I beg to move,
That this House recognises the valiant service and sacrifice given by the members of UK armed forces in the defence and security of the UK; notes concerns about the current level of support provided to veterans and the families of service personnel; and calls on the Government adequately to fund aftercare services for veterans, including those who have physical disabilities or mental illness, to provide the best support to the families of those who have died as a result of their service, and to honour in full its commitments in relation to the Military Covenant.
My colleagues and I welcome this opportunity to debate a subject that is very dear to our hearts and, I know, to many Members on both sides of the House. I hope the tone of the debate will allow us to engage with the issues, as we do not see this as a party political matter at all. Rather, it presents the House with an opportunity to demonstrate that it wants to do all it can to ensure that the men and women who serve our country in our armed forces are provided with the support and care they need, when they need it.
I want to begin by paying tribute to our armed forces, including those currently serving in Afghanistan and other theatres of conflict. DUP Members are very proud of our armed forces and of the contribution that our men and women from Northern Ireland make to them. I recently went to Afghanistan, where I had the privilege of meeting some of the service personnel in Helmand, including members of the 1st Battalion the Irish Guards, which is based at Camp Bastion and is working with the Afghan national army, and the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, which is supported by the 2nd Battalion, the reserve battalion, in doing excellent work on the front line by driving back the Taliban. They bring their experience of Northern Ireland, and their wider experience, to that task.
The reserves play an important role. As part of the review of the reserves, I had the opportunity at the weekend to visit a number of units in Northern Ireland, including the Royal Naval Reserve unit in my constituency at HMS Hibernia, based in Thiepval barracks, and the 2nd Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment and other Territorial Army units.
Northern Ireland has a very small proportion of the UK population, yet it currently provides 20% of reserve forces deployed on operations, and has done so consistently in recent years. That is a remarkable testament to the work of the reserve forces in Northern Ireland, and I pay particular tribute to the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association, which plays a very important role in developing our reserve forces. That 20% statistic demonstrates the commitment to our armed forces in our region of the United Kingdom.
The last time I visited Afghanistan, I was struck by the number of reservists from the medical profession serving there who came from Northern Ireland. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on that, and will he also join me in thanking employers who make it possible for their work force to be reservists?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know he takes a very keen interest in our armed forces, especially in those in his Colchester constituency. He is absolutely right about the role of the reserves from the medical profession. As a result of the troubles, members of the medical profession from Northern Ireland have over the years gained expertise in dealing with casualties in conflict situations, and especially in the consequences of explosive devices. One thinks of the medical staff at the Royal Victoria hospital, Belfast city hospital and other medical establishments in Northern Ireland. Encouragingly, as well as working in the medical profession, some of those people give up their time in the reserves, not only at weekends to provide training for other reservists, but to go to places such as Afghanistan to provide their expertise to help those who are, sadly, injured, many of them seriously. The first time I visited Camp Bastion I met some of the medical reservists working at its excellent hospital facility. They are treating not only service personnel but Afghan civilians injured by improvised explosive devices and gunshot wounds. I commend, as the hon. Gentleman did, the work of our reservists from the medical profession, who give their time and commitment, and are worthy of continuing support. I know that the review of the reserves will touch on this area and I am sure that the Secretary of State will wish to examine that aspect carefully.
On behalf of my colleagues, may I also pay tribute to all the members of the armed forces who have served over the years in Northern Ireland? We recognise the huge sacrifice that was made by the armed forces in seeking to protect the entire community in Northern Ireland from terrorism—the cost was very high indeed. One thinks of atrocities such as the Narrow Water bomb at Warrenpoint, and the Droppin’ Well bomb. I know that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) is very familiar with the latter atrocity as he was the commanding officer at the time and lost some of his soldiers in it. Indeed, he told me rather movingly, as we served together on the Defence Committee, about how one of the young women killed in that explosion died in his arms as he sought to comfort her in her final moments. We do not forget that sacrifice and we do well to honour those who did so much to help bring the relative degree of peace that we enjoy in Northern Ireland today. But for their commitment, their service and their sacrifice, the people of Northern Ireland would not be enjoying the progress that has been made, and that should never be forgotten.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. He has always been a Member of this House who has maintained a close interest in Northern Ireland. He has been very supportive, over many years, of the work of our armed forces in helping to secure peace in the part of the United Kingdom represented by my party.
My party recognises the pressures that the current operational commitments in Afghanistan put our armed forces under and the accompanying pressures on the welfare system; the more casualties there are, the more difficult it is to meet the demands and the needs arising from them. In addition, the social dynamic is changing; military families and their way of life are changing. They desire home ownership, educational stability for children, and employment opportunities for spouses and partners. Those factors all need to be taken into account in designing the welfare and support mechanisms put in place for our armed forces. Just because things were done in a certain way in the past, that does not mean that they cannot be adapted to suit the circumstances of the 21st century, and that is important.
The need to care for and support people who have been bereaved through the loss of a loved one remains an absolute priority. Just before the general election, I brought one of my constituents, Mrs Brenda Hale, to meet the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth). Brenda lost her husband, Captain Mark Hale, who was serving in the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles, based in Ballykinler in County Down. A very courageous man, Captain Hale had been out on patrol with his soldiers and three of them had been injured by an improvised explosive device. He went back from the helicopter pick-up point to collect the third soldier and as he did so a fellow soldier, Rifleman Daniel Wild, accidentally stepped on another IED and, sadly, that resulted in the loss of the lives of Captain Mark Hale and Rifleman Wild.
Brenda wanted to discuss with the then Secretary of State the manner in which key elements of the support mechanisms put in place to help her as a widow had absolutely failed and, indeed, had added to her difficulty at a time of grief. I commend the right hon. Member for Coventry North East for his approach to Mrs Hale and the offer he made to review the support mechanisms in place for those who lose a loved one on active service. I am sure that the current Secretary of State will carry through that commitment as part of the writing of the military covenant. It is essential that families who lose a loved one in combat are given appropriate care and support when they need it and that the level of support is consistent with the commitments offered through the military covenant.
I recently met two sisters of Captain Daniel Read, who recently died in Afghanistan. They were incredibly supportive of the family liaison unit that was given the difficult task of letting the next of kin—in this case, his wife—know of his passing. They made the proactive and sensible suggestion that the next of kin should extend to the parents, particularly when the soldier is incredibly young. I would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman commented on whether we could extend the duty of the family liaison officer to informing the parents too.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, which raises an interesting and relevant point. In the context of Northern Ireland, I did some work with the parents of soldiers and police officers whose sons and daughters had been killed on active service during the troubles. We examined this very issue of how they were treated as parents in circumstances where the next of kin was a spouse or a partner. One recognises the need to give a clear place in law and in other ways to the next of kin, but I agree with the hon. Lady that there is a need to respect the position of the parents of a soldier or another member of the armed forces killed in action. Perhaps the Secretary of State might examine the matter in the context of the military covenant. Undoubtedly, the pain caused by the loss of a husband, wife or partner is beyond comprehension, but we should not underestimate the loss felt by a mother or father who loses a son or daughter, so I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention.
I commend the previous Government—I note that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) is in his place—on some of the work they undertook in laying the foundations for the care and support that our armed forces personnel receive today. I think particularly of the personnel recovery centres that have been established, which I believe include seven regional centres, and the institution of the Elizabeth cross and scroll. I have met some of the widows who have received the Elizabeth cross and scroll and noted how important it was for them to receive that recognition. We want to put on the record the hon. Gentleman’s work in that regard.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and I thank him and his colleagues for signing the early-day motion I tabled on behalf of the national Gulf Veterans and families association. An awful lot has been done in recent years to support those people but one group who are still struggling are those suffering from Gulf war syndrome. He will be aware of the evidence coming from the United States. Does he agree that it is time for us to look at this issue again to see how we can better support those who are struggling, particularly this year, which is the 20th anniversary of the end of the war?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I will come to the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder and what is known as Gulf war syndrome. I am aware of and have previously commended in the House the work of the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who is in his place, and the report that he produced, which I know the Secretary of State has committed to implementing in full. We welcome that commitment and look forward to its being honoured, but we are also supportive of the key points that the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) made in his early-day motion. Some of the soldiers who suffer from Gulf war syndrome reside in Northern Ireland; I have met some of them and am aware of their concerns, and more needs to be done to assist those suffering from that condition.
A harrowing statistic that has been given in the House before, going back to the Falklands conflict, is that more of our armed services personnel who served there took their own lives as a result of the trauma of their involvement in that conflict than died in the conflict itself.
I am open to being corrected on the statistics. Undoubtedly, a significant number of service personnel find themselves unable to cope, through mental illness as a result of trauma, and take their lives. The hon. Gentleman is right that the point is not about the numbers but about the need that must be addressed. We estimate that there are about 11,000 people with post-traumatic stress disorder in Northern Ireland as a result of the troubles, and the current system is incapable of coping with that. We are having major problems with former police officers feeling the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder several years later. It is important to ensure that they get support and are provided with the care they need—and the same goes for our armed forces personnel. I take the correction that the hon. Member for North Durham has offered. Perhaps I am guilty of repeating something that has been said wrongly in the past, but the point can still be made that significant numbers of people suffer from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illnesses that are directly linked to their service, and we need to prioritise that issue and ensure that those veterans are provided with the support they undoubtedly need.
That brings me to the military covenant. In the motion, we call on the Government to honour the commitments they have made publicly about the military covenant, and I seek the Secretary of State’s clarification on this point. Following the general election, the Prime Minister, on a visit to HMS Ark Royal, said:
“Whether it’s the schools you send your children to, whether it’s the healthcare that you expect, whether it’s the fact that there should be a decent military ward for anyone who gets injured. I want all these things refreshed and renewed and written down in a new military covenant that’s written into the law of the land.”
I know that there is some concern about what is meant by enshrining the military covenant in law. We welcome that commitment and I know that it is widely welcomed, particularly among the veteran community.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that what is actually important to the veteran community is what they get rather than having the military covenant written into law? Would he prefer to see a no-disadvantage model of the military covenant, in which veterans get the same level of service as the rest of the population, or a citizen-plus model of the sort that endures in the United States, under which people are given more to reflect their service? That is the important point that the veteran community would like discussed.
I merely seek clarification of what is meant by enshrining this in law. Yesterday, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), the Prime Minister said:
“we are writing out the military covenant and properly referencing it in law.”—[Official Report, 2 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 296.]
We are anxious to ascertain what is meant by “properly referencing” the military covenant in law and what the Prime Minister meant by “enshrining” it. I accept the point that the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire has made, but I draw his attention to a letter, which has been circulated to Members of Parliament, from the director general of the Royal British Legion to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), who is here. The letter expresses concern about what is meant by the commitment to enshrine the military covenant in law, so there are some in the veteran community, represented by the Royal British Legion, who want clarification. I seek that clarification this afternoon on behalf of my colleagues and I hope that the Secretary of State will shed some light on this.
While we are involved in Afghanistan, the armed forces are at the forefront of people’s minds, but that will not be the case when things are quieter. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one point of enshrining the military covenant in law is to make sure that the armed forces are always looked after, so that we would not need to have this type of debate?
Indeed; I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. Our purpose in putting the motion before the House today even though there have already been debates on these issues, including one on the military covenant a few weeks ago, is to show that we think those debates should continue and that the House should not tire of discussing these issues until we get them right.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment and I accept the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire’s point that what we want in the end is delivery. We want to ensure that armed forces personnel, veterans and their families are provided with the care and support they need, but as there is already debate out there about what is meant by enshrining the military covenant in law, or by referencing it in law, we would like some clarity so we can put the issue to bed and get on with the job of writing the covenant and delivering the commitments that have been given by the Government to those who require that help and support.
I hope I can help the right hon. Gentleman. I served on the Select Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill and there was certainly some debate, which continues, on exactly what is meant by the terminology “armed forces covenant” and “enshrined in law”. The Royal British Legion has got this right. The Government have now enshrined it in the Bill and there is discussion about what that actually means. That is what this is all about.
It is interesting that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) is continuing the way he acted in Committee by supporting everything the Government do. The Opposition tabled an amendment in Committee to enshrine the covenant in law, but he and the Government voted against it.
Certainly, we and other hon. Members on both sides of the House want the military covenant to have a firm legal basis, so that all service personnel, their families and veterans are clear about their entitlement and so that it is protected by the law of the land. That is what we are seeking to achieve.
In addition, the resourcing of the covenant and putting in place the support services needed to deliver the commitments set out in the covenant are equally important. That should include adequate support for bereaved families, adequate treatment and care for injured service personnel, adequate welfare provision for the families of service personnel and, crucially, continuing care and support for veterans—those who have served this country so well in the past. I also include the need to ensure that personnel who are transitioning to civilian life at the end of their service are properly supported. That is a key element. Indeed, in the current context of redundancies, it is important that those matters are handled properly and sensitively. I welcome the commitments that the Secretary of State for Defence has given previously in the House to achieving those objectives.
We must emphasise the fact that we welcome what the Minister said in the House yesterday, as reported at column 309 of the Official Report, when he indicated that he would allow discussions between us and the chiefs of staff to ensure that the regional representatives can make a good case for those soldiers who will face redundancy and for those who will not. We welcome the opportunity to have those discussions at some length.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and endorse what he says.
We hear much about the big society. I warmly applaud the work of the military-linked charities, such as the Royal British Legion, which we have already mentioned, Help for Heroes, the Army Benevolent Fund, or the Soldiers Charity as it is known now, and Combat Stress—to name just a few of those that do some excellent work—and it is important that the military covenant seeks to bridge the gap between what the Government can provide and what the third sector can provide. There is an opportunity to show the big society at work, helping our armed forces and our veterans, and I hope that the Government will continue their discussions with those charities and others who work with services personnel and veterans, to ensure that a joined-up approach is taken.
Innovative thinking is also needed. I want to refer to a project that has considerable merit: the proposal that HMS Ark Royal should be brought to the Thames, close to London City airport, across from the dome and close to where the Olympics will take place next year, to provide accommodation for those who have served, perhaps through Homes 4 Heroes, and work for veterans. That is about the third sector joining up with the Government and using part of our military heritage to deliver something that is of benefit not just to the military community, but to the wider community in that part of London.
We must close the gap between the third sector, represented by the military charities, and what the Government can do, especially given the increasing numbers of wounded personnel returning to society. That figure will undoubtedly be compounded by a large number of redundant military personnel who will need to resettle in the community. Projects such as the Army recovery centres and the proposal to bring the Ark Royal to London are examples of the initiatives that we would like the Ministry of Defence to develop with the service charities. I am sure that the Secretary of State will look with interest at the proposal for the Ark Royal.
Indeed; I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments. He is right to highlight the work of that association, which goes back a long time and is much valued.
Working with the charities, building on the concept of the big society, is important. I talked about the joined-up approach, and I want to mention an example that is not joined up at the moment. At the moment, the Treasury requires military bands to charge the full rate to charities that seek to raise money to help our armed forces personnel. I have a recent example of that happening in Northern Ireland. We have one military band in Northern Ireland—the Territorial Army band of the Royal Irish Regiment—and it is made up of reservists. That is the only option that we have available in Northern Ireland if we want to use the services of a military band.
A number of charitable events organised by the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers Charity in Northern Ireland have been cancelled recently, because they would be charged £3,000 for the use of the Royal Irish Regiment band. Those events are therefore no longer viable, so there is a loss of revenue and income to the very charities that we want to encourage to work with the Government to do more to help our service personnel and veterans. The Government could address that lack of a joined-up approach. I hope that we can revert to the situation where a reduced charge is made to use military bands for the purpose of raising money for charities that directly benefit our armed forces personnel and veterans. That was the position that prevailed before, and I hope that it will prevail again in the future.
Not only do charities need to be assisted to raise money by using military bands, but the Royal Irish band, which is popular in Northern Ireland, is an excellent recruitment tool and helps to promote the Army in the community. We have had difficulties in the past with community engagement because of the sensitivities in Northern Ireland, and the band is getting to places that it has not been able to get to before. What do we do when we are making that progress? We up the charge, and the number of events in which the band can participate is reduced. Its ability to assist military charities to raise much-needed funds is reduced. If the big society is to work, we need to address such issues.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, and I am sure that the Secretary of State is listening carefully to what has been said on the subject. If he has never benefited from the music of the Royal Irish Regiment band, I suggest that he find an opportunity to do so; “Killaloe”, in particular, is a very popular choice back home.
As I bring my remarks to a close, I want to touch on just one other subject: pensions for our armed forces personnel. My hon. Friends and I are concerned about the proposal to link pensions to the consumer prices index, rather than the retail prices index. That proposal will have an enormous impact on the former service personnel who rely on their armed forces pensions in retirement. It will result in their pension entitlement being reduced significantly during their years in retirement. We ask the Government to look again at what they are doing on the issue.
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Changing the inflation link by using the CPI will reduce pensions over the long term. It could cost people tens of thousands of pounds in income. It is particularly invidious given that the CPI does not take proper account of housing costs, which are a vital element for veterans and ex-service personnel, so I entirely endorse what he says and hope that the Secretary of State will take that on board.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that comment.
I would like to make another point that has been raised before in the House and is the subject of early-day motion 484: the question of the rank that a soldier holds at the time of his death and the impact on the pension paid to his family and surviving spouse. There is a rule that pensions on promotion are payable only after a new rank has been held for a year, which means that the families of some of our armed forces personnel who have been killed on active service have received a pension below the level that is consistent with the rank held at the time of death. I am thinking, in particular, of the case of Sergeant Matthew Telford from Grimsby, who was promoted to the rank of sergeant in June 2009 and killed that November. His family were paid a pension below the level that would have been payable to that rank.
In such cases, we have instructed that compensation should be paid to increase the pension to the same financial level. The Government intend to change the law so that in future it will be much clearer that pensions should be paid at the level of the acting rank at the time any member of the armed forces is unfortunately killed. I think that that is what the country would expect us to do in order to be fair.
I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s comments and the fact that the Government are committed to dealing with the problem, in the short term through the payment of compensation and in the longer term by changing legislation. That will be widely welcomed within the armed forces community.
I want to mention briefly the pensions payable to Gurkhas. The Secretary of State will be aware of the campaign that the Gurkhas have been pursuing on the level of pension they are paid. I recently met some of their representatives, who told me that there are 10,000 former Gurkhas in Nepal living in poverty—their figures, not mine—and that although those Gurkhas who live in the UK qualify for pension credit, that costs more than would a proper pension. If we are subsidising their pensions with pension credit, why not just pay them an equal pension? I hope that the Secretary of State and his colleagues will look at that. The Gurkhas have made an enormous and valiant contribution to our armed forced over the years. I know that improvements have been made in the level of welfare and support that they receive, but I hope that the Government will seek to address this issue.
I welcome the opportunity to have this debate. We stand ready to support the Government in taking forward the military covenant and want to see them honour all the commitments they have made. I look forward to hearing what the Secretary of State has to say.
The Government support the terms of the motion on the Order Paper and will support it in the Lobby if necessary, which should give some comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). The debate gives us another opportunity to express our support for those who have given, and continue to give, so much to this nation in service and sacrifice.
I would like to pay tribute to Lance Corporal Liam Tasker from 104 Military Working Dog Support Unit, the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, who was killed in action on Tuesday 1 March while on patrol attached to 1st Battalion the Irish Guards. He and his working dog, Theo, who also died, undoubtedly saved the lives of many—military and civilian—by their tireless efforts to find improvised explosive devices.
As the motion has been tabled by the Democratic Unionist party, I also want to pay particular tribute to those men and women from the Province who have served their country around the world with great distinction. As we hold this debate, the Royal Irish are making an enormous contribution to our efforts in Afghanistan, and paying a high price.
The men and women of our armed forces are volunteers. That is what makes their bravery and selfless service so special. They choose to serve, but they do not choose where that service will take them. Whether in Afghanistan, north Africa, as in recent days, or on other current operations around the world, they apply their considerable skills in the national interest to keep the citizens of this country safe. They do not serve for an easy life; they risk life and limb on our behalf, and they sacrifice some of the freedoms that many of us take for granted.
Their families also play a vital role in supporting their loved ones and must deal with some of the hardships of service life. The whole nation, not just the Government, has a moral obligation to those who serve in our armed forces, past and present, and their families. We owe them our gratitude and respect. But we owe them more than kind words; we owe it to them to make sure that they are treated fairly and receive the support they need.
There is no doubt about the general desire in this country to improve and develop the military covenant, the timeless bond between the whole nation and the armed forces. It encompasses those of all ages and social groups in all parts of the UK, those with different politics and those with none at all. On behalf of the Government, we placed at the heart of our programme for government our commitment to rebuild the military covenant. For the first time, a tri-service armed forces covenant is being drafted after wide consultation and is being recognised as existing in the law of the land. We are taking steps to ensure that we will make a real difference to the lives of serving personnel, their families and veterans by putting in place the practical help, which is how that covenant will be judged. In the nine months that we have been in office, we are well on the way to delivering on our commitment, and I will set out some of that progress today.
But let me also be clear about the challenge we face, because we must be balanced and realistic in our aspirations. In the difficult economic circumstances that the coalition inherited, with all parts of society having to make sacrifices, repairing the covenant will not be easy or straightforward. The previous Government left us not only a record national debt that is increasing day in, day out because of the deficit, but a hole in the defence budget itself. However, because of the priority we place on security, the defence budget is making a more modest contribution to deficit reduction than almost all other Departments.
We have still had to take difficult decisions in the comprehensive spending review and the strategic defence and security review that will have repercussions for some members of the armed forces and their families. These include, for instance, decisions on pay and allowances and, as we discussed in the House yesterday, the decisions to reduce the size of the armed forces establishment. I regret that we have had to take some of these measures, just as I regret the need to cut the defence budget as a whole and some of the measures that we are having to take across Government to pull the nation back from the brink of bankruptcy.
The previous Government’s disastrous economic legacy means that there is simply not the money and flexibility to do all that we would like to do as quickly as we would like to do it, but where we can act early to repair the covenant we are doing so. In our nine months in office we have already made great strides in improving the conditions for those who serve on the front line. One of the first actions taken by the new Government was the doubling of the operational allowance that had been paid under the previous Government to over £5,000 for a typical six-month tour. We have changed the rules on rest and recuperation so that any days of leave lost due to delays in the air bridge or any other operational requirements will be added to post-tour leave.
We will provide university and further education scholarships, from the academic year that began in September 2010, to the children of members of the armed forces who have been killed since 1990. We have included 36,000 service children as part of the pupil premium, recognising the uniqueness of service life and its effect on service children and service communities. Because the unseen mental wounds of war have too often gone undiagnosed and untreated, and because the pace and nature of operations over the last decade mean that more could be suffering in silence, we have made mental health care a key priority. We have committed an extra £20 million in the SDSR for health care and are pressing ahead with implementing the recommendations made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison).
The Department of Health is commissioning 30 whole-time equivalent veterans mental health professionals to deliver improved NHS mental health services to veterans, including introducing structured mental health surveillance inquiries to routine service medical examinations and to all discharge medicals. They will work under the direction of the armed forces networks and forge links with health and other statutory agencies and with the voluntary sector.
On the subject of those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with emotional problems and trauma, it is all very well to have a system in place, but is there a monitoring system so that someone can follow up on a person who is at home on their own and who sometimes faces all that trauma and horror on their own?
Indeed. As I say, those professionals will work under the direction of the armed forces networks and forge links with health and other statutory agencies and with the voluntary sector. I was going on to say that they will also undertake outreach work to identify cases and refer individuals to veterans organisations and to other professionals. In addition, a new 24-hour veterans mental health helpline is now being switched on and will be formally launched later this month.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct, because the safety net will not be of full value unless people know how to access it. That means advertising what is available, ensuring that there are joined-up networks throughout government and that, at the point of discharge from the armed forces and later on through outreach work, we are able to look at those who are most at risk.
The previous Government and the American Government have done a great deal of work on how to identify individuals who are at risk, and that is an ongoing scientific project. Western Governments in general are trying to grasp the issue to see whether they can clearly find those who might be at higher risk and put in place additional checks to follow them through the system. As that information becomes available, the Government will take it forward.
I thank the Secretary of State for his comments, and for his action on mental health support. Organisations such as the one I mentioned, the national Gulf Veterans and families association, which is based in east Yorkshire, will welcome that news, but will he confirm what I think he is saying, which is that that service will be provided not just for recent veterans but for veterans of older conflicts, and that the Department will work as hard as possible to identify such people, many of whom are difficult to identify?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and that is the exact aim behind what the Government are doing. As more evidence comes to light about how we can follow up on people who might be at higher risk, we might stop people falling through the net that is meant to be there to protect them. When we look at the issues of homelessness, the prison population and so on, we need to ensure that we make available the appropriate care at the time that it is needed in the cycle, so that we can obtain the best outcomes for service veterans.
I agree wholeheartedly that the after-care service needs to be upped; that is important. The health service in Scotland is devolved, however, so will the right hon. Gentleman take care to ensure that there is no disconnect between the MOD, the devolved Parliaments and the health service?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The armed forces represent the whole United Kingdom, and it would be a dereliction of duty if we did not ensure that the same service were available throughout the United Kingdom. It is therefore incumbent on the devolved Administrations to work with the Government to ensure that those mechanisms are put in place. My colleagues and I will certainly take opportunities to talk to the devolved Governments, as we do, and on that issue we will want to be as close to uniformity as possible, given of course their freedoms to put different mechanisms in place. He makes a very good point, however, and I shall ensure that I reinforce it when I next meet the devolved bodies.
As I said, we are about to launch formally the new 24-hour veterans mental health helpline, which will be operated by the Rethink charity on behalf of Combat Stress and funded by the Department of Health. We believe that it will help to tackle one of the most difficult aspects of mental health care by creating an environment where those who fear that they are suffering from mental problems can get in touch with someone who understands not only the problems themselves, but the stigma that some veterans still feel is attached to coming forward. This goes back to the point that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made. We have to ensure that there are services, and that those who need them are willing and able to access them, because that is what ultimately determines the outcome. Such initiatives show how we are working effectively with other agencies—whether Government or charities—to provide the services that people need.
The role of service personnel families is not always so visible, but it too is crucial to our defence effort. Service families bear a lot of the pressure. From the five years that I worked as a doctor with service families, I know the pressure that they can be under, and it is often invisible to those outside the armed forces. They share the burden of frequent moves, sometimes at short notice, with disruption to careers and to children’s education. They often share the experience of service accommodation, and when their loved one is away on operational service, sometimes in dangerous circumstances, they in particular deserve our understanding and support, given their vital role in ensuring that our operations are a success.
Families not only need our understanding and support, but decent houses in which to live. Does the Secretary of State agree that the quality of some family housing is not acceptable, and that it is one area in which the Government have to find the money? If we are to send soldiers to put their lives on the line in Afghanistan, the least we can do is ensure that their families back home have decent accommodation.
My hon. Friend makes a useful point, which I shall come to in a moment.
The wide range of welfare support for families is being expanded. As set out in the defence and security review, the Ministry of Defence is starting work on developing options for a new employment model. Its aim is to provide an overall package, including career structure, pay, allowances and accommodation policies, that offers greater domestic stability, helping spouses to pursue their own careers and supporting children’s education, while still allowing for mobility when it is essential to defence requirements.
We would dearly like to do more, for example on improving service family accommodation, which my hon. Friend mentions and we know to be one of the greatest concerns to service families. About £61.6 million has been allocated in the current financial year for the upgrade of, and the improvement programmes for, service accommodation. That will include upgrading some 800 service family homes to the top standard, with a further 4,000 properties benefiting from other improvements such as new kitchens, bathrooms, double glazing and so on.
It would be dishonest of me, however, if I were not to say that we must recognise that we cannot go as far or as fast as we would like to, given the economic situation that we have inherited, but we can and will do what we can, when we can.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way on the important issue of housing. On a related issue, service personnel ultimately could be made redundant and return to the private sector, putting pressure on the private sector housing market. People might then want to get on to the Housing Executive’s list in Northern Ireland. Could some effort be made to ensure that former Army personnel are entitled to additional points, so that they can obtain public housing? It is crucial to ensure that our military personnel are not turned down or moved down the list when they should be entitled to public housing.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very compelling point, with which I have some strong personal sympathy. I shall take the issue back and have it looked at on a cross-government basis to see whether it is indeed possible to make the general change that he mentions. If there is a specific problem relating to Northern Ireland, I am very willing to talk to Members about it to see whether there needs to be anything specific to Northern Ireland in any changes that might be made. He makes a good, valid and reasonable point that will probably get fairly widespread support across the country as a whole.
Another part of the UK’s defence capability, and thus the armed forces community, is our reserve forces. The Ministry of Defence is responsible for ensuring that reservists are treated fairly and with respect, and that they are valued. In the drafting of the armed forces covenant, reserves have been considered equally alongside regulars. That will set the tone for Government policy aimed at improving the support available for serving and former members of the armed forces, and the families who carry so much of the burden, especially, as we remember today, in the event of injury or death.
Rebuilding the military covenant is not just a matter for the Ministry of Defence. Supporting the men and women of our armed forces, during and after their service, is very much the business of the whole Government—and indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said, of the whole of our society. The measures that I have described show how my colleagues the Secretaries of State for Health, for Education and for Business, Innovation and Skills—to name but three—are fully engaged in this wider endeavour. The devolved Administrations, local authorities, and even individual GPs all have an important role to play. The public sector does not do all the work; the service and ex-service charities are, rightly, also part of that network of support that the former service person has a right to expect.
We need to ensure that progress is made year on year. That is why we have brought forward measures in the Armed Forces Bill requiring the Defence Secretary to present an armed forces covenant report to Parliament every year. I hope to deliver the first of those reports in the autumn. It will not simply be about the relationship between the Government and the armed forces but, as I have set out, a wider picture of how the covenant is being respected across the whole of our society, including, as has been pointed out in this debate already, the charitable sector, which has a role to play. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) asked about that specific element. We have decided that a tri-service covenant should be developed along with the armed forces, the charitable sector and interested parties, including veterans, and that the Secretary of State will be answerable for how that is put into practice.
There is a genuine debate to be had about other ways of doing this, and it is fair that we consider those today. Some believe that we should have definable rights, enshrined in law; if so, they should make that clear. However, when rights are defined in law, they become justiciable. There are potentially complex and expensive legal implications for that, right up to interpretations by the European Court; Members would not expect me to go into private grief on that particular subject. If one were to apply rights in law, one would need to consider, given that the military covenant is not delivered only by Government, the implications for the charitable sector in terms of its legal obligations for delivery.
It is a complex argument, and there are perfectly reasonable points of view to be expressed on either side. The Government have decided that the best way to ensure that this is recognised in law is to develop the tri-service covenant and for the Secretary of State to make a statement so that Parliament as a whole can assess how it is being delivered. Ultimately, although we in this House will have a lot of debate about process, what matters is outcome and whether service personnel and veterans are getting an improvement in what society as a whole has promised to deliver, and wants to deliver, to them.
I welcome the support in this House for members of the armed forces community. That is why the Government support this motion, just as I hope the House supports the positive measures we are taking. The coalition Government will continue to rebuild the armed forces covenant. I wish we could go faster, but we will go as fast as we can.
May I begin by associating myself and my party with the remarks of the Secretary of State about Liam Tasker? The work that he was doing was vital not only in securing and supporting his colleagues and comrades but in bringing peace to Afghanistan. We should think today of his bravery and the sacrifice that he has made, and also think of his family and his comrades who have been left behind.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) on securing this debate. As the Secretary of State said, when I was at the Ministry of Defence, I had the honour of visiting Northern Ireland on a number of occasions. I concur with his view about the contribution that people from Northern Ireland make—not only servicemen and women but their families— in supporting our armed forces and making the valiant contribution that they are making today in Afghanistan.
Our commitment to the men and women of our armed forces is non-negotiable. As Veterans Minister, I was always very proud of the support that the British people gave to our servicemen and women and their families, recognising their courage, skill and dedication. We must do our best not only to honour them when they make the ultimate sacrifice but to support them while they are in service and throughout life.
I should like briefly to touch on what the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley said about the previous Government’s commitment to this issue and the contribution that we made to supporting not only our servicemen and women but their families. The Command Paper to which he rightly referred was a groundbreaking piece of work initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) when he was Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence. For the first time, it looked across Government and got different Departments working together. The Command Paper had two fundamental principles: first, to recognise and end the disadvantages created by military-style life—for example, where being moved meant losing one’s place on waiting or housing lists—and secondly, to recognise that at all times it is right and necessary to provide special treatment, whether in removing disadvantage or in recognising the sacrifice made by those who have been seriously injured in the service of their country.
That piece of work was a landmark document. It did not just gather dust; it was implemented through working across Government and, for the first time, getting other Government Departments thinking about veterans and servicemen and women and their families when they were developing policies. I hope that it has left a good foundation for the coalition Government to build on. I put on record my thanks to the Royal British Legion for its campaign and the work that it continues to do not only in highlighting our debt to our servicemen and women and their families but in ensuring that all politicians recognise that debt.
When we published the Command Paper, we were criticised in certain quarters for trying to ensure that we honoured the covenant. Unlike some Conservative politicians who were happy to take pot shots at us when we were in government, I never believed that the covenant was broken; rather, it was something that we were able to build on through the Command Paper. We did much to be proud of, in which I was directly involved, in improving the lot of servicemen and women and veterans.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) mentioned service accommodation. When I was a Minister, he was always knocking on my door to advocate and lobby for improved accommodation in Colchester. We made some great strides in improving accommodation, although that was made very difficult by the decision taken in 1996 by the previous Conservative Government to sell off Army housing to a Japanese bank.
The hon. Gentleman is right to refer the House to the disgraceful privatisation involving Annington Homes. Does he agree that every pound of public money that is spent on improving the housing stock increases the value of that property to Annington Homes?
It is on the record that that was a lousy deal for taxpayers, our servicemen and women, and their families. The important point is that we invested in new housing. In some cases, it was difficult to negotiate around the Annington Homes deal because of how it was structured.
The new single living accommodation that has been put in place through SLAM—the single living accommodation modernisation project—is some of the best anywhere in the world in terms of quality. The millions of pounds that we spent to improve service accommodation were recognised in 2009 by the National Audit Office, which stated that 90% of service families’ accommodation were in the top two of four standards for condition and met the Government’s decent homes standard. I accept that there is still accommodation that is not acceptable, and that sometimes the way in which service families were treated was wrong. Sometimes they were treated as though they were in the Army as well. On occasions, we did not get that right and did not recognise that the families should be looked at as customers, rather than as simply part of their partner’s employment conditions.
Health care is another area that the previous Government can be proud of. The new Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham has dedicated military wards, and we put money into Headley Court to provide first-rate and world-beating rehabilitation for those who are severely injured in the service of their country. One of the things that I am most proud of from my time as a Minister is the Army recovery capability project, and I am pleased that the Government are following through on that. We owe a debt to the severely injured. We must not forget them when the headlines go away, but must have a long-term commitment to them.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned our debt and said that we must not forget. Will he recognise an area of support for the armed forces that has not been mentioned, which is remembering those who have fallen? Will he join me in welcoming the recent decision of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) to recommend to the Sentencing Guidelines Council that the desecration of war memorials should be considered as an aggravating factor, to reflect the seriousness of such offences?
I do welcome that announcement. As a commissioner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I think that it is very important that anybody who desecrates such monuments, whether or not they are Commonwealth War Graves Commission monuments, should be dealt with severely. The disgraceful scenes that we have seen of people desecrating war memorials are totally unacceptable and should be condemned.
In the “National Recognition of our Armed Forces” study, Lord Davies of Stamford, the former Member for Grantham and Stamford, stated that if those who wear the Queen’s uniform are insulted, that crime should be subject to special sentencing. Does the hon. Gentleman still hold to that?
It is totally unacceptable for anyone to be disrespectful to anybody in uniform, whether they are a member of our armed forces or of any other service that works on our behalf, such as the police or fire services. If the hon. Gentleman wants to put forward that policy now that his party is in government, I am sure that it will be supported by Opposition Members.
Another aspect of health that we must refer to is mental health, and I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) in that area. In government, we made great strides with the mental health pilots and the medical assessment programme at St Thomas’s hospital under Ian Palmer, which was there to provide support to all veterans, including Gulf war veterans, who were mentioned by the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) who is no longer in his place. I support anything that improves mental health services. The Command Paper did that by allowing us to work with the health service to ensure that mainstream mental health services reflect the needs of veterans.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that veterans, particularly those who have served in recent conflicts and particularly those who suffer from mental health problems, are not well served in northern England and frequently have to travel some distance. I hope that we can have an all-party approach to reaching a better conclusion on those treatments.
I am surprised that the hon. Lady says that, because one of the mental health pilots was in the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust, which covers my constituency in Durham and hers. That pilot was specifically about ensuring that local services such as mental health nursing recognised the needs of veterans. I am not sure where the Government have got to in that work, but anything that can be done to roll it out should be done. I agree with her that services need to be local. If possible, people should not have to travel long distance to access them.
I know that the new veterans Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), agrees that when we are debating mental health issues relating to veterans, we should not lose sight of the fact that although post-traumatic stress disorder is a personal tragedy for every individual who suffers from it and for their families, it affects a small proportion of the population—something like 4%. Other areas, such as depression and alcohol abuse, need the same concentration and support. We need to focus the media portrayal of this issue back on to those other areas, and not just label everything as PTSD.
The previous Government can also be proud of doubling the compensation paid to injured servicemen and women. No amount of monetary compensation can repay the sacrifice of the veterans with horrific wounds whom I have met. However, we helped by doubling the amount and by ensuring that, for the first time, such people received lump-sum payments. Before the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004, they did not get lump-sum payments, although if one read the newspapers of the time, one would have thought that they had always existed. I put on the record my thanks to Lord Boyce, who did a valuable job in fine-tuning the compensation scheme and bringing it up to date. I know that the Government are committed to implementing his recommendations.
Service charities are also important, as has been recognised by the Secretary of State and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley. The Royal British Legion has been mentioned, as have the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and the Army Benevolent Fund. Those organisations are not just about fundraising, but contain a vital network of unpaid volunteers who, week in, week out, go into veterans’ homes to support them. I thank those volunteers for the work that they do. Combat Stress does a vital job in ensuring that individuals who suffer from mental illness access the support that they require. We need to ensure that there is better co-ordination in the charities sector. That is happening through some of the initiatives that I implemented, and it is being followed through to ensure that there is no duplication. I stress from the Dispatch Box that what we need is not new service charities, but for existing charities to work closer together, which they are, to ensure that the support is there.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in allowing interventions. May I counsel caution? Many micro-charities are spontaneous and very British, if I may put it in that way. They reflect the public’s desire to do something immediately. Often, they are part of the grieving process. I therefore urge caution about laying into such small charities.
I take that point on board, but the best thing to do would be to focus fundraising efforts on the existing charities. The Royal Navy is rationalising its smaller charities. That is not being done to denigrate their work, because some of them do key specific work, but it is important that there is better co-ordination between them.
I believe the Confederation of British Service and Ex-service Organisations is working with the Veterans Minister to consider how we can get better co-ordination between those charities, which will be very important, especially when the clientele of some of the smaller charities pass away over the next few years. I am thinking, for example, of the Association of Wrens, which I believe has an end-date by which it will wind itself up and merge with other naval service charities. I put on record again my thanks to the individuals involved in such charities.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley mentioned the covenant, which it is important to consider. The previous Government were quite clear in our Command Paper about where our work on that would go next, and the Green Paper that I produced in 2008 considered ways of embedding in law the covenant and other matters covered in the Command Paper. I am sad that the Government are not following through on that work, and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister’s commitment on the deck of the Ark Royal is in sharp contrast with what has happened in practice.
The opportunity provided by the Armed Forces Bill is being missed, because the covenant is not being enshrined in law. Members have mentioned the Royal British Legion, which clearly feels let down. It saddened me that when I tabled an amendment to the Bill in Committee a few weeks ago, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voted against it. That was a missed opportunity, and we need to revisit the matter.
This has been a very open debate so far. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain to me whether, in his eyes, putting the military covenant into law means creating specific, definable rights for certain members of society. Will he give us an example of what sort of rights those might be, and what legal advice the Opposition have been given about the justiciability of such rights?
If the Secretary of State has looked at our Green Paper, he will have seen what I was proposing. I agree that we should not create a feast for lawyers, but we wanted to ensure, for example, priority access in the health service, which we believed could be legally enforceable. My recent amendment suggested that the local government ombudsman should be responsible, as was suggested in the Green Paper. I accept that there is resistance to that, not from the Ministry of Defence but from other Departments. However, people ask whether veterans should get special treatment, and, in my opinion, they should.
It might help if I say that in my local authority area veterans get priority in housing. We have the Glencorse barracks in my area, and people coming out of the armed forces have always gone to the top of the list. That is enshrined in the rules. Such a provision in law could make every local authority comply with that arrangement. They do not all do it at the moment.
I am aware of that, and I know that other local authorities including Wigan have changed their housing policies to do exactly the same thing. The Prime Minister made a clear commitment to enshrining that in law, as the quotation that we have heard this afternoon shows. The Armed Forces Bill does not do that, and if the Government are rethinking ways of doing it, they will certainly have the Opposition’s support and assistance.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for it. There is a strong case to be made that it is a national issue. When a soldier comes out of the Army, they should be able to settle in public housing somewhere with their family and expect something in return for the service that they have given this nation. It is a very small ask, and we should insist on it.
I totally agree. The danger with the system outlined in the Bill is that the Secretary of State will produce a report without any independent input. As I said in Committee, I do not question for one minute the Secretary of State’s integrity or his intention to ensure that everything that should be in the report is in it, but a future Secretary of State could decide that certain matters should not be. That is a missed opportunity, and I hope that when the Bill goes to the other place it will be amended to ensure that the covenant is enshrined in law.
The hon. Gentleman chunters on about that, and I know he is doing his best to support the Conservatives now—I believe he is known locally as Tory Bob these days. I found it remarkable that he was the only member of the Public Bill Committee who was doing the Government’s heavy lifting. It is important that we enshrine the covenant in law, and if the Government reconsider the matter they will certainly have our support.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley mentioned Gurkha pensions. As Members know, I have form on that matter. I wish to dispel some of the myths that continue to be portrayed in the newspapers and media about the equalisation of pensions. A Gurkha can retire after 15 years of service, so in some cases they retire on a full pension at about 35 years of age, or even younger. If pensions were equalised, most Gurkhas would not gain anything at all, because their UK counterparts cannot access their pension until they are 60. Backdating would mean their getting not just equalised pensions but actually better terms and conditions than other servicemen and women in some cases. Before 1975, service people got no pension whatever unless they had 22 years’ service. It is important that the facts are examined in detail.
Perhaps it might be of interest to my hon. Friend to hear that recently some Gurkha campaigners have been writing to the Defence Committee complaining that although the Government parties used a lot of rhetoric in opposition, the great promises that they made have been abandoned since the formation of the Government. The campaigners feel let down.
I have friends on the Government Benches, and I know that even when they were in opposition some of them privately agreed with my position and that of the Government at the time. Clearly, in the hubris of the campaign, opportunistic Liberal Democrats got carried away. Unfortunately, Gurkhas and their families are now feeling the consequences. The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), will have to answer questions about that.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley said that 10,000 Gurkhas are living in poverty. There are two separate types of Gurkha pensioner—welfare pensioners, who do not accept pensions, and service pensioners. When I visited Nepal, I saw that service pensioners are some of the wealthiest individuals in their local communities. Although they have a pension of only about £170 a month, that is equivalent to the income of an engineer or a junior doctor, so people need to examine the facts. Welfare pensioners are supported very ably by the Gurkha Welfare Trust and the Ministry of Defence, both financially and through logistical support on health and education.
Once again, I welcome the debate. Our brave servicemen and women are serving around the world, and we have a debt to them not just now but for years to come. It is right that they have had a lot of attention and recognition while they have been serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) said earlier, it is important that in future years, when the spotlight has perhaps moved elsewhere, we do not forget our debt to them. I will work with anybody who wants to ensure that servicemen and women, particularly those who have suffered mental injury or serious injury, are not forgotten when they are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. We cannot shy away from our debt to them, no matter what happens economically or in any other way.
I want to talk about what the military covenant really means. Obviously, it is a contract between the state and individuals who put on uniform in its service, but what does the state require of our servicemen and women? Let us be quite clear. When required, the state directs those who are in the armed forces to obey orders and advance against the enemy, even when there is a high chance of their being killed. They are not allowed to debate the matter, and they are under compulsion. If they refuse, they may be court-martialled—in the past, they may even have been shot or ended up on a gibbet.
May I remind hon. Members of my hero, Wing Commander Guy Gibson? On the night of 16 May 1943, 19 specially modified Lancasters from 617 Squadron, led by Guy Gibson, attacked the three dams in the Ruhr on Operation Chastise. They did so from 60 feet, at 220 mph, in darkness and against considerable Nazi opposition. Of those 19 Lancasters, eight were lost, and 56 RAF personnel were killed. Along with Gibson, who won the Victoria cross, 32 airmen received decorations.
Not one of those 56 men wanted to die, and I suspect that very few—if any—wanted to get into the aircraft that night in May 1943. Any man or woman who has been in combat would be the very last person to say that they were not frightened sick when it happened, but the state required Guy Gibson and his gallant men to overcome their natural instincts, move their feet, which must have felt like lead, and get into those aircraft and fly. They knew that their chances of survival were not great—42% of them lost their lives—but they did what was required by the state.
My old battalion, 1st Battalion the Cheshire Regiment, which is now called 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment, returned from Afghanistan last autumn. Its casualty rate was pretty horrific: 12 dead and nearly 100 wounded, and seven triple amputees now have two legs between them. In the front sections of an infantry battalion in Afghanistan, the chances of being killed or wounded are 25% to 30%—I am talking about the people who do the business of our military in Afghanistan at the front.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) might not be allowed technically to be my friend in this Chamber, but he is certainly my friend when we are outside. He reminded the House of the Ballykelly bomb on 6 December 1982, when I was a company commander, but may I remind the House that 35 soldiers under my command were wounded, as well as civilians? They too remain our responsibility—I feel that acutely.
Like all right hon. and hon. Members, I am extremely impressed and moved by what my hon. Friend is saying. However, it is not the state alone—meaning the governors of the state—that required sacrifices either in the second world war or in Afghanistan; it is the people of the United Kingdom as a whole. That is why the military covenant exists not only between the state and the armed forces, but between the whole nation and the armed forces.
I certainly accept my right hon. Friend’s endorsement. Our nation requires our armed forces to do things that they would not normally do as civilians.
Sometimes, our front-line soldiers in Afghanistan chuck up as they load their weapons. I understand that, having been semi-paralysed with fear myself on occasions, and most certainly on front lines in Bosnia. I suspect that that feeling of paralysis and hopelessness was also felt by the dambuster squadron as they climbed into their Lancasters. However, that is the nation’s requirement of our servicemen and servicewomen. To me, it is pretty stark—it is the ultimate uncompromising requirement—but what should our service personnel get back? The state has always had a clear duty to look after service personnel or personnel who are killed or wounded in its service. That duty may not have been fulfilled in the past, and sometimes, even if it was, it was not done very well, but the requirement has always existed.
Early formal recognition of that duty was the establishment by Charles II of the Royal hospital in Chelsea in 1681. Today, we think of Chelsea pensioners as magnificent old soldiers in red coats—the boys of the old brigade—but that hospital was established specifically to look after wounded soldiers regardless of their age. By March 1692, the 476 so-called in-pensioners were mainly the wounded, not necessarily the old. The state—or the nation, if the Secretary of State will forgive me—has recognised its side of the bargain for a long time, which obviously continues to this day.
The military covenant is now widely recognised as a term that refers to the mutual obligation between the people—I am being careful now—and its armed forces. It was possibly first officially coined in an MOD pamphlet entitled, “Soldiering: the Military Covenant”, which I first saw in April 2000.
The covenant covers a lot of ground, some of which we have debated today, but in essence it fundamentally means that service personnel should be treated fairly and properly. I want to concentrate on what happens if a serviceman or servicewoman is killed or hurt, rather than on the softer aspects of the covenant. I know I speak for the House when I say that we want nothing but the best for those personnel, but let me emphasise what I consider to be our nation’s duty to those who are killed or wounded in its service.
First, on those who make the ultimate sacrifice, the mortal remains of our service personnel who are killed must be treated with the greatest dignity and respect, which I think they are. Our system is now fully supportive of grieving relatives, which includes helping, if required, with funerals as sensitively as possible.
We are also getting better at looking after families when the funeral is over. Service widows and families must have proper financial provision and guidance for as long as they need it thereafter. That also extends to the children. I am very pleased that the Secretary of State has emphasised the setting up of an educational scheme and the attempt to look carefully at how families are looked after, but we have to keep on top of this, because as time goes by we tend to forget.
Secondly, I want to talk about the wounded. The ratio of killed to wounded on service in Afghanistan—this is based on my old battalion—was about one dead to nearly 10 wounded. I am told that the Americans’ figure is higher. That is an incredible improvement since the days when I first put on the uniform in 1967. When I was at the Royal Military Academy, I was taught that when planning a military operation, we should expect about one person to be killed for every three wounded—survival rates were not great. That was the case right the way through the early years in Northern Ireland, but now we have a much better survival rate. The ratio of dead to wounded now is—let us not be exact—one in 10 or 11. The precise figure does not matter; what matters is that we are recovering people from near-death experiences and getting them off the battlefield properly.
Tremendous advances have been made in keeping our wounded alive. That was a great achievement of the previous Government, some of whose members who helped to engineer it are here. We can blame the previous Government for many things, but on the medical front I take my hat off to them. The way in which we deal with our casualties is terribly important. It is also important when they take their uniforms off. That is something else we have to keep an eye on—they have to be looked after for the rest of their lives.
I am especially interested in the long-term care of the disabled. I accept that the NHS has responsibility and does its best, but that system still requires attention and help. I understand and accept now—with some emotional reluctance, I have to say—that the days of exclusive service hospitals are over. Our war disabled require the very best care until the end of their days, and I, for one, will spend all my time in the House doing my best to improve the long-term care of our wounded.
I will stop there. I am very grateful to the House authorities and the Democratic Unionist party for continuing to bring the matter of the military covenant before the House. It is a matter very dear to my heart. However, looking around the Chamber, I can see that I am certainly not alone; I know that there is tremendous support for it on both sides. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak.
I will be very brief. It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who made a very emotional speech. I pay tribute to him for his service to his country, especially for his time in Northern Ireland. He has a great reputation, and we appreciate all his help. In commenting on my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), he said that technically he was not allowed to be our friend. May I enlighten the hon. Gentleman? Contrary to rumour, we have a lot of friends on both sides of the House. It might not seem like it at times, but we do have quite a number of friends. In any event, it is a privilege to follow him.
I believe that the United Kingdom’s armed forces are the best in the world. They have served this nation well at times of crisis and conflict, from the battlefields of Europe, Africa and the far east, including in the two world wars, the Falklands and the Balkans. From Iraq to Afghanistan, their bravery and sacrifice have been demonstrated daily. I can speak of the key role played by our armed services in defending the Province of Northern Ireland against terrorism. Some of us on this side of the House and on these Benches have lost family who served in the Crown forces in Northern Ireland during the serious times of the troubles. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members of the House will acknowledge that, when it comes to the donning of the uniform of the Crown forces, the young men and women of Northern Ireland have never been found wanting. They have served their country as members and a part of the United Kingdom, and many of them, like many here on the mainland, have made the supreme sacrifice.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is correct. I think that the history books have outlined that fact very well. As members and a part of the United Kingdom, and as British citizens, many of our young people have made that sacrifice. There are young men and women from my constituency currently on duty in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, one brave Gurkha officer from my constituency, Mr Neal Turkington, lost his life in the middle of last year. We pay tribute to families who have lost loved ones. Our armed services have served this nation well. Although they have served us well, unfortunately they have not always been served well by Governments.
There are a number of issues that we need to tackle. Veterans need help when they return to civilian life. A number of the points I am going to make have already been mentioned, but they are important and I will be very brief in making them. As I have said, I believe that veterans and people who have served their country need help when they return to civilian life. On 16 February, the Secretary of State said:
“It takes time to turn a civilian into a soldier, so we should take time to turn a soldier into a civilian. Our resettlement programme helps service leavers to navigate civilian life; everything from finding a job, to benefits, education and retraining.”—[Official Report, 16 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 1044.]
Those are fine intentions, but there are concerns that ought to be addressed. Hon. Members will be aware of the recent report in the Yorkshire Post dealing with domestic violence issues involving ex-military personnel who have left the service but have no prospect of employment. It is good that the Secretary of State announced today the 24-hour helpline. That is commendable. There is also the education scheme, and the British Legion in my constituency has invited me to Scotland to see some of the medical facilities and the care provided in that part of the United Kingdom. I am looking forward to that.
The report also says that the MOD’s full resettlement programme is not open to all personnel, so perhaps when the Minister responds he could give some more information on that. The report also points out that the type of work that people are trained in is often not the type of work available. We need to look at the assistance that can be given to veterans who have problems readjusting, or who find themselves out of work or in financial hardship. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) made about housing is a case in point. It is a valid point that should be taken a lot further. The idea that people can put their lives on the line on our behalf only to find that there is no work to turn to when they are in trouble, is totally unacceptable.
However—we come now to the thorny issue—we also need the Prime Minister to follow through on the pledge to enshrine the military covenant in law. I know he did not make that pledge lightly, but he made it on the decks of HMS Ark Royal. He could not have chosen a more symbolic place. If ever there was a pledge that should be kept, it is that one. Regrettably, however, the perception is that there now seems to be a drawing back from the pledge given by the Prime Minister. We were promised that the covenant would be enshrined in law, but what we got was merely an annual report on it, so we need to be careful.
I have listened carefully to the debate thus far. As I have said, we owe a debt of gratitude to all members of our armed forces. We need to get this right. If there are issues to do with enshrining the covenant in law, or other issues that need to be addressed, we need an open discussion and we need to get it right, because there would be nothing worse than an argument in this House among all the parties about a pledge that had been given, or about what will or will not be in the covenant, when our men and women are dying on the streets of Afghanistan and other countries. It is soul destroying for them to listen to the Government or Opposition, or whoever, discussing this issue. We are dealing with men and women’s lives and their treatment when they come home.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is something incongruous about giving such protections in law to, for example, the civil service and other parts of the public sector, such as the police, along with many other areas of professional life and public service of the kind that he describes, but not to the military?
Yes, I do agree. All should be treated equally, including those who are in other countries putting their lives on the line. I am not saying that others do not do that—police officers and others on the streets of London and elsewhere across Europe have laid down their lives—but there needs to be equality and fairness right across the board.
I will finish now, because I know that quite a few Members want to speak. The Royal British Legion has written to me about the covenant—my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley also raised this issue—and has expressed major concerns. I would encourage the Government to co-ordinate their work on the covenant, so that we can deal with our young men and women who are serving this country and putting their lives on the line. We understand that there are issues with the economy and perhaps legal issues with the covenant that need to be dealt with, but we owe those young men and women a great debt of gratitude. We need to get it right for them.
It is a great honour to represent the garrison town of Colchester. Some 3,500 troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade are currently deployed in Afghanistan. Yesterday, as the urgent question on armed forces redundancies was being debated in this Chamber, a military funeral was taking place at St Peter’s church in Colchester for Lance Corporal Kyle Marshall of 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment. He was 23 and engaged to be married on his return from Helmand province. We are very proud in Colchester of what we term our Colcestrians in khaki. There was civic representation both at the church and outside the town hall, as the centre of Colchester came to a halt. As the cortège stopped outside the town hall, there was a moment of silence and appreciation.
We are talking about today’s Army, and about those who will return and be tomorrow’s veterans. However, I would like briefly to share with the House a reference to Monty’s driver at El Alamein, Jim Fraser, a holder of the military medal and resident of Colchester, now in his 90s. An article on him appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times only last Saturday, saying:
“Jim Fraser was recognised for his courage in helping a seriously-wounded officer, and many times cheated death himself out in the deserts of Africa.”
He then became Monty’s driver. Indeed, Jim’s proud claim is that he was the man who persuaded Monty to wear the black beret. So we have veterans stretching right from the second world war to the present day. Jim joined the Army aged 17, on 5 November 1937 in what was then the Royal Tank Corps, and served for 22 years. He still makes it to Remembrance day in Colchester—he now has to be ferried in a world war two vehicle, which he quite enjoys—appearing with all his medals quite rightly displayed.
I served on the Armed Forces Bill Committee. The best thing that I can say is that there is a misunderstanding of emphasis. Everybody is agreed on what is required from the armed forces covenant, as it has been described. My view is that the covenant is best served by not being prescriptive or writing everything down, because events evolve. The way that we have presented the covenant is the best way. We should pay tribute to the Royal British Legion for putting the issue on the agenda and keeping it there. I am pretty confident that no Government or Secretary of State would dare come to the House with the annual report on the military covenant and try to hide something or gloss over it, because Members of Parliament in all parts of the House representing military constituencies would seize on anything untoward.
However, there are issues on which we need to keep pressing, one of which, as has been mentioned, is pensions. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) on moving the motion and his party on tabling it for today’s Opposition day debate. It is important that we keep mentioning our brave military personnel, who, as the Secretary of State pointed out, are all volunteers. I want to pay tribute not only to the Royal British Legion, but to the network of other military charities, big and small, which is a strength, not a weakness. When each regiment, battalion, naval unit or whatever has its own charity or welfare organisation, that gives them personal pride, while the big players such as the Royal British Legion can, in a way, provide an umbrella. Alongside them, we have the Soldiers Charity—the Army Benevolent Fund, as was—the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and Help for Heroes, as well as others that are more specialist in nature, such as Veterans Aid, Combat Stress and the War Widows Association.
I should like to pause to reflect on war widows, because it was only when I was approached by a young war widow in my constituency whose husband had been killed on deployment in the summer of 2008 that I realised that war widows had no specific documentation to explain that they were war widows. To that young lady, that was important. We all imagine war widows to be old people, but they are not. There are lots of young war widows. We have only to look at the festival of remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall to realise that. If she needs to approach a local government agency, for example, she has no documentary proof of her status other than a pension document, which I am told does not describe precisely what the pension payment is for. This is a small point, but I hope that the Government will be able to address it, so that today’s young war widows can have something to confirm that they are indeed war widows. I also understand that, under the new scheme, the new war widows pay tax on their pension. That is one area of pensions that should be completely excluded from any form of taxation.
I am sure that members of the Armed Forces Bill Committee will agree when I tell the House how impressed we were by the representatives of the service families associations from each of the three main services. The independence of each association and their ability to work collectively together were incredible.
I shall conclude by mentioning Army family housing and education. I would like someone to write down and send me an explanation of precisely how the pupil premium will be allocated to children of serving members of Her Majesty’s armed forces. Not every such child attends the local Army, Navy or RAF school. I have three schools in my constituency in which the majority of children have a mother, father or both serving in the armed forces, and that explanation needs to be spelled out.
The sale of Army housing to Annington Homes in 1995 was an utter disgrace, but we are where we are. Because of changing circumstances, almost half an estate of Army housing in Colchester will have been sold off since that date. The most recent lot has gone to a housing association. I welcome that in so far as those houses are going to be made available to people on the local waiting list. However, a small fortune is being spent on upgrading and modernising them, while, on the other side of the road, substandard family houses are being occupied by military families whose husbands and fathers are currently serving in Helmand province. Those families will be living in lower quality housing than the modernised social housing opposite. If the Government can find money for social housing, they should be able to find money for the housing of Army personnel as well.
It is always a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). He mentioned Field Marshal Montgomery’s batman, who hails from my constituency, which makes me very pleased to associate myself with Colchester.
I am proud to stand here today beside my fellow British men and women and speak in support of our troops. This is a big issue for me and my constituency. Over the years as a councillor and an Assembly Member, I have had the opportunity on many occasions to speak in support of our troops in both Chambers, and sometimes that was in relation to equipment. Over the years, there were problems with the equipment issued to those who were out in the field in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We have dealt with those issues, and tried at every stage to support our troops.
I have also practically and physically supported the various charitable organisations, including the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, and, along with the good people of Ards and Strangford, raised thousands of pounds through coffee mornings to support them. That is what volunteers do on behalf of those people. That particular association helps those who serve, those who have served, and their families by providing a reliable, caring and trusted service to more than 50,000 people right across the United Kingdom, and I am proud to be associated with it in Northern Ireland.
Members on both sides of the House have recognised the service that those in uniform provide. I should like to put on record that Northern Ireland never had to have conscription. Volunteers lined up to sign on and join up. Such is the history of Northern Ireland. I come from an area where service in the armed forces is not the exception to the rule; it is very much a part of everyday life. Among my staff in my office in Ards, which is one of the three offices that I have as an MP, my secretary’s nephew and my researcher’s friend and her husband are serving Queen and country. Among a staff of three in my office, three people are connected with those who are serving at the moment. This shows clearly the efforts that everyone makes. I have every confidence, in standing here today supporting the motion, that I am speaking for my constituents of Strangford, who are proud of their service personnel all over the world.
Along with other hon. Members, I have joined the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which gives MPs an opportunity to support and better understand the armed forces, as well as giving the armed forces an opportunity to call on us to support them in the House. This is one such opportunity. Following a presentation last week, we have realised just how young some of the people are who serve. One presentation was given by a very young officer; those Members who were present will remember him clearly. He was so young, so brave and so wise. That is how I remember him, and I suspect that the others who were there will have seen him in the same way.
I have also been an avid supporter of the Honour the Covenant campaign, which is the British Legion’s campaign calling on the Government to honour their lifelong duty of care to those making a unique commitment to their country. The military covenant does not have the force of law, but it has been enshrined through convention, custom and contemporary application, and it represents the nation’s moral commitment to its armed forces. The campaign reinforces the necessity of remembering not only those who have died but those who fell in injury and whose lives will never be the same again. Changes have been made to the way in which the Ministry of Defence and the Government treat our returning soldiers, but still more must be done.
I pay tribute to the Secretary of State. I judge people by how I find them, and I believe that he has a clear commitment to the armed services. We might sometimes disagree on exactly how things should be done, but I acknowledge his real commitment nevertheless. He is not in the Chamber at the moment, but my comments will be in Hansard for him to read.
There must be an extension of NHS priority treatment to all veterans who are physically and emotionally damaged or injured as a result of what has happened out there. Such care must become a way of life in the NHS, and it must include better access to the veterans’ mental health services that are necessary due to the unbelievable things that those men and women see and experience in the line of service.
I have also met many ex-Royal Ulster Constabulary men and women who relive every day of their lives the atrocities that they have seen, and will probably do so until the day they die. I have met soldiers who remember in vivid detail how they saw friends and, however much the innate British stiff upper lip might kick in, those people need help to process what they have seen and what they are still living with. This is not an easy job, and their service should never be forgotten or overlooked. When speaking to those brave men and woman, we see amid the grief and sorrow a determination that what they are doing is not in vain; they take pride in the sacrifice that has been made.
A young soldier in my constituency and her husband lost a dear friend just before Christmas through an improvised explosive device—we know how horrific they are. They had a few hours counselling and were back on patrol in Afghanistan the next day. They handled the situation well and did their duty, but the long-term issues associated with this problem cannot be handled by just a few hours’ counselling. I put that to the Secretary of State, because more has to be done than provide a net or service; there must be a follow-through as well. Measures must be in place to provide someone to talk to when the time comes, which is what we are seeking today.
I received a card from a constituent whose family had told her of my endeavours to ensure that mail was sent. I have raised this issue in the past and I know that the previous Government responded clearly to it. Some out in the field in Afghanistan or indeed Iraq found that their mail from home was not getting through. As I say, Governments responded to the problem at the time. It humbled me to see that a serving member of our armed forces had taken the time to write to me to say thank you, so that I could thank the Government for their help. It also made me realise just how much, as I always knew, soldiers relied on their team and their families back home to support them. I believe that they rely on each and every one of us simply to thank them and tell them they are doing a good job. Sometimes a small word is enough to show support and a long speech or a card are not necessary. Thanking them very much for what they are doing means a whole lot to many people in the armed forces. My constituent never mentioned in her card how awful things were or asked whether it was right or wrong for them to be there: she just thanked me for my and everyone else’s support.
We always recognise the bravery of our personnel and over the years we have had the opportunity to meet some of those awarded medals for gallantry. Sometimes hearing these stories makes me stand back and think about the boy’s own stories I read as a kid. All of a sudden, we can realise that all these things that we had thought of as fiction were actually happening out in the field. Sometimes the sheer bravery is incredible.
With growing numbers of injured personnel coming home from Afghanistan, there is an immediate need for a dedicated strategy on care for themselves and their families. Shortly after Christmas, one of my constituents in the Irish Guards—he was 18, the same age as my son—was shot in the wrist. Fortunately, the bullet that went through his wrist and out of his elbow did not damage any bones, blood vessels or muscles. I had a cup of coffee with him and his dad when he returned and it was important to let him know that people in my constituency were very supportive of him. He told me that the Irish Guards and other Army personnel followed up afterwards, providing support for him and his mum and dad. That shows how good the aftercare service from the regiments is, and it is also good that the parents are supported. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) mentioned the importance of involving parents in the process.
So far, we have not had a chance to comment on homecoming parades, which I believe are very important. People across Britain should have the opportunity to be involved with them. I support the recent calls for parades to honour those coming home and I also support those who are injured and need a little help. That is also why I, along with many other Members, remember our service personnel in my prayers every day. To all our soldiers and personnel past or currently serving and to their families left at home, I take this opportunity to say thank you. Their sacrifice is seen and appreciated, which is why I wholeheartedly and unreservedly support the motion.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) on securing this debate, which is apt, given the announcements earlier this week about redundancies in the armed forces, as the coalition Government try to close the £38 billion shortfall in the Ministry of Defence budget.
Veterans’ issues are very important in my Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency, which is not only one of the homes of the Royal Navy—of which it is very proud—but a home for the Royal Marines and for 3 Commando Brigade, which will go to Afghanistan in just a few weeks. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all going there, to wish them the best of luck and to wish them Godspeed in their safe return—without any loss of life and hopefully without injuries.
I know that no Conservative Members were elected in the hope that we would cut our armed forces or make people redundant. I am sure that applies to Opposition Members as well. I was horrified by the recent announcement about the sacking of service personnel by e-mail, but I am delighted by and greatly welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment that nobody in 3 Commando Brigade will be made redundant while away.
We must recognise that today’s servicemen and women are tomorrow’s veterans. They put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms and we need to ensure that we look after them afterwards. Many people of my age—I had a father who served and gained a distinguished service cross in the Narvik campaign in the 1940s—see veterans as people who either served in the second world war or in Korea or, for that matter, in the Falklands. It is interesting to note that next year we will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what we are going to do to remember that anniversary—next year as well—because many people from Plymouth were certainly affected by the conflict. I add a strong plea that the Minister has heard before—I am going to repeat it—for Plymouth to be the centre for the national commemoration for veterans weekend in 2012. We should remember that Plymouth is not Portsmouth and that we are not 20 minutes away from Bristol.
This picture of white-haired veterans is not exactly appropriate for today. Today, a lot of young people in their late 20s and early 30s are going to be our veterans. Their time saving our country and putting their lives on the line is just one part of a series of careers that they might have during the course of their time on this earth.
I welcome the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to recruit some veterans into the education system to help with teaching. I remember being at prep school as a child of eight. One of my masters was regularly carted off to hospital because of the gas he had inhaled in the first world war. We had nothing but total support for him, and his authority in the classroom ensured that we were brought up in a very disciplined way. If I may say so, I certainly hope that our service personnel who become teachers will act in the same way to put some authority and discipline back into the classroom—especially in some of our inner-city schools. I am delighted that Plymouth university is in the process of sponsoring a marine academy in the city. I hope it will look at ways of recruiting some of the ex-service personnel to teach there, which would be most helpful. Will the Minister spell out how this plan might work?
The other big issues faced by our veterans relate to mental health. Last autumn, the Prime Minister gave a commitment that the Government would implement the “Fighting Fit” report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). That has been welcomed by several charities, including Combat Stress and Plymouth Mind. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister update us on progress on ensuring that the actions recommended in the report are delivered? Will he confirm whether those actions will be fully funded by the national health service? When my right hon. Friend the Minister is next in Plymouth, perhaps he will join me in visiting the Hasler company in HMS Drake, as they do great work to deal with complex issues, including issues of mental health.
We have talked a great deal about veterans who have been full-time soldiers, sailors and airmen, but reservists are occasionally overlooked. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti)—he will look horrified that I am referring to him again—who was a reservist with 29 Commando before he entered the House, regularly reminds me that reservists sometimes have to go back to homes and communities where no one has any idea what they have been up to.
My hon. Friend is kind to mention my service, but I want to put it on record that it was very modest. May I echo his comments about 3 Commando Brigade, and especially about the men from 29 Commando who are now going back out to Helmand? I hope that they have a great tour and come back safely, and I wish I was going with them.
I thank my hon. Friend. We should ensure that the mechanisms and infrastructure are in place to look after reservists once they come back.
Last week, on a course, I was approached by the Royal British Legion, which told me that it would be enormously helpful if the Government made reservists’ details available to charities. To overcome data protection restrictions, perhaps reservists should be asked to tick a box that would allow their details to be shared with such excellent charities. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be willing to take that on board. Will he ensure that, as they say in the Navy, it is “Anchors aweigh”, and that we see action on this matter?
It is an honour and privilege to join right hon. and hon. Members in paying tribute to the courage and bravery of our servicemen and women.
When the Democratic Unionist party was allotted this debate, I was delighted that we had the honour of being able to choose the motion on support for UK armed forces and veterans. The motion speaks for itself, and those right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken find that this matter touches the nerve of the community. I am delighted that there has been such support for the motion across the House.
Those who join our armed forces realise that they are not joining a boy scout club—they are joining the armed services. It is an occupation, and some join because they come from military families, some join for the excitement, and others join because they have no other means of employment. Whatever their reason for joining, however, it is right to point out that they have given valiant service and great sacrifice, and the House is proud of what they have done, and are doing at present, in the field of conflict. Let me mention the gallant service of the Royal Irish who are serving in Afghanistan.
I will never forget my visit to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, and I salute every one of our soldiers, and the international team of soldiers—whether from the United States or other countries—who are working together to try to bring stability to that area and safety to the world. I was greatly taken by the bravery not only of the soldiers, as I pay tribute to the doctors and nurses serving there, especially in the brilliant hospital, which is an example of how to stabilise critically injured soldiers. I remember that the aircraft in which I had arrived was immediately turned into a hospital to transfer soldiers to Birmingham for additional treatment.
We think today of the families who have lost their loved ones because of the conflict in Afghanistan and the earlier conflict in Iraq, but we should also bear it in mind that many young men and women are returning from theatre with not only horrific bodily injuries, but horrific mental injuries. I remember the tragedy of Northern Ireland. I remember the night when a number of my then constituents—I represented a different constituency then—were murdered in Teebane. I remember walking among the dead, and having to lift up some of the living to get them to hospital as quickly as possible. I will never forget that scene. I remember, in a personal capacity, standing in a mortuary looking down at the face of a young woman and at a young lad. I did not see the young lad’s face, because there was not enough to view. Just a few bones were left. I will never forget that scene.
I am sure that many of these young men and women are returning from the field of conflict with horrific memories, and are trying to deal with the trauma of that. Let us never forget that the fact that they have come back and their bodies are intact does not mean that they have not been touched by the field of conflict. We must ensure that they are given the best possible treatment, and that their trauma and mental scars are properly treated.
I was very encouraged by what the Secretary of State said today. I genuinely believe that he has given a serious commitment, and continues to do so. I pay tribute to the Secretaries of State in the previous Government as well, because I believe that they did much for our armed forces. However, because this is a moving situation, we must continue to give them they best that we can. Let us also remember that when they return and, in many cases, have to move from the field of conflict to civilian life, great care must be taken with them. Many face unemployment, and in these times there is increasing unemployment. Let us therefore be sensitive. I am delighted that the Secretary of State is taking up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), and will think carefully about the provision of housing for returning soldiers and their families.
It has been a privilege to take part in the debate. I trust that we will pass the motion unanimously, and ensure that our soldiers—servicemen and women—know that we are standing wholeheartedly behind them and that we thank them for what they are doing for us.
I shall be as brief as possible, because I know that we are short of time.
I believe that when the most important and prominent duty of a Government is the defence of the realm, it is equally important that all Governments value the contributions and sacrifices that our servicemen and women make in carrying out this most vital task. When our armed forces personnel on operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere face paying the ultimate price in the protection of our country, its people and our freedoms and way of life, we should ask them to do so only in the knowledge that they are properly equipped for the task and will be trained to the highest level, and that when they retire—or should they be wounded or, indeed, killed—they or their families will be provided for in recognition of, and admiration for, the sacrifices that they make. That is the minimum that we must do to support our armed forces and veterans, and to me those sentiments are the basis of the military covenant.
The idea, or basic principle, behind support for service personnel and veterans is not new, but a long-standing and time-honoured tradition in this country and elsewhere. In ancient Rome, for example, veterans were given land and a farm to provide a living in recognition of and thanks for their service to their country. Here, in 1593, a statute of Elizabeth I provided for a weekly tax on parishes so that disabled Army veterans
“should at their return be relieved and rewarded, to the end that they may reap the fruit of their good deservings, and others may be encouraged to perform the like endeavours.”
Our commitment to the welfare and aftercare of our armed service personnel must be unwavering, and I believe all parties share that goal. We can best honour that commitment through the steps the Government are taking to restore the military covenant. The status quo is probably best described in the relevant House of Commons Library research paper, which states:
“The Military Covenant is an unwritten social and moral commitment between the State and Service personnel in the Armed Forces that has developed through long-standing convention and customs. Although it currently has no legal basis it implies that in return for the sacrifices that Service personnel make, the State has an obligation to recognise that contribution and retains a long term duty of care toward Service personnel and their families.”
The previous Administration reneged on this covenant. It gives me no pleasure to say that, as I acknowledge that they did some good work—especially the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) when he was a Minister. They did not adequately equip our troops for the most hostile of conflicts, they neglected the welfare of our service families, injured personnel and veterans, and they left a £38 billion black hole in the Ministry of Defence budget at a time of war.
Some Opposition Members look back at the previous Government’s time in office through rose-tinted spectacles and view it as a period of utopian plenty. Whenever the shocking neglect of the huge Budget deficit is mentioned they are in complete denial. The previous Administration have an appalling record in respect of honouring the covenant and failing to supply enough helicopters, vehicles and kit that are fit for purpose in the most hostile of environments. I saw that for myself in Afghanistan, and I firmly believe the coalition Government are trying to correct the balance through the current Armed Forces Bill. Clause 2 of the Bill does more to honour the armed forces covenant and to support our troops and veterans than the last Administration achieved in 13 years. The text of the tri-service military covenant will be published in the spring, and legislation could be used to facilitate it if that is necessary.
Let us examine the Bill’s measures and what it will achieve in restoring the military covenant. If we accept that the military covenant is a moral commitment and a statement of principles rather than a list of rules and regulations and a job-creation scheme for lawyers, then the Bill goes a long way towards enshrining the notion of the covenant in law. The Bill provides a statutory recognition of the covenant for the first time. It ensures that Parliament and the Government of the day are forced to continue to address this most important issue. It demands in law that every year the Secretary of State of the day must present to Parliament an armed forces covenant report on the effect of membership of the armed forces on service personnel, their dependants and veterans in the UK. Furthermore, the effects in respect of health care, education and housing are specifically listed, as is the examination of others fields that the Secretary of State may determine.
It is right for the military covenant to be broadly defined. The Opposition fail to understand that the clause provides this Government and future Administrations with the flexibility to be able not to lose focus on the real issues. It allows us to achieve real welfare improvements for our service personnel and veterans. I have heard from military charities and serving men and women that there is no desire for a bureaucratic and over-prescriptive definition of the covenant. Warfare, conflicts and conditions can change rapidly, as events in the past couple of weeks demonstrate. This Bill will allow the military covenant to evolve in this and future Parliaments as our services change and adapt to meet the demands they are asked to face.
This House is in full agreement that we must provide for our servicemen and women and our veterans. I believe the current Armed Forces Bill puts us back on the right path towards honouring the sacrifices that our armed forces make in the protection of our freedoms and way of life, and upholding the moral covenant that exists between the state and those who do so much to defend it.
May I begin, as others have, by paying tribute to our armed forces and servicemen and women, particularly those from our part of the world, the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment and the 1st Battalion the Irish Guards, who are currently serving in Afghanistan, but also to everyone who has given valiant service both in Afghanistan and in previous theatres of operation? Those of us who represent Northern Ireland constituencies perhaps have more reason than most to value the armed forces, and to put on record our admiration for them, because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) pointed out, we owe them so much in for the current peace process. Although some people may go around claiming the political credit for that, I think the greatest credit goes to our security forces in the Army, the Ulster Defence Regiment, the police and the reserves, who have held the line and protected innocent men and women. Although there is so much temptation now to revise history, the truth should be clearly told: they were the ones who defended democracy and brought about the conditions for the current political progress and peace in Northern Ireland.
I wish to thank everyone who has participated in this very good debate, especially those who have been here throughout the proceedings. In moving the motion, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley said that this was not a party political issue and mentioned the tone of the debate, and that has been reflected in today’s contributions. I welcome the fact that the motion is supported by the Government, as well as by other hon. Members and other parties in the House. I, too, pay tribute to the sincerity and integrity of the Secretary of State and his Ministers, and of the previous occupants of their offices. We all recognise that they are doing their very best in difficult circumstances for our armed forces, and that needs to be recognised.
As has been said, our purpose in tabling this motion was simply to continue to highlight and put on the record our support first and foremost for our armed forces. We should not underestimate how important it is to our servicemen and women, particularly those in theatre battling the enemy, to know that Parliament and Members of Parliament are spending time not only recognising their service, some of the difficulties they face and the challenges we all face, but putting on the record our deepest gratitude for and appreciation of what they are doing. We sometimes say that things have already been debated—this issue was debated on 16 February—but it is well worth spending as much time as possible on this issue. What is more important than issues of life and death and war to our servicemen and women?
In my first contribution at Prime Minister’s questions in this Parliament, I raised the issue of the military covenant. I asked the Prime Minister right at the outset of a new Parliament and a new Administration
“to give a categorical assurance to our troops that they will always get the equipment and resources that they need on operational duty, to our servicemen and women returning home that they will always get the help and advice that they need to return to civilian life, and to our maimed and wounded that, despite all the budgetary pressures, they will always get the care and compassion that they need and deserve, for however long it takes”.—[Official Report, 2 June 2010; Vol. 510, c. 433.]
My party, like many right hon. and hon. Members from all parties, takes that very seriously indeed.
We have heard many excellent contributions from Members on both sides of the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley moved the motion extremely eloquently. He mentioned that 20% of the reserve forces currently serving come from Northern Ireland. That illustrates the contribution that Northern Ireland men and women are making to the war effort and it should be borne in mind. People have rightly mentioned the voluntary nature of service and it needs to be pointed out, again, that there has never had to be conscription in Northern Ireland, even during the second world war. That is a measure of the support there for the armed forces. My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made an excellent speech in which he talked about the close association of people in Ulster with the armed forces. That is illustrated by the service of people in his constituency office and it comes across day in, day out, not only in an appreciation of the work that the Army and the armed services did on the streets in Northern Ireland to maintain the peace and to defend democracy and life and limb, but in the number of people in Northern Ireland with relatives who served or are serving in the armed forces.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley also said that we need to meet the needs of veterans—not only those who served many years ago, but those who have served in current conflicts. We have heard about the big society, and my right hon. Friend mentioned the issue in relation to the Royal Irish Regiment band. It may seem relatively trivial, but it is an important aspect in recruiting and raising money for charitable purposes for servicemen and women.
The Secretary of State talked about the measures that the Government have introduced since taking office: the doubling of the operational allowance; the rest and recuperation rules; the university and further education scholarships for children of those killed; the pupil premium; and the action taken on mental health. I welcome what he said about the 24-hour helpline and the extra money, but we need to ensure that there is continued monitoring of mental health and that servicemen and women are kept in touch with over the years so that they do not drop out of the system and are not forgotten or left behind. I also welcome his commitment to look into the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) about housing and the weighting that servicemen and women should be given in that regard.
The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who spoke for the Opposition, highlighted the previous Government’s actions. I commend the previous Government, as did some hon. Members on the Government side, for what they did in, for example, producing their Command Paper. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that there were deficiencies, especially with housing, but progress was made during the previous Parliament in recognising that those who have served deserve special treatment, particularly in the area of mental health.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke very passionately. He has great experience in this field having served, as we were reminded, in Northern Ireland and as a company commander. He knows at first hand what it is to comfort and care for his troops and he reminds us of the dedicated service of so many in the armed forces in Northern Ireland over the years. He rightly asked what the nation requires of our troops, and talked about the courage that they display going into battle and the physical sickness that they sometimes feel as they anticipate what might come. His point about what the nation requires of our troops is pertinent, as is the return question: “What do they expect from our nation?”
My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) has a very good track record of supporting our servicemen and women. He recently took part in raising significant amounts of money for Help for Heroes, as he has for a number of years, through personally doing sponsored walks and organising other charitable activities. I pay tribute to him for that. He mentioned that the UK armed forces are the best in the world and we all subscribe to that. He, too, dwelt on the military covenant in his comments.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who speaks so often, so eloquently and strongly in defence of our armed forces, talked about the covenant and said we should not be too prescriptive. He also paid tribute to the Royal British Legion for keeping this matter on the agenda. He made a very good point about war widows and the need for identification, as well as making good points about housing and education.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about prescriptiveness, which was a theme of the Opposition’s. We agree with the deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, the Adjutant-General, the deputy Chief of the Air Staff, the Second Sea Lord, the chairman of the RAF Families Federation and the Forces Pension Society that prescription and justiciable enforcement of a military covenant are not appropriate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. On the military covenant, we all agree that the help that is delivered is what really matters. That is the crucial point, as has been emphasised by Members across the House. We note what the Prime Minister has said, and I know that the Royal British Legion’s letter on this point has been mentioned, but I think clarification is needed of what is meant by “properly referencing” the covenant in law. I take the Secretary of State’s point about definable rights and justiciability, but I think that the way forward is to get the Royal British Legion and others who are interested together with the Government to hammer out a way forward that all parties can agree. That is the key point and I urge the Government to take that step.
I acknowledge the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti).
In closing, I pay tribute to the tens of thousands of volunteers who take part in raising so much money for charitable organisations and charities across the UK, including the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, the Not Forgotten Association, the Army Benevolent Fund and regimental benevolent funds, which do tremendous work. We should never forget their contribution. Again, I thank everyone who has spoken in the debate, which has been excellent, and I end by paying tribute once more to the excellent service of so many men and women in our services.
I thank the Democratic Unionist party for raising this important subject. We have had a useful debate, which I have enjoyed. I can honestly say that I do not always enjoy every debate that we have in this place. I thank the Democratic Unionist Members for their contributions. I have great affection for Northern Ireland. I spent the best part of a year of my life walking its streets. We will not go too far into the politics, but I spent most of my life then in a part of West Belfast that does not currently have a Member of Parliament and used to be represented by a man for whom I fear that I do not have a great deal of time, particularly following his service on the provisional army council—something on which the DUP and I would rather agree.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) is absolutely right: this issue should not be a party political football. I think that every hon. Member agrees that we wish our service personnel to receive good treatment while they are serving and, latterly, when they leave. Of course that includes their families and reservists.
I should like to touch on a couple of the points made by the right hon. Gentleman. He spoke about mental health, which is very important to us, as shown by the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) has produced his report, “Fighting Fit”. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that service charities play a huge part in how we hope to deliver the covenant and, indeed, are part of the big society. He mentioned Treasury rules relating to service charities, and I am looking at that and, indeed, have a paper with me at the moment that I wish to progress. Finally, he mentioned suicides and the Falklands. I would love to have some evidence about such suicides, but I am afraid that I know of none.
The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who has apologised to me for not being in his place now, was much more emollient than the shadow Secretary of State has been recently, and I agree with a great deal that he said. It is a pity that he then got into party politics, with a rather incoherent position on the justiciable rights that he might want to put into law.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who has a long record on such things, for speaking movingly about care for the disabled. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) spoke with genuine feeling. I, too, should like to congratulate him. I did not realise that he is a great fundraiser for service charities, so I should particularly like to thank him for that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) paid tribute to Monty’s driver—his constituent—and spoke very well about service charities. He was followed by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who quite rightly reminded us that Montgomery came from the Province and about the many contributions by Northern Ireland personnel in our services, particularly in the first world war and subsequently. I agree absolutely with what he said about the moral obligations of the covenant.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) that we should commemorate what happened in the Falkland Islands. I lost many friends in the Falkland Islands some 29 years ago. Our major commemorations in this country tend to take place on the 25th anniversary, as happened a few years ago, and on the 50th, but that does not stop people commemorating every anniversary. He will be pleased to hear that I got the message about his wanting Plymouth to be the centre for armed forces day in the near future. He might wish to know that the Combat Stress helpline for mental health went live on Monday. That was one of the recommendations in my hon. Friend’s “Fighting Fit” report.
The hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) spoke with passion about service, especially in the Royal Irish, and about the excellent health care that personnel receive in Afghanistan. The trauma care that people have learned about in Afghanistan is going forward into the national health service. That is not dissimilar to what happened with gunshot wounds and the Royal Victoria hospital, which became a repository of unbelievable knowledge in the past.
My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) quoted the Library document from 2007 about the unspoken moral commitment that is the covenant—
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Main Question accordingly put and agreed to.
That this House recognises the valiant service and sacrifice given by the members of UK armed forces in the defence and security of the UK; notes concerns about the current level of support provided to veterans and the families of service personnel; and calls on the Government adequately to fund aftercare services for veterans, including those who have physical disabilities or mental illness, to provide the best support to the families of those who have died as a result of their service, and to honour in full its commitments in relation to the Military Covenant.