes it clear that some veterans can never bring themselves to seek help—those who will not admit, even to themselves, that they have a problem, and who must rely on close family members and friends to help them move forward. In partnership with Combat Stress, we have launched a 24-hour veterans’ mental health support line run by a charity, Rethink. The helpline is based on the principle of lifelong care and offers support to veterans of any age and at any stage in their lives. Families may also contact the helpline, both for themselves and to talk about a loved one. It allows both groups to receive targeted support from people trained and experienced in dealing with often complex mental health needs.

Both my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) raised the issue of funding the helpline and its future funding. I am extremely pleased to announce that the total number of calls taken by the helpline is now upwards of 5,000. Hon. Members may be aware that we initially launched the helpline as a one-year pilot, which expired at the end of February this year. However, I am pleased to announce today that we are continuing to fund it for the next year and will consider future funding after that. Working closely with Combat Stress and other partner organisations, it will continue.

We are also working to introduce a veterans’ information service over the next two months or so. It will routinely contact service leavers 12 months after they are discharged to establish whether they have any health needs that require attention. The “Fighting Fit” report refers to the service as something of a safety net to help veterans once the support structures available to them during their service lives are no longer readily accessible. To get it right, it is essential that we are able easily to identify veterans, so we are working with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that a veteran’s status is properly recorded on his or her records. However, we must equally recognise that some who leave do not wish to have their veteran’s status recorded, and it is right to respect those wishes.

Returning to the issue of the safety net, there is another key point when it comes to an awareness of mental health issues of any sort. Perceived isolation can have a bad effect on mental health problems. The problem is bad enough anyway, but among ex-service personnel, it is often particularly bad, because the camaraderie that exists within a forces setting is so pronounced. It makes sense that once the institutional support network goes, an ex-serviceperson might feel alone, adrift or isolated. Support services should not necessarily try to recreate that camaraderie. It is often more beneficial in the long term to help veterans come to terms with their

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change in circumstances. By creating services that are easily accessible and trustworthy, we are going some way towards building an environment in which an ex-serviceperson feels accepted and understood, and in which recovery is more likely.

At the heart of easily accessible services should be a requirement to make them readily available in each local area. Having a service in each area, especially if it has a high military profile, goes a long way towards raising awareness of veterans’ mental health issues in the country as a whole. I am particularly proud of the effort that the Department of Health and my officials have made to spearhead the set-up of armed forces networks in each of the old strategic health authority areas. The networks are groups of representatives from the national health service, service charities and the armed forces who can represent the health and well-being interests of serving personnel, their families and veterans in the local area.

As part of meeting the “Fighting Fit” recommendations, integrated veterans’ mental health services are now being set up in each network area by the local NHS working in conjunction with Combat Stress. The services are at different stages of development, but I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, who specifically asked about this, that six of the 10 are already up and running and the remaining four will come online shortly.

We have also increased the number of mental health professionals providing services to veterans, not by the 30 recommended in the Murrison report, but by 50. My hon. Friend will be aware that the recommendation was 30, but we have been able to exceed that, and there are now 50 in place, which will considerably help to provide support and assistance to veterans.

Gemma Doyle: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Burns: No, I will not, because I am almost running out of time.

The partnership with Combat Stress and the innovative solutions delivered by the NHS at a local level is to be applauded. Regarding effectiveness, we are still in early days, but initial feedback has been positive, with more veterans being identified in the mental health care system and receiving the treatment that they need and deserve.

I want to point to an example of what is happening in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer. The work of Andy Wright with the vulnerable veterans and adult dependants project is particularly noteworthy and warrants praise. I am delighted to report that the project has delivered high levels of patient satisfaction, with 85% being very satisfied with their therapist. It is an excellent example of collaboration, which can only serve to raise further the profile of veterans’ issues more generally.

There is a final and vital aspect of veterans’ mental health and care that I would like to explore, which hon. Members have mentioned, and that is stigma. The title “Fighting Fit”

“recognises the importance of stigma and of making interventions acceptable to a population accustomed to viewing itself as mentally and physically robust.”

Stigma is a big barrier standing in the way of ex-service people getting help, and it is vital that we do everything we can to reduce it. Many Members on both sides of

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the House will be aware of the “Big White Wall”, an online well-being network for serving personnel, their families, veterans and the general public. It is a social network that allows people with mental health problems from every walk of life to engage with others who have similar problems. The anonymity of the network allows for a free and frank exchange of experiences, with a view to generating a wider sense of support, and it is staffed by professional counsellors. The Department of Health and the MOD are funding a one-year pilot for service personnel, their families and veterans on the “Big White Wall”. I am pleased to say that it has had excellent take-up. Up to 1 March, 2,019 places of the original 2,400 provided in the pilot have been filled. Of those, veterans represent 40%, with 38% being serving personnel and 22% family members.

Launched on the same day as the “Big White Wall”, and in conjunction with the Royal College of General Practitioners, an online e-learning package aims to educate civilian GPs about the conditions from which veterans often suffer. The idea is to reduce the stigma attached and increase the likelihood that GPs will be able to give veterans effective and suitable care. That has been successful with its target audience; the package has had almost 14,000 hits since its launch.

I believe that there is a consensus on both sides of the House that much is being done, but much more remains to be done. The more we as Government can engage with veterans, the public and the media, the more likely mental health issues will be understood more widely. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will continue to work together to help the services reach their full potential, so that no ex-serviceperson ever has anything less than all the support that they need of the highest quality.

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Typhoon Aircraft (Exports)

4 pm

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): I give warning that I will call the Minister in this debate no later than 20 past 4. We have had a couple of problems in previous debates.

Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this debate on support for export sales of Typhoon aircraft. It also gives me great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), is responding. That is appropriate considering all that he has done on recent visits, on behalf of the Government, to India.

It is always a pleasure to speak on behalf of my hard-working constituents in Fylde, many of whom are employed in the aerospace industry. In my constituency, BAE Systems’ Warton site employs 6,272 people, with a further 4,000 employed in neighbouring Samlesbury. Indeed, BAE Systems provides one in four of all local manufacturing jobs in Fylde. Typhoon is the world-class platform on which the long-term success of UK military aerospace is predicated. That is why I called for today’s debate.

Those jobs are vital in our mission to rebalance the British economy, by returning manufacturing to its core. The military aerospace sector represents 70% of all UK defence exports, which are worth £4.5 billion a year to the British economy. Typhoon alone directly supports 10,000 jobs in the UK, and more than double that indirectly. At a time when all parties are rightly worried about youth unemployment, it is important to appreciate BAE Systems’ commitment to training and developing people, with 1,000 apprentices and 500 graduate trainees at any one time. It also sustains a supply chain made up of many small and medium-sized enterprises, including 1,200 suppliers in the north-west alone.

Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Companies such as C-MAC and Norfolk Capacitors in Great Yarmouth are also part of the supply chain to MOD projects and other organisations’ projects. Does he agree that the issue affects SMEs across the country, including in places such as Great Yarmouth?

Mark Menzies: Absolutely. BAE Systems is always the company one thinks about in relation to Typhoon, but my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that component suppliers—large and small—are located in every corner of the country. I know he has spoken up on behalf of his constituents on the matter.

As well as benefiting the economy as a whole, supporting the Typhoon programme has direct advantages to taxpayers by reducing the Ministry of Defence’s unit costs. Savings are generated through increased production runs and a global network of operators, as well as through the pooling of spares and other support-related activities. Exports level out the peaks and troughs of domestic demand and give the MOD more programme flexibility. They also underpin some of our most important strategic relationships.

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BAE Systems’ highly skilled work force have extensive expertise and experience over many decades of working in-country with global partners to deliver platforms that best fit their unique operational requirements, such as the Hawk trainer in India and the Tornado in Saudi Arabia. I have no doubt that the same work force are more than capable of continuing to deliver that level of service with Typhoon.

In all defence exports, the importing Government are the customer, and their relationship with the exporting Government is vital. That is why our support is so vital: customer Governments need to know that a Typhoon acquisition will enable interoperability, and facilitate a close and enduring relationship between the air forces of the two countries, with opportunities to train together, share assets and doctrine, and determine ways to enhance capability and reduce the cost of operation. Here the support of the MOD, in particular, is crucial. It is important that we continue to give our partners that confidence.

I believe the Government understand that. That is why, while respecting Germany’s role as consortium leader, the British Government have given such strong backing to the sale of Typhoons to India.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate because the Eurofighter and BAE Systems are critical to his area. He talks about the Government’s relationship with BAE Systems. One anonymous industry source was reported in the newspaper as saying about the Typhoon Indian contract:

“Our defence industry is not working in tandem with the Government as much as the French worked with Dassault.”

What would the hon. Gentleman say in response to that?

Mark Menzies: The hon. Gentleman summed it up: it was an anonymous source. My experience is that the British Government and BAE Systems have no criticism of each other in the way they have been working to try to achieve the best for the work force in Warton. The Prime Minister himself took a leading role in the UK’s largest trade mission to India in living memory. I was encouraged.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As he knows, BAE Systems at Brough is just outside my constituency. We have a few choice things to say about BAE, but that is for another time. In relation to the Typhoon contract, which was another blow for the whole of BAE, including in Brough, does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite bizarre, given how much foreign aid we give to India—I think four times more than the French—that we are not in the running? There is still an opportunity for the Government to get their full weight behind the contract and to say to the Indians, “We expect something in return for what we give in aid.”

Mark Menzies: My hon. Friend has put that in words that I possibly could not. I will come later to some of the things that I think the British Government could do.

It is important to clarify the importance that the British Government place on this. I was encouraged,

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not just by the Prime Minister’s visit to India, leading the delegation, but by his proactive approach and extensive knowledge of the topic at a recent meeting that hon. Members held with him at No. 10 to discuss this important matter. I also thank the Minister for his two ministerial visits to India within the last year; he need take lessons from no one when it comes to upholding the interests of the UK defence sector abroad. None the less, I would encourage him, in his ongoing discussions with his Indian counterparts, to urge them genuinely to review, even at this late stage, the details of this contract, in particular, to note the advantages that working with BAE Systems on Hawk has brought the Indian air force. It should not be forgotten that both the Royal Air Force and the royal Saudi air force use the Hawk as the trainer aircraft for Typhoon. Together, those aircraft mark a perfect partnership in Anglo-Indian co-operation.

India has always been a proud nation; now it has truly come of age. India’s new role is not just regional but international. Britain has consistently supported United Nations Security Council reform to recognise that reality. However, if India is to play its full part on the world stage, it needs the very best military equipment. Typhoon, I believe, is the best fighter jet currently on the market. Diplomatically, India’s international position would also be enhanced by stronger relations with the UK and other partner nations—Germany, Italy and Spain.

It is important to remember that the consortium is made up of private sector companies that need to take primary responsibility for any commercial deal. They must continue to work together to provide a united front for potential customers. They must be proactive in seeking deals on behalf of their shareholders. Perhaps most importantly, they must be competitive on price. However, Government can play a supporting role, as the example of Nissan proved so successfully yesterday. To that end, I ask the Ministry of Defence to give a long-term commitment to enhance Typhoon with operational capabilities that are essential to both the RAF and export customers, such as e-scan radar, and the integration of new weapon systems.

Graham Jones: The hon. Gentleman is making a good point. He is passionate about BAE Systems. That passion is there for all to see and has been ever since he was elected. The Government’s White Paper, “National Security Through Technology”, suggests that British companies no longer have priority when it comes to MOD contracts. What does that say to foreign Governments, if the UK Government are unsure about whether they are going to buy their own products?

Mark Menzies: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which, were it to be taken literally, as he just said it, would be a cause of concern. However, the White Paper states the UK Government’s commitment to research and development very clearly, and that is an area on which we lead the world. The Government, through the White Paper, are determined to continue to lead the world in those strategic sectors.

Typhoon exports are not just a matter for the Ministry of Defence. I appreciate that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence is responding to the debate. However, Typhoon exports are inherently cross-departmental. It is vital for the Department for Business, Innovation and

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Skills, from the Secretary of State down, to engage fully with its German and Indian counterparts. I also urge all relevant Departments to ask their Indian counterparts whether they are looking at this contract beyond price, as this product offers world-leading capabilities.

The India deal is by no means done, but we would clearly not be here today if it had gone perfectly thus far. We must never allow ourselves to be in this situation of uncertainty. The good news is that the upcoming bids will be led by Britain. The British-led consortium is well placed to take advantage of our historical ties with Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Qatar and, crucially, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Foreign Secretary’s leadership in reinvigorating our vital Commonwealth bonds should also stand Typhoon in good stead. While the Minister can only respond on his Department’s behalf, in his response, will he please give an indication of the level of Government support for engagement with those countries? In particular, can he reassure me that the Ministry of Defence has played its full part in enhancing relations with Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and will continue to do so in the coming months? I also ask him to encourage other relevant Departments to be as proactive as he has been.

We should never be shy about supporting British defence exports—other countries are not. We must not allow ourselves to be caught queuing, while others are elbowing their way to the front. Let us never forget that the Typhoon is an exceptional aircraft, built by the finest work force in the world, and that it showcases the very best of British engineering on a global stage.

4.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Gerald Howarth): This is rather earlier than I had anticipated. It is an enormous pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, as you and I share a number of matters in common.

I am delighted to respond to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) on securing it and on having brought with him reinforcements from both sides of the House in support of his case. It is good to see the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and my hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) and for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), who has just made an outstanding speech in the House in tribute to Her Majesty, as befits a former Army officer; he did so with great aplomb.

Since my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde first arrived in the House, he has been extraordinarily assiduous in making the case not only for his constituency, but for the wider aerospace industry. In that, he is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Michael Jack, who was always a doughty champion, too. As my hon. Friend made clear in his speech, the aerospace industry is vital to the economic life of the north-west.

The Government attach great importance to the role of exports in restoring the country’s economic health, following the catastrophic destruction of the public finances by the previous Prime Minister. In line with the

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Government’s commitment to promote responsible exports, as set out in the coalition agreement, we have been especially active in supporting and promoting defence exports to overseas customers. We have intensified our support for bilateral engagement by directing that every Minister travelling overseas will promote the best that Britain has to offer, including its defence exports. I hope my hon. Friend will take reassurance from that.

Let me stress that such activism by the Government is founded on responsible exports, taking full account of UK legislation on licensing and our international treaty obligations. Our keenness to support UK industry does not translate into a cavalier policy to sell anything to anyone. As I shall say later, defence exports play a critical role in enhancing our international relationships, to which my hon. Friend referred.

Although this is an effort right across the Government and the lead for trade promotion rests with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Ministry of Defence has been doing much of the heavy lifting to bring practical effect to this Government policy. In that endeavour, we enjoy massive support from the Defence and Security Organisation element of UK Trade & Investment, led by Richard Paniguian, whose team do an outstanding job for us and for Britain’s defence industry.

With regard to Typhoon, the cross-Whitehall effort is brought together at the very top, as my hon. Friend acknowledged. Must of that is down to the personal leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister himself. Ministers and senior officials meet continually with a view to ensuring that industry has the appropriate Government support to help further its various campaigns across the globe. I pay a particular tribute to our ambassadors, high commissioners and defence attachés around the world for their contribution to that team effort. It is, astonishingly, quite a joined up exercise. It is more joined up, particularly between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the MOD, than I ever anticipated when I was in opposition.

In my role as Minister for International Security Strategy, I have already visited 15 countries so far, including Chile, Brazil, United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia, pressing the case for Typhoon or promoting the Type 26 global combat ship, and, always, championing the depth and breadth of British industry’s capability in the defence and security sectors—businesses large and small.

Graham Jones: I have a concern about some of the export orders. Some of them involve new build at the factory sites of Samlesbury and Warton, but some involve displacements from the RAF. When the Minister is seeking new orders, is he seeking new build orders, or is he seeking to displace some of the Typhoons that were destined for the RAF?

Mr Howarth: As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde made clear in his speech, the customers are overseas Governments. We do whatever we can, within reasonable limits and within the constraints that apply to us in providing the equipment that our own armed forces require, to provide what the customer is looking for. Clearly, new build is preferable because we understand that it generates jobs in the United Kingdom. However,

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other countries are increasingly looking for technology transfer and partnership. Trying to deal with that issue is challenging.

I recently returned from a successful trade mission to India, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde mentioned, where I led a delegation of 25 British defence companies, large and small, to promote the very best that Britain has to offer. That kind of initiative is designed to demonstrate to our friends in India our serious intent to build lasting partnerships with them. I am due to return to India for its defence exposition later this month, so I will see the Indian Minister again. I will mention India specifically in a moment.

Typhoon has already secured a number of export contracts beyond the four partner nations, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has ordered 72 to date, and Austria, which has ordered 15. The MOD is actively supporting DSO and working with Eurofighter Typhoon’s three other partner nations on a number of other campaigns, which are at an advanced stage, including in Oman, Malaysia, the UAE and a further tranche for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The UK is in the lead in responding to the requirements of Oman, Malaysia and the UAE, and Her Majesty’s Government and BAE Systems, as UK prime contractor, are also fully involved in those campaigns, led by our partners.

The MOD’s support activity has included deployments of aircraft to the Dubai and Malaysian air shows. The latter engagement also took in valuable participation in a multinational exercise within the five powers defensive arrangement. The RAF has also made platforms available to carry out impressive flight evaluation trials here in the UK, so that the overseas customer can witness Typhoon’s superb performance at close quarters. That is pretty impressive stuff by any measure, but all the more so when viewed against the backdrop of recent operations.

Earlier this month, a delegation from Malaysia visited the UK to undertake such a flight evaluation trial. RAF Coningsby hosted the Royal Malaysian air force, and a demanding schedule of sorties covering a wide range of mission scenarios was carried out, supported by maintenance demonstrations by teams on the ground.

We were very pleased to receive Oman’s request of 21 January for a proposal from BAE Systems for the supply and support of Typhoon aircraft. That represents an important step towards the contract and is a further sign of the strong and enduring relationship between our two countries. My noble Friend Lord Astor and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan) are well connected in the two countries I have just mentioned and have performed a huge service in adding to the strength of the British engagement.

As I mentioned, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to purchase 72 Typhoon aircraft, under the former Government. That is welcome, and together with initial logistics and training packages, it is worth several billion pounds to the UK and our European partners. We hope to provide a further tranche in future.

In the UAE, following representations from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, Eurofighter Typhoon was invited in November to submit a bid for 60 aircraft, when it had been thought a deal with another contractor was about to be signed. We are all working hard to prepare an attractive, competitive bid to one of Britain’s oldest allies. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary

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of State for Defence is due to visit the UAE shortly. This morning, I talked to Alan Garwood from BAE Systems, who returned this morning from the UAE. I assure all hon. Members in this Chamber that that is indicative of the effort that has been put into this campaign across the Government and industry.

Of course, we are disappointed about the decisions made in Japan and India, but of course we fully respect their decisions. The Indian Government have chosen not to take Typhoon into the detailed negotiations phase of their medium multi-role combat aircraft competition, but the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium and the partner nations stand ready to enter into further discussions with the Indian Government, should that be their wish.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Fylde on securing the debate, which is important for his constituency. I have a genuine question for the Minister, relating to how optimistic we should be about the prospect of the Indians changing their minds. Will he tell hon. Members how many contracts the British Government have got to that stage that have then been subject to such a change of mind, because that is not common, is it?

Mr Howarth: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising an important point. India had to select from two bids on the basis of price, price, price—nothing else. We understand that that is the procedure in India and that, unless and until negotiations with L1—the lowest bidder—have been exhausted and do not lead to a contract, at that point and only that point the Indian Government will be able to enter into negotiations with the other bidder. I assure the hon. Lady that we are maintaining a close interest, but we have to respect the Indian Government’s decision. Beating them about the head and saying, “You made the wrong choice,” is not the best way to win friends and influence people, least of all to encourage a customer to turn to a company.

We stand ready. I have to say that, in this case, the UK is not and never has been in the lead. The campaign in India has been led from the outset by Germany and EADS Cassidian, not by the UK and BAE Systems.

A great strength of Typhoon is that it is proven on combat operations, as we found out in Libya. I thought that it might help if I put on the record some of those achievements. Typhoon’s performance stood out from its coalition contemporaries. Fully loaded with up to six air-to-air missiles, four 1,000 lb bombs, a targeting pod and two under-wing fuel tanks, it was able to cruise at more than 500 knots and at heights in excess of 40,000 feet, taking it well clear of rough weather.

The combination of Typhoon’s long-range radar and data-link integration gave its pilots exceptional situational awareness, which enabled them to control and co-ordinate less well-equipped coalition assets. In six months of deployed operations, the Typhoon force flew more than 600 sorties for a total of just over 3,000 flying hours, without any requirement for an engine change, and delivered more than 200 precision weapons. The aircraft’s excellent reliability resulted in no sorties lost owing to serviceability issues. That is a pretty outstanding record.

Defence exports generally make an important contribution to sustaining our defence industry, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Some 300,000 people are employed

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in the defence and aerospace industries, which provide tens of thousands of highly skilled jobs. In 2010, defence exports amounted to approximately £6 billion and made a significant contribution to the balance of payments. Figures from UK Trade & Investment show that in the first decade of this century the UK was, on average, the second most successful exporter of legitimate defence equipment in the world, not least in my hon. Friend’s and my constituencies.

It is not simply about money and getting cash in. As my hon. Friend implied, helping our friends to build up their own defence and security capabilities contributes to regional security and helps tackle threats to UK national security closer to their source. No other industry in this country can leverage influence so much as defence, which is why we are giving it such a high priority.

I pay tribute to the UK companies, large and small, throughout the supply chain that are participating in this export drive, including Rolls Royce, SELEX, Martin-Baker, MBDA and Ultra. That reminds us that the Typhoon is not just a BAE product, but encapsulates a range of outstanding British and European technologies. Having paid such a tribute, I extend it to my hon. Friend and highlight the contribution of companies in Lancashire, because in calling this debate he pays tribute to the company and its employees for bringing so much back into the constituency of Fylde and the north-west more generally. I shall, of course, forbear from saying too much about the north-west, as I represent the Farnborough Aerospace Consortium in my neck of the woods, but we are complementary.

I reassure my hon. Friend that Her Majesty’s Government, led by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, are working to support Typhoon exports and British industry more widely, but in these straitened times others are doing much the same and we should not expect an easy ride. The UK enjoys historic ties with a wide range of countries, often dating back centuries, greater than any other nation can claim. Our strategy is to revitalise those ties, both in the interests of our mutual defence and regional stability and to the benefit of our outstanding aerospace industry, of which this country can be truly proud.

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Syria and Lebanon

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Before we begin, I announce that I intend to call the Minister 10 minutes before the end of the debate, at 10 to 5.

4.30 pm

Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): In January I joined a parliamentary delegation to Lebanon, organised by the Council for Arab-British Understanding, which included my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). We set out to examine the effect of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon, to meet with Syrians, including opposition representatives and refugees, in particular in the border areas, and to speak with Lebanese politicians about their perspective on the crisis.

Lebanon and Syria are two countries whose geography was once one, whose history is shared, whose ethnic and sectarian make-up is similar and whose economies are intertwined. Lebanon’s sole functioning land border is with Syria, from where it gets many of its food imports, while Syria depends on Lebanon for banking and financial services. Lebanon is possibly the most affected of the neighbouring countries by the crisis inside Syria and is an example of why that crisis, in contrast to the Libya situation perhaps, is so dangerous to the border region.

The impact of the crisis is felt in many ways, at security, political, economic, confessional and ethnic levels, each of which I shall touch on briefly. On security, Syria presents a serious risk to Lebanon. I will come on to refugees later, but their numbers, which are increasing at present, will undoubtedly affect the sectarian and political balance in Lebanon. Even before the crisis, an estimated 300,000 Syrian workers were in Lebanon, all with families inside Syria. Many Syrian opposition activists, some of whom we met, are active from within Lebanon. Many told us that it was and is unsafe for them in Beirut, where they feel monitored by supporters of the Syrian regime.

We visited Tripoli, and sectarian clashes were clearly a possibility, especially along the fault line between the Sunni and Alawi areas—sadly, subsequently, three deaths resulted in February. The security situation has not been helped by Syrian interference in Lebanon; there has been a series of kidnappings in the Bekaa valley in recent weeks, as a result of the security vacuum in the border area, some apparently for money but others clearly political. I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), what representations the British Government have made to the Lebanese Government about their responsibilities towards Syrians living in Lebanon. In Lebanon, we heard many unsubstantiated accusations of al-Qaeda activity in the Bekaa valley, but many Lebanese to whom we spoke were dubious. Has the Minister received reports of such activity, and what is his assessment of what is happening in the Bekaa valley?

Politically, Lebanese politics is polarised into two groups, those who support Assad and those who do not, referred to as the coalitions of 8 March and of 14 March. Hezbollah is the most powerful force in Lebanon and remains supportive of Assad. Critical questions that everyone was asking when we were in

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Lebanon were about how strong that support is and what Hezbollah’s position would be as and when the crisis in Syria deepens. I ask the Minister whether the Government will sanction discussions with the 8 March parliamentary bloc about the Syria crisis. It is important for us to persuade that group of the advantages to Lebanon of not becoming directly involved in the internal affairs of its neighbour.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate on this important issue. On the position of Syrians in Lebanon, there is an assertion that, predominantly, the security forces in Lebanon are very much unsympathetic to those opposing the Assad regime. Did he see evidence of that?

Mr Love: The picture is, indeed, complex. Broadly speaking, the 14 March coalition is opposed to Assad and 8 March is broadly sympathetic. Clearly, Hezbollah has strong connections with the Assad regime and, if we are to take its views at face value, it places a great deal of importance on maintaining that regime, but we heard conflicting views about who was standing where exactly. As the situation in Syria deteriorates, we are yet to see what will happen in Lebanon, and that is one of the issues that I am raising in the debate. Does the Minister agree, if I may put it this way, that there are all the ingredients for potential civil conflict and tension within Lebanon, the tragic history of which we all know?

On minorities, there are almost 300,000 registered Palestinian refugees, living mainly in 12 UN refugee camps and some 20 unofficial camps. We visited two camps during our visit to Lebanon, and it became painfully clear that the Syria crisis has polarised opinion in an already difficult situation, so the Syrian problems are not helping the future of the Palestinian people living in Lebanon. There is also minority solidarity; Lebanese Alawis are of course concerned about the fate of their Syrian counterparts, as are the Druze, the Sunnis and the Christians. Recently, even the Maronite patriarch was moved to support the Assad regime, claiming—I have to say, somewhat ludicrously—that it was the most democratic Government in the region. Similarly in Turkey, the Turkish authorities fear the effect of the Syrian crisis on their Arab Alawi population and their Kurdish community.

The two countries are somewhat dependent economically. Sanctions are hitting Lebanon as well as Syria, and tourism is down. Many of the communities that we visited close to the border were dependent on smuggling, and those communities are suffering the substantial additional burden of hosting the refugees. Does the Minister agree that the international community should look at how to assist Lebanon in handling the economic impact of the crisis in Syria?

The most important consideration is the refugees. The UN is reporting that, following the crisis in Homs and the shelling of other areas in Syria close to the Lebanese border, between 1,000 and 2,000 refugees are trying to cross the border. That is in addition to the some 7,000 refugees already registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the north and the many thousands unregistered in Lebanon; the UN estimates that around 1,500 vulnerable Syrian refugees

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are in southern Beirut. The total number of refugees, according to the UNHCR, now exceeds 15,000 and is growing fast. According to Save the Children, about one quarter of those refugees are children under the age of four.

We visited Tripoli and Wadi Khaled, close to the border, where refugees were being hosted. Their stories confirmed the litany of horrors that we have all heard concerning the events in Syria and in Homs in particular. There were no refugee camps, and people were surviving in abandoned homes and other buildings, frequently with no heating and inadequate shelter. They were dependent on Lebanese families, some of whom were relatives, who were already incredibly deprived, and had lost out due to the absence of cross-border trade.

The Red Cross told us that it could cope with perhaps another 2,000 refugees before pressing the panic button. That was in January, and during the two months since then that figure has been overtaken. Many of the refugees were entering Lebanon via the Bekaa valley, a Hezbollah-controlled, Shia-dominated area. That was, and is creating tensions. All the refugees were fearful of the Lebanese security forces, and many were too scared to register with the UN, fearing that their details would be shared with the Lebanese authorities.

The UNHCR was operating in far from perfect conditions regarding the status of the Syrian refugees. Under international law, they are clearly refugees, and deserve all the rights and protections that go with that status. However, Lebanon has always been deeply sensitive about refugees, and prefers to refer to them as Syrians fleeing the unrest. The Lebanese Government would not recognise them, nor grant them their legitimate rights; for example, they have not issued them with refugee IDs. As a result, they cannot leave the border areas. Our understanding from the UNHCR is that immediate additional funding is needed to cope with the crisis. What assistance is the UK providing to UNHCR? Will the Minister consider providing further assistance as a matter of urgency to help with the looming crisis in that country?

What did the Minister make of the recent comments by the Lebanese President that the influx of some Syrian families into Lebanon as a result of the turbulence does not constitute a major problem because they can “stay with their relatives”? He continued:

“We are treating the Syrians who fled as families, as relatives and not as refugees.”

Do the Government accept that they are genuine refugees? What discussions have there been with the Lebanese authorities on their responsibilities to recognise and protect refugees, and accord them their full rights under international law? What plans have the Government made with their international partners about the possibility of a humanitarian disaster in Syria if the economy there crashes, the security situation deteriorates even further, and the regime falls, which is a real possibility, leaving chaos in its wake? Have the Government discussed contingency plans with their Lebanese counterparts? In particular, has the Minister raised the issue of humanitarian access from Syria to Lebanon? What support can the EU and the UK give to the UNHCR to meet its needs should that happen?

The situation in Syria is critical and deteriorating, and that is having a significant impact on Lebanon. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House

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that the Government are not only monitoring the situation in that country, but are ready to take action to support those in need at the present time.

4.43 pm

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) on obtaining this debate. It is absolutely the right time for the House to be discussing the issue in greater depth than we have been able to do so far. The humanitarian situation in Syria is clearly of enormous international concern, and is frankly nothing short of outrageous, which is an overused word.

My hon. Friend and I met a young boy in hospital in the north of Lebanon, who had been severely injured by what was probably a nail bomb used by the Syrian authorities, perhaps the armed forces, to make war on children, in this case on a child of four or five. The Syrians’ medical skills saved his leg, and that is a great triumph, but it belies the fact that many other children have been killed in the conflict. The plight of refugees in Lebanon is genuinely pitiful. My hon. Friend made the important point that the Lebanese Government do not accord refugees any form of proper status under international law, so they are outwith what international law dictates they should do. I again ask the Minister whether it is possible to exert pressure on the Lebanese authorities to reconsider the matter, because that would make a material difference to the way in which refugees can be treated in Lebanon.

As my hon. Friend said, many refugees in Lebanon are housed with family and friends, but sometimes with total strangers. We saw families with many children packed into small rooms, sometimes without fathers, and often without proper access to financial support. Their plight is difficult, because many refugees are not registered with the UNHCR. Of the 15,000 or 16,000 refugees in Lebanon, perhaps only half are registered with the UNHCR, and depend on assistance from groups such as Save the Children, or perhaps friends and relatives, but the problem of what aid is available to the UNHCR and its assessment of need is a real one. I hope that the Minister can throw some light on what the international community is doing in that context.

The other issue that I want to put on the record is the need to recognise that what is taking place in Syria is enormously important in its own right, but may also have a hugely destabilising effect on Lebanon, a country that has known massive destabilisation for many years. Frankly, the region cannot afford to have Lebanon plunged again into crisis, because that would have an impact not only on Lebanon, but on its neighbours, including Israel, and the capacity for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so on. The issues are much more than those that apply to a country that in recent times has received relatively little attention in our media.

The humanitarian crisis and political destabilisation are extremely toxic, and I hope that the Minister can provide some assurance that at international level the situation in Lebanon is at least part of the consideration as we rightly debate internationally how to push Syria

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towards a better future, how to get rid of the vile Assad regime in Damascus, and how to move the whole region to a better place.

4.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham): I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) on securing an Adjournment debate on this important subject. He is extremely knowledgeable and experienced. As he explained, Syria and Lebanon have an intertwined history, and what happens in each affects the other. The Assad regime has long played an unhelpful role in Lebanon. In addition to ensuring a peaceful transition in Syria and ending the atrocities there as soon as possible, an important priority of this Government is to ensure that stability in Lebanon is not another victim of Assad’s repression.

Let me first address what is happening in Syria, and what we are doing about it. 15 March will mark the passing of the first anniversary of the Syrian regime’s sustained and brutal violence against its own people. In the last year, the UN has estimated that more than 7,500 people, including 380 children, have been killed. As the hon. Members for Edmonton and for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) said, the suffering is appalling, and the suffering of so many children is atrocious.

As well as the large number of people who have been killed, the Syrian regime is engaging in an horrific campaign of repression through widespread and systematic human rights violations, including the torture and rape of men, women and children. In recent days, much of the focus has been on Homs, where the Syrian regime has conducted a campaign of indiscriminate shelling and violence against the civilian population. Reports from Paul Conroy and other brave journalists demonstrate the appalling human suffering inflicted by the regime. The Syrian Government must bring an immediate end to violence across the whole of Syria, in Homs, Hama, Damascus, Deraa and elsewhere.

Rehman Chishti: The Minister will know that the European Union imposed crippling sanctions on the Assad regime in order to stop the killing and repression. Is he concerned that to a certain extent Syria has been able to wriggle out of those sanctions by working with banks and financial institutions in Lebanon?

Mr Bellingham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that, and I shall cover it in some detail in a moment. As I understand it, 114 individuals and 39 entities are now subjected to asset freezes and travel bans. The latest round of sanctions, which was agreed at the end of February, included freezing the assets of the Central Bank of Syria and restricting the regime’s access to the gold and precious metal markets. We will look into my hon. Friend’s point about Lebanon and Lebanese banks that may also operate in Syria, and I will make sure that I write to him about that.

We are gravely concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria, and the actions of the regime are making it incredibly difficult for humanitarian agencies to respond. The UK is doing all it can to address the humanitarian situation in that challenging context. We are providing funding, as well as stepping up political pressure on the Syrian Government to

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allow unimpeded access to the UN and aid agencies, a full assessment of civilian needs, and the delivery of vital relief goods to all those affected by violence.

We fully support the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, Baroness Amos, in her plans to visit Syria to negotiate for humanitarian access and gain a better assessment of needs on the ground. I was fortunate enough to meet Baroness Amos last Monday in New York. She is now in Syria and we urge the Syrian Government to allow her full access to travel safely and freely in the region.

President Assad continues to exert brutal military force against his own people, and he is responsible for the appalling situation in Syria. We believe that he has lost legitimacy and can no longer claim to lead his country. As the Government have repeatedly made clear, he should step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people.

It is vital that those committing these awful crimes are held accountable for their actions. We have sent experts to the region to help gather and document evidence of human rights violations and abuses, and they will work closely with UN agencies, NGOs and other key organisations. The UK fully supports the Arab League’s efforts to end the violence in Syria and its plan for a Syrian-led political solution to the crisis. The establishment of a Friends of Syria group of over 60 countries is a further important step towards putting in place a political plan that addresses the concerns of all Syrians, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. We also welcome the appointment of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the joint special envoy of the UN and the Arab League on the Syrian crisis. The UK extends to him its full support, and stands ready to provide assistance to his team in its vital work to bring an end to the violence in Syria.

In the EU, the UK has been at the forefront of delivering 12 rounds of sanctions targeted on those supporting or benefiting from the regime, and those associated with them. I will not repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), but we have made a start on restrictive measures, and it may be that further such measures will be required.

Tony Lloyd: The Minister can rightly claim that the Government have been at the forefront of tightening the sanctions regime against Syria. Would it be possible to begin to identify not only those at the very top such as President Assad, but those around him who have taken part in war crimes? If we could begin to identify such people by name, that would bring pressure to bear on senior players in the Assad regime.

Mr Bellingham: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to identify those people, and we will ensure that expert help is available for that work of identification and analysis. As I said earlier, those who have committed these terrible crimes will be brought to justice.

Last week, the deteriorating security situation and risks posed to our embassy staff led the Foreign Secretary to withdraw our staff from Syria. That decision in no way reduces our commitment to active diplomacy and to maintain pressure on the Assad regime to end the violence. We will continue to work closely with other

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nations to co-ordinate diplomatic and economic pressure on the Syrian regime through the Friends of Syria group and the EU.

Let me now look at how the current violence within Syria risks destabilising the region. As the hon. Member for Edmonton made clear, the despicable actions of the Syrian regime inside Syria impact on Syria’s neighbours. Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey are all affected by the continuing bloodshed, and the consequent flow of refugees has potential implications for their security and economies. Lebanon’s historical, confessional and economic links to Syria make it particularly vulnerable.

The number of refugees fleeing violence in Syria to safety in Lebanon is steadily increasing. Determining the numbers, however, is difficult. The UNHCR has registered at least 7,200 Syrians near the northern border of Lebanon, but there are undoubtedly many others. We estimate that the real figure is closer to 20,000, with a further 5,000 unregistered people likely to be in the northern border area and Tripoli; 5,000 in the Bekaa valley; 2,000 in the southern suburbs of Beirut; and 600 in the southern city of Saida. The Qatari Red Crescent has said recently that it believes a total figure of 50,000 Syrian refugees is credible. That is a huge figure, and shows the sheer scale involved. The hon. Members for Edmonton and for Manchester Central made an important point about displaced Syrians who have found refuge with relatives or host families, and I note the concerns that such arrangements might reach the limits of sustainability if those numbers continue to increase. We have regularly urged the Lebanese Government to continue their work with international agencies to provide shelter and protection for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Generally speaking, the Lebanese Government are responding effectively in a difficult political context.

I was asked what the UK is doing to support the international effort, with particular reference to the UNHCR. We have doubled core funding to the UNHCR this year to help it carry out its work globally, including in the middle east. The Department for International Development provided £39 million for 2011-12, and we remain in close contact with UNHCR as this fast-moving situation develops. A DFID humanitarian adviser has been deployed to the region to get a better understanding of events on the ground and identify ways in which the UK might be able to help.

We will work closely with the Lebanese Government to improve conditions for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Importantly, that includes work to improve the governance and security arrangements in the refugee camps. To that end, the UK committed £117 million of non-earmarked funding for 2007-11 to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

Mr Love: I am listening carefully to the Minister’s speech. One recent concern was about the actions of the Lebanese authorities in trying to restrict the numbers of people coming across from Syria, particularly in the Homs area. We should be urging the Lebanese authorities to open up humanitarian access, should conditions in Syria deteriorate. Will the Government make a commitment to urge the Lebanese authorities in that direction?

Mr Bellingham: We will certainly look at that point and I will take the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on board.

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The UK is continuing to look into reports of limited Hezbollah involvement in Syria. Any Hezbollah support for the Syrian regime’s ongoing brutal repression would be a huge mistake and counter to Lebanese interests. Hezbollah’s rhetorical support for President Assad has exposed the hypocrisy of its supposed commitment to the poor and oppressed, and significantly undermined its credibility across the region. We urge all parties in Lebanon with any influence over the Assad regime to use that influence to seek an early end to the repression.

As has been expressed, the impact of events in Syria on the Lebanese economy should not be overlooked. We are working closely with the Lebanese Government to support economic reform, including offering support on regulatory processes to ensure long-term prosperity in Lebanon. UK companies have been involved in assisting the Lebanese Government to explore potential oil and gas resources in the country’s maritime waters, and our

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embassy remains active in supporting UK companies to play a greater role in Lebanon’s ambitious plans to develop its infrastructure. As part of the prosperity agenda, I assure the hon. Member for Edmonton that we are working hard at improving our bilateral trade. Indeed, we have made a commitment to increase such trade by 15%, year on year, over the next two years. That is what we are doing to try and bring wealth and prosperity to the people of Lebanon.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue, and if there are points that I have not covered, I will write to him. The UK is committed to ending the bloodshed in Syria, to preventing it from destabilising Lebanon, and to helping the peoples of that region realise their aspirations for a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous future.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.