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Armed Forces (Health Care)

Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2008

3. When he next plans to discuss health care for members of the armed forces with the First Minister. (190395)

I have had various discussions with the First Minister on a range of subjects, including armed forces personnel. The Scottish Executive have the duty to ensure that NHS boards in Scotland implement their responsibilities to the armed forces, service families and veterans. The Ministry of Defence has numerous regular discussions at various levels to assist the Executive and NHS Scotland in that respect.

Although I acknowledge the excellence of the medical facilities for our military personnel at Selly Oak, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the First Minister about providing an equally good range of facilities—a centre of excellence—for those serving who are based or living in Scotland, such as those in 52 Brigade, which is currently in Afghanistan? Most personnel will be based in Scotland, but there will be people from the north of England, too. Should they not receive equal treatment to that which people being looked after at Selly Oak receive?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s recognition of the world-class clinical care that our troops receive at Selly Oak hospital. That has not always been recognised, but the Defence Committee has done the House, Selly Oak hospital and our troops a significant service by clearly confirming that a world-class service is provided there. The reason the service is world class is that there is a concentration of expertise at Selly Oak hospital that would be almost impossible to replicate anywhere else. I am aware of one occasion, for example, on which a soldier returning from Afghanistan required the attention of 16 trauma consultants. Only Selly Oak hospital can provide that. Any attempt to replicate that anywhere else in the United Kingdom would run the risk of diluting the care that we can give. Selly Oak should be built up.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the Defence Committee’s report, which highlights the fact that veterans in Scotland do not receive the same treatment as veterans in the rest of the United Kingdom? The Select Committee was highly critical of that. When my right hon. Friend meets the First Minister of the minority Government in Scotland, will he make it clear that our troops deserve to be treated in exactly the same way in Scotland as they are throughout the rest of the UK?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is a member of the Defence Committee, and to the work of the Committee. It has done a service to our armed forces by identifying that one criticism among a small number of criticisms in a report that was otherwise substantially complimentary about medical care. The Scottish Executive—in particular, the Health Minister in Scotland—have responded immediately to that matter. They have suggested that their dealings with the Ministry of Defence are very good on that issue, and I can confirm that they are. We will work together to deal with that and sort it out.

Given that many veterans are now retired and elderly, does the Secretary of State agree with the report by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities that free health care for the elderly should now be subject to eligibility criteria?

I am not aware of the individual report that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but I will consider the matter in the context in which the report is written and get in touch with him.

If there have been any failings in the treatment of veterans in the past, the Secretary of State has only his Scottish colleagues in the previous Labour Executive to thank. Will he join me in congratulating the Scottish Government on putting an extra £500,000 into helping veterans with mental health issues, and on the priority treatment that veterans with service-related conditions are now about to receive from the Scottish Government? Does that not contrast vividly with the failings and shortcomings of the previous so-called Executive?

Indeed. It is unworthy of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) to play party politics with the health and welfare of our troops, particularly those who are serving in Afghanistan or Iraq and who might come back injured. His party has responsibility for the delivery of that service. I have told the House that I am pleased with the response by the Health Minister in Scotland that she will engage with the issue now that it has been brought to her attention. The fact is, however, that it took her some months to find out that it was even an issue.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the treatment of our veterans is of the utmost importance to Members on both sides of this House—except, it would appear, to Members from one party, which happens to be in a minority Government in Scotland? Does he agree that, if we were to open up the Scotland Act 1998, the important function of looking after our veterans might be one of the powers that we should bring back to this House, so that we can look after the people who defend this country?

There is growing consensus across the House that, in regard to the delivery of our public services, we ought, as a country, to recognise our commitment to our veterans and our serving troops, and to the families and extended families of those who serve our country in that way. It is disagreeable and disappointing that the Scottish National party should choose to make party advantage in that matter. However, I have no doubt that, as it learns more about the responsibilities of Administration, it will learn that that does not help, and that it will not be forgotten by the people of Scotland in the long term.

The recent Defence Committee report made it clear that the Scottish Executive were not giving high enough priority to the medical care of our service personnel. Last year, Scottish nationalist MSPs supported a ban on the Army visiting schools. Does the Secretary of State agree that the SNP’s treatment of our soldiers as second-class citizens is simply the worst kind of politics? Will he seek an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State for Defence to ask him to raise that matter with the First Minister, in order to remind the First Minister that our armed forces personnel are part of the British Army, and that we stand together and fight together?

I will do what I can to get an early meeting with the Secretary of State for Defence, but I know that his diary is very busy. However, the hon. Gentleman has made the good point that one party in the House plays around with those issues for political purposes. In the absence of a coherent defence policy, it is not surprising that it chooses to exploit circumstances as it does. Members of that party should not continue to believe, however, that our armed forces do not recognise that. Those Members do not provide the coherent strategic support that our armed forces need, and they should not play about with those issues as they do.