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Ex-servicemen (Prison)

Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2008

Over the past year or so, it has come to my notice that an increasing number of ex-servicemen are appearing regularly in the courts in north Wales and Cheshire. Very often they are charged with serious offences, including wounding, sexual assaults and drug offences, together with robbery. Some of those offences appear to have no explanation or rationale behind them other than a manifestation of hopelessness by the individuals concerned.

I tabled some parliamentary questions in March, to which the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), duly responded. On 5 March, I asked what estimate he had made

“of the number and proportion of current inmates of prisons in England and Wales who served in the UK armed forces in either of the conflicts in the Gulf.”

He replied:

“This information is not collected centrally. Data from nationally representative surveys of some 2,000 sentenced prisoners near release conducted in 2001, 2003 and 2004 show the proportion of prisoners who had previously served in the armed forces as 6 per cent., 4 per cent. and 5 per cent. respectively. However, there are no estimates available for the proportion of veterans in custody who have served in specific conflicts.”—[Official Report, 5 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 2625W.]

That response was unsatisfactory on several counts. First, why was the survey made in the first place? What happened as a result of finding that the figure varied from 4 to 6 per cent? Did the Ministry think that that was an acceptable figure and decide to do nothing?

Secondly, by saying that no estimates exist, it appears that the Ministry could not care less. Anybody who knows anything about the criminal courts will know that whenever a person pleads guilty or is convicted of a serious offence, a court report is routinely ordered. The probation service is bound to inquire about an individual’s recent history, and that would show whether a person had recently served in the armed forces and been in a conflict zone. The information could be collected very easily. Therefore, why has that not been done, bearing in mind the fact that probation officers spend a large amount of their time filling in forms? I found the response to be at variance with what I discovered and what I was told by members of the legal profession in north Wales and Cheshire.

I mentioned the matter to Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, who also thought that the figures were a little questionable. He then e-mailed his members and in August he found that 8,500 people, or about 10 per cent. of the prison population, had served in specific conflicts. That figure did not take into account the large number on community penalties, which could be about 3,000 to 4,000 people.

Therefore, we have a serious problem that has not been acted on by Government. I understand that a scoping survey is being conducted by the prison in-reach service—the PIR project—which is sponsored by the Ministry of Defence. It is likely to conclude that there is major problem, according to issue No. 9 of Veterans World. The PIR project is a partnership organisation between the MOD, the Ministry of Justice and ex-service charities. It has conducted a pilot study at Dartmoor prison and concluded that 16.7 per cent. of those surveyed had undertaken military service.

In 2002, the organisation Veterans In Prison carried out a survey. It looked at 10 prisons in particular and found that 118 former armed services personnel were inmates out of a prison population of 1,191. That amounts to about 9 per cent. or more. Therefore, the problem has been around for quite a time. However, it is becoming worse and more acute because servicemen and women spend far longer in conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan than previously. The times between each deployment are much shorter and consequently the pressures on service personnel are considerably increased.

The case histories examined by NAPO show that the majority of ex-soldiers suffered at some stage or another from post-traumatic stress disorder and that very few had received any counselling or support at any time after their discharge from the Army. There also appears to have been a failure to identify their status at the time of arrest or at committal to custody.

Committed staff at Everthorpe prison have compiled an advice pack for former soldiers in which they offer to liaise with counselling services. However, that does not appear to be available nationally. The PIR project has published a list of the help and support that are available. It is also improving the awareness of welfare visits that can be arranged for ex-service prisoners.

Probation staff in North Yorkshire are developing the integrated domestic abuse programme in local garrisons in partnership with Army welfare. Staff report that PTSD is frequently cited as the principal reason for violent behaviour and is linked to drug and alcohol use as a coping mechanism.

Before highlighting a few case histories, I should say that some years ago I went to see the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) when he was Defence Secretary to ask him whether he could make funding available for a clinic in north Wales run by consultant psychiatrist Dr. Dafydd Alun Jones, who is an expert in PTSD and so-called Gulf war syndrome. I was told that it was a matter for the Department of Health.

When the right hon. Gentleman became Secretary of State for Health, I asked him again about the matter and he said to leave it with him. That was five years ago and the clinic is now shut. No priority has been accorded to the problem and I fear that it has been swept under the carpet. If any other rational explanation appears during the debate, I shall be pleased to hear it.

In Devon and Cornwall, a soldier was discharged from the Army for misconduct after being sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for threatening a drug dealer with a firearm. The report prepared for the court indicated that he was suffering from PTSD as a result of serving in Northern Ireland and also in Iraq. The diagnosis was confirmed by the Ministry of Defence psychiatrist. The soldier made no excuses for his behaviour and felt that his sentence was justified for what he did. However, he feels bitter that he is “stuck with psychological problems” from his service in the Army.

In South Yorkshire, a member of NAPO prepared a court report on a soldier who was convicted of arson with intent and of possession of a sawn-off shotgun. There were a number of co-defendants and he was not the leader of the group. He was recruited by others who had been friends in the same regiment. The report concluded that the origin of events lay in military training and the ethos of supporting comrades. The person who was assaulted was the subject of personal grudges from the leader of the group. The defendant said that his training had led him to obey orders without question and that while he accepted that he was not ordered to commit the offence, he agreed to take part in it because of comradeship.

In Cumbria, a soldier, now 23, served with the Parachute Regiment and undertook two tours in war zones. He left military service in late 2005 with no previous convictions. Since then, he has had seven convictions, five of which resulted in periods of custody. He reports that he failed to readjust to life in the UK, finding it hard to

“reconcile the devastation, horror and distress of the war zone”

with the comfortable life he found himself and others taking for granted. He was then diagnosed with PTSD.

A trooper from Cumbria based in barracks in Germany had an initial active tour of duty in a war zone in 2005. He was home on leave in 2007 and then out to a war zone after that. He and a family member became involved in an argument outside a public house about the propriety of the current war situation. He ended up being charged with assault as a consequence. He had a previous military conviction, from 2005, for fighting, within weeks of returning from a war zone. On that occasion a plan of counselling was agreed and the military decided that unpaid work should be done at the barracks. He was diagnosed with PTSD.

In Cumbria, a soldier was convicted on court martial of several violent offences, following his return from the Gulf in 2003. He was diagnosed with PTSD, dishonourably discharged and given five years in custody. Also in Cumbria, a probation officer has reported supervising an individual, with considerable Army experience, who is currently in prison for wounding with intent and racial harassment. He was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence, for public protection, and is currently assessed as high risk. Again, he was diagnosed with PTSD.

Staff working with lifers in Her Majesty’s prison Liverpool have identified several individuals suffering from PTSD. I could go on and on. There are several Welsh examples, including that of a soldier from south Wales, aged 47, who was sentenced to 60 months for kidnap and false imprisonment of an adult female. I could detail many others. Staff working in a Lincolnshire prison who have attempted to assist such individuals say that since 1984 military services have tended to deny that there are any problems—individuals in the military do everything they can to deny it.

In Gwent, two men who had seen active service in the past 10 years, both of whom were diagnosed with PTSD, were convicted of very serious offences—and so on and on. I have dozens of examples on file, but obviously I do not have time to recount them now.

Since I raised the matter in August, and after some publicity accrued, I have received many letters from serving officers and people in other ranks, mostly if not exclusively in the Army. I received a letter from a gentleman from Prestatyn in Denbighshire, on the last day of August:

“Dear Mr. Llwyd,

Having read the article on the BBC website titled, ‘Jails hold 8,500 ex-servicemen’, I feel as you do that something should be done to support veterans of the armed forces.

In my case I was medically discharged from the Royal Air Force in 2003 through illness, and the lack of support was apparent. Well to be honest, there was no support whatsoever. I understand that my case is not the same as being imprisoned, but the underlying fact is the same, when you leave the Armed Services there is nothing.

I am very lucky, after fighting for what I believe I was entitled to I got my life on track, but it took several years of hard work research and support NOT from the MOD but from my family.”

The Government have paid little attention to the problem over the years, and it is high time that they took positive action. Since I have been raising the matter, I have had numerous e-mails from many ex-servicemen and women, throughout the services, confirming that the overall feeling is that there is no back-up for returnees when they come back to civvy street. Simplistically, I would say that as we spend many weeks training those men and women for combat, we should spend many weeks at the conclusion of their service debriefing them properly, offering counselling, where required, and assisting with obtaining retraining and/or jobs, with housing and with family problems. Those people have witnessed scenes that people like me can only imagine. They have seen close friends and comrades killed and mutilated. It would be strange, indeed, if they did not require counselling to come to terms with the hell on earth through which they have passed.

There should be a presumption in favour of counselling in every case. I recently received a communication from an ex-serviceman who had served in Iraq. He said that on the conclusion of his tour of duty he was flown to Cyprus with his comrades for three days’ R and R. There was alcohol day and night. On the concluding day, they were all put together in a hall, and an officer asked them, “Any problems, anybody? No? Fine.” Tick the box, and that was it. Obviously, in the macho culture that exists in the services, those men would not admit problems in the presence of their friends and comrades. It would have been far better, if there was something really serious to discuss, to ask the question on a one-to-one basis.

I believe that aftercare cannot be left to the voluntary sector alone. A fully structured period prior to discharge is required. NAPO recommends that all reasonable steps should be taken to reduce the number of men sentenced to custody and that information and referral services should be provided to ex-armed services personnel on arrest, at report-writing stage and on reception into custody. Armed services personnel should receive information and education on the benefits of stress counselling in general and be given support where it is needed.

In response, the Minister will no doubt say that the voluntary sector is dealing with the matter through the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, veterans organisations, the British Legion and so on. I say that that is not good enough. We need a fully structured procedure, under which there might be an encampment of some kind, with experts in the field to deal with all people coming back from active service. If the Minister says that this is a matter of resources I do not think that will go down very well, especially when we recall what was set out in The Independent on Sunday this week: £86.8 million was spent on private education for officers’ children, and in the Royal Air Force £1 million was spent on chauffeurs, £3.4 million was spent on waiters in officers’ messes, £800,000 was spent on bar staff and £2.8 million was spent on paying chefs. At a time when serving soldiers must make do with inferior kit, failure to act on the problem positively and urgently will be seen as further evidence that the Government have breached the covenant with the armed services in the most obvious and serious way. I believe that with proper support and counselling several thousand people who are in custody would not be there, which is a scandal. Action is required now.

I thank the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) for raising this serious issue. I take issue with his approach. I do not accept his challenge that the Government do not care about the issue, and I do not accept that my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and I in the Ministry of Justice are not focused on examining and dealing with the issue, and on considering whether there are real policy implications for us in relation to bringing forward solutions and helping with what I know the hon. Gentleman wants us to do—reducing offending and reoffending behaviour in our community. Whether crimes are committed by members of the Army, Air Force or Navy who have entered civilian life or by other individuals, key issues in relation to mental health services, alcohol and drugs affect reoffending behaviour.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman’s comments because we need to focus on such matters. Taking action benefits the individuals who commit crimes and the communities they come from, and it brings a cost saving to society by reducing crime and the difficulties that people cause. My colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, as well as other Ministers including me, are willing to focus on the issue and to consider whether there are synergies between people leaving the armed forces, problems associated with their experiences in the armed forces and what happens to them in their offending behaviour in later life. As a result of discussions—I welcome the contribution to the debate made by the National Association of Probation Officers; in fact I discussed the issue with the association on Friday, when we jointly addressed a conference in north Wales—we need to examine some key issues. Already, following concerns, and following the discussions between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice at official and ministerial level, there are particular concerns that warrant and need further exploration.

First, we need to get a genuine figure for the number of ex-service personnel who are serving prison sentences. The figure of 8,500 has been mentioned. Our last survey, in 2002 showed that it was about 5.6 per cent. of prisoners, some of whom had served in the Army many years before their prison sentence. We need an effective estimate of the number of ex-service personnel serving prison sentences. We are looking at how authoritative research can accurately reflect that group of the prison population. Additional work on that would be valuable, and I give a commitment to the hon. Gentleman that we will do that to establish the need and the number of individuals concerned.

We need to look at the nature of the offences that people who have served in the Army are committing and whether they relate to the fact that they have had experiences in the Army. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of case studies. With respect to colleagues, we need to look not at the anecdotal evidence, but at the factual material underneath, to find out whether there are real issues relating to future offending behaviour. We need to look at what steps, if any, we can take jointly with the MOD to ensure that we prevent offending. We also need to look at what we do with former servicemen and women serving prison sentences, and whether it is available to us to use specific interventions in custody to meet the potentially complex needs that might be demonstrated by that group. I include those suffering from PTSD in that group, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Prior to the publication of NAPO’s report in August, we were looking at those issues in detail. We have undertaken further research to establish more clearly the size of that group in the prison population and are looking at the development of systems and procedures for identifying ex-service personnel upon reception into custody. We need to look at facilitating ease of access for a wide range of services available through the MOD-led prison in-reach initiative.

I do not deny that there is more that we can look at and more that we could do. Raising the profile of the subject poses many questions and challenges for us in the future. We could potentially look at addressing aspects of offending through continued improvements to the mental health services available for current and former service personnel. In particular, we need to look at the range of the 14 current offending behaviour programmes and the six programmes for drug abuse available in the prison estate to see whether they are available and applicable to former service personnel.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I represent a constituency in north Wales and know that there are many people there with military backgrounds, and many people who have committed offences have that background. We need to look at whether we can adapt the offending behaviour programmes in a positive way for those individuals. We need to examine good practice and ensure that we disseminate it across the prison estate. In line with our general principles on reducing reoffending, we need to explore how we work across Government with colleagues in the Department of Health, the Home Office and the Welsh Assembly to ensure that we support private, public and third sector organisations in making appropriate interventions.

A significant amount of work is being done within the MOD and the Ministry of Justice to look at those challenges. There are 15 MOD departments of community mental health across the UK, plus satellite centres overseas. There is also access to St. Thomas’ hospital and the Priory Group for those who require help and support. There are more than 150 mental health professionals working across the MOD, including 13 tri-service psychiatrists, 99 military mental health nurses and another 50 civilian psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health nurses. Mental health professionals are now being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to help support those who have, as the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned, seen very difficult things in very difficult circumstances.

However, none of that provision is what I would term “breaking the military covenant”, which is how the hon. Gentleman described it. I believe that it supports the military covenant and values our troops both on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan and when they leave the services. That is not to say that improvement in the work we do in that regard could not be made, but it is certainly a commitment from my colleagues in the MOD to help support mental health issues, often in the field when they are first identified.

Specifically for veterans, the MOD and the NHS have launched a range of community-based mental health services, including a pilot scheme offering specialist advice at six sites across the UK. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the work that was undertaken at HM prison Everthorpe by a prison officer who previously served in the Falklands. We look at that as an example of extremely good practice on what we can do to ensure that we help and support individuals and clearly identify the needs in that establishment and elsewhere.

That is clearly an example of good practice, but I would like the Minister to explain how one can intervene before it becomes a question of dealing with a criminal. Does he not agree that it would be far better to have a programme whereby a person is discharged and given several weeks of debriefing, going through expert counselling if necessary and receiving assistance to get them back on to civvy street? I do not deny that what is happening in Everthorpe is good practice, but let us see whether we can crack that nut before it gets that far.

Again, I am speaking for the Ministry of Justice in relation to what we are trying to do in prisons, and HM prison Everthorpe is a good example of where skills and expertise from people who have been through that experience are focused on prisoners who have a military background. There are many thousands of Army discharges every year, and it is not just a question of resources, because I am not speaking for the MOD. We need to focus on individuals who are showing signs of drug, alcohol or mental health problems when in the service and offering that support when out of the service, because many people leave the service and do not go on to offend.

I accept and agree that early intervention is always, in every circumstance, a positive thing for us to do. Early intervention on mental health support, as I have tried to describe, is available, and we should cherish and build on that. Indeed, there are more than 100 mental health in-reach teams consisting of 360 staff, and by 2005-06 nearly £20 million had been invested in that service across the prison estate to look at those issues.

There are real issues about individuals from military backgrounds going on to offending behaviour. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that early identification and support needs to be available in-house in the MOD where possible to track individuals with drug, alcohol or mental health problems on leaving the service, and that is already being provided by the MOD in collaboration with the NHS. We need to look at the real facts about why many people with military backgrounds are in prison and whether their offending behaviour is linked to their military background or to problems associated with it. For example, we should look at whether there is a higher proportion of domestic violence, arson, drug-related offences or sexual offences. We need to know that level of detail and what length of sentences offenders from military backgrounds are being given, so that we can look at providing effective interventions in prison to help them, as we would to prevent reoffending by any other prisoner. That is a key issue, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising it.

In conclusion, there are certainly real issues. We should not overlook the successes that we have had to date in our endeavours to improve outcomes for offenders and to protect the public. However, there is an ever-changing prison population profile, and there remains scope for the development of new and different services to deal with that. I will simply leave the hon. Gentleman by thanking him for raising the issue in the way in which he has done. We need proper evidential research on ex-service personnel in custody, and that is a matter of great concern. We need to ensure that we have a greater understanding of the mental health problems of service personnel and potentially of the predisposing factors, which I think are the key in the development of violent and offending behaviour in particular.

There are no quick fixes on that. The latest figures from 2002 show that around 5.5 per cent. of the prison population have an ex-service background. NAPO’s survey conducted earlier this year showed a higher figure. We need to establish that figure in detail, but I recognise that it is a real issue that we need to examine. When we examine it, we must do so for the purpose of making our communities safer, reducing reoffending and making people lead more productive lives.

It being Two o’clock, the sitting was adjourned without Question put.