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Military Covenant

Volume 465: debated on Monday 22 October 2007

We are fully committed to meeting our responsibilities for serving personnel, veterans and their families. Over time, we have made improvements to service pay, accommodation, health and welfare provision, force protection and personal equipment. However, we recognise that more can be done.

The Royal British Legion says:

“we believe that certain aspects of the Military Covenant are not being delivered and that the Nation must now bring about change to ensure that our Service people and their families get the support they deserve.”

One of the things that it pinpoints is the armed forces compensation scheme, which it says will make

“receiving compensation for death, injury or illness caused by Service significantly more difficult.”

Does the Minister agree?

I do not agree. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has had several meetings with the legion and has asked it to provide instances of where claiming compensation has been made difficult so that we can consider them. The burden of proof is at an acceptable level, and there is no evidence that there are difficulties. The level of compensation has been increased and improved by the introduction of the up-front payment to supplement the pension, which was not available at all until a year or so ago.

Why has the burden of proof for compensation been shifted from the Secretary of State to the wounded soldier?

The burden of proof is on the balance of probabilities. That is the same level of proof that is required under other schemes run by the Government, and it is not onerous, in my opinion. As I said, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has asked the legion to identify cases where people had difficulty in claiming compensation, and if they can show that they had difficulty we will address the matter. We are not going to walk away from this. We do not believe that the burden of proof presents a problem, but if evidence shows that it does, we will look at that evidence.

I think that the Minister is in denial. There are 775 outstanding cases of injury compensation and 63,000 outstanding claims under the war pensions scheme. Does he honestly believe that those figures paint a picture of a Government who are committed to the military covenant?

Thousands of claims have to be processed each year. Some of them are relatively simple and straightforward and can be dealt with in a short period; others relate to people with enormously complex injuries, and that inevitably lead to delays in making an assessment. We have to do the maximum that we can to deal with these claims as quickly as we can, but they must be dealt with properly and thoroughly; I would have thought that that is what the hon. Lady wanted.

One of the areas where there is significant scope for improvement in honouring the covenant is mental health services. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that that happens?

We have increased the funding that we offer to Combat Stress, which is an organisation that helps us in this respect. We have introduced assessments for all people who go into and out of theatre to try to ensure that we improve the assessment of the mental health of those who are faced with these circumstances. We are also introducing, through pilots in the first instance, across-the-board mental health facilities to cover all the regions of the United Kingdom to ensure that we pick up mental health issues as and when they arise and that we know exactly what problems face our ex-military personnel in the years to come.

I congratulate the Royal British Legion on its campaign, because there is always more that can be done to support our veterans. I thank the Minister for the increased funding for Combat Stress, and especially for Hollybush house in my constituency. Will he join me in congratulating Hollybush house on the opening of its new wing last week? Along with the extra funding, that will greatly increase its capacity to support veterans who have mental health problems as a result of serving their country.

I thank my hon. Friend for the support she gives to Combat Stress, which I know is based in her constituency. I welcome her comments on the Legion’s campaign. We, too, welcome it; we have no problem with the Legion using its power and influence to raise such issues throughout the country. It is sad, however, if people want to use its campaign for party political purposes. We ought to be working together to raise such issues, which are perfectly legitimate, in the country as a whole.

One of the most-cited elements of the covenant is the way in which the country deals with those wounded in action. Despite the unfair criticism of Selly Oak hospital by Opposition Front Benchers in last week’s defence debate, I am sure that the Minister will agree with the Chief of the Defence Staff, who said in March 2007:

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

That is exactly right. That is the opinion of the Chief of the General Staff and, overwhelmingly, of people who visit the facilities at Selly Oak. The comments made during the debate the other day were unfortunate, and they have not yet been withdrawn. Off the back of an individual case, the details of which were inaccurate, a slur was effectively cast on the people who work there.

Does the Minister regard looking after the bereaved families of fallen servicemen and women as part of the military covenant? If he does, can he explain why it is still the case that no payment is made to bereaved families to enable them to be legally represented at inquests?

I accept that that is part of the military covenant. We must ensure that we give all appropriate support to the bereaved relatives of our service personnel, and we do. However, coroner’s court appearances are not of such a nature that people should expect to be represented legally. The system is an inquisitorial one designed to get to the facts. It is not a system in which people automatically clash with the views of the Ministry of Defence at the hearings.

My right hon. Friend recognises that the covenant is between the armed forces and the people of our countries. The Government are a part of that contract. Does he believe it is enhanced by politicians in this House and outside using the military as a political football by misquoting military leaders to score cheap party political points?

No, I do not. If people begin to use this debate in that way, they will detract from what we ought to be doing. All Members of this House, irrespective of party, should join this debate and help to facilitate what is needed: the maximum connection between our armed forces personnel, who are doing a tremendous job on behalf of this country, and the nation as a whole, many of whom do not understand and appreciate the full extent of the sacrifice and the service that is being given.

A disproportionately large number of our homeless on the streets of London and other cities in the United Kingdom are former servicemen and women. I commend the work of the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation and Veterans Aid—two marvellous charities that are helping with that. Is the Minister aware of the growing campaign for a national veterans centre in London to act as a one-stop shop, whether simply for veterans to make links with their old regiments or for the homeless to go and try to find somewhere to stay for the night? Is he prepared to meet representatives of the charities to push forward the campaign?

Lots of charities are working on the matter and doing a fantastic job, and we should do everything we can to encourage them in their work. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary meets them regularly. I am more than happy not only to meet the people concerned but to consider any ideas. We are prepared to consider any suggestions for assisting our former service personnel.

Does the Minister agree that one of the obligations that we owe our servicemen is confidence that when they serve on the front line, their families are being adequately housed and looked after at home? Does he recall that in 2001 the defence housing executive was aiming to get all family accommodation up to standard 1 by November 2005? That date has been and gone, and we now have a 10-year programme, which, according to the Secretary of State, would necessitate £50 million a year being spent on family accommodation. Does the Minister realise that in the 12 months to April this year, only £16 million was spent? At the rate that things are happening, rather than being talked about, it could take 50 years to bring service family accommodation up to scratch. Given that the Government have sold £2.2 billion of assets since 1999, would not it be an idea for a guaranteed proportion of those capital asset sales to be ring-fenced in future for reinvesting in the Ministry’s estate of houses?

The hon. Gentleman is right that a big job continues to be necessary on the estate for service family accommodation and single living accommodation. However, he should not undervalue the amount of work being done, the amount of money being spent and the size of the continuing building programme. In the past year alone, £700 million was spent. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, there is a plan for £5 billion to be spent in the next 10 years. However, we will not put right decades of neglect overnight. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) points at Conservative Members, and during their reign practically no investment was made in service living accommodation. The matter is being addressed, but it will not be sorted out overnight.

My right hon. Friend knows, because he visited Portsmouth naval base a couple of weeks ago, that we have made an excellent investment in single living accommodation in Portsmouth. Will he confirm that this Government did not sell off MOD housing stock at a knock-down price, or leave the MOD to pick up the maintenance costs?

Part of the problem is that we are living with the Annington Homes contract to this date. That adds complexity to dealing with family living accommodation. We are getting on with the rebuilding programme for single living accommodation and making improvements in service family accommodation, but the Annington contract has been a big part of the problem.

In Iraq 7.4 Americans are wounded for each fatality, whereas the official UK figure is 1.6. What explanation of that gross disparity can the Minister offer other than the obvious one, which is a failure by the Ministry fully to reflect the casualty burden that our armed forces sustain?

Since I have been in this post, I have heard repeated allegations that somehow injured service personnel are not adequately reflected in the figures. I have heard all sorts of scurrilous things, such as that we are deliberately trying to hide the extent of our injured service personnel. I have seen no evidence of that. I continue to be prepared to examine anything that anyone has said. If anyone can provide evidence that we are under-reporting—[Interruption.] I heard the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) make scurrilous claims last time he was at the Dispatch Box, and I do not know whether he wants to do that again—

I will try to do that, Mr. Speaker, at your direction.

I say to the hon. Gentleman in all seriousness that if he or anyone else has evidence that there is a problem with the reporting mechanism, let us have it. We will look at that evidence and see whether we can put the problem right. Looking at what is needed for the purpose of treating our injured service personnel must be the priority. I see no evidence for the many claims that are made—indeed, continuing right up to this morning—and which have been quite adequately dealt with by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.