Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Helen Goodman.)
May I take this opportunity to say what a privilege it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale? We have always had interesting and open debate under your stewardship and I am sure that we shall have the same today.
I am delighted that I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to raise the important issue of armed forces veterans. Service in the armed forces, while providing a rewarding career for many, often involves risk and injury, in training and on active service. Current engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved very demanding for our soldiers, who have been deployed much more regularly than was planned.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech. I declare an interest as a member of the Royal British Legion. Five hundred years ago today, Henry VIII acceded to the throne on the death of his father, and one of the many products of his reign was what eventually became known as the military covenant—a common bond of identity and loyalty between a nation and those who serve in its armed forces. We have an excellent Minister for veterans here this morning. Does the hon. Gentleman believe, as I do, that although we have made a fair amount of progress on areas such as housing and employment for veterans who have left the armed forces—he mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan—a good deal remains to be done on mental health support for those who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder in those two conflicts especially? We—
Thank you, Mr. Gale. I also thank the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) for his early intervention. He will know from his membership of the Royal British Legion that it has produced a report on the covenant, which focused on mental health issues. I hope to return to that matter later.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; he has brought an important matter to the House. In Hadleigh and Canvey Island, there are two excellent Royal British Legion clubs but, like RBL clubs throughout the country, they are suffering a general demise with the fall-off of members. I wonder whether the Minister could enable the Ministry of Defence to send letters to all veterans in each constituency, so that they could be invited to constituency British Legion clubs to meet Members of Parliament to see whether we can find a way to boost the RBL clubs themselves.
The Royal British Legion plays a very important part in the voluntary sector on veterans issues. I hope to return to that matter, too. We want to encourage people to come to and join the Royal British Legion and to meet Members of Parliament. I had that opportunity in my constituency when there was a threat to the British Legion home at Crosfield House in Rhayader. We met members of the local British Legion, and luckily we have secured the continuance of that facility in Rhayader, for the time being at least. The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point about the British Legion and the voluntary sector.
Death and injury have been regular occurrences in recent times. Far too often, Prime Minister’s questions have started with the roll call of our soldiers, sailors and airmen who have made the ultimate sacrifice. However, many young men and women who have been injured in battle have been brought back alive to this country due to the enhanced medical facilities that are now available on the front line. Many of them have suffered grievous injuries whose effects will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Many will have suffered mental damage. That will sometimes exhibit itself early on in their lives, but sometimes later on as well.
The duty of the Government is to support our soldiers not only during the acute phase, but in the long term. The voluntary sector does a wonderful job in that respect, but the Government should not rely on the generosity of the public to cover their responsibilities and duties. I am grateful that the Minister has made himself available to reply on these issues today. Although he has been in his post for only just over six months, he is developing a reputation for being a good Minister on veterans issues. However, Government thinking on these matters is not properly joined up. Some of his colleagues in other Departments appear not to recognise the importance of veterans in society and the Government’s duty to support them. I refer to an article in The Independent on Monday 13 April, which described this Minister’s concern about the lack of consideration of veterans’ needs in the recent Department of Health strategy for mental health, “New Horizons”.
Since November 2007, NHS priority treatment has in theory been extended to include all veterans with an injury or illness related to their service in the armed forces. The Department of Health’s assertion that a consultation is taking place later this year and that all issues raised will be considered is simply not good enough. Armed forces veterans should be automatically considered for priority treatment. The Department of Health should not need a time-consuming consultation to establish that. I am grateful to the Minister for raising the issue with his ministerial colleagues and will be interested to hear what response he has received from the relevant Minister and the Secretary of State for Health. He will, I hope, have some positive things to say on the issues that my colleagues and I are raising.
The armed forces play a key role in the life of our nation and in furthering our national interest. Even when the public are not in full support of a particular action or conflict, their support for the armed forces remains high, as witnessed during the ongoing Iraq conflict. It is a shame that the high regard in which armed forces personnel and veterans are held by the public is not always reflected in the Government’s action and support. All too often, armed forces veterans are forgotten about when they have finished active duty and left the services. Often, those brave men and women have problems in finding employment, obtaining training, finding housing or obtaining health care. The support network for them is too limited, often leaving those most in need to slip between Departments and be forgotten.
I apologise to hon. Members: I have to attend a Committee sitting and will not be able to stay for the whole debate. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) about the large number of people from the services who are in prison? According to the most recent reports, the figure is 8,500—10 per cent. of the prison population. Does the hon. Gentleman think that more could be done to divert service personnel away from the courts and give them the proper support that they require?
I hope to come on to the point raised by the hon. Gentleman. I know that his hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) wanted to be present, but is unable to be here. He has spoken to me about these issues as well. I have had reports that veterans who find themselves in prison often come out of prison no better equipped to have a life in society than when they went in. That is a great shame and the Government should address it.
Of course, veterans come in all shapes and sizes and can be young or old, but does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, with the increasing reliance on the use of members of the Territorial Army on operational service, all too often when those personnel return, they do not receive the same support that their regular counterparts do and that although improvements have been made in recent months, much, much more needs to be done?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. Figures show that certainly GPs are not aware that special measures should be put in place to deal with mental health issues raised by reservists returning from what has probably been prolonged action for which they were not really prepared when they enlisted.
When servicemen and women leave the armed forces as a result of injury or planned retirement, it is important that they are fully prepared for civilian life. Many very young men and women who leave the Army or other forces early in their careers may have no experience of running their own homes, paying their utility bills or providing for themselves. Furthermore, some of those below the age of 25 will not be fully eligible for housing benefits, and I ask the Minister to consider whether they could have more support with such benefits than other young people so that they can establish themselves in civilian life.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way for what will be a rather shorter intervention, Mr. Gale. On housing, does he, like me, find moderately often that former military personnel have no special priority on local authority housing lists and that they have not been able to establish a longish period of residence in the area concerned? Should there not be a way of recognising their service at home and abroad by means of the points that they receive on the local housing list when they return to their home area?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. As I understand it, that has been a problem, and it remains a problem to a certain extent now. As a result of representations that I have made, I understand that it may now be slightly easier for those leaving the forces to get on the housing list and that they may now be able to establish a link with an area through their family or as a result of the time they were stationed there.
The Royal British Legion has run an excellent campaign called “Honour the Covenant”, which has drawn attention to the gaps in health and welfare support for armed forces personnel and their families. The Government have a duty to provide lifelong support for those who have risked their lives for their country, but they have failed to do so in many key areas. Mental health is one area that is too often ignored.
Some 11,500 war pensions are entirely or partially related to a mental health condition. Although the Government have launched a two-year pilot on community mental health schemes, they have been slow to advertise those and other services that are aimed at the personnel who are most in need. In fact, a recent Royal British Legion survey discovered that of 500 GPs in England and Wales, 85 per cent. knew nothing about the reservists mental health project and 71 per cent. knew nothing about the MOD’s medical assessment programme. There are just six community mental health pilots, and it is not clear how much funding will be available to set up additional centres once they have finished or what support will be provided if and when such centres are established.
Another positive step that the Government have taken is to double the maximum award under the armed forces compensation scheme to £570,000 for the most serious injuries. I welcome the recent decision to award full compensation for each injury, which is a great improvement on the previous system. I welcome the Government’s changes to the system, which have put about £7.5 million into the pockets of injured service personnel. However, there are still problems that need to be resolved. First, the burden of proof has been shifted to claimants, when it should lie with the Secretary of State. Secondly, claims must be made within a five-year time limit, although there may be some exceptions. Although the majority of claims will be for significant physical injuries, which can be readily identified, other claims may be for mental health issues, which may take years to become apparent. That time limit should surely be lifted in all cases, regardless of the injury. What action is the MOD taking to ensure that all injuries are covered in future, not just those identified within a certain time frame? What advice and support is it giving serving personnel on the scheme’s requirements?
On health care, there should be a greater commitment to supporting the physical and mental health of service people and their families. We need to improve the handover of injured service personnel from the MOD to the care of the NHS. We also need to address the provision of family accommodation, which is currently for seven to 10 days. I recently spoke to the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, which told me that it had successfully established family accommodation in a number of the units to which service personnel go for medical attention.
On mental health, there is a desperate need to increase the monitoring of psychological problems among personnel who have been deployed for 13 months or more in a three-year period; to undertake in-depth health surveillance for all service personnel; to provide voluntary health surveillance for families; and, perhaps most importantly, given the age group involved, to ensure that there is priority care for war pensioners, which has supposedly been Government policy since 1953.
Unfortunately, the death toll in Afghanistan has increased substantially in recent months, and more than 150 UK troops have lost their lives. There should be more support for bereaved service families. In particular, legal advice, representation and advocacy should be provided at public expense whenever an inquest takes place.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Does he, like me, meet bereaved families who are deeply concerned about the fact that when they attend an inquest, from which they want to find the truth, the MOD is represented by an array of barristers, while they have no legal representation? Does he agree that that situation cannot continue?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, although perhaps the Minister would like to reply to her—he is probably in a better position to do so. However, what she says certainly reflects my experience.
Pensions are another issue on which more could be done to assist veterans. Royal British Legion research shows that the oldest ex-service personnel are often the poorest, with 75 per cent. of those aged 75 or over receiving an annual income of less than £10,000. That 75 per cent. represents 384,000 people, of whom 16 per cent. receive less than £5,000. Some 38 per cent. of veterans, spouses and widows or widowers are reported to receive below the minimum income for healthy living, which is just over £7,000 for a single person and just over £11,000 for a couple. Furthermore, 15 per cent. go without full central heating and 10 per cent. lack enough money to buy the necessary food. Injured servicemen and women often need additional heating before they reach pension age because of the nature of their disabilities. Has the Minister considered providing a heating allowance for war pensioners before they reach state pension age?
In partnership with Help the Aged and Age Concern, the Royal British Legion has called on the Government to rebrand council tax benefit as a council tax rebate, because they believe, and I agree, that that would lead to greater take-up of that facility. A stigma may be attached to council tax benefit: many armed forces veterans will be proud of what they did for their country while in the service, and claiming a benefit in later life may be a blow to that pride. Indeed, in his report on local government, Sir Michael Lyons suggested that
“the Government should address the perception problem around CTB by explicitly recognising it as a rebate, and re-naming it ‘Council Tax Rebate’, to reflect its unique place within the tax and welfare system.”
If that was done, and there was an increase in take-up, nearly 20,000 ex-service personnel would benefit and be taken out of poverty.
A major problem regarding armed forces veterans is the complete lack of data on those who are homeless, those who are seeking employment and even the number of those who are in prison. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) mentioned the number of ex-service personnel in prison, but I am not sure where he got the figures from. I understand that the Ministry of Justice has no dedicated national identification system for ex-servicemen held in custody and that it has conducted no research on the factors that result in veterans going to prison.
Those estimates came from the National Association of Probation Officers. The association also estimated that 3,500 ex-servicemen are on parole or serving community sentences, so there is probably a large number of ex-servicemen in the criminal justice system.
I apologise for missing the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. As to the National Association of Probation Officers figures—whether the figure we are dealing with is 8,500 or 3,500—there is an interesting sub-set: the Government have no idea how many prisoners suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism or drug abuse. Surely at least the Prison Service can tell us how many of all the known ex-military people in prison suffer from those things.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, which is well made. We need the data on the issues in question to be well set out before we begin to formulate policies that will deal with them and bring improvements for veterans.
Saturday 27 June is armed forces day. Would not it be most fitting for the Government to make a series of announcements about steps that they are taking for armed forces personnel, both in service and ex-service, in the run-up to that date? That might include expanding the community mental health scheme, undertaking proper research on the data, carrying out research on the financial situations of former serving personnel and monitoring how veterans cope with civilian life.
I declare an interest as a trustee of Help for Heroes. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one area in which the Government can help is the transition from service to civilian life? Many of us were offered a variety of courses when we left, and it is right that those should exist, but there is something much subtler involved, because people are going from a very tight-knit family, where they have full support, to a cold world where often they do not. Many of the people coming to Members’ surgeries would, if they were helped earlier, never have got into debt, become homeless or, in some cases, got involved in criminality. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if more could be done at that crucial transition stage, we would cut out a lot of the problems?
The hon. Gentleman speaks from experience, not because he had any problems when he came out of the armed forces—although he ended up in this place, I suppose—but rather from dealing with other people, and he makes a good point. Certainly the transfer from military to civilian life is difficult for a number of individuals. I know of the good work done by the welfare officers in the Army, and indeed, by those outside the Army, who exist to give assistance.
I want to move on to consider the voluntary sector, which has a role to play after people leave the armed forces. The sector plays a major role in ensuring that individual veterans are supported in times of need. Hon. Members will be aware of many instances of fine work being done in their constituencies. In mine, ex-service personnel such as retired Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Lewis and retired Major Nick Paravicini are active with SSAFA in raising money locally to support voluntary caseworkers and in finding funds to help veterans who have fallen on hard times. Retired Lieutenant-Colonel Charlie Nutting is a driving force in the Army Benevolent Fund, which raises substantial amounts of money. The British Legion is a major fundraiser, which can often supply the resources that are needed in the most difficult times, and retired Captain Jonathan Morgan has done sterling work with the Combat Stress organisation, which is particularly supportive of veterans with mental health difficulties. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) has already mentioned one of the newer organisations, Help for Heroes, which has raised a substantial amount of money as well.
Such people lead organisations, but they are well supported by other volunteers from both military and civilian backgrounds. The Government would do well to reflect on how much of their responsibility is shouldered by those voluntary bodies. However, I am told that locally the Government’s response is improving.
My purpose in securing the debate today is to encourage the Government to do even more for veterans of all the armed forces and give confidence that our veterans have the security of Government support in the times ahead.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who has outlined many of the concerns that veterans have, and that hon. Members have on their behalf.
Last year, after the successful national veterans day celebrations in Blackpool, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and I set up the all-party group on veterans, so that there would be a focus in this place for debating of veterans’ issues and for exploring how we can take forward such concerns as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire outlined in his speech.
I shall begin by being positive: we set up the all-party group because of the success of veterans day, when we had a focus for celebration of the role of veterans. Because Blackpool won the privilege of hosting the national event, we had not just one day but several weeks of celebrations, including a week of concentrated celebrations in which we involved young people. Schoolchildren as well as veterans got involved, as did people from across the community. We all respect the work that our armed forces personnel do on our behalf: they risk their lives. We must remind people—young and old and in all sections of the community—of that essential work and of society’s responsibility to ensure that individuals who leave the armed forces, for whatever reason, are properly looked after in the community.
The veterans day celebrations in Blackpool were a huge success, and were attended by the Duchess of Cornwall and the Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), whom I congratulate on the work that he did as veterans Minister in raising the profile of veterans. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister who is present today is continuing that good work and is a champion of veterans.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on Blackpool’s national veterans day celebrations. In Castle Point more than 500 people attended the veterans day event, which was a great success. This year there will be a veterans day event on Canvey island, run by Canvey Island town council and me, which we expect will be attended by the Gurkhas, as well as Chelsea pensioners. Will the hon. Lady be mentioning residency rights for Gurkhas, and policy changes that the Government can make to help them?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the Gurkhas. It is a great pleasure, in Blackpool, to attend various events organised by veterans and local associations, not least of which is the Burma Star Association, which has held its annual event in Blackpool for the past several years. Sadly, last year’s event was the last one, because of the age of veterans. Each year they invited Gurkha representatives to the celebrations, so I have had the immense privilege each year of speaking to those men and their wives and children. They have concerns about their pension rights and their right to settle in this country, and I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that. However, I know that the Government have made available rights for post-1999 Gurkhas, and we must acknowledge their good work on that.
I meet not only Burma Star veterans but representatives of other veterans groups in my constituency, including the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment. Retired members regularly contact me and they are a wonderful, lively bunch of people; their regiment has changed over the years and been amalgamated two or three times, but they still take an interest in what is happening to it now. A problem for the Minister is the one that was outlined by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire when he introduced the debate: how the Government keep track of veterans. There are organisations for retired members of certain regiments and organisations.
However, we should remember that not all veterans served in the second world war or—those few who are still alive—in the first world war. We have many younger veterans. The hon. Gentleman outlined some of the problems that they face when leaving the armed forces. They sometimes become involved in criminality, and they can suffer stress-related illnesses and have mental health problems. Indeed, a survey conducted by Manchester university, published last month, found that young men who had served in the armed forces were as much as three times more likely to take their own lives than their civilian counterparts. Clearly there are ongoing pressures on those who leave the armed forces. A balance is needed.
The House is constantly debating the surveillance society and how much the Government are keeping an eye on us—the big brother attitude. The Minister has a difficulty. He does not, I assume, want to be too overbearing in demanding to know where everybody is who has served in the armed forces, but if he wants to maintain a duty of care for those individuals he will need some sort of device to know where they are, or at least to know if they appear in prison or in hospital and then to deal with the problem.
The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. Does she agree that it is also our responsibility—or our locality’s responsibility—to take control of some of that data? We should encourage organisations such as community mental health teams, citizens advice bureaux, social services and local authorities to ask whether people are veterans or have served in the armed forces in recent years, as that may bring a different dimension to the problem, their time serving on military operations possibly being its root cause. Does she agree that much could be done locally in encouraging organisations in our constituencies to be conscious of the needs of veterans when recording information, as they make their initial approach to people who may be in a vulnerable state?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I see it as a way forward. The Government are introducing personalised health and social care; in the latter case, personalisation is about getting to know the individual for whom the care is provided, and discussing their needs and problems instead of saying, “We are going to provide X for you. You are going to fit into this round hole even though you would fit better in a square hole.”
Personalisation is the key. It involves social care staff, doctors, nurses and anyone within the health and social care continuum; they should find out much more about the individual and particularly whether the person is a veteran or a carer. People sometimes present a doctor with stress-related illnesses because they have caring responsibilities at home, but the doctor will not be able to cure the illness if he deals only with the immediate symptoms; he must look beyond the symptoms to the cause. That means asking the right questions. One of the questions should be, “Have you served in the armed forces? How does that affect you?” That could and should be a way forward.
I hope that the Minister, as a champion of the veteran, will consider that matter. People leaving the armed forces should be advised of the many organisations that are there to help, a point raised earlier by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon). We heard earlier about the Royal British Legion, which is an excellent organisation, but there are many others, especially the new ones that are there to help the younger men and women now leaving the armed forces. Those people need to be aware of the support and help that are available when they leave the forces, and we must ensure that that is followed up.
Before speaking about the military covenant, I turn to the local Royal British Legion. The Blackpool and the Thornton Cleveleys branches do amazingly good work for veterans, supporting them and offering advice on war pensions and benefits in general, and raising money each year in the poppy appeal. My hon. Friend the Minister may not be aware of the fact, but the Blackpool branch holds a poppython, a day of events in which individuals performing in the many shows in Blackpool are invited to put on free performances; they are always packed and they raise tens of thousands of pounds for the poppy appeal. A lot of really good work is taking place in towns throughout the country.
The Royal British Legion has made some comments on the military covenant. I shall not repeat the concerns already expressed about health, housing and social care. We are well aware of them, and improvements are being made, although more needs to be done. I pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire about bereaved families. We must remember not only those who die when serving in our armed forces, but the families who have lost their loved ones. They, too, need to be in our thoughts. They, too, need our support.
Many members of our armed forces lose their lives in peacetime. It does not happen only in active conflict. They can lose their lives in road traffic accidents or in barracks, sometimes by committing suicide, but sometimes in more murky circumstances. I have met the families of the four young trainees who lost their lives at Deepcut barracks; those families still want answers about what happened to their loved ones and how they could have died in such circumstances.
We should ensure that boards of inquiry are thorough in their investigations. Coroners inquests should give the families the answers that they so desperately need. If the families are not legally represented at such hearings, they may feel that the Ministry of Defence will outweigh them in the argument. We all know that inquests are inquisitorial, not adversarial. Nevertheless, it would help the coroner if the families had legal representation; it would mean that the right questions were asked, and that the families got the answers they deserved. The military covenant addresses the question of how to deal with bereaved families. I have said this to the Minister on many occasions, and I am sure that he will think of a reply, but it is a serious question.
Is the hon. Lady aware that, during our recent consideration of the Coroners and Justice Bill, although the Government did not accept amendments to introduce automatic support for families at inquests, they said that it was an interesting idea and gave tacit encouragement to the other place to consider enabling the coroner to allow barristers for the families as well as for the Government on an automatic or possibly discretionary basis?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. He and I both raised the issue of funding for bereaved families on the Second Reading of the Coroners and Justice Bill. I know that the Ministry of Justice was well aware of that. The Bill also introduced a charter for bereaved families, a welcome development. In some instances, bereaved families of service personnel can get legal aid and representation, but it is extremely difficult because of the usual financial tests. In exceptional circumstances, families can get legal aid and representation, but sadly too few manage it. We must not forget bereaved families when debating veterans and the military covenant, and I am pleased that many such families take part in Remembrance day processions. They come together so that local communities can see that they still care, even though their family members can no longer march in the processions themselves.
Finally, on a point that I have raised with the Minister before, the names of some individuals who died in non-combat circumstances are included in the roll of honour and national memorial, but others are not. The memorial is not managed directly by the Government, but nevertheless I hope that he will take into account the concerns of the families of some of the individuals whose names are not included.
Once more, I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire on securing this debate and raising many important issues. We have taken steps forward, but sometimes the process seems achingly slow. However, we are moving in the right direction, and it is important that we, as Members of Parliament representing our constituents, continue to press the Government to keep moving forward.
I apologise, Mr. Gale, to you and the Chamber, for arriving slightly after the beginning of this extremely important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) on securing it, and the hon. Member for Blackpool, South—
I beg her pardon. I meant the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). Blackpool is such a wonderful place throughout, and I differentiate not between the two parts. However, she made some very good points.
Wiltshire is home to half the British Army, and I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) will speak on behalf of the Conservative party. His constituency is home to a large part of the infantry, whereas North Wiltshire tends to have the RAF, logistics corps and a large number of retired officers and other ranks. We speak, therefore, with much local knowledge. I also speak as chairman of the all-party group on the Army and as a patron of Mutual Support, which is the multiple sclerosis support group for military veterans.
I hope that the Chamber will forgive me if I make two or three rather disparate points, some of them a little more technical than others. If the Minister cannot answer them today, perhaps he will kindly do so later. This debate gives us an opportunity to thank, celebrate and salute our armed services and veterans. The latter of course include those who have left only very recently and who have served in theatres of war. However, it also gives us the chance to consider welfare issues that have been raised very well already. The debate consists of those two halves. I hope that the Chamber will forgive me for congratulating in particular my own constituency and the good people of Wootton Bassett, who turn out in vast numbers—most recently, 5,000 of them—to pay tribute to the returning bodies brought back through RAF Lyneham. That little token of support has been taken up elsewhere and is a beacon for the rest of the nation.
On one small detail, however, a number of people have asked whether the high street in Wootton Bassett should be renamed. The awful title, “Highway for Heroes”, has been suggested. The people of Wootton Bassett, and members of the armed services to whom I have spoken, are totally and utterly opposed to any such tokenism. They turn up, from their homes and workplaces, to pay their respects to the bodies and then slip away again, and they simply do not want such tokenistic support for, or recognition of, what they do. The people of Wootton Basset, and, as I said, all the armed services, as far as I am aware, are wholly opposed to that suggestion. The editor of The Sun, who is campaigning for the change, might take note of the fact that it would not be the right thing to do.
There is talk of returning the magnificent and beautiful war memorial at Camp Bastion to the UK when the camp finally closes. The memorial is a stone picked up in the desert, topped with a cross made of spent cartridges from machine guns. It is a superb war memorial, and there has been some discussion about where it might go in the UK. Given that it carries the names of those whose bodies have been carried through Wootton Bassett, the high street might be a suitable location, in the long term. That might be a way of recognising the town’s mark of respect.
The all-party Army group has welcomed back brigades from Iraq, up till now, and Afghanistan from now onwards. That very visible thank you to our armed services does wonders for our veterans. Sometimes, I think that they sit at home wondering whether anyone recognises what they have done. The fact that Parliament is saying publicly that we thank and welcome back our troops from theatres of war sends an important message to veterans. All those things are extremely useful.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood used the expression “champion for veterans”. I do not know whether the Minister, who will be speaking in a few moments, is that champion, but I hope so, because we need one. We must praise and thank those who have given so much of their lives to the defence of the nation.
I shall deal with the two or three detailed matters. The first touches on the very good point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon). The Territorial Army tends to draw people from around the nation into one TA centre, so when they come back from deployment and become veterans, they no longer have a tight-knit regimental family—they might have such a family with a regiment located in their geographical area. I hope that the announcement due later today on the review of the reserve forces will consider how TA veterans are looked after and how we can make good use of the TA.
Gurkhas have been mentioned. I have many Gurkhas in my constituency and I have some sympathy with those who have called for all Gurkhas who have served anywhere, any time, to be given rights of residence in the UK. However, I also have some doubts, because pre-1997, most Gurkhas were deployed in Hong Kong and so have no possible connection with the UK. I am not certain that it is right that any Gurkha who has ever served in the British Army should be allowed to come to the UK. A very good friend of mine, Mitra Pariyar, is researching at Oxford university—the first Dalit, or “untouchable”, from Nepal to study at Oxford—how Gurkha veterans survive in the UK. Veteran private soldiers’ pay does not go all that far in the UK, but it does go a very long way in Nepal. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and I observed during a recent visit to Nepal that to a significant degree those who run the country and its economy are ex-Gurkhas. I am not certain, therefore, that we want all Gurkhas who served in the British Army to come and live for all time here in the UK. I look forward to the outcome of the current research in Oxford.
I think that I am the only Member to have served in the Brigade of Gurkhas—I did so twice in fact—and my concerns run even deeper than those of my hon. Friend. He is right that there should be a degree of equality for service personnel, but I am more concerned about the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas. We face decisions about, for example, whether to cut the local regiment in the constituency of the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), and we will probably face cuts to the TA later today. I fear that the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas has been damaged by some recent decisions.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point about the future of the Gurkhas. We need to be very careful about that.
I shall continue my slightly disparate list of things on which I would like the Government to do more. I recently became involved with the excellent Wiltshire branch of the Royal British Legion, which was campaigning very hard, standing outside supermarkets in my constituency collecting funds to enable D-day veterans to return to the beaches for the 65th anniversary. It was a sad sight in many ways, although in others quite an inspiring one: to see these great old boys standing outside Sainsbury’s saying, “We don’t care if the Government aren’t going to pay for our return on D-day. We will raise the money ourselves.” I salute them for doing so. I am glad that the Government—or at least the lottery—have listened to reason and are now funding the 65th anniversary of the D-day landings and paying for veterans to return to the site of one of their greatest triumphs, but it is disappointing that it took enormous television and media pressure before the Government gave in. Surely to goodness, if we are to respect and care for our veterans, one of the most basic fundamentals is to pay for them to return to the scenes of their triumph. I hope that the Government will listen more sympathetically to similar requests in the future.
In my own constituency, broken families from the armed services often land up in the outstandingly good Cotswold family centre, which is a little known organisation. It is a problem when a soldier abandons his family, because the family is living in military quarters. I am afraid that the MOD takes a hard-nosed attitude, and evicts the family quite quickly. Where does that family then go? It has no local connection. Many families end up in the Cotswold family centre in Corsham. Over the years, there has been talk of closing the centre. I very much hope that the Government will not cast their cutting eyes over it either now or in future, because it carries out outstanding work for families and veterans at some of the more difficult times in their lives.
Finally, I would like to touch on the question that was raised by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire about how our veterans—or some of our veterans—tend to end up in the lowest part of our society. The National Association of Probation Officers has come up with some figures, which the Government may call questionable. The association says that 8,500 ex-service personnel are in prison. I do not know if that is correct; the number may be lower. I am interested to know how many ex-servicemen are in prison. It would be fairly questionable if the Government were to turn round and say that they do not know. The armed services are the only ones who have the numbers. We know all about every single armed service person, so surely we can find out how many of them are in prison. If we cannot do so, it says an awful lot, both about our veterans system and about our prison system.
Having worked out how many ex-servicemen are in prison, we should then find out—again the Government say that they do not know this—how many of them have post-traumatic stress disorder. Having witnessed conditions in theatres of war, it is hardly surprising that some of those people have very severe mental disorders later in life. It may be 20 years after their service that these things come back to haunt them. Such experience may result in imprisonment. The Government should know how many people are in prison as a result of PTSD. At the moment, they do not.
Incidentally, the same applies to the question of alcoholism and drug abuse. The figures from the department of community mental health show that of the 2,500 military people who presented at the centres in 2007, some 217 are taking drugs, 150 are alcoholics, 400 have mood disorders, 314 are depressive, 1,188 have neurotic disorders, 145 have post-traumatic stress disorder and so on. The department has told us that some 2,500 people, or 1.9 per cent. of our armed services, are suffering from such conditions in prison and the Government, apparently, do not know it. It is important that we should at least begin to bottom that out.
Before we can cure the problem, we need to know how many people are suffering. It is astonishing that the Government say that they do not know. One strong message to be sent back from this debate is that we recognise that people suffer terrible consequences from the action that they take in the theatre of war on behalf of society. When they come back, they may suffer from drink, drug or mental disorders and they may end up in prison. It is the Government’s fundamental duty to know how many people are suffering in such a way and to put in place some means of finding a solution. I know that that is easier said than done, but it is important that we recognise the problem and start to work on it.
This issue is not just about saluting and thanking our veterans. That is easily done every year on Remembrance Sunday, and at the Cenotaph and all the time in Wootton Bassett and elsewhere. The tough bit is for the Government and society to say to the armed services, “We recognise that the things that we ask you to do sometimes result in appalling consequences for you in your private lives. We will recognise that you and the armed services are doing more than other categories of employee, and we will go out of our way to find out what has gone wrong with you and to put it right.”
It is a privilege to be called to speak in the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who has given a very thorough account of the issue before us. His contribution will lessen my load in the next five minutes.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me when I say that although I pay tribute to him for initiating the debate, I was more struck in many ways by the contribution of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon). When he talked about the transition from a tight-knit community to civilian life, it reminded me of a constituent who came to see me a few weeks ago. He left the forces after a distinguished career and was attempting to readjust to civilian life. He enrolled on a university degree course, but found that the flexibility of student life created many problems for him. He abandoned his course and had persistent difficulties with the Department for Work and Pensions. I am sure that he would be the first to admit that he was floundering in civilian life. He said that he simply did not know where to turn. The repeated message today is about the lack of information for veterans as they leave the forces.
I agree with what the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said about the celebration of the role of our forces being the easy bit. We will be doing that in my constituency on Saturday when the county of Ceredigion awards the freedom of Ceredigion to the Royal Welsh Regiment. That event is important to the veterans, the serving forces and the community. It should galvanise a great deal of support, and hundreds will be on the streets of Aberystwyth on Saturday. Nevertheless, there is a bigger picture, and we must consider day-to-day life for our ex-servicemen.
Last October in this Chamber, we had a debate on the state pension and benefits. I was able to raise the Royal British Legion’s return to rationing campaign. My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned some figures, which I will repeat, because he was right to highlight the fact that 38 per cent. of veterans, their spouses, widows and widowers live on an income lower than that considered necessary for a healthy lifestyle. Some 75 per cent. of the ex-service community live on an income of less than £10,000. One important small measure would be to redesignate council tax benefit as a rebate. The Lyons report revealed that when take-up was labelled a rebate, the figure was up to 90 per cent.—as a benefit it is 55 to 60 per cent, which is a matter of acute concern.
I pay tribute to the Ministry of Defence for its six pilot schemes. We have a good one in Cardiff. The number of referrals has increased from a handful to something approaching 90 in the first nine months. None the less, will the Minister give us some sort of appraisal as to where he thinks those pilots are going and what the roll-out will be? The British Legion is concerned that there is an element of uncertainty about what happens next.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) mentioned the availability of information for people using the voluntary sector. The Royal British Legion in my constituency undertakes a huge amount of valuable pastoral work, as do many other organisations. It has requested that lists of returning veterans be made available so that it can contribute to their readjustment in times of transition. There is concern about the lack of cohesion in government. We are all praising the Minister for what he said about the inadequacies of the “New Horizons” programme. However, his message has not got across to all parts of Government.
We heard about untreated mental illness causing problems for veterans. Those problems make it difficult for veterans to adjust to normal life and hold down a job, and can ultimately lead to homelessness. A 2007 report by the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation estimated that up to one homeless person in 10 has a background in the forces. Again, the difficulty is that we do not know the extent of the problem. When we talk about the close-knit family and the transition, we should not always assume that everybody has the luxury of moving from one close-knit family to another. That is manifestly not the case. That is why we are here today and why my hon. Friend initiated this important debate.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) for securing this debate. He gave a powerful exposition of the case. I am sure that his constituents, many of whom are veterans, and many people throughout the UK will be grateful for his advocacy. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on his short speech. Sometimes the best speeches are made in the shortest possible time.
The hon. Gentleman is congratulating the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), who made a point about the support and advice for families and veterans. The need for those is increasing, but one organisation that has not been mentioned is the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, which is doing excellent work, particularly in my constituency in Essex.
A huge range of organisations do excellent work—the hon. Gentleman mentioned one of them. The Fife Veterans Association in my patch is a great group of people. It provides not only social contact, but support for people who are finding life outside the military a little difficult. The hon. Gentleman is right about that, but I am not sure whether I agree with his earlier point that Members of Parliament would be a great magnet to attract people to join the Royal British Legion. I am not sure that we are the best sales people in the world when it comes to membership of organisations. However, his sentiments are right.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) made a very strong speech about the support groups that are available and the work that is being done in Blackpool. I am sure that it was an enjoyable few weeks in Blackpool—it seemed to be one big party from what I understand. It was good to hear about that.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) also made a good speech. Perhaps I should read The Sun more often, because this is the first time I have heard of the idea of a “Highway for Heroes”. I, too, think that it would be completely inappropriate. It is not about names—what really matters is the encouragement and support that is given. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the TA.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on the Gurkhas. I know that there are difficulties with the continuation of support for the Gurkhas and I understand that the Minister has been to Nepal for discussions on the matter. I would like to hear more about those discussions, but we need to pay more respect to the work that the Gurkhas have done over the years, so I am pleased that we are making some progress.
Everyone praises the work of charities that support the veterans. A special bond is formed by those who have served in the forces over the years. The decreasing size of the armed forces since the second world war means that the number of veterans is decreasing significantly, but that makes the bond still stronger. Despite that, many veterans deeply resent having to rely on charity to deal with the issues that they face. They firmly believe that the state is responsible and should give greater assistance, and that they should not have to rely on charity for support.
I have a great deal of sympathy with that point of view but, actually, a lot of the veterans whom I meet do not want to become dependent on the state, and the charities with which I come into contact certainly do not want all their eggs in one basket—they do not want all their funding to come from the Government. However, we have not got the balance right. The Government need to provide greater support for veterans to deal with their difficulties.
The Minister is moving in the right direction. I served on the Defence Committee with him; he was outspoken then, and I am pleased that he has not changed tack since. He is doing a very good job as the Minister with responsibility for veterans. There is a lot to be delivered, but I am sure that he has the determination to see it through. We need to strike the right balance, which we have not done so far, and I would like more Government support for veterans.
When providing priority health care for veterans—this was mentioned in the debate—was announced 18 months or so ago, it was claimed that up to 4 million veterans could benefit, but when Ministers from the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence appeared before the Defence Committee, they were unable to predict what the demand would be. I know that there have been some problems with identifying veterans and alerting the health service so that they receive priority care, but that initiative has been going for 18 months, so I would like the Minister to give examples of veterans receiving priority care. What difference has the policy has made? Has it cut the waiting time for receiving treatment, or is the difference marginal or insignificant? I hope that it works and that veterans get the priority care that they need. It is not about queue jumping, but ensuring that, if everything else is equal, veterans get support above others.
The identity card idea is a good one. It would mean that veterans may identify themselves as being from the military if they so wish—they do not have to, but they may use the card to get priority treatment. That is a good model. Rather than identifying every veteran on their health records, people who have served in the military could show the ID card to get the priority treatment if they wished to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion mentioned mental health pilots. I was pleased that the six pilots were set up, because this is one of the biggest problems that we need to get a grip on. People with mental health problems are presenting themselves earlier to charities such as Combat Stress. The average age of people presenting used to be about 20 years older than it is now. There is significantly less of a stigma, which is a very good thing. I understand that the pilots will be completed at the end of this year and that there will be some evaluation off the back of them. I am interested in the next step. How and when will the pilots be rolled out, and what kind of funding will be available? Will the difficulties with the Government’s finances have any impact on any roll-out, or is the MOD determined to ensure that it is a priority in its plans for the coming years? Will the Minister tell us exactly what is happening in that regard?
Reference has been made to Help for Heroes. I understand that the charity has raised some £17 million in a very short time, £12 million of which has already been paid out. A man called George Connelly, who lives in the village of Culross in my constituency, is bringing bands from all three military services into the village for a special “Musical Spectacular” at the end of July. People such as him do a tremendous amount of work and we should pay tribute to them.
Credit should also be given to the Government for their armed forces day on 27 June. I am keen to support it in my part of the world and to get those flags flying from every flag pole—I am sure that the Scottish National party Administration would love the Union flag flying everywhere. The armed forces day is important, as are veterans medals. My aunt was delighted to receive her land army badge in Canada recently, so I thank the Minister for that.
As I said, the Minister has been to Nepal for discussions because of concerns about the continuation of the flow of people to serve in the Gurkhas. What impression was he given in Nepal and what agreements has he managed to come to? The Gurkhas are also eagerly awaiting an announcement from the Home Secretary at the end of this week. Is that still on schedule? We want a fair and honourable settlement for the Gurkhas. They have committed so much for us, and the new arrangements must reflect that.
My final point is more of a technical one and relates to devolution. One thing that the Minister and I discovered when we were on the Defence Committee was that in the devolved Administrations, military issues often fall between the stools. Because the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly assume that the MOD is dealing with veterans’ health or education for service families, they do not think that they should consider such issues.
A recent press announcement stated that injured war veterans will be given council house priority. The UK Minister for Housing and the Minister who is in his seat here made that announcement. Will similar schemes apply in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? What discussions have been held? Is that an example of our having managed to break down the barriers and hold regular discussions with all the other Administrations to ensure that best practice spreads throughout the UK? Different parts of the UK will make their own decisions, but are we ensuring that what we decide within the MOD is transferred out to other parts of the United Kingdom? Our armed forces and veterans deserve the best possible support, and I am sure that the MOD and the Minister will be keen to deliver it.
I draw the House’s attention to my interests as a member of the reserve forces and a service veteran.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) on securing this timely and extremely important debate. We all have constituents who are veterans and, particularly at this time, it behoves us to look closely at their interests and the obligations that we as a society owe them.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) talked about coroners, to pick out one item from her speech. That issue interests me, because the Wiltshire coroner is in my constituency, in Trowbridge. I visited his court when he was sitting on matters dealing with deceased servicemen, and he runs an exceptionally good service. It is questionable, however, whether the MOD should be using public funds to hire barristers in what are meant to be non-adversarial situations. The service families to whom I have spoken in that connection rather resent the resulting unequal playing field. I urge the Minister to minimise the use of barristers in that way, as it is regarded as unfair.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) rightly mentioned Wootton Bassett and the tribute that it pays to deceased veterans. We hear a lot of bad things about our society sometimes, but it is a tribute to people that they are prepared to turn up and pay their respects in that way. That is a lesson for others to learn. I echo his words about the Cotswold family centre, which I know from my previous professional life does an extremely good job. That service would be sorely missed if the Minister were tempted to remove it.
Among a number of points, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) mentioned ID cards for veterans. I support the idea, but with a couple of caveats: it must bring a tangible benefit, and the cost must be accommodated in some way. There has been a lot of tokenism, and we do not want an ID card that is simply a token. I do not think that veterans would welcome such a thing.
I am grateful to Frederick Forsyth, Simon Weston, Sir John Keegan and the other members of the Military Covenant Commission set up by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to look into some of the issues that we have debated today. The commission has made a number of important recommendations that we are working through. I hope that the Government, in the spirit of consensuality that has characterised this debate, will consider some of those points as well, if they have not done so already.
It is important that we consider the definition of “veteran”. If we really mean it when we say that we want to give veterans something tangible to mark their service and recognise the debt that we owe them, we need to separate the men from the boys, if I may put it that way. There is a big difference between those who have served for only a day, which enables them to be defined as veterans, and those who have served in the second world war or more recent conflicts, have done their 22 years and are veterans in the truest sense of the word. I accept the expediency of the current inclusive definition, but I do not think that it is helpful if we want to make veterans special and mark them out as such. I see the Minister nodding; perhaps he might like to comment on that later. I appreciate the difficulty, but we need to get to grips with it.
During the Easter break, the Minister went head to head with the Minister for care services, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), about the “New Horizons” strategy, sans veterans. It is remarkable that such a document should include no reference to veterans, servicemen and their families. From the comments that I have read in the press, I know that the Minister feels strongly about it, and I have no doubt that he has had the meeting that he was reported to have demanded with his colleague. If he can share the contents of that meeting with us, it will be interesting to learn what it came up with. I congratulate him on taking that action.
Mental health is the tip of the iceberg. We have a particular obligation to people with post-traumatic stress disorder. To be ever so slightly critical of the Minister, he has been guilty in the past of saying that the number of people with combat stress is small. Although he is technically—numerically—correct, none the less, we owe a particular duty of care to people who experience the condition. Post-traumatic stress disorder is an occupational illness, and we have a duty to make it right for sufferers if we can. We also know from experience of the Falklands, Vietnam and so on that we are probably experiencing the tip of the iceberg. The issue will become more and more prominent, and we need to get to grips with it. We also need to discover cases proactively, and the official Opposition have made a number of proposals for doing so.
Homelessness is an issue for veterans. Last month, I visited Veterans Aid in Limehouse and Alabaré Christian Care in Plymouth, which is setting up a project for homeless veterans. However, the streets are not lined with homeless veterans. That is almost a cliché. Veterans Aid is quite clear that it is not a massive problem in our capital city and other centres, but that is not to underplay its importance. We owe a duty of care to those who have served, particularly when their service may have contributed to the state in which they find themselves.
There is, however, a sub-group within that population of which I hope the Minister will take particular note: non-UK nationals who have served in the armed forces. Service charities—particularly the estimable Veterans Aid, with which I know he has also been involved—say that there appears to be a particular problem with people who are not UK nationals but who have served in the armed forces, sometimes for very short periods, and have left or been slung out. The Army then considers its job done—at the gate, that is it, and they are on their own. Inevitably, they melt into society and contribute significantly to the homeless ex-service population. We need to be more imaginative in handling such people, for their good and the good of our general homelessness situation.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned the prison population. Once again, we must be careful about the numbers involved, but if we are serious about the rehabilitative elements of the criminal justice system, it behoves us to determine whether there are common factors specifically related to veterans in prisons, such as those itemised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, that could be amenable to more bespoke management to maximise such prisoners’ chances of making a proper return to society.
On employment after leaving the armed forces, there was a time when certain occupations were reserved for veterans—usually low-paid, low-skill jobs, such as lift attendant, when we had lift attendants. Today’s veterans expect rather more. They are often highly skilled or looking for skilled opportunities. We might consider ex-soldiers in schools and colleges, for example. It might be helpful if the Minister considered the Troops to Teachers proposals. The Centre for Policy Studies and the charity Skill Force have done important work on the issue, and the American T3 programme points the way. We are looking for role models these days, particularly in schools, and ex-servicemen might provide helpful role models in some school settings.
The Minister will have expected me to mention Normandy and D-day. I will say ever so gently that I do not think the Government have won many brownie points with their handling of the 65th anniversary D-day celebrations so far. The parsimony—rectified at the last minute—had all the hallmarks of a civil service briefing note untrammelled by the political savvy that is sometimes necessary to apply a human face to Government. Announcing that the Ministry does only 60th and 100th anniversaries is not helpful to octogenarians, because by 2044 not only they, but their grandchildren, are likely to have joined the choir celestial. The belated few thousand pounds from the lottery for its “Heroes Return 2” programme is nevertheless most welcome.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) on securing this debate. As the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) said, the debate has been consensual and has highlighted the importance that we all attach to veterans.
In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned the newest veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq ill or wounded. I join him in paying tribute to the men and women of our armed forces medical teams in theatre, whom I have met. Before Christmas, I met the aerial medevac team at Lyneham that has brought back people who, in other circumstances, would not have survived their horrific injuries. I pay tribute to the staff and supporters of Selly Oak and Headley Court. I thank the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association for the work that it is doing at those locations to find homes for visiting relatives.
The debate has covered a number of issues. I might not be able to cover them all in the time that I have, but I will try my best. Hon. Members know that I have taken a special interest in mental health since being appointed to this post. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Westbury that I downplay the issue. I think that I am on the record as saying that every case of a veteran with a mental illness is a personal tragedy for that individual and for their family. We must ensure that we provide all the support that it is possible to give.
There are six mental health pilots. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) mentioned the Cardiff pilot, which I was privileged to visit before Christmas. The fantastic team are showing that the process works. I will be in Scotland on Thursday when the Scottish mental health pilot is launched. It is important to get the language right. Emotive language about bow waves of people presenting with mental illness in the future has been used. The figures are small and there has been too much concentration on post-traumatic stress disorder. The studies done by the King’s college centre for defence studies show that the biggest issue is not PTSD but other mental health issues. We must ensure that we have the services in place to provide the assistance that individuals need. The mental health pilots and Dr. Ian Palmer’s medical assessment programme at St Thomas’s hospital are good first steps towards that.
A number of hon. Members have asked how we can ensure that local GPs know about these issues. One of my jobs in Government is to be an advocate for the armed forces. I am determined to get other Departments thinking about veterans when they come up with policies. On occasions they will forget, but I make no bones about the fact that it is my job to remind them forcefully that veterans should be at the centre of their policies. Last year’s Command Paper, which has 40 different work streams, was designed to get work done across Government. Some success has been achieved. It is my job to ensure that that continues. One issue is how we track veterans. With the Surgeon General, I am looking at how we can track people in the health service once they have left the service. There would have to be an opt-in system rather than a mandatory one. I hope to make an announcement on that later this year.
ID cards have been raised. I am determined to introduce them. The hon. Member for Westbury said that that would be tokenism. Obviously, he does not know me very well because I am not into tokenism. If it is tokenism, it will be a waste of time. It must have real benefit and meaning for veterans.
The transition of early service leavers was mentioned. A bigger piece of work that I will complete later this year is my welfare pathway. That will try to join up all the strands of work not only in the Ministry of Defence, but in other Departments, to ensure that when people leave the armed forces, the services are there to help them through the transition. We are working closely with the armed forces charities, which I have great respect for. Government cannot do everything and I am sitting down with charities to ensure that there is a joined-up and seamless service. A key point that was raised is that we must get the transition right.
The increase in armed forces compensation is welcome and it has been welcomed greatly by the service community. The burden of proof issue has been raised time and again. It was raised when I sat on the Public Bill Committee. I set a challenge to people to come back with a single case in which that has been an issue. I am still waiting. On date of knowledge, the five years is not a fixed date. If people present after that with conditions related to their service, they can still make a claim.
The issue of inquests was raised. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) for her work with bereaved families. Like the hon. Member for Westbury, I am not in favour of feeding lawyers. What we must do, as we are doing, is ensure that we have the greatest possible support for bereaved families at those inquests. We already provide support for three members to attend and for others to attend in exceptional circumstances. I do not want there to be a feeding frenzy for lawyers. I want the money to be spent directly on the bereaved families.
The Gurkhas have been raised by a number of hon. Members. I was in Nepal last week. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) mentioned a fair and honourable settlement. There has been a lot of ill-informed debate on this issue. The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who speaks with great authority on the matter, raised an important issue. If we are to make it so costly to recruit Gurkhas, there will be a question mark over whether we continue to do so. As I said last week in Nepal, I believe that we should continue to recruit Gurkhas.
I ask hon. Members to look at what we are doing in Nepal. Over £50 million a year is paid directly into Gurkha pensions. We pay another £1 million to the Gurkha Welfare Trust. I pay tribute to the work that that organisation does not just with Gurkhas but in the community projects that I saw last week. This year alone we have increased the Gurkha pension by 14 per cent., and by 20 per cent. for those over 80. Those in receipt of a service pension have a good standard of living in Nepal. That pension is equivalent to the pay of a GP or a chief of police. I ask people to think of the consequences of these decisions and what is happening in Nepal. I was impressed by the work of the Gurkha Welfare Trust.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood mentioned the all-party veterans group, which I addressed earlier this year. I thank her for the work that she does on that group and for the success of armed forces day. Many colleagues are taking part in it and I wish to enthuse them to encourage councils and others to take part. The veteran’s badge was mentioned. That has been a great success and more than 650,000 have been issued. Many people wear them with pride.
I agree with the hon. Member for Westbury on the issue of homelessness and pay tribute to Veterans Aid, which is a fantastic organisation that deals with the capital’s homeless veterans. Only about 6 per cent. of the homeless are veterans, but as the hon. Gentleman said, there are some sub-groups that need to be counted. Veterans Aid has raised with me the issue of Commonwealth veterans who have served in the armed forces. I will address that with the Home Office. There are some simple things that we could do to address the needs of that sub-group.
I thank the people of Wootton Bassett. I thank the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) for the support of the all-party Army group and for the parades that have been held. I agree with him on the changing of names. As a former chair of highways on Newcastle city council, I know that there is nothing more controversial than changing the names of streets.
On the issue of D-day veterans, the policy on the recognition of the anniversary was in place under the Conservative Government. The 60th anniversary was the last large event that the Normandy Veterans Association wanted to have. I am pleased that the lottery has been involved and that the MOD has supported events this year in Normandy, as it has in other years.
I am sorry that I have not been able to cover all the points that have been raised in the time available, Mr. Gale. I thank hon. Members for a well-informed debate. We have once again raised the importance of veterans. It is a privilege to have this job. One of the most interesting parts of it is meeting veterans both old and new.