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Compassionate Leave (Service Personnel)

Volume 450: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

I am grateful for the granting of this Adjournment debate. Although there have been many debates and many questions have been asked relating to defence and the armed forces in recent years, Parliament has only touched on the subject of compassionate leave for service personnel. As such, I hope that the Minister will take on board the points raised, especially at a time when we are demanding so much from our service personnel.

As well as some long-standing commitments, since 1997 the Government have taken our armed forces into a series of new conflicts across the globe. Aside from the 8,500 troops stationed in Northern Ireland, there are about 13,400 British troops on operational duties abroad. There are 5,000 operational troops in Afghanistan, 900 in the Balkans, 300 on UN missions and 7,200 in Iraq. Each one of those troops does their duty tirelessly.

Day in and day out, often in the face of intolerable dangers, our troops are out there on the front line in some of the most inhospitable and dangerous conditions imaginable. We are all no doubt aware of the dangers that they face, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they are challenged by suicide bombings and other horrendous acts while trying to bring peace and stability to those countries. We are all grateful for their courage and bravery.

The Government have sent those young men and women into those theatres of danger and they have a responsibility to do what they practically can to safeguard not only the safety of our troops, but their welfare and morale, and that of their families. On tours of duty lasting six months, our troops are separated from their families and friends. Being so far apart from loved ones can have an impact on morale. Troops can miss birthdays and weddings, and even births and deaths. That absence is part of their job, and troops and their families understand that. However, it can still create emotional and physical burdens for military families. That is why we have a system to allow service personnel to take compassionate leave in certain circumstances.

I draw the attention of the House to my constituent, Mrs. Beryl Miles, whose medically trained daughter, Corporal Bronwen Pickup, is currently serving in Iraq. Mrs. Miles was an active and sporting individual until recently, when she had to have surgery for a serious spinal condition. She is currently in a state of disability in her home, while she recovers from her operation. Her home has had to be adapted and transformed with new facilities, such as a stair lift, to make her life a little easier for her. Despite the help that she is currently receiving, like most other people at a traumatic time, what Mrs. Miles really wanted at her time of need, both emotionally and physically, was her daughter. Being medically trained, Corporal Pickup was an ideal person to offer her mother the vital help that she needed to recover.

Back in August, when it first became clear that Mrs. Miles would need an operation, an application for compassionate leave was made to the Army welfare service. That application was rejected on the basis that Mrs. Miles was receiving treatment in hospital. I am not criticising that decision, given the circumstances at the time and the criteria for compassionate leave. The problem with regard to compassionate leave in this case arose when Mrs. Miles left hospital in September and Corporal Pickup requested leave to be with her mother. At that time, Mrs. Miles did not have access to the 24-hour care afforded to her in hospital, which was the basis for the earlier rejection. Nevertheless, Corporal Pickup’s request was again rejected by the Army welfare service and Mrs. Miles was left to go home.

The Army’s criteria for compassionate leave state that it can be granted to personnel

“For urgent reasons, of an exceptional or personal nature, when the presence of the individual is considered essential to lessen domestic hardship.”

Furthermore, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), when he was a Defence Minister, stated:

“The purpose of compassionate leave is to allow Service personnel an authorised period of absence to enable them to attend to a personal crisis. There is no definitive list of occasions when it is appropriate to allow compassionate leave to be taken as each case requires individual, objective and sensitive assessment.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2005; Vol. 435, c. 1060W.]

That is a common-sense definition that allows our soldiers to have confidence that, when things are going wrong, they will be allowed to go home for a short time to deal with the crisis.

Mrs. Miles was clear that, when she left hospital, she was in need of urgent support from her daughter, whose experience and medical training would have been helpful to Mrs. Miles. More significant than Mrs. Miles’s opinion of what was best for herself, was the opinion of her daughter. She, too, wanted to go home and felt that this was exactly the sort of family situation that warranted compassionate leave. This case was exceptional and the decision of the AWS added to the physical and emotional burdens on Mrs. Miles, as well as to the emotions of her daughter.

Part of the problem in this case was the inconsistency of the AWS. It denied compassionate leave because Mrs. Miles was in hospital, which gave rise to the implied expectation that it would be granted when she left. However, when Mrs. Miles actually left hospital, Corporal Pickup’s request was again rejected. Although I appreciate that we cannot predict in advance every possible family circumstance, we evidently need clearer guidelines in place so that service personnel will have a greater understanding of when their circumstances qualify for compassionate leave. As far as my constituent was concerned, her circumstances seemed to fit the criteria, so she thought that her daughter would be able to spend some time with her to help with her recuperation, especially considering that her spine had been operated on.

I mentioned earlier that the Government have a responsibility for the morale of our troops. In that context, it is not good for troop morale when hard-working and brave soldiers are denied the chance to spend a few days at home with their ill parents. We need our soldiers to be 100 per cent. focused on their task to get the very best out of them. Although the nature of our service personnel’s work means that they cannot be afforded the flexibility to respond to family responsibilities that they would get in other professions, the Government must be considerate and compassionate to those who put their lives on the line for their country. The Government need to show that they care about our troops and their families.

That was why I was disappointed by the Government’s response. I am worried that we will lose Corporal Pickup because of the handling of the case, despite the fact that trained and skilled soldiers such as her are needed so badly at this time that they cannot be given compassionate leave. The way in which the case has been handled has been a disgrace. I am reluctant to interfere with the workings of the Ministry of Defence at a time when it is under great pressure in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, retaining troops and maintaining morale are aspects of the way in which we can support our armed forces, and one would expect the Government to welcome such support.

I took the trouble of writing to the Secretary of State. The timetable for granting the compassionate leave was about two weeks, for the reason that there was no point in sending Corporal Pickup home while her mother was still in hospital. We eventually received a date on which the operation would take place and then a date when Mrs. Miles would leave hospital. I sent that information to the Secretary of State by fax and post.

I understand why the Secretary of State did not reply, but he clearly got the message because, to my amazement, Corporal Pickup found herself being moved from her base in Iraq to a new location where communication was much harder, if not impossible. I do not think that that helped her to recognise her vital role in the effort that we are putting into Iraq. It simply confirmed that no one cared about her or her mother, or about what happened to either of them. Indeed, if she had doubts about remaining in the Army, such an extraordinary and perhaps vindictive approach will have confirmed her worst fears.

Although I appreciate that our presence in Iraq is important, my constituent has been left with the impression that the Army’s need for Corporal Pickup was far greater than her need for her daughter, Bronwen. The evidence seems to show that our need for fully trained medics is greater than the media lead us to believe and greater than the reported casualty figures suggest. If the situation is so bad that one corporal cannot go home to help her mother to recover from a spinal injury, perhaps that is why people are questioning exactly what is going on out there. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that he will be able to reassure us that the AWS is not being put under any political pressure to find excuses not to grant compassionate leave because of a shortfall in troop numbers.

I took the trouble to telephone the person at AWS who was responsible for the case. He told me that he had checked with the person at the hospital and had had it confirmed that Mrs. Miles would be “all right”. I do not think that that person was a doctor, although Mrs. Miles has lived to tell this sorry tale, so she is “all right” to some extent. The person then assured me that if things got worse, the Red Cross could pop in. I have nothing against the Red Cross or any of the people involved, but any sane person would agree that, good though it is, the Red Cross cannot provide the same moral and mental comfort that Mrs. Miles needed and that her daughter wanted to provide.

I fear that there could be more Corporal Pickups in our armed forces, some of whom may be too cynical about the compassionate leave system to apply or who may have been put off after hearing of the rejections of their applications that others have received. I also fear that there could be more Mrs. Mileses in our constituencies, in urgent need of support from a family member serving abroad. I am further concerned that this may have a detrimental impact on morale, recruitment and retention.

In the past year, some 14,000 troops left the Army. Although we do not know what proportion of those were feeling the strain of being apart from their family, rejecting applications for compassionate leave such as Corporal Pickup’s will not help to encourage our soldiers to spend more time in our military. Supporting our troops means more than letting them go home, but the handling of this case was a disgrace and must not happen again.

If a soldier has a family crisis, moving them to an area out of communication is brutal. It is well known that good leadership means looking after the finest asset in our armed forces—the people. The treatment of Corporal Pickup and her mother is extremely disappointing. The attitude of the Ministers involved is worse. The letter that I finally received in response to my initial fax and letter arrived on Monday, two weeks after the operation. Worse still, it said nothing. It was clear that the Minister had no understanding of the problem and the minion who wrote the letter had no information. When we are trying so hard to support our soldiers abroad, it is a shame that their own leaders in government should ignore their simple requests.

I do not think the Minister can correct the wrongs that have been done to Corporal Pickup and her mother, but he can try to prevent such weak and short-sighted handling of a delicate and important problem. I look forward to hearing his views on compassionate leave and whether he has any plans to offer more assistance to people like my constituent, Mrs. Miles, and her daughter.

I welcome the opportunity to debate a narrow but highly important aspect of welfare support for our service personnel and their families. Although I will deal with compassionate leave in particular, it would be useful if I set out the context of the overall welfare support that we provide our servicemen and women at home and while they are serving abroad or on operational deployments.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State who would normally have replied to the debate, and who replied to his letter—but he is currently involved elsewhere in his role as Minister for Veterans.

I wish the hon. Gentleman had not used the words “vindictive” and “minion” in his comments. I understand some of the passion that he feels, but he should remember that it was a member of serving personnel who made the judgment. If he is accusing serving personnel of being vindictive, that is quite a charge.

No. To call someone who drafts a letter for a Minister a “minion” is demeaning of the hon. Gentleman, not of the individual who gives support—

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that Ministers draft every letter, he should get into the real world. Clearly, the system exists to help Ministers, who have ultimate responsibility for what goes out in their name.

The Government and the services recognise that welfare is an important and integral element of operational efficiency. The Ministry of Defence has a duty of care to ensure that wherever personnel are required to serve, welfare measures are in place which provide the timely and effective assistance necessary to maintain operational effectiveness. Welfare is therefore MOD core business.

Before turning to compassionate and other forms of leave, I must emphasise that the granting and timing of all forms of absence is subject at all times to operational requirements and the general exigencies of each service. Compassionate leave is just one of the many types of leave available to our service personnel. In addition to annual leave, which is for the purpose of allowing service personnel time away from duty so that they return to work refreshed, other types of leave and absence such as post- operational leave, maternity leave and time off for dependants are all available when required.

Before I deal with compassionate leave, I must explain that there is a difference between compassionate leave and time off for dependants, although they may appear similar. Primarily, time off for dependants is unpaid leave to allow individuals to deal with emergencies that affect them or their dependants. Commanding officers may grant time off when there are insufficient grounds to grant paid compassionate leave. Service personnel who are required to be away for more than a few days should apply for compassionate leave, annual leave or a combination of the two according to service regulations.

With regard to the purposes for which compassionate leave is available, compassionate leave is additional to an individual’s normal leave entitlement and it is available to allow service personnel an authorised period of absence to enable them to attend to a personal crisis. However, given the myriad of potential difficulties individuals can encounter, I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands why hard and fast rules cannot be laid down for granting compassionate leave. We are talking about real people’s lives, and each case requires individual, objective, sensitive and timely assessment. The amount of compassionate leave that may be awarded rests with the commanding officer, and it is, as it always must be, a balance between the needs of the individual, the current operational situation and the exigencies of the service.

Although the rules governing compassionate leave need to be as flexible as possible, general guidance is provided to commanding officers. The overriding principle of the guidance emphasises that commanding officers should, where possible, grant compassionate leave, unless the criteria laid down in the guidelines are not met or the needs of the service take priority. Compassionate leave may be granted for periods of up to four weeks, but it may be extended in exceptional circumstances for longer periods following a review of each individual case.

Compassionate leave is not the solution to recurring problems, which should be dealt with by addressing them by some other form of resolution through single service welfare channels. Various other forms of leave are available to service personnel, and they may be more appropriate to meet the needs of both the individual and the service—for example, special paid or unpaid leave can be offered where practicable, and commanding officers may grant specific short periods of authorised absence in addition to compassionate and normal leave.

The hon. Gentleman has raised the case of his constituent, Mrs. Miles, whose daughter, Corporal Bronwen Pickup, was refused compassionate leave to look after Mrs. Miles following Mrs. Miles’s discharge from hospital. The facts, as the hon. Gentleman has indicated, are that Mrs. Miles was taken into hospital with severe back pain shortly before Corporal Pickup returned home on leave from Iraq in August. Corporal Pickup asked to be allowed to remain in the UK on compassionate grounds because of her mother’s illness. Her unit referred the matter to the Army welfare service, which investigated and recommended that Corporal Pickup should return to her unit as planned because her mother was receiving sufficient care in hospital and a hospital care plan would be put in place following her mother’s discharge. Corporal Pickup returned to Iraq at the end of her leave.

On 15 September, Corporal Pickup again requested compassionate leave as she was concerned that her mother, who had been discharged from hospital, was not receiving adequate after-care. The Army welfare service then contacted the occupational therapist dealing with Mrs. Miles, from whom it was understood that Mrs. Miles had friends and family, including her husband, who were able to care for her as well as health professionals. It was therefore decided again not to grant Corporal Pickup compassionate leave.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s unhappiness, and that of the family, at that decision. I assure him that the chain of command is very alert to the difficulties that personnel can face when they are separated from their families, and it is not vindictive. While taking into account operational requirements, it is sensitive and responsive to individual needs, and it will often release personnel on compassionate leave. However, where it considers that an individual cannot be released because operational requirements are paramount, it will, where appropriate, refer such cases to the respective welfare organisations for advice, which ensures that each case is treated on its merits fairly and sensitively.

Each service has developed its own welfare organisation tailored to meet the different needs of the respective personnel. The Royal Navy has the naval personnel and family service, the Army has the army welfare service, and the Royal Air Force has contracted welfare support to the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. Each welfare organisation is professionally qualified and trained and, most importantly, independent of the chain of command. They are therefore well placed to balance individual personal circumstances against operational requirements. Clearly, there will be some cases in which they rule in favour of an individual and some in which they do not.

The important point is that such a decision is made only after thorough consideration of all the circumstances and merits of each individual case. In addition, each case is kept under constant review as regards any changing circumstances to ensure that our service personnel receive the best support possible. In support of the chain of command and the formal welfare organisations, personnel may, depending on the issue, seek help and advice from other sources such as padres and doctors. There are therefore many opportunities for service personnel to seek and obtain help on any welfare issue.

We are committed to providing a welfare structure that, wherever practicable and manageable, supports the needs of the service community. For personnel to be fully effective in their duties, it is essential that their well-being and that of their dependants is properly cared for. The same welfare structures that are normally provided in the United Kingdom by local authorities, or by other external agencies, should be available to our serving personnel while serving overseas. Our aim is to deliver comprehensive community support to our servicemen and women and their dependants. The welfare provision provided by each service and other professional agencies is equally accessible to the dependants of serving personnel, whose morale and well-being have a direct bearing on the effectiveness of service personnel. During peacetime deployments, or while on operations, our aim is to provide the same level of support that would be provided back at an individual’s home base.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this subject and for allowing me the opportunity to describe our compassionate leave arrangements and how they fit into the broader welfare package. I hope that he will accept that we do our best to provide comprehensive welfare for all our people. We genuinely try hard to strike the right balance between the necessary demands of operations and the need to react sensitively and with compassion to the personal and family needs of servicemen and women. It is right that he, and other hon. Members who raise similar cases, should continue to press on behalf of their constituents where they feel that we have not got the balance right. As ever, I undertake always carefully to consider any case that is raised with me or with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has direct responsibility for such matters.

I have tried to set out the way in which this important issue is dealt with. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that a chain of command is involved and that if Ministers try to interfere too closely we may be trying to countermand operational issues such as why a person is needed in an operational theatre as opposed to being granted compassionate leave. That would not be a helpful step. Our military personnel are best treated within the military family. We try to give them all possible opportunities and independent support. Ministers do get engaged, but there is a balance to be struck at all times. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider his Territorial Army experience, as he should understand only too well the importance of the chain of command and of not having cross-interference from Ministers.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Seven o’clock.