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Armed Forces (Morale)

Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2010

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the morale of members of the armed forces based in Scotland returning from active service. (309549)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker. The men and women of our armed forces are remarkable people and I have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues about support for our armed forces and their families.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, with which I totally agree, and for his good work in Scotland. Does he agree that people in Scotland want to see our returning heroes—and particularly those with families—treated with dignity? That means that they should be given priority in housing and should not be made homeless, which is what happens at the moment in Castle Point.

I agree with the sentiment behind the hon. Gentleman’s question. Although I do not know the details, I am sure that he understands that when it comes to situations such as that in Castle Point, whether they arise north or south of the border, we need to handle our returning heroes with great care and sensitivity, including when it comes to issues relating to housing. Local connections to local areas should be properly taken into account, and if that is not happening in Castle Point, I think that most of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would consider that to be shabby.

Will my right hon. Friend raise the question of psychological and psychiatric services in particular, because cases that have come to me recently have highlighted serious deficiencies? Although I commend the work of Combat Stress in Hollybush House in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), it is a voluntary charitable organisation that is taking up much of the strain that is sadly not being taken up by the psychiatric services offered to our troops on their return from combat.

My hon. Friend is right to talk about the need for continuing support as people prepare to return from theatre and at the point at which they arrive. I had the great honour of meeting some of our soldiers as they returned from theatre in Afghanistan and they talked about the need for continued and ongoing support. That includes support not just with housing but with dental care and health care, including mental health treatment, both in-patient and out-patient. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and the veterans Minister have considered this matter very carefully and if my hon. Friend has any specific suggestions about how the situation could be improved, I am sure that they will listen with great care.

Does the Secretary of State understand the contribution that is made to morale by the knowledge that outstanding medical services are available in Selly Oak hospital and, of course, at the rehabilitation centre at Headley Court? If he has not yet visited either the hospital or the rehabilitation centre, may I urge him to do so? He will see at first hand the courage of the patients and the skill of the staff.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right about the remarkable dedication of the staff, of which we have all heard. I have not yet had the honour of visiting; I do not know whether that was an invitation—it was an invitation by proxy, I think—but I would happily accept it. We all know by repute of the remarkable conviction of those men and women who care for our heroes on their return, which is why we have increased the investment in those medical facilities. We are determined to do more whenever we possibly can.

Good morning, Mr. Speaker. Many veterans returning from active service suffer from mental problems and, unfortunately, some of them end up in custody. Recently, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence have started a process of identifying veterans in custody in England and Wales in order to ensure that they are matched with the appropriate support agency, such as the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress. Given that prisons are a devolved issue but defence and looking after veterans are not, will the Secretary of State seek to use his offices to ensure that the Scottish Government play their part in trying to ensure that our veterans in custody are looked after and given the support that they deserve?

The hon. Gentleman served with distinction in the armed forces, in the Scots Guards, so he will know that it is always important that we should look to see what more we can do. That is why we have specific programmes to help those ex-servicemen and women who are unemployed and it is also why we are developing Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Justice-specific programmes to help those who are coming out of prison. If there is a gap—I do not want to make that assertion—and if there are lessons to be learned north and south of the border, I will happily convene conversations and meetings between the Royal British Legion north and south of the border, ourselves and Scottish Government officials to ensure that we can learn lessons from one another and to ensure that those ex-service personnel who have unfortunately found themselves in prison get the proper support to which they are entitled.

Will the Secretary of State join me in commending the work of the Royal British Legion Scotland, the Army Benevolent Fund in Scotland, Poppyscotland and others for the work that they do in supporting those who have served our country in the armed forces? Those organisations bring to our attention time and again the fact that many ex-servicemen fall through the net in Scotland. Will the Secretary of State, using his offices as a clearing house for communications between the Governments here and in Edinburgh, see whether he can do more to ensure that that situation improves?

In the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, I am happy to do whatever I can to assist. He is absolutely right about the work of the British Legion and of other charities across Scotland and the UK. There is enormous public affection in Scotland and across the UK, and immeasurable public respect, for our heroic men and women returning from this and previous wars, and public collections on Remembrance day continue to grow the further we get from the second world war. However, it is incumbent on us all to bear in mind that remembrance is not a one-day event, but an every-day-of-the-year event, and I am happy to see what can be done to take up his suggestion.

In that spirit, may I bring to the attention of the Secretary of State the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) will introduce a Bill later today to establish a veterans covenant similar to the military covenant for serving members of the armed forces? Will the Secretary of State undertake to argue the case in Government for my hon. Friend’s Bill to be given time, so that a proposal on which there is a clear consensus can become law?

We will, of course, consider the detail of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. The sentiment behind the comments of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) is correct. This is about trying to find additional ways of supporting men and women returning from war, whether they are injured or have returned safe and well. It is not just about that, however; it is also about supporting the extended service families—the husbands of the women who serve, the wives and girlfriends of the men who serve, and their children—which is why we are looking at making commitments on matters such as the provision of housing, health and dental care, and support for children of those in the armed services with special educational needs. We are doing a huge amount, but I am sure that we could do more.

The Royal United Services Institute today said that there is likely to be a 20 per cent. cut in service personnel in the years ahead. That would mean fewer service personnel in Scotland than in the Irish Republic. Is that good for morale, given that there have been more than 10,000 defence job cuts in Scotland since Labour came to power and a defence underspend of more than £4.3 billion in recent years?

There are currently 12,000 members of, and 6,000 civilians working in, the armed forces in Scotland. I do not agree with today’s assessment on the percentage reductions in the armed forces, but what is absolutely clear is that were the hon. Gentleman’s party in power and were it to have its way and have Scotland separated from the United Kingdom, there would be a 100 per cent. cut in the armed forces, because there would be no Royal Navy, no Royal Air Force, no British Army and no shipbuilding for aircraft carriers on the Clyde. We have enormous respect for our armed forces, north and south of the border, and we laugh with contempt at his ludicrous arguments.