The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) made some points about Germany and rebasing. We have been promised a statement next week, so it will be interesting to see whether that comes forward. I thought it completely bonkers when the right hon. Member for

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North Somerset (Dr Fox) made the announcement. I looked at the issue when I was a Minister, so I know that four years ago the price tag was £3.5 billion—but where that is coming from, I do not know. It is important to have clarification not only for the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman gave regarding communities and individuals here, but because we must know what is actually happening for our servicemen and women along with civil servants, educationalists and others based in Germany. If the cost was £3.5 billion then, it is surely a lot higher today. It is not just about bringing people back, as it is also about evaluating the costs of withdrawal—environmental and other costs that will be added to the clean-up of those areas. Under the treaty with the Germans, it is quite clear that two years’ written notice has to be given, but I am not aware that that has happened. I do not mind if the Government have changed their policy on this issue, but they should say so, as we do not want the uncertainty.

The hon. Member for Moray spoke about the so-called future Scottish armed forces, claiming that they will comprise 15,000. I am not sure what type of role they will take: if they are to be in NATO, what would they deploy? Will the army act as a border force to stop riotous Northumbrians crossing the border? Will there be a navy of fishing boats? Will the air force be of gliders? In this debate, it is important for the Scottish National party not only to deal with the present lay-down of armed forces, as the hon. Gentleman has, but to be honest with people and say what the future defence structure would look like in an independent Scotland.

I join the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) in paying tribute to Wootton Bassett and to Sir Neil Thorne. I also commend the hon. Gentleman’s role on the marching parades, which have been supported across the parties.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his quite proper recognition of the contribution of people from Northern Ireland to the armed forces. I visited Northern Ireland when I was a Minister, and I was very impressed by the dedication I found there to all three of our armed forces.

I know that on many occasions the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) adopts a light-hearted approach in his contributions to the House. Today, however, he made a very serious contribution, which I think shows the House of Commons at its best. He paid tribute to the victims of the Droppin’ Well bombing. It must have been very difficult for him to relive some of those experiences today, so I pay tribute to him for doing so. He is right that 30 years seems a long time ago, but not for him and the people who were there. Speaking as he did in this debate greatly honours those people and pays a fitting tribute to their memories. I hope that his contribution gives some comfort to those who were injured in the ways he described and to the families, relatives and friends of those who lost their lives.

The hon. Member for Beckenham mentioned another matter, and his position was the same as mine when I was veterans Minister. It is fine to get things right now for veterans and those injured in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. My concern, in common with the hon. Gentleman’s, is what happens to these people in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time. We, as a society and a nation, owe a great debt of gratitude to those individuals. Irrespective of our political parties, we need to ensure that that

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remains the case. I hope that the work with service charities in relation to the Army recovery capability scheme, which is in the pipeline, involves something of that joined-up approach, but we shall have to monitor this on a yearly basis. We shall need to look after the people to whom the hon. Gentleman referred—who are already injured as a result of service in Afghanistan and Iraq—when they are older. There can be no if or but; we must do that.

When it comes to housing—the favourite subject of the hon. Member for Colchester—we must ensure that we continue to listen to the views of the British Armed Forces Federation.

Let me end by saying that it is always good to hear such well-informed contributions, and by again paying tribute to our brave servicemen and women.

4.45 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr Mark Francois): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) on helping to secure the debate, and thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for it. It has been a good debate, and I shall attempt to refer to as many contributions as is practically possible in the time available.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire, the Chairman of the Select Committee, raised several issues. Let me deal briefly with one of them, which was also raised by other Members. It concerned the Service Complaints Commissioner. I met Dr Atkins recently to discuss how we could help her to perform her very independent role. I hope that the dialogue on which we have embarked will prove productive, and I look forward to meeting her again in the new year.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) on her recent commissioning as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve. In debates such as this, it is always reassuring to know that the Royal Navy is sitting behind me, particularly as my father served in the Royal Navy.

I thank my Essex colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), for his contribution. He raised a range of issues, and, as usual, he had a long wish list. I can tell him that I was present when the Colchester Military Wives Choir performed in Portcullis House, and that I thanked them at the end of their performance. I visited Colchester garrison about a year ago, as a member of the Committee that dealt with the Bill that became the Armed Forces Act 2011, thus helping to enshrine the key principles of the covenant in law. I have met representatives of the Defence Police Federation and trade union representatives of the Ministry of Defence Guard Service, and I hope to return to Colchester early in the new year. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman, at least for the moment. I will not mention the meeting that I had with him at the MOD yesterday on a different topic.

This debate falls on the day on which we publish the first annual report on the armed forces covenant, which is a subject of great importance and should be given due regard. For too long we may have sometimes taken for granted the special nature of military service: a willingness, if necessary, to lay down one’s life for one’s country. I echo the tributes that have been paid to the extremely moving and powerful speech made by my hon. Friend

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the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who reminded us of the tragedy of the Ballykelly bombing 30 years ago. I am sure that he will do good service when he returns to commemorate that very difficult anniversary at the weekend.

Let me also remind the House, if it needs reminding, that today, as I speak, men and women are on patrol in Afghanistan, helping to keep us safe from terrorism at home. We must and will go the extra mile for them for their families, and for the roughly one in 10 adults in the United Kingdom who are veterans. That is a very important statistic.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) also mentioned the covenant. We had a very good debate about it in the House last month. Let me update the hon. Gentleman on the points that were raised. There is a difficulty with local authorities in Northern Ireland signing the community covenant because it could be argued in some quarters that it conflicts with equalities legislation. That point was made powerfully in the debate. We have now formed a working group of officials from the MOD and the Northern Ireland Office to try to find a way through the difficulty, and I know that the hon. Gentleman and others are to have a meeting with the Prime Minister fairly shortly. We will do our best to come up with a solution.

It is simply unacceptable that past or present service personnel should be denied equal access to the services on which we all depend. Creating a fair deal for our armed forces past and present is at the core of the armed forces covenant. That is why in the Armed Forces Act 2011 this Government enshrined in law the two key principles of the covenant: that it is desirable to remove disadvantages arising as a result of service or former service; and that special provision for service personnel and their families may be justified to mitigate the effects of service, especially for the wounded or bereaved. I believe we are making a good start, but it is arrogant in the extreme to believe we can solve the many long-standing issues—some of which have been raised by Members this afternoon—in a single year.

Today’s first statutory report covers progress over the full scope of the armed forces covenant, including the four fields specified in the 2011 Act: health care, education, housing and the operation of inquests. I shall address each in turn.

On health care, the covenant has a particular resonance for those who have suffered injuries or health problems in the service. The importance we place on this is exemplified by the sign above the door of Colonel Kevin Beaton, commanding officer of the Royal College of Defence Medicine in Birmingham:

“The military patient, their Family and their Unit, we call our ‘Patient Group’. They are the most important people in The Royal Centre for Defence Medicine Clinical Unit. It is our privilege to be entrusted with the care and support of our Patient Groups on behalf of an indebted nation. We are not doing them a favour by looking after them. They are the reason we are here. Proudly serving them provides the overriding purpose behind all we do. They are our Main Effort.”

I can think of no finer way of expressing that sentiment, and I hope all Members agree with it, not least the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), as she has the privilege of having that unit in her constituency.

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I take medical treatment for our armed forces personnel very seriously. In the three months I have been in post, I have sought to learn as much as possible about the medical support we provide to them. I have visited the Role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion, the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court, the personnel recovery centre at Tedworth house—run by that wonderful charity, Help for Heroes—and the headquarters of Defence Medical Services near Lichfield. Most recently, I had the honour to participate in a game of wheelchair basketball at the new Battle Back centre at Lilleshall, which I helped to open, and I can attest that fighting spirit and competitiveness are still present in abundance when that sport is played; I still have the blisters on my hands to prove it.

In the course of those visits, I have seen the medical process end to end, and I can say with confidence that the treatment we provide to injured personnel is world class, a sentiment that I know is shared by, among others, our American counterparts. Wherever they are in the world, the men and women who provide this care should be immensely proud that the Care Quality Commission described the provision as exemplary. It is.

On education, the pledges made in the covenant are being well received by schools and service families alike. The Department for Education allows infant schools to increase class sizes beyond 30 to admit the children of service personnel. Where resources permit, admissions authorities also have the flexibility to give priority admission to these children.

Oxfordshire county council has altered its schools admissions policy, allowing places to be allocated to children of service families in advance of a posting, based on a letter from the relevant unit. That is a small change, but it has a very big impact, as it gets around the Catch-22 that people cannot apply for a school place until they have moved to an area, and if they move after the beginning of the school year they are caught. We have changed the rules, and this change is being mirrored by a number of local education authorities around the country, with the backing of the Department for Education.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the hon. Member for Colchester and others raised the subject of housing, and it remains a key issue for the armed forces community. Today’s report points to areas of progress, but also acknowledges that more needs to be done. Some 94% of accommodation for service families is in the top two of four categories. The single living accommodation modernisation programme has delivered almost 5,000 modernised, en-suite rooms in 2011-12, and we are on track to meet our target of 50% of trained personnel being housed in the highest standard of accommodation by March 2013.

In parallel, we are encouraging service families to explore the choice of owning their own home. Armed forces personnel have been placed at the top of the priority list for all Government-funded home ownership schemes, and service leavers retain that status for up to 12 months after leaving. The level of home ownership among service families has risen from 55% to 60% over the past two years.

Next I shall deal with the operation of inquests. Tragically, operations in Afghanistan have shown, once again, that members of our armed forces can face

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mortal danger. Above all else, that is why we owe them not only our respect, but the peace of mind that we will care for their families in the event of their death. We should do everything to ensure that the plight of grieving families is not compounded by inadequacies in helping them to understand the circumstances in which their loved ones died. I am encouraged that waiting times for coroners’ inquests have been falling since 2003, including under the previous Government, and maintaining that trend will be a priority. This year, the Government fulfilled their pledge to appoint a chief coroner—we appointed Peter Thornton—and to publish a new national charter for the coroner service. I will meet Mr Thornton on 18 December to discuss how the Ministry of Defence can assist him further in what we agree is vital work.

Steps have also been taken in a number of additional areas to uphold the values and ideals of the covenant. We recognise, for example, that the process of adapting to civilian life can be daunting. Through the career transition partnership, the MOD provides outstanding career support to service leavers, with the result that 97% of those who use that service will find employment within 12 months. That is an impressive record.

We also encourage local authorities to appoint armed forces champions as a voice within local government, where a great many pledges within the covenant are delivered. In this regard, I am delighted to report to the House that some 230 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales have signed the community covenant—this is spreading like a benign virus—and I sincerely hope that almost all will have done so by Remembrance day next November.

As announced recently in this House, the new defence discount service will offer a membership card allowing members to access a range of discounts from companies such as Vodafone, Vue Cinemas and Vision Express. I was delighted to join the Prime Minister yesterday to present cards to a number of veterans and serving personnel.

I also wish to express my gratitude for the contribution of the covenant reference group, which includes voluntary and charitable bodies, private organisations and individuals. The Government committed themselves to publishing the external members’ observations verbatim, alongside the annual report, and today we uphold that promise.

Of particular concern to the families federations is service accommodation. They comment that the

“availability of Service Families Accommodation in some areas is insufficient”

and that

“higher priority must be given to maintaining and enhancing the quality of all Service-provided accommodation”.

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To many service families, a decent home is the physical embodiment of the covenant. We are working to address these concerns, and I hope we will be in a position to provide further information to the House in due course.

Members of the reference group acknowledged the high priority given to the covenant by the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Office and the MOD. The appointment of a chief coroner was described as being “hugely significant” and

“of real long-term benefit to bereaved Armed Forces families”.

There is praise also for our progress in addressing disadvantage for armed forces children and in providing better support to deployed personnel and their families. Most encouraging to me is the observation that the covenant is changing attitudes to the armed forces community.

I must allow the Chairman of the Select Committee back in, so I shall draw my remarks to a close. The armed forces covenant is a work in progress, an ongoing pledge that has support from those in all parts of the House. Each and every year we will come before this House with, to borrow a military term, a “SitRep”, giving a state of play on the covenant and our obligations under it. While I hold this post, I am absolutely determined that we will demonstrate real progress year on year, put flesh on the bones of the covenant and honour the people to whom we owe so much.

4.58 pm

Mr Arbuthnot: With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I start my contribution, after a debate in which it has been a great privilege to take part, on a note of disagreement? In a year in which we have celebrated Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee and the greatest Olympics the world has ever seen, I must disagree with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) that we may be losing our sense of self. I think we are a prouder nation now than we have ever been, and we have every reason to be proud. One of the greatest reasons to be proud is our armed forces.

In a few short sentences, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) reminded us what it is that we owe to our armed forces and of our duty to look after those who have looked after us so well. He reminded me of what a privilege I have in charing the Defence Committee of this House.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of defence personnel.

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Ex-service Personnel (Psychological Welfare)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Nicky Morgan.)

5 pm

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): As chair of the Unite the Union group in Parliament and of the all-party group on health and safety, I have spent most of my working life in politics standing up for people who have been disadvantaged because of the career they have chosen. As Major Cameron March MBE, from the Army’s operational stress management team, recently said:

“If we put people into difficult places we’ve got to have something in place to look after them”.

That is true in all walks of life, whether we are dealing with builders exposed to asbestos, lorry drivers travelling over long hours or, as I will speak about this evening, service personnel exposed to traumatic experiences. The issue I have brought to the House today seems to me to be an extreme example of occupational health and safety. As employers, we have a responsibility to those brave individuals to ensure they can live a fulfilling life following their service.

I was delighted to read in one of the tabloid papers today that the Prime Minister has announced £1 million for veterans’ charities. I would like to say, “It was this debate wot done it”, but something inside tells me that another event is taking place tonight that has been organised by one of the tabloid papers. The £1 million is welcome and I am sure the veterans will appreciate it.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD as it is now known, is not a new phenomenon. It was first identified during the first world war, and was called “shell shock”. We have moved on since then and correctly recognise that it is a serious condition that in no way undermines the brave work undertaken by our armed forces. Despite that, there is still a significant stigma attached to mental health issues among veterans. Many still consider themselves “weak” if they suffer in the adjustment to civilian life.

A culture change among veterans is needed, but for policymakers that is difficult to achieve. However, if the Government direct more funding to the condition, which is what I shall argue for today, we can give hope to those suffering and help them to recognise that they are not weak and that the condition is a natural reaction to the horrors they have seen.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the work of Dr Ian Palmer and the medical assessment programme at St Mary’s? Until recently it was open to all veterans who could go for individual psychological assessments. That has now been downgraded and moved to Chilwell in Nottinghamshire. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about that and agree that open access, even later in life, is important for veterans?

Jim Sheridan: I am not aware of the precise details, but I am extremely disappointed to hear that. I am sure that the Minister will address that when he gets the opportunity.

My right hon. colleague, the Minister for the Armed Forces, has said that he

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“takes the issue of mental health very seriously, and we recognise that operational deployments will inevitably expose personnel to stressful experiences.”—[Official Report, 12 June 2012; Vol. 546, c. 447W.]

Similarly, when he was a Health Minister, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), claimed that the coalition Government

“considers the health and wellbeing of…armed forces personnel, veterans and their families to be a top priority.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2012; Vol. 546, c. 801W.]

I agree with these sentiments, as I am sure we all do. Those veterans have put their lives on the line so that we can be safe. They have done a great service for their country and they deserve the top service from their country in return. So why then do the actions of Ministers not speak louder than their words? Their statements are commendable, but their funding commitments are not. I am calling today for more public funding to be directed to the issue and for the psychological well-being of our veterans to be considered a top priority.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman referred to the great work done by charitable organisations —for instance, SSAFA Forces Help, the Army Benevolent Fund, the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes and many others. Would it be more constructive if the Government were to work with those charitable organisations to address the problem?

Jim Sheridan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I will come to that important aspect.

It is important that we tackle the issue now as we are only a few years away from it becoming more serious. The Prime Minister confirmed at the end of November that the combat mission in Afghanistan will end in 2014. With this will come the return of thousands of troops who have been serving abroad so that we can remain safe in our own country. Combat Stress estimates that 7,600 of the 191,000 personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan could develop PTSD, and that 37,600 are suffering from other disorders, such as depression, mood disorders and anxiety. It could be up to 13 years before the problems reveal themselves, so work done now in this area could prove invaluable 10 to 15 years down the line.

However, we should not be alarmist. Most British military personnel do not suffer any mental health problems while in service or afterwards. We also cannot be certain that the numbers of personnel suffering from mental health issues are disproportionate to the population as a whole. There are conflicting views on this. I have spoken to Veterans Aid, which says that there is no problem with ex-service personnel care, yet PTSD Resolution, a charity that gives counselling to veterans, talks about a much larger problem that is not currently acknowledged. The Royal British Legion anticipates a growing number of problems due to the rebalancing of the armed forces towards reservists.

With more and more armed forces coming back from Afghanistan, the possibly low estimate of 4% of personnel with probable PTSD, 19.7% with other mental disorders and 13% with unhealthy relationships with alcohol will become a much larger problem. I say possibly low estimate because the United States’ estimates of its defence personnel with PTSD range from 12% to 20%. Whether our figures are low or not, all personnel suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues deserve the highest quality post-deployment support services.

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I find it a huge cause for concern that these services are at present undertaken, by and large, by charities. They rely on the generosity of the public and in the current environment, where donations to charities are down by 20%, according to the Office for National Statistics, we cannot go on in this way. Let me provide some examples. The Big White Wall online support network is propped up by a £100,000 commitment from Help for Heroes. That is almost a third of its total funding. Combat Stress, a veterans charity, is currently supporting over 5,000 veterans aged from 20 to 101 and it says it

“simply couldn’t do what we do without the generosity of the great British public.”

PTSD Resolution provides counselling to UK veterans, with a 78% success rate, but gets no recognition for its work from the MOD. Erskine hospital in my constituency provides vital care to veterans suffering from mental health issues, among others, and relies on donations to cover a large part of the £7 million a year that it needs to keep going.

It is unfortunate that those charities have to rely on fundraising to undertake work that provides a lifeline to those suffering after service. Veterans are clearly not a priority for this Government; they were not for the previous Government either. They are a priority for the charities, but it is a sad fact that in our society it is charities that are caring for our war wounded. More funding should be directed to the psychological welfare of ex-service personnel, and it should come from the public purse.

The funding issue will only get worse. The Government are planning to double the number of reservists, from 15,000 to 30,000, by 2018. That raises a key question, because reserve personnel are more likely than regular soldiers to suffer from PTSD. Therefore, we need a strategy for the future to tackle that invisible consequence of service.

Funding has been allocated for those brave personnel, but we do not know whether any of it will cover increased mental health provision. I have a few precise questions about the Government’s plans to care for those additional members of the armed forces, who take on the responsibility alongside their day jobs. Since reservists are going to be more exposed to the front line, will there be a change to the pre-deployment training to reflect that, and will there be any additional provision for reservists and their families?

On that point, let me underline the importance of including families in any post-deployment care. PTSD and other mental health problems do not have individual victims; their effects permeate the lives of sufferers’ friends and family, and often that effect is overlooked. It is perhaps more pertinent for reservists, as they return to environments where their experience is not particularly well understood. They can find it hard to readjust to civilian life, and their friends and family find it hard to see the person they loved change into someone new.

As an MP with a long history of standing up for rights in the workplace, I am also interested to hear how reservists’ rights will be protected. Will the Minister be looking to change post-deployment rest and recuperation, given that it is a key factor, cited by many experts, for why they do not recover? That seems a sensible suggestion to help mitigate the effects of traumatic experiences in

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the field. If that was the case, how much extra time away from work would that imply? Will reservists be given guarantees by the Government that their involvement will not hinder their job applications or relationships with employers?

Reservists, as with all other armed forces personnel, make a great sacrifice for their country and should not be penalised for that. They face specific issues on return, such as a lack of understanding from friends and family and more open criticism of the war in Iraq. They are also usually called upon to fill gaps in the regulars, becoming out of sync with the rest of their unit and, therefore, lacking the comradeship that can be such an important part of service. As such, they should be given the proper prevention and intervention strategies they need to readjust to civilian life and prevent any mental health issues from manifesting themselves.

I am sure that the Minister agrees with me on many of these issues. He might be searching desperately in his limited budget for spare cash to spend on mental health care for veterans. Perhaps I can help him in that regard. We have called for deeper cuts to the number of one-star officers and those above, the highest paid, in order to correct the top-heavy imbalance across our services. I am not usually in favour of redundancy policies, but the number of the most senior officers in the MOD has risen by a third since 1990. We have more admirals than ships. We have a higher number of officers across all three services than do the French and US air, maritime and land forces. Although 20% of more junior ranks look set to lose their jobs, just one in 20 of the most senior officers in all three services have been made redundant. The money spent employing senior officers could be much better spent helping to ease the burden of veterans’ charities. The £1 million could be spent on a fund that would focus research on mental health issues and charities could bid for funds to support their own policy research.

It is estimated that by 2020 1.8 million people in the armed forces community will be living with a long-standing illness. I have spent much of my political career fighting for people who have been injured or made ill as a result of their job. Serving in a combat zone where their life is constantly imperilled places unique burdens on our service personnel. It is imperative that the Government recognise the need to ensure that our armed forces are afforded not only the best physical care but the best mental health care while serving and after returning to civilian life. We cannot rely on charities to do this vital work any longer. I sincerely hope that this debate has managed to bring some of the issues to the table, and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s plans to ensure the mental well-being of our respected veterans.

Finally, it would be inappropriate in the context of this debate not to mention the Christmas Island veterans, who are still looking for compensation after almost 40 years. I hope that the Minister will say something about them as well.

5.15 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr Mark Francois): I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate on the mental health of our former service personnel. I thank him for his courtesy in giving me some idea of the issues that he intended to raise.

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This is a vital subject in which cross-Government working is having a real impact. Although the four UK Health Departments hold primary responsibility for the issue, I naturally take a very close interest in it given my veterans portfolio. I hope that in the previous debate on armed forces personnel I was able to persuade the House that in the three months in which I have been doing the job I have taken a very close interest particularly in the medical issues that affect personnel and veterans.

That said, I must regretfully disagree with the charges that the hon. Gentleman laid against this Government. We are investing in mental health at every juncture of a service career. From recruitment, to deployment, to discharge and transition into civilian life, the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health have made funding available for extensive support to serving personnel and veterans who encounter mental health problems.

Let me also say that the Government very much welcome the role played by service charities. It is entirely appropriate that we should look to harness their niche capability and expertise to maximise the quality of support given to the service community. In many cases, this support is provided by a partnership with Government, and that should be celebrated rather than regretted.

As the former Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), announced on 6 October last year, the Government accepted all the recommendations in “Fighting Fit”, the report by the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), which now forms the backbone of the work being done across Government to improve mental health care for service personnel and veterans. I can report good progress in delivering those recommendations. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North specifically talked about veterans, but I will briefly set out the context of our overall strategy for mental health.

While serving, all personnel, including reservists, are encouraged to report distress or mental health concerns. We have introduced a process called trauma risk management, or TRiM—a peer group support system that is helping to identify those at risk and provide support to them.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): From what I have heard, there is extremely good counselling in the field after incidents have occurred. People zone in on those affected, immediately and without delay, and check them out as best they can.

Mr Francois: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that important intervention.

TRiM was initially developed by the Royal Marines. It involves training non-specialists in military units to lead discussions about traumatic events and spot those who may need additional help. We make sure that we have mental health professionals forward deployed in theatre, exactly along the lines that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned, to deal with such eventualities if and when they occur. We deploy uniformed mental health teams to provide care on the front line. Regular psychological health assessments are conducted to ensure that support in theatre is sufficient and, if needed, a UK-based team of a psychiatrist and mental health nurse can deploy to theatre at short notice if an incident warrants it.

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At the end of an operational tour, units undergo decompression—an opportunity to unwind and talk about their experiences. At this point, personnel also receive a series of briefings designed to help them adapt to their return from deployment, and mental health is one of the specific issues raised.

Specific measures are also in place for those leaving the service. After a successful regional pilot, structured mental health assessments were rolled out nationally in July 2012 as part of routine and discharge medicals. We hope they will be useful in highlighting mental health problems at an early stage.

To ease transition from military to civilian life, personnel with identified mental health issues can access military departments of community mental health up to six months after discharge. There are 15 such departments across the United Kingdom, providing specialist mental health support to military personnel. In addition, GP registration forms in England, Scotland and Wales now enable those who have served to declare this when registering with a doctor’s practice, providing an opportunity to discuss their unique needs, if they so wish.

On the specific steps that we are taking for veterans, the Department of Health, working with South Staffordshire and Shropshire mental health trust, has put in place a national veterans mental health network. This brings together NHS clinicians, the Ministry of Defence, Combat Stress and others to assess the implementation of the recommendations made by the Under-Secretary. The network’s first full meeting was in Stafford on 29 October and a national conference will take place in March 2013. I also take this opportunity to place on the record our appreciation for the valuable work done by Combat Stress, and I am looking forward to a meeting with its chief executive, Mr Andrew Cameron, in the next few days.

Armed forces networks, whose role is to provide links between the forces and the wider community on health issues, are beginning to implement veterans mental health projects in each former strategic health authority area. I am delighted to report that there are now more than 50 extra veterans mental health professionals in the NHS across the various armed forces networks in England, which is 20 more than originally recommended by my hon. Friend. I do not, therefore, accept the point made by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North about lack of resources, although I accept that he made it in good faith.

In his report, my hon. Friend acknowledged the value of the medical assessment programme, which offers assessments to ex-service personnel suffering mental health problems. On 29 October, the MAP was relocated with the reserves mental health programme at Chilwell, Nottingham, to form the veteran and reserves mental health programme. This more central location in the middle of the country will, we believe, make for easier access and ensure that high standards of clinical oversight are maintained.

More than 2,500 members of the armed forces community are now registered to use the Big White Wall, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It is a website that allows users to talk anonymously about mental health issues. Early indications suggest that it is proving a valuable means of interaction without the stigma sometimes attached to mental health. User surveys are reporting

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significant reductions in stress and anxiety, not least because individuals can raise issues anonymously, if they so choose.

Plans are also maturing for the veterans information service, a means of providing advice to veterans on accessing services and support for health issues related to their military service. When launched, all veterans who leave the armed forces will be contacted by letter or e-mail after 12 months, so that we can check how they are getting on.

On work in the nations and regions, I recently met Keith Brown MSP, the Scottish Minister for Transport and Veterans, to discuss the steps the Scottish Government are taking on veterans’ issues. In addition to maintaining support for specialist mental health services for the next three years, they will fund and seek to expand the Veterans First Point service, an advice centre designed to help veterans and their families during the transition to civilian life.

In Wales, the all Wales veterans health and wellbeing service is providing access to specialist outpatient care and signposting veterans and their families to other support that they may require. It offers access to therapists with expertise in veterans’ mental health to provide assessment, treatment and referral. Treatment options include commissioning the services of Combat Stress, which works in partnership with the service to provide nurse-led community support groups.

In Northern Ireland—I should place on the record that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was present for part of this debate—a specialist aftercare service was established in 2007 to address the unique requirements of veterans of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment home service, and their dependants. Each year, that widely praised aftercare service deals with about 4,500 cases, providing welfare support and medical services, including mental health support.

Jim Sheridan: Is the Minister aware that a significant number of veterans are serving prison sentences or are on parole? The American system is different because it tracks the crimes of ex-service personnel. I am not suggesting for a minute that people should be able to commit crimes and get away with them, but is there something that we could do in Britain to copy the American system?

Mr Francois: I have looked into this matter and am advised that the proportion of veterans in prison is no higher than the proportion of the civilian population that is in prison. We need to do what we can through rehabilitation and other means to help those people, just as we would help others.

The Department of Health in England has extended its funding of the Combat Stress and Rethink 24-hour mental health helpline for service personnel, families and veterans. In addition, the Department of Health, in partnership with the Royal College of General Practitioners, has put in place training packages for GPs to raise awareness of the unique needs of armed forces families and veterans.

On a broader point, in line with the principles of the armed forces covenant—we launched the report on that today—the Government have reaffirmed that veterans

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in England should be given priority NHS treatment for conditions related to service, subject to the clinical needs of others. The Scottish and Welsh Governments accord the same priority to veterans. That is important, given that one in 10 adults in the United Kingdom is now a veteran, going right back through the second world war, Northern Ireland and other conflicts up to the present day. A high proportion of our population have served their country in uniform in one way or another.

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to post-traumatic stress disorder. I was delighted to be able to visit King’s College London recently, not least because some time ago that was where I completed my master’s degree in war studies. To some extent, I was going back to my alma mater. While there, I met Professor Simon Wessely and his internationally renowned team in the King’s centre for military health research. Mental health issues, particularly PTSD, have been a key focus of his research, which the MOD continues to fund. I was reassured by Professor Wessely that comparatively low rates of PTSD are being recorded in the service community. The evidence indicates that the mental health of the armed forces remains robust, but naturally we will do our utmost to help the minority who develop PTSD or other mental illnesses.

In addition to the measures that are already in place, we have made provision for the training for primary health care staff to raise awareness of PTSD. Defence Medical Services has more than 200 mental health professionals who provide specialist support to service personnel and, as I have mentioned, additional personnel are available in the NHS to augment the existing capability. I have also mentioned the veterans and reserves mental health programme, which the MOD continues to fund. The Department of Health has agreed to fund the provision of acute PTSD services by Combat Stress with £3.5 million a year for five years. As I have said, I shall be meeting Andrew Cameron shortly to discuss how that money can best be deployed.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Christmas Island veterans. I hope that he will forgive me, but I have concentrated my remarks on mental health. The fairest thing that I can say is that I will write to him about that issue. I hope, under the circumstances, that he regards that as acceptable.

I think that what I have said gives an indication of the importance the Government attach to the treatment of the mental health problems of our service personnel and veterans. Although we have long been aware of the implications of physical injury to our armed forces personnel, it is fair to say that for a long period there has been a stigma surrounding mental health. We are starting fully to recognise and deal with the impact on the lives of those who suffer from such issues. It is to the credit of the previous Government that work was done to begin to address these issues on their watch. The House can rest assured that the current Government will continue to do all that we practically can to look after service personnel and veterans who develop mental health issues. These people are important to our country and we must do our best for them.

Question put and agreed to.

5.29 pm

House adjourned.