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Wounded Service Personnel

Volume 463: debated on Monday 16 July 2007

2. If he will make a statement on care for servicemen and women who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. (149373)

We provide an excellent level of care for our service personnel who have been wounded on operations. This includes: life-saving emergency care in the front line, in our field hospitals and in NHS hospitals in the UK; the excellent facilities at the defence medical rehabilitation centre and our regional rehabilitation units; and treatment for those whose mental health has been affected.

As the wounded come to terms with the consequences of their injuries, their thoughts turn to issues such as housing, and to whether they will be allowed to remain in the armed forces, and if not, to what provision exists to assist them in moving into civilian life. Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that everything that can be done for our wounded—many of whom have severe disabilities—is being done in respect of informing them of their entitlements and providing assistance in getting back into civilian life? Will he also give his support to any civic or community group that recognises the heroism and sacrifice of these injured servicemen as they try to return to their civilian lives?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of our responsibility to those who return injured from theatres of combat. He will know that, because of the advances that have been made in rehabilitative care, such people are increasingly able to continue with their Army careers. That is a function not only of advances in clinical care and rehabilitation processes but of the way in which the services interact with those people. Caseworkers are involved, as is a programme known as pathway care, which is doing work in this area. In all these programmes, we work with the voluntary sector and other agencies including local authorities and the NHS, and I have no difficulty in giving the hon. Gentleman the commitment that he asks for—namely, that we will continue to do so. He also asks for a reassurance that everything that can be done is being done. I cannot give him that reassurance, because I am absolutely certain that we will find ways of improving what we have already improved as we proceed along these lines, and we intend to do that.

I recognise the fantastic work that is being delivered by the NHS at Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham. The introduction of military-managed wards has been very much welcomed by our service personnel. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that such wards will be the norm, so that our service personnel will have the support of their comrades at these difficult times?

I assure my hon. Friend that we are pleased with the progress that has been made on the military-managed ward at Selly Oak hospital. That hospital treats our casualties in a world-class way, and I am pleased that, at least in regard to clinical care, that view is shared by those on all the Front Benches in the House. There has been some debate about whether we could improve the environment in which injured military personnel could recuperate, and we have made improvements in that regard. So much so, in fact, that General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, said in March:

“There is nowhere better in the country, nowhere more expert at polytrauma medicine, than that hospital in Selly Oak. That’s why our people are there.”

I can reassure my hon. Friend that we will learn from those lessons to ensure that we continue to improve.

Would the Secretary of State accept that it is a great failing of the Ministry of Defence that more is not known about the great triumph, success and heroism of British soldiers, particularly those who have been seriously wounded? Will he note the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) about the need for the wider community to recognise the astonishing achievements and heroism of the wounded? Does not he agree that they should be invited to race meetings, motor racing, boxing fights, and so on, so that people can see them, welcome them and give them appropriate recognition for their astonishing achievements?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am pleased to advise the House, and those who might have missed this, that a significant number of those who have been injured in combat were recently guests of, I think, the British Motor Racing Club—I shall almost certainly get this wrong, and I do not want to—at the recent Formula 1 race. Whoever it was—and I should know exactly who invited them—is to be commended for their generosity and for their reasons for choosing to honour those people.

May I say to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that I regret the change made some time ago—there were reasons for it—whereby soldiers, airmen and sailors who are off duty do not appear in uniform on our streets? If more of our armed services were able to appear in uniform, people would have a better chance of relating to them. If I can increase the numbers who are able to do that, it will go a long way to address the hon. Gentleman’s point.

With the best will in the world, it is inevitable that not all servicemen and women injured in combat can be treated in military-run wards. Some will be placed in civilian-run wards because that is the best place for them to be. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, when soldiers are placed in civilian-run wards, they will receive the sort of care that is appropriate for individuals who have been injured in combat? Will recognition be given to the special nature of the trauma and difficulties that they have gone through in receiving their injuries, as that can be very different from injuries sustained in civilian life?

My hon. Friend is right in identifying the challenge that we would face if we had to bring in all those in the services receiving in-patient treatment, as they would barely fill two hospital wards on any typical day. In those circumstances, it is impossible to imagine how the re-establishment of a military hospital, for example, could provide the excellence of clinical care that those people would receive in NHS hospitals. A relevant example is the opportunity to bring 16 trauma specialists to one bedside in Selly Oak hospital—that cannot be done anywhere else. We continually address the challenge of generating the environment that is commensurate with the circumstances that have caused the injuries to these young men—and it is young men more often than not. I will do everything I can to ensure that we continue down the path that we have embarked upon.

As we have discussed in the House before, better body armour inevitably produces fewer fatalities, but more disabilities than in previous conflicts. The concept of the MOD’s duty of care therefore needs to extend more than ever beyond the time actually served in the military. It needs to extend to those with chronic disability, in the knowledge that the NHS will give them—whatever the effects on targets—the priority that they deserve. Those with psychiatric damage need to know that the appropriate military psychiatric help will be available years later when it is needed. Why, unlike in the US, do we still have no guidelines on traumatic brain injury? Does the Secretary of State understand how unacceptable it is to the House when we read in yesterday’s papers about a young man, Lance-Corporal Twiddy, who said:

“Once you are discharged, the MOD doesn’t want anything to do with you”?

That is utterly unacceptable.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand why I shall desist from responding to the circumstances of one particular individual, but he has my assurance that I will personally look into the circumstances of the young man whom he identified and find out whether that was the case—if so, I will do everything I can to see that it is no longer the case for that individual.

On the more general issue of traumatic brain injury, we are studying developments in the US: as we speak there is a liaison officer out there and we want to learn from what the US has done. The hon. Gentleman has a medical background and training that I do not have, so I am not in a position to assess that, but I rely on others to do it for me. Recently, evidence from the US has shown that, when it comes to the care of veterans, they have something to learn from us, too.