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Injured Troops

Volume 458: debated on Monday 26 March 2007

10. What progress has been made in improving health care provided to troops injured on operations on their return to the UK. (129306)

Selly Oak hospital, part of the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, is the primary reception hospital for operational casualties. It is a centre of excellence for treating the injuries sustained by our troops. A military-managed ward reached initial operating capability in December 2006. There are 22 military nurses, including military nursing managers, who work at all levels on the ward. That allows the presence of military nursing staff on duty on every shift. We have also increased the overall number of military psychiatric support nurses and have military welfare staff and liaison officers at the hospital.

Personnel who require rehabilitation following hospital treatment may receive it at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court. That world-class facility provides high-quality, appropriate prosthetics and adaptations, manufactured on site and individually tailored as necessary to the specific patient.

My hon. Friend knows that a large contingent of personnel from Plymouth is currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I cannot emphasise enough the importance to the families of understanding that there is a decent health care service in place for those who are injured, and equally for those who return from stressful tours of duty. Will my hon. Friend assure me that, despite the recent incident in Cyprus, the Ministry will continue to support decompression programmes—one of which I saw on HMS Temeraire—to assist, for example, Iraq veterans back into regular Army service?

It is clear that we provide top quality, world-class medical support and treatment for our injured service personnel. I have talked to many injured service personnel and their families in recent months. A recent survey at Selly Oak of those who had been discharged showed everybody saying that their care and treatment had been excellent, very good or good. It is clearly an important facility, which we are continuing to develop. We are taking an initiative on reservists and mental health. Mental health support exists pre and post-deployment.

Decompression is important, and commanding officers decide how it is handled and delivered. It clearly has an important role to play in allowing service personnel who return from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to come to terms with their experiences, discuss any difficult problems that they may need to take forward and, of course, relax. That is all part of the process before returning home to their loved ones.

Given the success of Defence Medical Services in keeping alive injured troops who, in earlier times, would have died, is the Under-Secretary satisfied with the aftercare available, especially for those injured out of the services? Is he content with the long waiting list for former servicemen to access psychiatric services? Given increasing awareness of the services available and the problems that former servicemen experience, will he expand the defence psychiatric service to make it the equal of those in America, Australia and the Netherlands?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, Defence Medical Services is responsible for such services, pre and post-deployment. As he rightly said, once personnel leave the armed forces, they become the responsibility of the NHS. In October, we announced the reservist mental health care plan, whereby reservists who visit their GPs are referred to the defence medical mental health unit at Chilwell. We are currently working with the Department of Health and Combat Stress to improve further the mental health support for our veterans.

We hope to get several pilot schemes up and running in the not-too-distant future to consider how we improve both the understanding of mental health problems that result from being on operations or in the armed forces and education and support for that throughout the health service. I shall report further to the House as that develops.

Will my hon. Friend note that it is very important that servicemen be treated within units where they are totally comfortable and surrounded by those who they most want to be with? Will he resist any attempt to divide the specialist units from the main national health service providers because it is essential that they be given a wide range of treatments and are not left in conditions that are inadequate in comparison with other NHS patients?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, but the decision to move away from military hospitals was taken some time ago and it was based on expert clinical and medical advice. It is important to ensure that practitioners, clinicians and military medical staff are able to develop their experience, see a range of cases and be given a range of skills to use out on the front line in Afghanistan and Iraq and back home when injured soldiers return. The best way for that to happen is in the context of a large NHS trust where those skills can be developed and honed. The experience they gain there can be used for the benefit of injured armed forces personnel.

General Sir Richard Dannatt said that we may see a dedicated military ward at Selly Oak within three years, but at Prime Minister’s Questions, the Prime Minister did not seem to believe in the concept at all and we now know from contractors at Selly Oak that it will be at least five years before such a unit is up and running. What is the truth in all that shambles? People in this country think that our troops deserve better than the confusion and contradiction that they are getting and want to see an exclusive military unit inside the NHS as soon as possible.

We are now seeing the best medical treatment ever for our armed forces personnel, thanks to the quality and expertise at places like Selly Oak as well as in the field hospitals in operations out in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let me make it clear that we are moving towards a military managed ward with initial operating capability and by the early summer we will have full capability. Alterations and works are taking place at Selly Oak hospital to do that. As to General Dannatt’s comments, he raised the issue of having a fully military ward—in other words, a ward with no civilian patients—but it is a problem when there are empty beds and civilian patients need them. It is important to think about how to deal with that problem. With the developments coming up over the next few years, including the development of new units at the hospital at Selly Oak, we will be looking further into how to introduce a military ward into the new facility. We are working with people at Selly Oak and elsewhere to do that, as General Dannatt understands.