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Armed Forces Personnel

Volume 488: debated on Monday 23 February 2009

2. Whether his Department plans to offer (a) financial support and (b) advice to armed forces personnel returning to the UK specific to circumstances caused by the economic downturn. (257880)

Financial guidance is available to service personnel in establishments throughout the United Kingdom and abroad. However, recognising the particular demands of service life, the Ministry of Defence and the Financial Services Authority are working together to deliver a programme of seminars for service personnel to help them to become more aware and confident in dealing with their personal finances. The programme’s implementation is flexible to allow targeting of units returning from overseas tours.

I thank the Under-Secretary for his response and I warmly welcome his emphasis on the transition to UK—and, in many cases, civilian—life. That echoes what he recently told me and other members of the all-party group on veterans.

There is a particular need to focus on the needs of service personnel who return to the UK without strong family links or, indeed, any family to which to turn for such assistance. I have heard that from voluntary organisations in my constituency. May I ask my hon. Friend and his officials to work closely with the Secretaries of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and for Work and Pensions to identify ways in which military personnel can particularly benefit from their services and assistance?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that support. Some of those issues are already being addressed in the service personnel Command Paper. However, if there are instances where the MOD should be working with other Departments to improve the position not only of those who are in service, but of those making the transition into civilian life, I am prepared to look into them and to meet any Members with suggestions about that.

I know that the Minister is conscious of the support needed for servicemen, but will he give an undertaking to ensure that the families of service personnel who are serving on long deployments, whether in the Royal Navy or in the other forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, are also given proper advice at this time? One of the problems faced by servicemen currently serving abroad is that their families may have got into problems in this difficult time. I would like an assurance—and, I am sure, so would the House—that such advice will also be forthcoming to partners and families of service personnel.

I pay tribute to the service families, who are doing a vital job in supporting the men and women in theatre. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Welfare and financial support are available through the HIVE—help information volunteer exchanges—system. In addition, there is work under way with service charities such as the Royal British Legion, which, along with the RAF Benevolent Fund, has just launched a programme of support for welfare advice workers in citizens advice bureaux, which are giving support for families and those in service. However, I would like again to put on record our thanks to those families.

One of the biggest concerns that service personnel have when they return is that they and their families may face a year-long wait on the housing list. Will the Minister consider discussing with local authorities throughout the country the possibility of prioritising personnel returning from abroad—some local authorities do that, but not all?

One of the out-turns of the service personnel Command Paper is to allow service families to get local recognition of where they are based, if they want to stay in that area. My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Later this year, I and ministerial colleagues from the Department will make a series of regional visits. One of my visits will involve meeting local authorities and other agencies to reinforce some of those issues, so that servicemen and women and their families are not disadvantaged by their local system.

The very high morale of soldiers and sailors returning from theatres of war will be witnessed by all those who are able to see the 7th Armoured Brigade coming through Carriage Gates at 3.45 this afternoon, after defence questions. However, does the Minister agree that unless proper advice on financial matters and the welfare packages available is given to soldiers and sailors at home, that morale in the field will be fundamentally undermined? It is vital that we keep the home end going, if we are to keep the fighting morale of our soldiers out there going.

First, may I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and other members of the all-party group on the Army for arranging this afternoon’s event? I and other ministerial colleagues will be there to support the event. He raises a vital point. It is important that we support families, because when people are on operations, they think about their families back home being taken care of. One thing that I am working on, which will be announced later this year, is a welfare pathway, which is intended to look not only at support for families and servicemen when they are in service, but at how they make the transition to civilian life. We should not forget that we have a duty of care to servicemen and women not just when they are in service, but when they leave.