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Service Personnel

Volume 479: debated on Thursday 17 July 2008

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the service personnel Command Paper, which I am publishing today and which has been laid before the House.

The men and women of our armed forces are a force for good. I know that the whole House is proud of the work that they do in dangerous and challenging circumstances, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, or closer to home. All around the world, every day, they demonstrate their courage, dedication and professionalism, risking injury and death in the service of their country. They are a credit to the nation.

Increasingly, the level of support provided to our forces by the Government, and also more widely by the nation, has come under scrutiny from the public, the media and, most importantly, those in the services and their families. It is absolutely right that that should be the case. If we ask our forces to risk their lives in order to keep us safe, we should all be prepared to look after them while they are in service and afterwards. I believe that we have made a number of big improvements to the lives of our people in the past two years.

We have introduced the first ever tax-free operational bonus, we have invested substantial additional money to improve our armed forces’ accommodation and we have awarded them among the highest pay increases in the public sector. However, we can and should do more. Last year, the Prime Minister and I asked ministerial colleagues across government what more we could do and should be doing to demonstrate our gratitude for the service and sacrifice of our service personnel. The result, led by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, is today’s Command Paper—the first ever truly cross-Government approach to demonstrating our commitment to the armed forces.

The Command Paper was not just a cross-Government effort. We also consulted our external reference group, among others, widely and in detail. That group comprised the Royal British Legion, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, the Confederation of British Service and ex-Service Organisations, the armed forces families’ federations and the War Widows Association of Great Britain. I am delighted that they have so warmly welcomed the publication of this paper and will continue to work with us on its delivery.

This Command Paper is underpinned by two fundamental principles. The first is to remove any disadvantage. The nature of their work and the requirements of service life means that our people, and their families, can face disadvantage in their daily lives. Many of them move locations frequently, often with no choice of where or when, and schooling can be disrupted as a result. They might lose their place on a national health service waiting list, for example, or lose out on an in vitro fertilisation procedure. Many of the measures in the paper are therefore aimed at ending that disadvantage. They seek to ensure that service personnel and their families receive continuity of public services wherever they are based and wherever they are obliged to move.

The second fundamental principle is that where special treatment is required in order to recognise those who have sacrificed the most, we must and should provide it. This is a comprehensive package of 40 measures covering almost every aspect of life, from health care, education and transport to housing, resettlement and the care of veterans.

I want to highlight just a few of the commitments that we are announcing today. Right hon. and hon. Members are only too aware of the terrible price that some members of our armed forces have paid, suffering mental and physical injuries that will be with them and their families for the rest of their lives. Every Member of this House would agree with me that as a Government we should be willing to make the following commitment: if those personnel have been injured serving their nation, then the Government and the nation must ensure that we support them as much as they need for as long as they need. We must aim to offer the best possible continuous care from the point of injury, through to recovery and beyond, for the rest of their life. The measures set out in the paper are aimed at doing just that.

One of the key changes that we are announcing today is an increase in the compensation payments for personnel who suffer injuries due to their service. I understand that no amount of money can ever make up for the pain and sacrifice that these brave people have endured. However, we need to recognise the special nature of their sacrifice. The top-level tariffs in the armed forces compensation scheme will be doubled, affecting about 80 of the most seriously injured people who have already made claims since the scheme began in 2005. Obviously, it will apply to the most serious claims in future.

These things are quite complex as the compensation scheme has many different levels. In practical terms, though, that means that the lump sum awarded for the most serious injuries, which was previously between about £50,000 and £285,000, will double. The new maximum award for an injury will be £570,000. Everyone with an award for injury under the compensation scheme will benefit and the most seriously injured will benefit the most. On discharge, the most seriously injured will also continue to get tax-free income throughout their lives—the annual guaranteed income payment, which is also index-linked—so overall the lifetime payout could be in excess of £1.5 million. Furthermore, these compensation payments for those who are severely disabled will now be disregarded from the local authority means test when they are applying for the disabled facilities grant. That means that seriously injured personnel who receive a lump sum under the armed forces compensation scheme or war pension scheme will not have to spend that money adapting their homes. That money was intended by this House to be compensation for serious injuries, and this approach will guarantee that that intention is fulfilled.

That change is in addition to a host of other changes: seriously injured personnel will be prioritised in waiting lists for adapted social housing; we will roll out community mental health services for veterans nationwide, following successful pilots launched earlier this year; at the earliest opportunity, we will extend free bus travel across England to those service personnel and veterans under the age of 60 who have been seriously injured through service, and Scotland and Wales will do similar; and finally, severely disabled veterans will have an automatic entitlement to blue badges, which provide parking concessions, for life.

Everyone in this House knows that none of those things can make up for the injuries that some people will bear for the remainder of their lives. Nothing can do that. We owe this immense debt, and although it can never sufficiently be repaid, we should, and we will, do our utmost to acknowledge it. The Government will also strive to mitigate the disruptive consequences of mobility on family and everyday life. For example, we will provide continuity of national health service care for service families by ensuring that they retain their relative place on NHS waiting lists across the UK, however often they move, and we will take steps to improve NHS dentists for service families.

We will also minimise the disruption to education suffered by many service children. To that end, we will do the following: review admissions policy to ensure that service children are treated fairly in the allocation of school places; ensure that special educational needs support is uninterrupted when children move schools; and give service children priority access to places at state boarding schools.

Those who choose to leave the armed forces will enjoy a greater level of support, ensuring a smooth transition to civilian life. We will give free further or higher education to service leavers of more than six years’ experience, up to first degree level. That means that a soldier, sailor or airman can join the armed forces from school, secure in the knowledge that six or more years’ service will be rewarded with the chance of a college or university education free from tuition fees. We will also make it easier for service leavers to find homes, whether through the purchase of their own properties or through social housing. We recognise that the mobility of the average service career—typically, people move every two years—means that individuals often prefer to wait until they leave the armed forces before buying a home. For that reason, we will extend the key worker living scheme so that service personnel are eligible for its assistance to purchase homes for one year after they leave the forces.

Social housing will also be more accessible to service leavers. In the past, service leavers had difficulties obtaining social housing, as local authorities prioritise individuals with a “local connection” to the area. This legislation will be changed, enabling personnel to establish a “local connection” and so settle in the location of their choice. That is not all, because we will make empty MOD properties available to service leavers as an interim measure, and we will work with the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Housing Corporation and charities to reduce the incidence of homelessness, which will include building new supported housing on gifted MOD land.

In this Command Paper, the Government have listened to the real needs of the service community and responded to those identified needs, introducing real improvements. We are as committed to our armed forces and veterans as they are committed to us, and we will deliver on these promises; after all, it is the very least we can do. The measures I have outlined are the Government’s—and, indeed, the nation’s—commitment to honour and care for those who have sacrificed most in service to their country, and let me make it absolutely clear that this is for the long term. It is the product of many months of concerted effort by Government Departments and the devolved Administrations. We are determined to make this stick, and we will put in place mechanisms to ensure that we deliver. I commend this Command Paper on the nation’s commitment to our armed forces, their families and veterans to the House.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and for prior sight of it. Conservatives welcome any measures to help our armed forces and their families, and indeed many of the proposals announced today echo proposals that we have made over the past year. Although it may have taken a long time for the Government to introduce this package of measures, if this is the beginning of a genuinely constructive and bipartisan approach to the welfare of our armed forces, their families and service veterans, the whole country will welcome it.

No other group in our society is asked to make the sort of sacrifices that our armed forces make on our behalf. Those on both sides of the House who have visited our troops in Iraq or Afghanistan know the hardships that they face. Those who have talked to service families about how they feel when they hear that another soldier has been killed or injured but they have not yet learned the name of the person involved marvel at their courage. Those who have visited young soldiers in Selly Oak or Headley Court have been humbled by the soldiers’ lack of self pity in the face of great adversity.

May I ask the Secretary of State to clarify a number of points in his statement, starting with the compensation issue? We welcome the doubling of the maximum award for the most seriously injured, but he will be aware that the points system determines eligibility for the most serious injury payment and that it has attracted much criticism. That issue has been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Does he believe that the system is sufficiently holistic in its approach? What plans are there for a review of it, and when will that take place?

Secondly, the Secretary of State said, “Everyone with an award for injury under the compensation scheme will benefit”. Will he clarify that? Does he mean that there will be an automatic uprating of all awards made since 2005, and if so, when will such changes be made? What of those injured in Iraq or Afghanistan before 2005? What changes will be made to bring their treatment and compensation into line with the changes announced today for those injured after 2005? The public will find it hard to accept an arbitrary date for discrimination in treatment. May I remind the House that between 1 January 2003 and 31 December 2005, 33 UK military personnel were categorised as very seriously injured and 78 were categorised as seriously injured, and that in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2005, six were categorised as very seriously injured and four as seriously injured? What will happen to them?

Can the Secretary of State also tell us how many claims have been made by former service personnel against the MOD in the civil courts, how many such claims are outstanding and what the estimated liability is? What assessment has he made of the likely impact of today’s statement on those claims? Finally, will more money be made available from the Treasury for the changes that he has announced today, and if so, how much? We do not want the MOD to be forced to cut other parts of an already overstretched budget.

We welcome other moves that have been announced, but we will want to examine the practicalities. For example, providing good mental health services to veterans requires better integration between defence medicine and the NHS, and although the aim of providing better access to NHS dentistry for service families is desirable, it will not be helped by the fact that the number of NHS dentists declined by a further 500 in 2007.

We would also like to re-examine the issue of the educational status of those leaving the forces, which the Secretary of State mentioned. Many of those who have taken an interest in this issue point out that the underskilling of those who leave the services early is often a greater problem than the one in respect of those leaving after six years. I hope that the Government will re-examine how such people might also be helped.

Finally, may I thank all in the media, in charities and among the general public who have campaigned so tirelessly for the better treatment of our service personnel and their families, and our veterans? Specifically, may I thank Freddie Forsyth and his team, which includes Simon Weston, for the work that they have done for the commission that was set up by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on service welfare? I hope that the Secretary of State will acknowledge what has been a great act of public service on their part.

How we deal with our armed forces is symptomatic of the values of our society. Ultimately, we will have to deal with the overstretch that contributes to many of the problems that those in our armed forces and their families face, but today there has been a welcome acknowledgement of how much needs to be done.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome of this package. I appreciate that he has not had the time to go through it in detail, but as he understands more about it and the impact that it will have, he will recognise that it faithfully represents the issues that members of the armed forces and their advocates, including those organisations he identified, have brought to our attention. We have been engaged in a detailed and ongoing consultation, which we announced last year.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that we should all avoid trying to stand on that small space normally occupied by The Sun, and claiming to be “the persons wot dunnit”. There will be significant competition for the credit for these proposals, but they are the result of a genuinely co-operative effort, which has been going on in some detail for a long time, to identify the needs of our service personnel. The announcement reflects the issues that service people and their families brought to us through various organisations and in several ways. For example, many people contacted us about their individual circumstances, but we have an obligation to keep those communications confidential.

The hon. Gentleman asked several questions about the uplift in the tariff rates of the armed forces scheme. I am satisfied that the tariff approach to a no-fault compensation scheme is the only fair way to conduct that process. He referred in passing to civil claims. When there is an allegation of negligence, one can treat the calculation of compensation differently, but when there is no fault, there has to be transparency and fairness, and some form of tariff. That is now well established in public policy, and previous Governments have had similar schemes.

I am satisfied that the scheme works and is fair. I am always prepared to consider reviewing it to make it more transparent and fair, but the doubling will go down to tariff level 6; the hon. Gentleman may be familiar with the structure of the scheme. Below that, there will be increases, but they will not be proportionately as large as those for the most seriously injured.

The hon. Gentleman asks when the changes will come into effect. He will know that, because it is a statutory scheme, they cannot come into effect until the relevant legislation has been laid. Secondary legislation has to be laid, and that requires a period of consultation. We will publish the detail so that people can see the effect of the scheme on the tariff levels as soon as we are able to do so. There will be a short period of consultation, and then I expect, because of the general welcome for the changes, that the House will approve the proposals. We will have a relevant benefit uplift for everybody who has made an application to the scheme since it started in 2005.

The hon. Gentleman asks me to do something that I am not aware any Government have ever done—to make the scheme retrospective and apply it to people who were compensated or supported under an entirely different scheme of compensation. I hasten to add that the previous scheme was inherited from the previous Government. There was dissatisfaction with that, and we have changed the scheme, but it is not appropriate, in public policy terms, to apply the changes retrospectively to people whose compensation or support was calculated under a different scheme, given that many people—not just those who have been in Iraq—still receive income under that scheme.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether additional resources will be provided. Substantial additional resources will be provided, but they will be gleaned from the budgets of other Departments. We joined with those Departments and the devolved Administrations to ensure that resources could be identified to meet the principles set out in this paper.

Finally, on the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions, he asked about the civil claims. He will appreciate that I do not have that information with me, but I will ensure that he gets it and that it is shared with him and made available to all Members. I thank him for the tribute that he paid to our armed forces. He knows that I share his view that they are excellent people who do excellent work very bravely and professionally. I am pleased that there is such consensus of welcome for the changes in the House and I hope that we will all work to ensure that they are implemented as quickly as possible and that the Government are kept to their promises.

I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of the statement and for the statement itself. I, too, wish to pay tribute to those who have sacrificed so much for their country, including one of my constituents, Sergeant Scott Paterson, who was recently badly injured in Afghanistan.

Who could disagree with these welcome proposals, which are a great step in the right direction? The bus travel, the blue badges, the further and higher education and the compensation uplift, as well as the priority in housing, health—especially mental health—and education for veterans, are all positive steps in the right direction. I will withhold judgment, however, until I see the final details, because many of the proposals include proposals to change priorities and move people up lists. Because such changes are complex and fraught with difficulties, I would like to see the details of the proposals before making a final judgment on them. I can pledge the support of this party in making the proposals work effectively on the ground, where support from local councils, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly is required.

I was surprised that no proposals were made to speed up the upgrade of the notoriously poorly maintained single living accommodation. Nor was there anything on the rights of the Gurkhas. Especially given recent coverage of the issue, I would have expected something about their rights to live in this country.

I was disappointed, although not surprised, that no mention was made of the real issue—the elephant in the room. It is bunkum to suggest that these proposals will address overstretch in our armed forces. We are asking them to do too much on two fronts, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Until we address that serious issue, we will continue to see discontent among our armed forces. I urge the Minister to review our operations, especially in Iraq. The tempo of operations there is placing enormous pressure on our armed forces and their families, and unless the issue is addressed, including withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, we will for ever be fiddling at the edges.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s warm welcome for the announcements, although he did get to the “but” eventually. I thank him for his tribute to the armed forces and recognise the special contribution that his constituent, Scott Paterson, made. I know of his circumstances, but as Secretary of State, I cannot single him out. He is one of many who have suffered injuries and borne them with great stoicism and courage.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that the implication of the proposals is that service people will move up lists. That may be the case, but the intention and the principle, which we have stated at the outset, are that members of the armed forces and their families should not be disadvantaged by their circumstances. No member of the armed forces came to me and said that they wanted to be able to jump up lists for treatment or for their children to be treated better than any other children. They said that they did not want their lifestyle, which they accept, to operate to their disadvantage. We are trying to find ways to ensure that that principle is observed. We are not asking for people to jump up lists and, indeed, members of the armed forces and their families would be the last people who would want to queue-jump. They are much more likely to stand back and let others go first, but they do not want to be disadvantaged. That is the point, with respect to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned a failure to deal with the issue of accommodation. When he gets an opportunity to read the paper in detail—the devil is always in the detail—he will see that paragraph 3.5 and the following paragraphs are devoted to accommodation. In part, they point out what has been achieved, and that is something that I think that he does not appreciate. We have invested £1.4 billion in delivering single-living accommodation, and to date that has produced 26,000 new bed spaces. A further 30,000 are planned, as part of a planned investment in accommodation in excess of £8 billion over the next decade. So it is not correct to say that we are not giving accommodation the priority that it deserves.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman identified what he considers the real issue, and I shall say two things in response. First, I regularly meet our forces doing their jobs in the operational environment. They never complain to me about their morale when they are doing their jobs, because that is when they are at their happiest, most content and most professional. There is no morale problem when we ask people to do what we have trained them to do.

Secondly, I recognise that our armed forces are operating at a tempo that is beyond what we planned for. I have said time and time again at this Dispatch Box that it is our intention to deal with that. In my term as Secretary of State for Defence, we have already drawn down significantly in Iraq. We are in transition, and we intend to do more in the way of draw-down to resolve the tempo problem.

Order. May I appeal for the co-operation and understanding of hon. Members? There is another important statement to come and some important business thereafter. May I therefore ask for precise, singleton questions and brief answers? That would be extremely useful.

I warmly welcome the Command Paper. I have visited troops in Afghanistan and Iraq in the last three weeks, and they, too, will warmly welcome this paper. How will the paper be put into practice? During the inquiry into health by the Defence Committee, it came to light that although the MOD had clear policies, they were not being implemented with the necessary vigour in places such as the devolved Administration in Scotland. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me and other Members that there will be some over-arching Government body to ensure that the very welcome proposals in the Command Paper are put into practice?

My hon. Friend identifies an important point. I pay tribute to him for the lengths that he goes to, along with some other hon. Members, to make sure that he knows exactly the circumstances of our troops, both in the operational theatre and otherwise. At the heart of the proposal and the infrastructure put in place to support it will be a committee, chaired by the Cabinet Office. Its membership will include representatives of the external reference group who were involved in advising us, as well as representatives of all the Government Departments, including the MOD, that are required to deliver on these promises.

The committee will meet regularly and report. It will have champions for delivery in each Department, and they will be at director level in the civil service. More than that, the committee will send an annual report on delivery to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and myself, and there will also be a five-yearly review. Finally, given that the devolved Administrations also have a responsibility in these matters, the reports will be sent to the First Ministers in Scotland and Wales, and to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland.

May I echo the welcome that other hon. Members have given this Command Paper? However, will the Secretary of State reflect on the fact that people leaving the armed forces prematurely say that the single most important reason for their decision is the excessive separation from their families? That is a product of the fact that the armed forces have been operating well beyond the defence planning assumptions for most of the years since those assumptions were set in the 1998 strategic defence review. Is it not time now to have a debate about what the defence planning assumptions should be? Even if we were to succeed in withdrawing substantially from Iraq in short order—and I doubt that that is in our national interest—it would not be long before another theatre of operations demanded our attention. That is the role that we pursue in our national interest. Can we have an open and public debate over the next few months about the defence planning assumptions, so that we can begin to recalibrate our defence policy to reflect the world as it is—

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the Command Paper. That means something to me, as he studies these matters in some detail and knows what he is talking about. He knows, too, that I constantly reflect on the issues that he raises. I do not accept his conclusion about Iraq, because we always make our decisions on the basis of the conditions. There are many opportunities to raise the issues that he mentions in the regular debates that we have in this House on MOD and defence issues. I should be happy to debate them at any time.

First, on behalf of service personnel, their families and their extended families—that is, their parents and even grandparents—may I thank the Secretary of State for the Command Paper? I consider it to be a major improvement in the military covenant for this country. In no way do I wish to appear churlish, but there is one matter that I hope my right hon. Friend will clarify. The Command Paper says that people who leave the service will get one year’s key worker status, but it does not mention anything about free higher or further education. When military personnel leave the forces it sometimes takes them two or three years to become acclimatised to civilian life. Will people be given the opportunity to go into free higher or further education even three or four years after leaving the services?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s welcome for the paper. He is a member of the Defence Committee and so has significant knowledge that qualifies his welcome. I admit that I am slightly embarrassed that I cannot immediately answer his specific question— [Interruption.] It is a good point and, since I am the Secretary of State, I can tell him that there will be flexibility in this matter.

May I say to the Secretary of State that these measures are extremely welcome? I wish that the paper had appeared slightly earlier, but I do not want to seem churlish about the measures that it contains. However, the right hon. Gentleman has not mentioned those people who are sick but continue to serve. There has been a huge erosion in fighting power, particularly in our combat arms. For instance, 20 per cent. of the strength of the 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery are unfit for operations, while 39 men in the 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment have been diagnosed with seriously injured hearing and cannot return to the front. That is a matter of grave concern, and it compounds the manning and staffing crisis that our combat arms are facing. Will the Secretary of State give a clear and positive answer about what we are doing about the problem?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have invested significantly in the medical care of our armed forces, and at the heart of that is the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine. Our investment has built on reforms initially put in place by the previous Government, although we have radically accelerated those reforms. When the Select Committee examined medical care, it produced a report that I thought was very complimentary. I understand that we face a challenge when it comes to service personnel who are too ill to be deployed, for example, but he will know that Headley Court is the jewel in the UK’s crown when it comes to rehabilitative medicine. We have announced an additional investment of £24 million in that facility. We continue to research and invest to ensure that we maintain the health of our armed forces. It is our ability to identify the problems and to respond to them through the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre that has inspired the compliments that have been paid to our defence medical services. However, there is still more work to be done.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent statement to the House, but may I ask him to pay particular attention to the mental health problems suffered by our service personnel? Often, they are not revealed for many years. Will he ensure that we have a system for keeping in contact with personnel throughout their lives?

My hon. Friend, who is a member of the Defence Committee, knows that we have been working in this area; in particular the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), has been working in this area with some vigour. Apart from the mental health pilots, which were extremely successful and which we are now about to roll out across the country, one of the things that we put in place early was the tracking system to enable us to keep in contact with our people, recognising that the symptoms of mental health problems sometimes have a late onset. So my hon. Friend can be reassured that we are developing that system and we have confidence that we shall be able to keep in touch with our people. Another of the innovations of our approach to mental health is that we now deploy with our troops mental health support staff, both psychiatrists and psychologists’ to enable us to deal with these issues in the circumstances where early symptoms sometimes arise.

May I warmly welcome the statement by the Secretary of State today? Our service personnel are doing a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances and they deserve all the help they can get when they leave the service or are injured.

An issue was raised with application to those who had been previously awarded compensation or previously had adaptations to their home. People will find it difficult to understand why some people will be treated differently now, compared with those who already received compensation at a lower rate. Will the Secretary of State look at that, because I think that that issue will become a bone of contention and undoubtedly will be raised with us by service personnel and their families?

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes in welcoming this announcement. This compensation scheme started in 2005. We have committed ourselves to a system of benefits that will ensure that all those who have been compensated under the scheme will have been treated in exactly the same way as all those who prospectively make an application to the scheme. Those who were dealt with under an entirely different scheme, which operated an entirely different method, are continuing to receive the benefits, although some of them have yet to receive the benefits under the qualifications in that scheme. I think it would be dishonest of me to suggest that any Government would be likely to apply the changes to one scheme retrospectively to an entirely different scheme altogether, but I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. There may be other ways in which we can support those people, and certainly some of the other improvements that are announced in the document that we have published today will be of benefit to them.

May I join in warmly welcoming the way in which my right hon. Friend has worked with his colleagues across government and listened to people both in this place and outside, and more particularly, to the families? Since I was elected, I have been lobbied by the Army Families Federation and locally in the Crownhill family centre, and I am sure that there will be a very warm welcome for the statement. But may I ask him—I scarcely need to ask him, I think—to involve families in the external reference group?

I thank my hon. Friend, who has a long track record of interest in and support for families of service people and, indeed, for service people, many of whom live in her constituency. The answer to her question is simply yes.

Lack of access to NHS dentists is an important point for servicemen, servicewomen and their families and the Secretary of State has rightly announced that he is seeking to improve the situation. Given that the number of NHS dentists—for whatever reason—is falling and that we do not have enough service dentists, what practical steps will the Secretary of State take to improve the access for servicemen and women and their families?

Practically, what we intend to do, where we have existing facilities—consulting rooms for dentists—is to work with the health service to arrange for NHS dentists to come in and use our facilities, when they otherwise would not be used, in order to offer treatment to service people and/or their families; and to use mobile dental facilities where we cannot do that to make up the difference. In order to work out the practicalities of that, we will pilot it first in two places, and then once we have worked out the parameters and what we need to do to make it work, we will extend it across the country.

My right hon. Friend’s comments on education today are an explicit recognition that many people join the armed services with a pretty patchy record in education, but once they are there, they discover a prodigious capacity to learn. Will he assure the House that his Department will make a careful and concerted effort to liaise with institutions of further and higher education to ensure that leaving servicemen get the very best from his announcement today?

With the Department for Children, Schools and Families, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and the devolved Administrations, we will of course ensure that our people know how they can access further or higher education where those courses are available. But I say this to my hon. Friend, and I am sure he knows that it is true: I have not known of an educational establishment that would not be very pleased to have people who have come out of the services because of what they bring—not just what they come to the institutions to achieve, but what they bring by their presence in terms of discipline and all the other aspects of service life, which we are most proud of and which they inculcate into others around them.

I very much welcome the bringing together of Departments to show this country’s appreciation of the service that our personnel give and the sacrifice that they make for the country. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier that veterans do not want to be seen to jump queues, and he has recognised that veterans are very stoical, so what efforts will be made to get out to veterans their entitlements under these new schemes, and what should they now be asking for of Government Departments that was not available before?

Part of our undertaking in the plain language of this document is to produce simple guides in plain language and to distribute them by all means of communications through the organisations that we have been working with and by other methods of communication, which are well known, to ensure that people know what they are entitled to.

I thank the Ministry of Defence for the additions it has made to its own services for armed forces members, their families and veterans. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces on his patient and skilful negotiations with other Government Departments that have made additions to their services. In terms of joined-up government, I am sure that my right hon. Friend learned a very painful lesson about how difficult that is in practical terms. What commitment has he obtained from other sponsoring Departments that the front-line staff in the delivering organisations, such as health trusts and councils, will be aware of the obligations that their organisations will now be under towards these people?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question and I am content to add my own compliments to his compliments to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, and to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and many others, including unnamed officials who will continue to be unnamed, who have worked very hard. This document is a good example of government at its best, working together. That requires quite a lot of work, from other Departments as well as from our own Department, but it is a good piece of work.

The communications exercise will be required to ensure not only that those who are entitled to services of this nature know that they are entitled to them, but that those who should deliver them know that they are dealing with people who qualify for them and will ensure that that is done.

Since my right hon. Friend has had his job, he has made a series of decisions substantially enhancing successively the pay, the conditions and the equipment available to our fighting services. Our forces will be deeply grateful to him for that and the whole country should be deeply grateful to him for that.

In comparing the lump sum under the compensation scheme that my right hon. Friend has set out this afternoon with damages in the civil courts, am I right in thinking that, in order to make a fair comparison, one should add to that lump sum the present value of the war pension or disability pension that the beneficiary will be receiving, so as to get an equivalent figure?

My hon. Friend, in the work that he did on the recognition study that he carried out so effectively and efficiently—indeed, he distinguished himself by delivering it on time to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—has made a significant contribution in a very short period to the objective that we all share that, as a nation, we should recognise what our armed forces and those who support them do in the service of the country. So I pay tribute to him and reciprocate his words. I am very grateful to him for the warm words that he has used in the House about my contribution, although many people deserve congratulations on and credit for what we have achieved over the past couple of years.

My hon. Friend is quite right to say that there is a predilection to compare apples with pears in relation to the amounts paid out by the no-fault compensation scheme and the awards in the civil courts. Frankly, I gave up trying to explain the difference, because no one seemed to be listening, but we might begin to win that battle now that we have figures that aggregate the guaranteed income payment and the lump sum into a proportionate amount, which I believe that people will consider appropriate compensation.

I welcome the statement, because it gives an absolute commitment on compensation and education, but does my right hon. Friend recognise that we will be judged on whether we ensure that we have houses fit for heroes when they leave the forces? So will he work very hard with housing associations and local government to deliver that, because they must recognise that provision is needed to ensure that those people have quality homes when they leave the services?

The point that my hon. Friend makes is very important to service people. Indeed, this morning, I spoke to some service people who, despite the stage that they were at in their careers, were anticipating the possibility that they might at some time get on to what they described as the housing ladder by owning their own house. I am determined that we will make strides in that regard. The provisions in the document help us substantially along the way, but those who read it carefully will see that that work is only just beginning. I still have other ideas, which I will announce to the House in due course, once I have worked them through.

I give my wholehearted support to the statement today, and I thank my right hon. Friend for the courtesy that he has shown to servicemen and women in north Staffordshire. It is important that all armed forces families are aware of what they will be entitled to subsequently. I wonder whether the armed forces parliamentary scheme and MPs who have taken part in it can have a role in helping to increase awareness about the new opportunities that armed forces personnel will now have.

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks and, from my own experience of her advocacy on behalf of families and service people, I know of her work to support her constituents. I pay tribute to her for that. Frankly, all MPs have a responsibility, whether they are in the armed forces parliamentary scheme or not, to disseminate this information. If my Department can do anything to assist MPs of any party to disseminate it to the total population of about 10 million people in this country who could be affected by these provisions, we will do so.

Will the Secretary of State revisit the question of requiring local authorities by statute to allocate a small proportion of their housing stock for nomination to service leavers? It is unfair to some local authorities that have a disproportionate burden and meet it that others simply are not playing their patriotic part. It would be much better if each local authority had to make a small allocation of its housing stock available to service leavers.

I will need to check Hansard. I regret it if I have forgotten that I gave that undertaking, but the document contains a specific provision in relation to the housing allocation that we are in the process of delivering in England. We have complementary undertakings from the Administrations in Scotland and Wales to follow our decisions on the allocations policy in England. I believe that that is entirely consistent with what the armed forces have asked us to do, but I will just have to give my hon. Friend another commitment to go away and look at his suggestion.

I join other hon. Members in welcoming the statement, which reinforces the status of the armed forces, addresses the injustices that they have suffered in the past and presents opportunities for those in the armed forces. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the possible impact of the package on recruiting able young people to the armed forces in the future?

My hon. Friend knows that we regularly survey the armed forces and beyond them to establish their motivations in relation to either retention or their desire to leave the forces. We have identified that in the issues addressed in the document and in the steps that we have taken over the past six months—for example, improved commitment bonuses, the tax-free operational allowance, the whole host of things that we have done in personnel investment in Headley Court, child care vouchers, council tax relief and the freepost issues in which we are in partnership with the Royal Mail. We have comprehensively addressed the list of issues that motivate our people. At the end of the day, of course, for all sorts of reasons, people come and go in all sorts of jobs, including jobs in the House, and we should encourage our people to do so and ease their path to prepare them for future careers. We will do that by the steps that we have announced in the document as well.