Wednesday 7 March 2012
[Hywel Williams in the Chair]
Fire Service (Metropolitan Areas)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Robert Neill.)
It is a pleasure to open the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Williams.
May I first thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for all the work he has done on the funding cuts in metropolitan authorities? Those who have been following the issue know the sheer amount of work he has done to build cross-party consensus. That includes organising meetings, especially with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who has responsibility for the fire services. I also thank those right hon. and hon. Members who are attending the debate, as well as those who could not attend, but who have been campaigning on this issue.
I want to pay special tribute to Steve Morris, who was part of the green watch at Bolton central fire station. He was part of a nine-man crew that was called to attend a fire at a house in my constituency. The narrowness of a nearby alleyway meant that the fire brigade vehicle could not get near the house, and the hose was not long enough to get into it. Steve and three other brave firefighters therefore ran towards the house, taking a massive risk. Steve said that
“when inside searching for occupants there was a flash and I realised that my uniform was on fire. I was like a human torch. The skin on my face felt like it was melting and my gloves had shrunk on to my hands.”
Steve was unconscious in hospital for seven weeks. After he woke up, he stayed in hospital for a further eight months and had numerous operations. He suffered burns to 52% of his body and had to have all his fingers amputated. He also broke an elbow and damaged his spine, and he had to learn to walk again. I know the family he tried to rescue—Mrs Begum, aged 71, and her granddaughter Alana, aged four, who was visiting from Australia. Mr Morris is now married to his long-term partner, Pauline, and he is still contributing greatly to the community.
Today’s debate is about recognising the special work of firefighters and the daily risk that they take on our behalf. I hope we can continue to build the spirit of cross-party consensus on this issue—for them and for ourselves. I am sure the Minister, too, is concerned about the safety of our citizens.
The background to the debate is the settlement for the six metropolitan fire authorities—I will refer to them hereafter as the mets—which have been adversely affected by the funding proposals. In purely alphabetical order, they are: Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands and West Yorkshire.
The six mets serve 11 million people, and that does not include the transient population. The mets provide more than 50% of professional full-time firefighters. In the event of a major national disaster, the mets would be expected to provide half our national resilience capacity, as they have in the past.
If the cuts proceed in the present format, services will be unsustainable, leaving the UK more vulnerable. The risk and the economic effect of disasters would be significantly greater in the met areas. The Trafford centre in Greater Manchester is the largest industrial estate in Europe, and two of the biggest football clubs in the world are in the same area.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining today’s debate which, as Members can see, has generated huge interest. Does she share my concerns about the resilience of the fire service? Last year, we had the disturbances in Greater Manchester—in Salford and Manchester—and there was also the possibility of national incidents. Does she feel that the unfairness of the settlement could result in a reduction of our resilience and our ability to tackle such challenges?
My hon. Friend mentioned the Trafford centre and the football and cricket grounds in my constituency, and we should add Trafford Park industrial estate. We therefore have a number of high-profile, high-risk sites, and it is important that they are protected and resourced. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that if we can deploy resources only to those high-risk, high-profile sites, there will be no back-filling to other less risky sites, which will mean that smaller incidents will escalate and become larger and more dangerous?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate, and I pay tribute to all our firefighters, both full time and part time. Leaving aside the proposed cuts, does the hon. Lady agree that another issue that will definitely compound this situation is whether Europe gets its way on the working time directive?
In an endeavour to be helpful to all Members—[Interruption.] I hope the hon. Lady will take it in that spirit. I hope Members will find it helpful if I say that it remains the Government’s firm intention to protect the opt-out from the working time directive, which is rightly accepted—I hope the hon. Lady will agree—as a critical issue for the fire service. I hope she will forgive me for taking the opportunity to get that on the record early in the debate.
I thank the Minister for that intervention.
The mets have the most fire calls per head of population, as well as the highest levels of deprivation, which everyone accepts is one of the single biggest determining risks in fires. The met areas also have concentrated conurbations, with many streets full of terraced houses, offices and other buildings. The risks in the mets are therefore greater than in the leafy suburbs.
With all the challenges they face, the six mets have been very responsible and prudent with public money. They have already delivered 62% of the savings in the fire budget across the two years of cuts, and they have done that with a minimum impact on front-line services. The cuts planned for future years are unsustainable and would lead to life-threatening reductions in fire cover and national resilience capacity. Fire services have already cut out the fat, and they will soon be cutting to the bone—I hope the vegetarians among us will forgive my analogy.
I add my voice to the congratulations given to my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. Is she aware that the chief fire officer of Merseyside, among others, has made it clear in briefings that he is concerned that if the cuts go ahead, even on optimistic assumptions about the impact, he will be in danger of not being able to meet his statutory obligations?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating the debate, and on her conduct of it. I am full of praise for what she is doing. It is difficult to understand why the review formula should mean a 13% fall in the financial grant to the West Midlands over the past two years, which compares to a figure of 6.5% nationally, and why the met areas, and certainly the West Midlands, have been picked on and victimised as we have.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate, and I pay tribute to the firefighters. Obviously, she and I will not agree on the general need to reduce public spending, but does she accept that there are concerns on both sides of the House about the equity between metropolitan areas, the London area and the shire counties? I thank the Minister for agreeing that fire officers can speak to civil servants to deal with the details of the formula, but people on both sides of the House will be concerned to see that the outcome is more equitable than it has been to date.
Again, I entirely agree. I am just about to come on to the unfairness of the cuts to Greater Manchester fire authority, as compared with, say, Cheshire.
Greater Manchester is one of the largest brigades in the UK, covering 500 square miles and serving a residential population of 2.5 million. It is on track to make £12.5 million of savings, but to achieve that and carry out further cuts it can crew only 59 fire engines during the day and 55 during the night. To crew a fire engine 24 hours a day all year round costs £750,000. As a result of the cuts, 15 fire engines will become unavailable for use. During a dry spring or summer, the brigade can regularly have 40 fire engines committed to fires across the moorlands, protecting roads, villages and homes and areas of outstanding beauty. Greater Manchester fire authority will simply not be able to maintain minimum cover for town and city protection. Nor will it be able to do preventive work such as the 60,000 home safety visits it completes each year. That work has had a profound effect on reducing the numbers of accidental fires. The service will not be able to do the work with young people and children that has led to significant reductions in deliberate fires, and to lives being turned round. The mets, as well as the right hon. and hon. Members present, are asking for a fairer allocation of funds across all fire authorities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Is it not ironic that the most efficient fire authorities, in the places with the highest levels of deprivation and the highest risk of fire, are the ones whose budgets are being cut furthest, whereas some more affluent authorities, which are less at risk, are being given an increase? Does not that show how bad the system is? It is up to the Minister to defend that system, and move away from a situation in which fire officers cannot work out how he reached his figures.
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point.
We need either a risk-based grant approach, with a more even and fairer distribution of cuts across the fire and rescue services, or an alternative method of additional uplift funding to the mets that recognises their wider contribution to the safety of our societies and communities. I ask the Minister to recognise the unfairness and the unsatisfactory nature of the current grant mechanism.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate, and I hope that the Minister is listening to this part of it, as well as the part to which he responded earlier. The key issue seems to be that in the past we have received greater efficiency savings from the mets; and we have had bigger cuts in the first two years of the current spending review. The important thing now is to make sure that we do not get bigger cuts in the next two years. That preventive work must continue. There are high-risk steelworks in my constituency, as well as the deprivation that my hon. Friend has discussed. We cannot have a reduction in the number of fire engines and stations that cover those important responsibilities.
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point.
Greater Manchester fire service has had to make cuts, and it has done so. Now it must make a 9% cut, whereas Cheshire will get a 2% increase. Many right hon. and hon. Members have made that point this morning. A cynic could be forgiven for thinking that the only explanation for the disparity is that most of the Members of Parliament in Cheshire belong to the coalition parties, and most Members of Parliament in Greater Manchester are Labour. I hope that that is not the case. I have deliberately tried not to go into too many statistics and percentages, which I know the Minister will be well aware of. I have tried to make a case for the mets, and I hope that the Minister will consider the matter fairly and judiciously. I will not speak any longer, because so many right hon. and hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.
Order. A large number of hon. Members have written in—nine at least—so I appeal to them to keep speeches short. The screens at the back of the Chamber are being attended to. We do not have a Government Whip present, although I thought that Mr Brady might have abandoned his distinguished career for the delights of the Whips Office; but clearly he has not.
I call Ian Austin. [Interruption.]
I am grateful, Mr Williams. I am sorry; I thought you would call someone over on the Government side first.
In my constituency, Sedgley fire station has already been closed, as a result of the cuts and savings that West Midlands fire service must make. When it closed, Dudley station was allocated an extra targeted response vehicle, so it had one of those—it is basically a smaller fire engine—and the two standard engines that it had before. Now it will lose one of those, and the targeted vehicle will go as well, to be replaced by a Range Rover. When Sedgley closed, we were told that other parts of my constituency would be covered by fire engines from Tipton station, but that will also lose an engine.
The background is that when all fire and rescue services were expecting to face cuts as part of the comprehensive spending review, they planned well in advance, to protect their communities. However, when the exact figures for each service were announced, it was immediately clear that the cuts were anything but fair. As we have heard, some were handed increases to their formula grant, whereas others were handed cuts, such as West Midlands, which is being given the biggest cut to its revenue spending power—7.73%—of any brigade in the country. Even taking into account the effect of the proportion of council tax to grant and the small special grant to encourage a council tax freeze, a number of brigades still receive more money in formula grant than they received in 2010-11. Cheshire is an example.
In addition to the unfair way in which the grant is calculated, it is based on an illogical formula, which does not take account of a number of key considerations. As we have heard, many of the most deprived areas are among the worst hit, despite the well-established link between deprivation and fire. Four of the top five most deprived fire authority areas in the country are covered by metropolitan brigades, and they have been handed the heaviest cuts. Also, no consideration was given to the reforms and efficiencies already made in services when the cuts were calculated. For example, in West Midlands new crewing systems have already been introduced. Cover has been reduced in quieter periods. New appliances have been brought in to deal with specific incidents. However, brigades that have not yet undertaken such reforms, such as London, have been cut far less.
On the important point that my hon. Friend is making about reform, many metropolitan authorities, including Greater Manchester, have been making reforms, reducing jobs, reskilling and redesigning the service for years. Does he agree that these proposals are incredibly short-sighted because they will cut prevention? Therefore, rather than saving money in the long term, this unfair grant settlement will increase the cost to the whole fire service.
That is absolutely right. Brigades that have not undertaken these reforms should be the ones that come under the most pressure to achieve them now. If savings have to be made, those are the areas from which they should come.
One of the reasons why West Midlands stands to suffer the most is that we maintain the lowest council tax precept in the country. It is just £47.83 for a band D property, compared with £87.84 for residents in County Durham. We are therefore more heavily reliant on formula grant than others, so we receive a much higher cut to the overall force budget. Furthermore, part of the difference has been caused by the Government’s decision to award a specific grant to fire authorities and councils that is equivalent to a council tax rise of 2.5%—if council tax is frozen this year. That has benefited those with higher council tax, as they have obviously received proportionately more.
Representatives of the metropolitan authorities have put together a series of cost-neutral proposals that will ensure a fairer settlement in 2013-14 and 2014-15. They are asking the Minister to consider implementing a flat percentage cut to formula grant, so that all fire services play their part in achieving the savings that he says have to be made. They say that that could easily be achieved through ministerial use of the floor damping mechanism and that metropolitan authorities would still shoulder the heaviest cuts over the four years.
In a briefing paper from the Association of Metropolitan Fire and Rescue Authorities, of which I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware, it is stated that if the present formula goes ahead and we do not have the fair formula that we want, there will be 40 redundancies on a 13.5% reduction in grant, which is obviously a great danger to our constituents. A 27% cut over the next few years could cause the loss of 300 posts after natural wastage. Is that not a great danger to our constituents in the west midlands? I hope that the Minister will respond and recognise our concern.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government’s proposals are led by the fact that they expect people to make efficiency savings? Bearing in mind that metropolitan authorities already have the most efficient fire services, it will make any further savings more difficult to achieve. Is this not rewarding the most inefficient fire services at the expense of the most efficient ones?
That is absolutely right. In all other areas, the Government argue for reform, savings and efficiencies, yet here we find the authorities that have done the most and made the greatest savings being penalised the most. Forgive me for my cynicism, but it does seem that many of the areas represented by the Minister’s right hon. and hon. Friends are being saved from the cuts that the areas represented by so many Opposition Members are having to make.
I am one of the Government Members who represents one of the affected metropolitan authorities. Quite apart from the importance of getting fairness for all metropolitan areas, is it not also an irony that one of the effects could be to reduce the capacity of metropolitan fire services to provide surrounding counties with the support and the backfilling that are so important?
That is right. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he is one of the few Government Members who are taking part in the debate, and he is absolutely right. The forces that cover metropolitan areas provide a really important service to the whole country, which is why he and his colleagues should be taking these issues seriously. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when he responds to the debate later. I do not propose to say anything more beyond that, because so many Members wish to contribute.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing it.
I want to talk about the impact on Merseyside of cuts that are running at twice the national average—up to 12% over two years. As colleagues have said, Merseyside already has a highly efficient service. My question to the Minister is how on earth does it make sense to make cuts at double the national average in Merseyside, West Midlands, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, Nottinghamshire, Cleveland, Cambridgeshire and Shropshire, with Greater Manchester only a fraction below the figure of those other mainly metropolitan areas, while making real-terms increases in funding for Devon and Somerset, Dorset, Staffordshire, Cheshire, Essex and Hampshire? Is there not a pattern emerging about the nature of the authorities that are facing these double-national-average cuts and the authorities that are seeing real-term increases? I will leave it to Members to draw their own conclusions.
How can authorities such as Merseyside deal with that 12% cut when they have already made the savings over a number of years? Perhaps the Minister can also answer the point about why they have had that cut, while others have had increases at the same time. Merseyside has made the back-office and management savings, put in place a three-year pay freeze and taken money from the dynamic reserve.
The issues of resilience capacity and heavy industry that we talked about in Greater Manchester are also true of Merseyside. Just down the road from my constituency are the docks, which are surrounded by residential areas. Therefore, in the event of a major incident, not just the industrial areas but the nearby residential areas would suffer. Without the necessary back-up, how can those areas be protected?
The plans for future years make various assumptions. The chief fire officer has already assumed the pay freeze, a 4% council tax increase and the fact that no additional contributions will be made to the pension, yet he is still short by £8.5 million. Merseyside has made the savings that it can. If further cuts are double the national average, as they have been so far—the national average is £8.5 million—goodness only knows where he would go to make those savings.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course the question that arises for the Minister is, exactly how does he define what the statutory obligations are for the metropolitan authorities, such as Merseyside? What level of service does he deem to be necessary to protect the people of Merseyside and the other metropolitan areas?
In the Minister’s written answer to my parliamentary question, which I received only this week, he said:
“It is for elected members of each authority to determine such matters, acting on the professional advice of their principal officers and following full consultation with the local community.”—[Official Report, 5 March 2012; Vol. 541, c. 485W.]
May I tell him that the professional advice of the chief fire officer of Merseyside and his colleagues is that it is not possible for them to maintain the current service on the funding settlement that the chief officer has already received, and it will be even more impossible for them to protect the community that they serve given the proposed future cuts? In addition, I can tell the Minister that the local community do not accept that these cuts should be made at all. In fact, they say that none of the cuts should be happening and that they want to be protected by the fire service. However, they are also aware that, with cuts of this nature, it is impossible for the chief fire officer to maintain the level of service that is needed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, given what the chief fire officer of Merseyside has said about the inability to do his job, it is incumbent on the Minister now to stop and freeze the changes in the system and to get his own officials to talk directly to the fire officers who have been affected by the cuts, so that we can maintain public safety and protect lives in our areas?
That is exactly right, and the Minister should be doing exactly what my hon. Friend suggests: listening to the chief fire officers, taking on board their concerns, considering what service is actually needed in each metropolitan authority and ensuring that that service can be supported by the funding that he provides. Otherwise, we run huge risks.
We have already heard about the inability of the fire services to continue preventive work, such as fitting smoke detectors, which saves many lives and has reduced the number of deaths in homes over a number of years. If that work does not continue, there is a grave risk that that very welcome reduction—a move in the right direction—will be reversed, with all the danger that is implied. Of course, the fire services not only carry out preventive work; they also have the ability to respond to call-outs. It will take only one major incident in any of the metropolitan authorities to show the folly of these cuts.
As a number of Members want to speak, I will draw my remarks to a close, but I urge the Minister to look at the impact of these cuts, which in Merseyside and many other metropolitan authorities is double the national average, to listen to what my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts) has said and to go back to the drawing board and reinstate the funding, so that the fire services can protect the communities that we represent.
Thank you, Mr Williams, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing this debate. I also want to mention the constructive way that the debate has been conducted until now. I hope that the tone that I will strike will not be too different from that of others who have spoken, but it is important that I place on record the feelings of people from across Merseyside.
Before I do so, however, I think that right hon. and hon. Members from all parties will join me in praising some of society’s bravest men and women, who work as firefighters in all four corners of the country. Firefighters do the most difficult of jobs in the most difficult of circumstances; they are never questioning but always relentless. There is no greater exemplar of that fine tradition than the Merseyside fire and rescue service. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Britain’s firefighters and long may that continue.
Today I speak not only as the MP for Liverpool, Walton, but as a son, brother, husband, father, motorist, home owner, property owner and frequent user of public transport in and around our great city of Liverpool, including our world famous “Ferry Across the Mersey”, and I hope that the man responsible for that song—the great Gerry Marsden—soon recovers from the bout of pneumonia that he is currently suffering from.
Merseyside fire and rescue service does not just put out fires; its officers also save lives on our roads and in our factories and offices, and they protect people using the River Mersey. That is why I greatly fear what this Government have done to the service to date, as well as what they have in store for it. I sincerely hope that the dangers that the Government’s decisions will bring to me, my family, my property, my constituents and every single person who lives in, works in or visits the Liverpool city region are never realised.
My hon. Friend is talking about the dangers that people are confronted with. Does he agree that there are a lot of volatile industrial processes around the Liverpool city region and in neighbouring regions, and that these cuts will make incidents such as occurred in the Sonae factory in my constituency even more difficult to deal with, if they mean that the fire service does not have the resources to meet all those challenges?
Absolutely. My right hon. Friend is on record expressing his concerns about that particular factory. I must declare an interest—my brother works there, so if my right hon. Friend does close the factory down, my brother will be unemployed. But my right hon. Friend is correct, in that Merseyside and Greater Merseyside have petrochemical industries and other really volatile industries, which need the resilience of a well-funded and well-staffed fire and rescue service.
As we have already heard, it cannot be right for the six metropolitan areas outside London to shoulder 60% of the total reductions burden, with Merseyside being disproportionately affected; some may even say that it is being deliberately targeted. The disproportionate effect on Merseyside is especially true when we compare the areas that have had grant cuts with the areas that have had grant increases. For instance, while Merseyside has received a grant cut that is more than the national average in both of the last two years, Hampshire, Sussex, Shropshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire—otherwise known as “Tory heartlands”—have each received grant increases. Whether that is just a coincidence is for others to decide, but put simply the formula is flawed and unfair.
My hon. Friend points out that many people in our metropolitan areas feel as if this Government are targeting them, not only because of the fire service cuts but because those cuts come on top of the police and council cuts. With these cuts, the biggest share of the pain is being borne by the least able in the metropolitan authority areas, and those people wonder why the Minister is taking this unfair view of the metropolitan areas’ problems. It is up to the Minister to address that feeling. Those people are asking, “Why is this Government targeting, once again, the poorest areas in Britain?”
Of course my hon. Friend is right. With regard to what has happened on Merseyside—I can speak for Merseyside in particular—we have had the largest and deepest cut to our grant settlement from Government. That has been a cut to our police grant, fire grant and just about every other supporting grant that we received from Government. We have seen the largest and deepest cuts. Again, I ask, “Is that a coincidence?” As I said before, it is for others to decide, but I would say that it is a strategic decision to balance the economy on the backs of the poorest.
In 2011-12, Merseyside’s grant cut was almost twice the national average and for 2012-13 Merseyside’s grant cut will be more than three times the national average. That means that our total grant has been cut by £9 million in the first two years of this disastrous and desperately unfair period covering the comprehensive spending review. I believe that that is dangerous; the Minister knows that it is dangerous; the Prime Minister knows that it is dangerous; and the people of Merseyside know that it is dangerous. There is grave uncertainty around the Merseyside fire and rescue service, as we wait for the Government to announce the grant figures for the third and fourth years of the CSR period.
It is not just the metropolitan areas that are being affected. I realise that this debate is about those areas, but these cuts also impact on other fire and rescue services, including the Northumberland fire and rescue service. I just want to put something into context. All my hon. Friends and the hon. Members who have spoken have described the cuts in percentage terms, and in percentage terms they are absolutely horrendous. But can we just put the cuts in terms of the cost to human beings? Until now—that is, in 2010 and 2011—there have been 1,000 job losses in the metropolitan areas’ fire services and it is estimated that there will be an additional loss of 2,000 front-line posts, 50 fire stations and 100 fire appliances if these cuts go ahead. What message does that give to the firefighters—those brave men and women who run towards fires when everybody else is trying to run away from them—and to the general public?
My hon. Friend has asked a question, which I will answer in relation to human beings. Our fire and rescue service on Merseyside is contemplating losing 150 firefighter posts, potentially through compulsory redundancies. That has never happened in our local authority’s history. Five fire stations are currently being earmarked for closure, including the Aintree fire station, adjacent to my own constituency. In addition, 11 fire engines will be removed from front-line response under the proposals. Five fire engines have already been removed—reduced from 42 to 37—as part of phase 1 of CSR. The cuts will reduce overall front-line operational capability to 26 engines, a reduction of nearly 40% since the start of CSR.
My hon. Friend has given us stark figures in relation to the cuts that Merseyside fire and rescue service is about to impose. Does he agree that that is on top of losing more than 500 firefighters since 2002, and that the funding proposals will compound the very serious problem that we face?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, highlighting the cumulative impact of all the cuts on areas such as Merseyside. It has been debilitating for the people in the fire and rescue service who go out and put their lives at risk every single day. For the good of the people of Merseyside, for the good of their safety and for the good of common sense, I urge the Minister to please stop this uncertainty. All we want is for the Minister to do as he said he would: make cuts that are fair. I want him to reassure me and the families in my constituency that response times will not double from five minutes to 10 because of reduced capacity.
We have come to expect a certain level of arrogance from the Prime Minister, but this Minister knows all too well the dangers of a complacent approach to the fire and rescue service and the impact that the cuts will have on operational preparedness, national resilience and our communities’ safety. It is time to get real and stop gambling with the safety of Merseysiders.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing this debate. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who has done so much to co-ordinate the concerns of Members of Parliament and fire and rescue authorities in metropolitan areas.
The truth is that in good times and bad, there will always be a row about grant redistribution. Leaving aside the political inclinations of any particular Government, there is a balance to be struck between the sparsity of rural areas and the disadvantages and high risks of urban areas. In more than 30 years’ involvement in council and parliamentary politics, I have never seen such a grotesque distortion of grant allocation to metropolitan areas.
The six metropolitan areas serve a quarter of the population of this country outside the capital. They carry the highest risks in terms of fires and other emergencies, and they make a major contribution to national resilience. Yet in the first two years of this spending period, they have been expected to make 62% of the overall cuts that are required. By any measure, that is grossly unfair. It cannot be repeated in years 3 and 4 of the spending period.
I want to pay tribute to the fire and rescue authorities in this country, particularly Greater Manchester fire authority, chaired by Councillor David Acton. The fire authority has made its concerns known to Government, but it has also got on with the practical and difficult task of making the required cuts, while doing everything that it can to protect the front line.
Does my parliamentary neighbour accept that not only Councillor David Acton has been making that case? Before him, Councillor Paul Shannon, who led the fire authority for two or three years, made the exact same case to Ministers. He has described the unfairness of the grant allocation as scandalous and unjustifiable. He put the case very strongly to Government.
The hon. Gentleman has put his comments on the record. I stand by my remarks about Councillor David Acton. As the new chair of the authority, he has taken on the task with incredible strength, at a difficult time, when he faces so many difficult decisions in terms of the cuts that we face.
I also want to pay tribute to Gary Keary, a constituent of mine who chairs a branch of the Fire Brigades Union in Greater Manchester. He typifies the FBU’s approach in Greater Manchester. It has campaigned against the cuts and made the public aware of the implications of the cuts, but it has also been prepared to work constructively with the authority and with management to protect the public and minimise risk wherever possible. The cuts made in Greater Manchester have been largely back-office and management cuts, but they have also affected the front line, which I will come on to in a second.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the FBU. To get its view on the record, I will read a quote:
“The FBU is clear that these cuts will wreck the fire and rescue service. They are not being made on the basis of needs or risk. They have decided arbitrarily to meet the government's forced-march deficit reduction target. The cuts will put the public and firefighters at risk.”
That is the view of FBU branch secretaries across the country and in metropolitan areas.
Such views are echoed in Greater Manchester as well. Of course, the FBU and its members have done their very best to make sure that the front line of the service is protected as far as possible and that the risks to the public are minimised.
In my own constituency, the front-line cuts that have had to be made, even in years 1 and 2, will make a substantial difference. In the Wythenshawe fire station, the number of staff available 24/7 will be reduced from nine to eight from 1 April. In Sale, in the other part of my constituency, the number of staff available 24/7 is reducing from nine to five, and one of the two appliances will no longer be available, so that is a substantial cut. Even so, the expected response time will be measured in seconds rather than minutes. Again, that pays tribute to those who have made the decisions to try to protect the public.
A similar level of cuts in 2013-14 and 2014-15 would be an absolute disaster for my constituents and for the constituents of other right hon. and hon. Members here. In Greater Manchester, an equal share of the cuts required nationally in those two years would mean cuts of £24 million. If the same distorted criteria are used in 2013-14 and 2014-15, the cut required would be £38 million—a difference of £14 million. That would have disastrous consequences for my constituents and for others.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case on behalf of his constituents. As an MP in a metropolitan borough in the west midlands, I support what he is saying in terms of ensuring that any future cuts should be made evenly across fire authorities. However, does he agree that West Midlands fire authority has been a significant beneficiary of the damping mechanism that has been put in place? Will he join me in asking the Minister to give greater clarity on how that damping mechanism is going to be applied in future and whether the same criteria will be applied?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I welcome his support for the overall thrust of the argument, which is for fairness in the allocation of grants in the final two years of the spending period, which we have not seen in the first two years. I encourage him and all his colleagues to discuss constructively with the Minister the best way forward. We all hope that the Minister will have constructive things to say when he winds up the debate.
My right hon. Friend has referred to the settlement as a grotesque unfairness. He has made a powerful case this morning. Is he aware of the Department for Communities and Local Government’s own figures that say that, in areas of deprivation where there is high unemployment, where people live alone and where there are many disabled people, someone is perhaps four times more likely to be in a fire? Apart from the unfairness of the settlement, it is actually downright dangerous. On its own figures, the Department ought to review, as my right hon. Friend says, this grotesquely unfair settlement.
I am aware of the higher risk, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend has placed it firmly on the record. I am clear that, if the unfair grant distribution is applied in the final two years of this spending period, my constituency and others will lose appliances, staff and fire stations, imposing huge risks on our constituents’ lives. The grant allocation must relate to risk, and must take account of the national requirements for resilience and responses to emergencies.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing this vital debate. For the people in Tyne and Wear, the issue is a real worry. The main work done by the fire service in our area includes covering two major trunk roads: the A19, which leads to two tunnels under the Tyne, and the A1. The A1 western bypass, which runs through my constituency, is 200% above its planned capacity. It is the third most congested road in the UK. Due to the state of the road, despite the fact that it is a dual carriageway, the speed limit is 50 mph along the A1 throughout my constituency. That is partly due to the number of road traffic accidents that the fire service must deal with. We have industrial sites, chemical plants, gas production plants, ports, rivers, offshore installations, high-rise flats and many areas of deprivation, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) referred a minute ago.
What do we in the Tyne and Wear area face? I have had discussions with Iain Bathgate, the retiring fire chief, and Councillor Bob Heron, with whom I had the privilege to work for 20 years as a coal miner, a job in which we knew a thing or two about the risk of fire. They have told me categorically that over a four-year period, Tyne and Wear fire service is facing a 35% budget cut. To try to resolve that, they have engaged in discussions with Ministers and the civil service. When the fire service and elected officials have asked, “What do we do?” the response is, “Make cuts to the back office.” The fire service chief said, “Let’s pretend I can run a fire service without any back-office staff. If I do that, I can save 17% of the budget, which means I am halfway to where you need me to be. What can I do?” The response was, “You have to manage it,” with no more information.
The fire service has already been managing it. Over the past few years, more than £8 million in savings have been made, which has included 109 front-line firefighters losing their jobs. Last year alone, we lost an appliance at Birtley fire station in my town. I worry that we will end up with an emergency-only service. I have no doubt that the great men and women in the service will make it work and do their best, as all our public servants do, to ensure that service is provided, but what will happen to the community?
This is a debate about community. I remind the Minister that his is the Department for Communities and Local Government. I will give two examples. The town of Birtley in my constituency has a boxing club. It was founded 30 years ago, with the support of the fire service, the police and the schools. They realised that prevention was the main thing, so they set up the boxing club. Part of the remit for the young lads who went to the boxing club was that they had to go to school and perform well. The young men coming through are now representing the country, but first and foremost they are being trained in how to behave properly, have self-respect and self-esteem and help care for the community.
Likewise, Chopwell, in a more remote part of my constituency, is surrounded by some of the biggest forests in the north of England. We had a huge problem with young people setting fires up there. The retained fire service in that part of the world has become the community centre for young people. It is a brilliant place. Last year, it was burgled, and the community insisted on holding a social to raise funds. The firemen said, “Look, you don’t need to. We’re insured,” but they said, “We’re having it,” because of their respect. My worry is that we will lose that link. It is a genuine public service.
I say to the Minister that the D in DCLG does not stand for “decimate the service”. The C does not stand for “cut terms and conditions for the work force, including pensions”. The LG does not stand for “all we have to do is let go of thousands of dedicated public servants”. The real story is that it is all part and parcel of the present Government’s drive against the public sector. It is an ideological drive to get the public sector out of the way and let the private sector fill the gap, led by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Bradford bulldog, who is determined to show that he can cut harder than anybody else, aided and abetted by the Minister. Between them, they have become the Eric and Ernie of public services. I have no doubt that the Minister has a raft of jokes to throw at us, but nobody is laughing in the fire service, and nobody is laughing in our communities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing this debate. The more I listen to hon. Friends and colleagues, the more I feel that it is essential to say one thing to the Minister. He will have in front of him a brief prepared by his civil servants. As Ministers and former Ministers, we know that sometimes we are obliged to act as our civil servants advise, but we also know that we have discretion. I say to him at the outset that I hope that what he is hearing will lead him to go to his Secretary of State and use his power as a Minister to say, “I think we’ve got this wrong.”
As I listen to my hon. Friends, I have no doubt that the present arrangements under the funding formula have not only produced an inequitable position but will put lives at risk. People will die. I pray that that will not happen, but the Minister will know that if, as a result of the cuts next year or the year after, a number of people in any constituency die in an out-of-control fire in a school or business, an inquiry will be demanded. The inquiry will say that mistakes were made, and that the fundamental mistake was that when the cuts were introduced, not enough account was taken of the risks.
The Minister has a chance. He has some months to go to his Secretary of State and say, “I think we may have a problem with the formula we’ve been given.” It is his choice. He can do so. In Merseyside, we have already lost many firefighters. We used to have nearly 1,400; we are now down to 880, and shortly it will be 800. The coming cuts will drive us down to 650. Further cuts will be made to fire stations and to the number of engines. The question is whether it is safe to go further.
This year, there will be no pay increase, and there will be a 4% increase in the council tax precept. That means, at best, an £8.5 million cut to Merseyside. What that means in my constituency is that we will lose one fire station, almost certainly in Eccleston. Hon. Members may feel that we must all share the pain equally, but let me be clear about what the pain means. In 2004, the Merseyside fire service produced an important report in which it concluded that
“for all property fires we intend to get the first firefighting resources to the fire in 10 minutes or less”.
One of my hon. Friends has already referred to the Fire Brigades Union. I ask the Minister to reread its 2010 report, which discusses why response times matter. The report says that
“in the late stages a minute or two can make the difference between life and death”.
It also says:
“If a person has survived near to a fire for nine minutes, one minute later the fire could have increased in size by such an extent that they will be killed.”
I will tell the Minister what it will mean if the Eccleston station closes. The station serves 21,000 households, many of them disproportionately old. It serves 15 primary schools, three secondary schools and two colleges. Last year, the fire service attended 66 fires and 19 road traffic collisions. I asked the chief fire officer to give me his assessment of how long it would take for the two engines from St Helens to get to parts of Rainford, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts). He said 15 minutes. That is five minutes more than what everybody knows is necessary to save lives. People will die.
Let us be clear. Numerous stations will close. All of that will cause problems, but when a Minister knows that the consequence of what he is doing will certainly be death, he has a huge responsibility to go to his Secretary of State and say, “If this material from the chief fire officer in Merseyside is correct—he is not a politician; I simply asked him for figures—we need to talk to him, sit down with the fire authority and look at the risks, because we are being told that people will die.” The Minister is a good man, and he has a choice. He can exercise his choice, accept the responsibilities of his office and say, “We have something wrong here, but we have time to change it.” It is his choice, and I very much hope that he has heard my hon. Friends’ remarks this morning, because the policy will cost lives.
I will keep my remarks short, because many representations have been made by hon. Friends from across Merseyside this morning.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for his work along with other Members in campaigning on this important issue. I, too, add my voice to those who honour our brave firefighters, who risk their lives daily to protect the British people. I will focus on two points to support what some of my hon. Friends have said; I am conscious of the time and I want to allow other Members to make their contributions.
Our fire authority in Merseyside is led by Chief Fire Officer Dan Stephens. He has done much work to make the cuts imposed on the fire service while protecting front-line services. That has not been easy, and tough choices have been made. Pay has been frozen for three years, and back office and management have been cut and shared. We often hear from the Government about trimming the fat. Back office functions have been severely shaved to make them the leanest of any comparable service. Reserves in Merseyside have already been spent, and innovations have been made, a list of which I will share with the Minister after this debate. The council tax precept has been raised, and 92 firefighters and 80 support staff have lost their jobs. In short, everything that could be done to ensure that the fire service keeps doing the vital work of saving lives has been done. There is absolutely no fat left to trim, and there is no low-hanging fruit to pick. Only the bare minimum remains. Despite that, our fire service is facing even more significant cuts.
We are waiting to hear from the Department in December about the next round of budget reductions. The best-case scenario is absolutely sobering. As we have heard from other hon. Members, we are looking at the closure of five fire stations, including Allerton fire station in my constituency. There is the prospect of 11 fire engines being scrapped and 150 firefighter posts being lost. It is sobering to think that that is the best- case scenario.
If the second phase of cuts follows in the same vein as the first, it is likely that the authority’s cut will be significantly higher than the national average on which that estimate is based. Some £17 million could be lost. There is absolutely no chance that the cuts can be made without damaging the firefighting capability in Merseyside. We all agree that our firefighters do an incredible job. They place themselves in dangerous situations every day to protect us and save lives. We should be doing everything we can to make their job easier, not harder. We have already heard stories in Merseyside about the fire service struggling to attend all incidents now, before the second round of cuts.
With that in mind, I urge the Minister to think long and hard before he imposes huge cuts on fire services in all metropolitan areas, including Merseyside. If he is committed to a national cut on that level, then I urge him to use the time between now and December to look at how it could be distributed more evenly, so that metropolitan areas are not disproportionately affected, our front-line services can be maintained, and our public can be adequately protected.
I am grateful for a late opportunity to speak in this debate. I think I am on the third version of my speech, and you will be delighted to know that it is down to one page from seven.
I would like to add my thanks to those expressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for securing the debate and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for liaising and bringing the mix together, and for arranging a meeting with the Minister.
As the only Member from south Yorkshire in the Chamber, I would like to place on the record the financial situation that is hitting West Yorkshire fire authority. For the first two years, the cut in grants equalled 11%, amounting to £13 million, under the unequal grant distribution introduced by the Minister. Even with an equal distribution, the cut would have been 6.5%, or £6.8 million. The difference between the two distributions underlines the task that the Minister is pushing on the fire authorities. It indicates that the fire authorities do not live in an unreal world. If they were facing equal cuts, there would be a different attitude, even though the cuts are particularly tough.
The next two years raise questions for the Minister. I join my right hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward) in pleading with him to speak quietly but firmly to his Secretary of State about the position facing fire authorities and emergency services in the final two years of the spending review. If firmness and quietness do not work with the Secretary of State, and if nothing else works, the Minister should point out to the Secretary of State that the second and worst year of the spending review is the year of the election. In view of what the fire authorities are saying to Members about the effects of the cuts, it will not be a nice position from which to fight an election.
One year of cuts is severe, but there will be two and even three years of cuts. What happens when it hits four years? There will be 13% of cuts for West Yorkshire fire authority over the next two years. If the sacrifice were shared equally across the country, the cut would be 5%. In money terms, it would be £19.8 million over the two years instead of £12.8 million. The figure of £12.8 million is formidable on its own, and it would be that figure only if there was an equality of sacrifice.
The first set of cuts cost 170 firefighters. It caused crews to be cut and cost many support services. We are speaking about grants, but they are only one part of the picture—the revenue part. There is the expenditure part, where even after cuts, the fire authority will have to look for £9.1 million in 2013-14, and £13.7 million in 2014-15. That is after the authority has made what it—not politicians—regards as cuts that will still allow it to look the public largely in the eye and say that safety has been taken into consideration; I emphasise “largely”. We are facing those sorts of budget difficulties. On top of the 170 firefighters in West Yorkshire who will go by the end of the second year of the spending review, 380 firefighters are pencilled in to go in the next two years.
The Fire Brigades Union regional secretary, Pete Smith said:
“This will reduce our ability to respond to major outdoor fires which have damaged our moorlands and major flooding which has hit this region in recent years…There are times when we have been seriously stretched even with our current resources. These cuts risk tipping us over the edge and that will have a very serious impact on the public.”
That, from the front line, reflects exactly what my hon. Friend is saying.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. I have been critical of the present cuts. I have questioned the fire chief seriously and challenged him regarding the safety of my constituents. We have a lot of back-to-back houses. The chief is closing the fire station in the area, and I worry about the safety of our constituents, in terms of the time that vehicles need to get to a fire. My hon. Friend makes a good point: faced with the final two years of the spending review, the Minister has to look seriously at this issue, including an equality of sacrifice—my hon. Friends have already referred to the strange and distorted distribution of cuts.
Thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne, I was able to meet the Minister. I went further than my right hon. Friend, however, in saying that I did not accept the spending envelope with which the Minister was working. The spending envelope is acceptable only if it is the Government’s will for every service to be cut by a certain amount. Because of the nature of the emergency services, provision cannot drop below a certain level without danger to the public, and to say that the emergency services are the same as libraries or other services shows a distorted set of values. I challenged the Minister about the spending envelope, and urged him, as the person who would be responsible for the consequences of any serious fires due to the cuts, to go to the Secretary of State and spell out the dangerous position that we are in.
At the meeting, the Minister agreed that his officers would meet representatives of the metropolitan fire authorities to go through the details and see whether they could accept any of the points that have been made. Let me say quietly to the Minister that I hope he will take that seriously, and that it results in a changed distribution of cuts to deal with some of the problems faced by the metropolitan fire authorities. In view of the serious points raised in this debate by representatives of big metropolitan areas, I hope that the Minister will go to the Secretary of State and say that the policy that is being pursued is unsafe and could put a lot of innocent people in serious danger.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Williams. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing this vital debate, and I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for his excellent work in bringing this topic to the fore. It is a vital issue and it is important to debate it this morning.
I hope that the Minister has listened to the contributions made by right hon. and hon. Members from across the Chamber. There is a degree of cross-party consensus and concern about the impact of the cuts, and certainly the overwhelming view in the debate—and indeed across the country—is that the cuts go too far. My right hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward) got to the nub of the issue when he pointed out that the cuts could result in people losing their lives, and that that could result in a public inquiry. Can the Minister put his hand on his heart and say that he would be in a robust position to defend the Government’s stance if such a tragedy were to occur and were followed up by a public inquiry?
The metropolitan fire authorities make the greatest contribution to national resilience in our country. To undermine that resilience in such a way is regrettable, and the Government should think carefully before they proceed. As today’s contributions to the debate have made clear, the metropolitan fire authorities have been singled out for vicious cuts. They are not the only services facing cuts; many fire and rescue authorities are confronting cuts across the country, and that will be particularly true in years 3 and 4 of the spending review. We have seen only the start of the cuts; the worst is yet to come.
The Minister was pleased to secure what he felt was a concession in that the cuts to fire and rescue services were back-loaded rather than front-loaded. We have already seen the devastating consequences of the first two years of back-loaded cuts, but the cuts will become even greater, which paints a very worrying picture. It simply will not do for the Minister to stand up and use the Pontius Pilate defence—I know he has also used it in written responses to right hon. and hon. Members—and say that it is for locally elected representatives to determine how they deploy their budgets. If locally elected representatives do not have the money in the first place to allow them to deploy their budgets and meet their statutory responsibilities, it will not do for the Minister to say that it is a matter for local areas.
Having looked at the figures, it is clear that the areas with highest demand will be hit the hardest by the per capita funding cuts, and it is incumbent on the Minister to explain a funding formula that has such perverse outcomes. For the record, I will go through some of the figures. In Greater Manchester, there are 8.74 incidents per 1,000 people, yet there will be a per capita cut of 82p; in Merseyside, 10.87 incidents per 1,000 of the population, and a per capita cut of £1.05; in South Yorkshire, 8.56 incidents per 1,000 people, and an 85p per capita cut; in Tyne and Wear, 9.70 incidents per 1,000 people, and a 99p per capita cut; in the West Midlands 8.03 incidents per 1,000 people and a 94p per capita cut; and in West Yorkshire 7.89 incidents per 1,000 people and a 32p per capita reduction.
That cannot be justified in any parlance, and the Minister must try to explain how he can defend such cuts. We know that the cuts have already led to thousands of firefighters losing their jobs across the country, and that fire stations are closing. We know that appliances are being decommissioned as a consequence of the reductions, and that the greatest number of job losses, decommissioned fire appliances and fire station closures are occurring in the areas of greatest need.
Furthermore, as a consequence of the cuts, the excellent preventive work for which the fire and rescue service is responsible is suffering. What a crazy situation to put the nation in—cuts to preventive work are having to be made as a result of the reductions in funding from central Government. We will see more incidents of arson and the other problems that the fire and rescue service is called on to deal with, such as young people engaging in antisocial behaviour. The fire and rescue service does excellent work with young people, for example in the youth engagement schemes that take place around the country.
It is clear that the Minister’s cuts are arbitrary and are wrecking our fire and rescue service. The metropolitan fire and rescue services are bearing the biggest burden. The cuts are putting firefighters’ lives at risk and endangering the public. There will be increased casualties, and more properties will be lost as a consequence of the cuts to the fire services. That is not just scaremongering. I quote the author of “Fire Futures: Role of the Fire and Rescue Service (Delivery Models) Report,” which was commissioned by the Minister and said that
“these funding reductions will imperil their ability”—
the ability of fire and rescue services—
“to carry out risk-based budgeting and implement their local Integrated Risk Management Plans…let alone play an effective part in the National Framework. When all the frills have been removed, every spare ounce of fat burned off, and every possible efficiency saving identified and implemented, there will remain only real cuts to the core service and a real increase in casualties and property loss.”
That is a damning indictment of the Government’s direction of travel in relation to fire and rescue services.
I hope, having listened to the passionate speeches from right hon. and hon. Members who have great experience on this issue, that the Minister will consider what he has heard today, talk to his colleagues, think again, change course and reduce these cuts. The nation is relying on him.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing the debate and all the right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken. The hon. Lady is of course right to pay tribute to the firefighters in her constituency and in green watch and to many others across the country. I have been involved in the fire service, one way or another, for 35 years. I have been the leader of a fire authority. I have had to wrestle with the difficulties of balancing a budget. Throughout those years, I have met firefighters in stations. I have dealt with the fire unions regularly.
I will not give way very much, I am afraid, because I want to answer some of the points that have been made. With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, let us see how we get on.
There is no monopoly of concern for the fire service in either party or personal terms. Equally, we have to recognise that, as with all the public sector, the fire service must deal with the difficult and pressing financial situation that we inherited from the previous Government. I make no bones about that. We must therefore deal with difficult financial circumstances in a sensible fashion. There is no point in denying the need to reduce the deficit, and I do not think that most responsible people on any side do. It is not helpful to use the rather selective quotations that we have just heard or highly coloured scenarios. There are difficulties, which are being addressed by fire services through hard work, and I recognise that. It is equally important, however, to provide the full context, which may not have been picked up fully in the debate.
First, it is right, as has been observed, that back-loading is recognising the position of the fire service as an emergency service. It is worth noting that the reductions applied to fire and rescue authorities have been less than those applied to local authorities in general. No one likes to have to make reductions, but the inheritance is such that it cannot be avoided.
Secondly, it is important to realise that the much criticised formula is—I say it bluntly—essentially the formula that this Government inherited from Opposition Members when they were in government. It is a bit rich to hear criticisms of illogicality from hon. Members who were effectively the authors of the system—a system that the Government are proposing, in the coalition agreement, to change. Let me spell that out a little more clearly.
May I make a little progress? I want to get this on the record, and then my hon. Friend will understand why.
It is important to recognise that, under the current system, the metropolitan authorities none the less receive far more protection from the damping system than any other type of authority. The Government took the view, despite arguments from some quarters to the contrary, that it was right to maintain the damping position. That has protected the metropolitan authorities more than anyone else. For example, West Midlands fire and rescue authority benefits from damping to the tune of £8.5 million in 2011-13. Overall, there is approximately a £26 million benefit to metropolitan fire authorities from floor damping protection in 2011-13.
I am going to make these points before I start giving way to anyone.
That is more money than they would otherwise have had. The Government maintain that protection. Non-metropolitan areas contribute towards that protection.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the Government changed an element of the formula that we inherited to increase the relative needs weighting, which operates to the benefit of metropolitan authorities, because it reflects more of the needs that arise in urban areas. It targets resources on those authorities that are more dependent on central ground. It is not right to suggest that the Government have sought to target metropolitan areas. The operation of the formula is, I think, potentially flawed, which is why the Government, through the Localism Act 2011 and the Local Government Finance Bill, are moving away from the crude system of formula grant to assist in a business rate retention that will enable us to treat authorities fairly.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister. As a fellow Conservative Member who represents a metropolitan constituency, I would not expect him to be biased against metropolitan constituencies. Most of us have engaged in this debate—not just today, but before—in a very constructive way, and so has the Minister. Whatever the origin of the formula, I hope that he will accept that its implementation is resulting in particularly harsh cuts in metropolitan areas. I hope that he will give serious consideration to whether a more equitable arrangement can be found to spread the cuts more fairly around the country.
I understand my hon. Friend, but it is right to say that, in 2012-13, formula grant average per head in metropolitan fire and rescue services is £26, as against £19 per head in non-metropolitan areas. We should not think that there are no pressures and fire risks in non-metropolitan areas.
I want to finish this point before I give way, if hon. Members will forgive me.
It is important to recognise that there are concerns. That is why, after the meeting organised by the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), I indicated that my officials would be happy to meet officials from the fire authorities. I assure him that that is still the case. I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, because of his action on this matter and because he has not yet spoken.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I thank him for his willingness to meet us and for charging his officials to work with those from the metropolitan authorities to get to the bottom of the situation and to consider the future. Does he recognise that there is cross-party and cross-area concern? Does he recognise that that concern is not about the first two years of the spending review; it is about years 3 and 4? The six fire chiefs, uniquely, have to come together to ensure that any cuts that need to be made are made evenly and equitably across all authorities in England.
I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I want to get this point on the record, along with other important points that need to be made for the sake of balance.
I assure the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne that when we design the new system, we wish to ensure that there is fairness. That is why, in setting the baseline under the new system, the risks element will be taken into account. We have decided that, under the new system, fire and rescue authorities will be designated as top-up authorities, so that they will have the confidence of having a significant proportion of their funding protected and will not be subject to volatility by business rate growth. They will have that protection, plus the protection of uprating annually by the retail prices index.
I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman. We are seeking to deal with those measures and will continue to work with authorities across the sector.
It is also important to put on the record that other funding streams are relevant to the fire service. Funding for the national resilience element is outside the formula grant. That has been referred to on a number of occasions. It is important to bear in mind that the funding for new dimension equipment, for example, increased in 2011-12 from 2010-11. The total metropolitan authority funding for new dimensions is £8 million. There are also specific grants in relation to urban search and rescue, high-volume pumps and so on. We maintain our stance that that will be treated as a new burden issue should more be required.
Capital grant funding for metropolitan authorities has been significantly increased. In Greater Manchester, the increase is 82%. Metropolitan fire authorities will benefit from £25 million capital funding, so it is not entirely accurate to talk solely about the formula grant. The Government are making other resources available to local authorities and fire and rescue authorities in particular to assist them with the need for service reconfiguration.
DVLA Closures (Scotland)
I am grateful for having secured this debate.
The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is an important organisation in respect of the service it provides to motorists and the £5.7 billion a year that it raises for the Treasury. I shall focus on the problems arising from the DVLA’s proposals to close 39 of its local offices, particularly those in Scotland, because there is a Scottish angle that I am anxious to discuss with the Minister.
I shall focus on my local office. The office in my constituency is particularly busy, as are most of the offices throughout the country. Some 2.4 million people a year use their local DVLA office. The figures show that between 80,000 and 90,000 people a year use the Aberdeen office. In the past three years, there have been more than 250,000 transactions involving individuals using their local DVLA office for various purposes. Some 79 services are provided by DVLA at local offices.
On examination, the figures are stark. For example, Aberdeen has one of the highest rates of use of personal number plates, or cherished number plates to use the DVLA term—about 18,000 in the past three years. People might expect nothing less from an area that is fairly rich in oil and gas money.
The proposal is to transfer all the functions of the 39 offices to Swansea, which is the main headquarters of the DVLA. The consultation document by the DVLA and the Department for Transport is one of the weakest that I have seen: we are getting motherhood and apple pie and heading for sunny uplands, but there is little—virtually nothing—about the 1,200 jobs that will be lost in this process and little risk assessment of the financial analysis. We are not even told how much the Department expects to save in this operation. In addition to all that, there is no impact assessment and no consideration of what the consumer—the customer—is likely to face.
The Edinburgh local office, which is not in my constituency, although I have constituency work there—it is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart)—provides a service for the motor trade, which it finds valuable because it enables it to carry on its business swiftly and efficiently with people with whom it has built up a relationship. Does my hon. Friend agree that the loss of that service is a loss to those businesses?
Indeed, it is. Motor dealers who have sold a car want it to be registered as quickly as possible. Registration is one of the largest components of the work of the office in my constituency. A significant number of objections or letters of complaint from the motor trade have been sent to the DVLA as part of the consultation. The motor trade will be damaged substantially by the local closures.
Another option is to replace the local offices with the Post Office. I have no objection to business going to the Post Office—we all want our local post offices to improve their businesses—but no one in that organisation can provide the technical help and support that the local DVLA offices provide. The other option is to go online. I am happy that the DVLA have made significant progress in this area. I have re-registered my car simply online: it works well and I am pleased about that.
The jobs have not really been considered in the consultation document. I understand that 1,200 jobs are at risk and some of those—200 or 300—will be moved to Swansea, if people are prepared to move. The hon. Gentleman is right. Despite the progress made by the DVLA in going online and its digital technology, I understand that there is a huge gap in the technology. The trade unions’ assessment is that it will take at least four or five years to fill that gap. That will add to the problem.
The other route being offered to customers is the post. We are talking about 2.4 million new transactions shifting from local offices to the centre in Swansea. A pilot test run a year or two ago, looking at postal loss—envelopes that go missing between the DVLA and its customers—showed that some 0.9% of post was lost. That does not sound like a lot and I am told that the DVLA has got that figure down to 0.5%, but with the number of transactions that will transfer to Swansea the potential loss is huge: almost 120,000 of 2.4 million letters will potentially be lost.
I have calculated that, if everyone in my area used the post—clearly they will not; this is just for illustration— over the past three years we would have lost 1,250 communications. Given that many of these communications will contain identification documents, such as passports, that is a serious problem. I should like the Minister to comment on that.
We are given three potential ways forward and there is a serious problem with each of them. More important, from my point of view as a former practising solicitor, are the legal consequences of another aspect of the DVLA’s work. The key responsibility in the local areas is enforcement.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that a key danger of the reorganisation is the potential effect on evasion of vehicle excise. I am also sure that he is already aware that if evasion rose by only 0.5% it would wipe out all the savings of this reorganisation.
The hon. Gentleman is right. The 2004 figures, which are the most recent that I have managed to get hold of, show that evasion of vehicle excise duty was about 5%. That is a significant figure. Every percentage point costs the DVLA £57 million. Even a small increase, say 0.5% or 1%, would mean that the £28 million in savings expected from the closure process will be wiped out. It is not unrealistic to say that through this process, we are heading, particularly in Scotland, towards the serious possibility that evasion of vehicle excise duty will increase.
In the system at the moment there is an enforcement office in each region. In Scotland, that office is in Glasgow. Around the country, vehicles go out on our streets patrolling with number-recognition equipment, tallying what they find with DVLA records to pick up vehicles on which the vehicle excise duty has not been paid. It is quite a sophisticated operation.
I am told that responsibility for vehicles is to be removed from the local office, but Scotland has a particular legal issue. In England and Wales, and perhaps in Northern Ireland, the DVLA is the prosecuting authority, but in Scotland everything operates through the procurator fiscal, who has to operate within the confines of Scots law, which involves corroboration of every piece of evidence presented to the court.
In my local area, there are between 200 and 300 contested cases a year, because someone either pleads not guilty or ignores a summons from the court. That needs evidence, which at the moment is provided by an officer from Glasgow travelling to the local sheriff court, which could be just around the corner in the Glasgow sheriff court or in Orkney, Shetland or Western Isles. An assessment is made in each case—basically, a cost-benefit assessment: what is the cost of sending an officer to Shetland or Aberdeen and what are we likely to get in the way of a fine? If the costs outweigh the likely fine, a case will probably not be proceeded with, so people are already getting away with refusing or failing to pay their vehicle excise duty.
If the same cost-benefit analysis is done in the Swansea office, sending someone from Swansea to Shetland or even Aberdeen becomes a major operation. There are major cost factors, including overnight stays, which are unlikely at the moment. The cost will rise, and will we also see a rise in evasion of vehicle excise duty? If we do, what assessment has been made of the cost? Where is the financial analysis to show us what the new system might mean for evasion, in particular if we continue to provide evidence that must be from a witness, on which there is no option in the Scottish courts? What is the analysis? It strikes me that we will be opening the gates to people who might be prone to think that they can get away with evading their vehicle excise duty, and that undermines the whole system.
Among the problems to be considered, I have mentioned the consultation document, which is flabby and weak in every respect—I am concerned about it, because there is a host of areas where we do not have answers, some of which I have outlined. There has been no consideration of the huge rise in inconvenience to the public who use the local centres in significant numbers. The evidence is available: 2.4 million people a year will be inconvenienced, many of them businesses, some large, some small. The consultation report tells us that some such businesses already use the online system but, from my contacts in the motor trade, they are more interested in completing their licence or registration on the same day, rather than waiting several days, perhaps longer, for the material to come back from Swansea.
Also, from experience of such significant changes and reorganisations, the first two or three years are likely to be chaotic as the system beds down. I have commented on the loss of documents, in particular passports, which are valuable in themselves but are lost at huge inconvenience to the individual passport holder and with a possibly large profit for any criminal into whose hands the passport might fall. The potentially significant rise in tax evasion would be at significant cost to the Treasury. At this stage, with the lack of information from the consultation process, it is difficult to see anything positive. I have a simple question for the Minister: what is the point?
It is a pleasure to be working under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Williams, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing the debate. If I were in his position, I would be in his seat, and he would probably be in mine.
The changes that we are proposing and that were subject to consultation are not only about money. The service offered by the DVLA to the British public is quite different from any offered by most other agencies: apart from the collection of vehicle excise duty revenue that we do on behalf of Her Majesty’s Treasury, the service is paid for by the people who use it. The DVLA has to be self-sufficient in how it operates. At the moment, the types of service that we offer to the public in offices around the country could clearly be done more professionally, efficiently and helpfully, and at a cost that could help the taxpayer as well. The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the 2.4 million people who use the offices each year, but that equates to less than 6% of DVLA transactions, although they take up almost 25% of DVLA staffing levels. I shall leave others to do the mathematics, but if we can operate more cost-effectively, that is what Governments should do.
Many services are offered at different offices around the country, and the hon. Gentleman rightly alluded to the profitable business of cherished or personalised number plates—whatever we want to call them—but the system is quite archaic. Someone has to prove the MOT for the vehicle from which the plate is being transferred, even though the transfer has been approved by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency: the vehicle has to be brought to the test centre and the process gone through. We want to speed that process up—we want more cherished number plates in Aberdeen. If there is money in Aberdeen to buy cherished number plates, the DVLA wants that money, because it helps to balance the books in the country. At the moment, there is a disincentive because the measures are complicated, which anyone who goes through the process will realise. We want to simplify it as much as possible.
Throughout Government, we want to use digital portals much more efficiently. Some 50% of all DVLA transactions now go through the digital portal, with people sitting at home or at their local library. That service continues to be rolled out across the country. On non-payment of VED, I am pleased that the latest figures are much better, and less than 1% is lost—in other words, people not paying are less than 1%. A lot of hard work has been done in the regional offices and the Swansea central office, but much of the success is to do with automatic number plate recognition. Modern ANPR cameras are ridiculously accurate—I hope people are listening to the debate—and, as we have rolled out ANPR through the police and through our camera technology, we have picked up more and more people. More individuals are being made aware that they are likely to be caught and prosecuted, which is why we have that level of less than 1% at the moment. There is no way in the world that I would be standing in the Chamber to condone any process likely to let that figure get worse. Most prosecutions are done through Swansea—I shall come on to the Scottish issues in a second, which are different, I accept, but we have taken them into consideration.
A lot of the improvement in the capture of defaulters is because of the number of patrolling recognition vehicles, but my understanding, certainly in Scotland, is that they are being removed. Are they being removed throughout the country? What impact assessment has been made of the effect of that on defaults?
There is a roll-out, not a roll-in, to use probably perverse language—more and more vehicles are going out. I will not tell the country where they are and where they will be, because I want to catch and prosecute people.
If any hon. colleagues have not been out on patrol with their local police with ANPR in the vehicle, I urge them to do so. They should contact their local constabulary and go out with them, because it will be an eye-opening experience for them. They can then explain to their constituents just how advanced the technology is. I sat in a police car on the side of an A road in Milton Keynes recently, but as the vehicles went past an alarm went off in the car if they did not have any insurance or MOT, and we knew who the vehicle was registered to. ANPR is very accurate. As we have rolled out continuous insurance—
I urge the hon. Gentleman to bear with me, because I want to make a little progress. I am conscious that, otherwise, Mr Williams will shut me up before I have had an opportunity to address the issues that he raised.
I fully accept that there is some concern in the motor industry, but it is split. I regularly meet the industry’s representative bodies, and I have met representatives of the motor trade in my constituency. What we are proposing will be more efficient. It will not be a case of putting documents in the post and losing blank tax discs. We will use a secure system, and speed will be subject to a contract. Delivery will be the following day, and it may sometimes be possible to offer same-day delivery.
Most of the complaints that I have heard from colleagues have come from people at local offices, who believe that they may lose their job. I fully understand their concerns, but the necessary efficiencies will mean that the risk to the motor trade of holding whole books of blank tax discs in their showrooms will be removed. At the moment, showrooms receive them in blocks, and are responsible for those blocks, which they may return if they do not use them. That is not efficient for them or for us, and we intend to roll out a more efficient way.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in saying that the system in England and Wales is different from the system in Scotland. The system in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) knows, is completely archaic, and no electronic portals can be used because the database is not compatible with the database in Swansea, so we must do something about that. There may be an Adjournment debate on the subject, but I thought I should raise the matter. We must deliver a much better service for the Province of Northern Ireland. In Scotland, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen North rightly said, the procurator fiscal is the prosecutor, but we do not intend to have everyone sitting in Swansea and then taking lovely journeys to Shetland and the Western Isles.
The hon. Gentleman agrees that it is a lovely journey. I have been to Shetland and the Western Isles, and I agree, but it takes a while and requires an overnight stay.
We will work with the procurator fiscal. I am not a lawyer, but this place is full of lawyers, and we will ensure that case notes are available with the evidential base for prosecution. I want the number of prosecutions to rise, not fall. If anyone in Shetland and the Western Isles believes that they will not be prosecuted because of the cost analysis, they are wrong. We will be able to roll out prosecutions on a level playing field throughout the country. I fully accept that at the moment that is not the case. I apologise to those who live at the extremities of this great nation of ours, but we will ensure that whether people live in London or Shetland, they will be prosecuted if they break the law.
The consultation is genuine, as is any consultation I introduce. I remember standing here and speaking about a completely different consultation and saying that it was not a closed deal. Matters that were not in the consultation will arise. Some 400 colleagues and others have contributed to the consultation, which closes on 20 March. We will consider all submissions, whether or not they were detailed in the consultation.
The issue is categorically not just about saving money, although there will be savings. It is my responsibility, and the responsibility of the chief executive of the DVLA, to ensure that we provide a service to the public that is as cost-efficient and as accessible as possible. There is demand for a more digital service, and for it to be provided through the excellent post office network, which we have all defended in this Chamber over the years.
It is imperative that at the end of the consultation we ensure that all the issues are considered. If the plans go ahead, we will ensure that, wherever possible, staff will be transferred to other departments if that is what they want. If there are redundancies, we will ensure that we handle them correctly, and if retraining is required, it will be provided. Only the other day, I met a group of DVLA workers who were worried because they had never filled in a CV or applied for a job. Assistance will be given to everyone who applies for a new job in a Government agency or Department, or who are leaving DVLA. That is a moral responsibility, as well as a legal one.
We must ensure that the cost base is delivered correctly and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) said, we do not lose the benefit of the current level of non-payment, which is 1%. I cannot claim full responsibility for that, because I have been in the job for only 21 months, and the figures cover three years, so the previous Government must have been doing something right to achieve that figure. Some of that excellent work is done in local offices but—I hate to say this—most of it is being done through technology and at Swansea.
There will be more than 300 new jobs at Swansea. That does not equate with the 1,200 jobs at risk around the country, but some of those new jobs may be taken up by existing DVLA staff if they wish to relocate, although I fully understand that relocating from Aberdeen to Swansea would be extremely difficult. That is why we will offer redundancy packages if necessary.
My job is to ensure that we deliver the best possible service for the public, who are telling us that they want a more digital system. I accept that some businesses are saying one thing, and others are saying another, but as long as we can ensure that we deliver the service to the motor trade professionally and without much of the risk, I think they will be happy, and they have mostly indicated that they will be.
We want to sell many more cherished numbers, particularly in parts of Scotland where there are affluent people who want to use their disposable income in such a way. We must make it simpler for them to do so, and end the present bureaucratic and archaic system.
Veterans (Mental Health)
[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]
Given the nature of this afternoon’s debate, I should like to pay tribute to the soldiers missing and believed killed in Afghanistan. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families at what must be an incredibly difficult time.
It is always a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, and indeed to initiate a debate in this Chamber. I feel, however, an even greater sense of privilege due to the special nature of this debate. Like many Members on both sides of the House, I am a great supporter of our armed forces family. From serving personnel to veterans, those brave men and women have served our country with dedication, and they deserve admiration, respect and parliamentary attention.
I should like to discuss veterans’ mental health, which is one of the few subjects that quite rightly commands political unity on both sides. The work of successive Governments over recent years has given the issue great momentum, and early in the debate I should like to commend the previous Government on the work that they did on behalf of veterans. I also congratulate the Minister on the way that the current Government have championed this worthy issue.
My interest in the mental health of veterans comes from my frequent correspondence and discussions with one of my constituents who is the mother of a veteran. Her dedication to improving the provision and information provided to veterans is inspiring, and I hope that she will take heart from today’s debate.
In recent years, efforts to tackle the cruel stigma that is related to mental health issues more generally across society have begun to make a difference to many of those who suffer from what is often an invisible illness. Indeed, it has been estimated that one in four people in the country suffer from some form of mental health issue each year. The Mental Health Network, which is part of the NHS Confederation, has carried out excellent work, and over the past few years, it has been heartening to see the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health working closely with the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress and others in the voluntary sector to provide a range of improved services for veterans who suffer from mental health problems.
Let me take the opportunity to praise the work of all charities up and down the country that work day in, day out with members of our armed forces family. In particular, I should like to champion the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress—two charities that play a vital role in delivering key services to veterans and serving armed forces personnel. Together, those charities offer vast experience, unquestionable compassion and unwavering dedication. With approximately 22,000 armed forces personnel leaving the service and returning to civilian life each year, we must appreciate the wide-ranging mental health issues that can be provoked by experiences in war-torn countries and dangerous conflicts around the world.
Over the past 10 years, British troops have been involved in a range of conflicts from Iraq and Afghanistan to Bosnia and Sierra Leone, and the bloody experiences of those wars cannot fail to leave a mark on those who confront them. When we think of the sacrifices made by armed forces personnel, it is right to consider not only the often terrifying physical risks undertaken, but the mental strains that are placed on our brave servicemen and women.
It has been estimated that more than 27% of veterans suffer from a common mental disorder. For those armed forces personnel who leave the service each year having experienced direct action in recent operations, the transition from service life to civilian life is often traumatic. For many, the future is uncertain, and owing to the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, many sufferers fail to seek help on leaving the services. If they do seek help, it is often at a dangerously late stage. A Mental Health Network briefing last year suggested that, on average, veterans do not come forward for mental health support until 14 years after their discharge. Sadly, homelessness and alcohol or substance abuse is more prevalent among veterans when compared with others of similar age or social background.
I have three main objectives in this debate: first, to commend the superb work that has been carried out on behalf of veterans who have suffered from mental health problems in recent years; secondly, to seek assurances about the continuation of parliamentary support for such work to be maintained on a more permanent basis; and thirdly, to ensure that our provision for veterans is coherently delivered in the best possible manner.
The previous Government’s “New Horizons” strategy document bound the NHS and the MOD to improve access and support for the early treatment and prevention of mental health illness among servicemen and veterans. The current Government, led admirably by the Prime Minister, launched the military covenant, which enshrines into law the Government’s duty to support the entire armed forces family. The covenant makes a new commitment to provide
“extra support for veteran mental health needs.”
Soon after taking office in 2010, the coalition Government asked my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) to produce a report on veterans’ mental health. He should be congratulated on his truly outstanding work and recommendations, and I encourage any hon. Member who has not yet read the report to request a copy from the Library.
My hon. Friend’s “Fighting Fit” report received favourable backing from the Government, and rightly so because it includes a raft of measures to ensure better provision for veterans and their families. Among 13 action points and four principal recommendations, the report specifically calls for
“An uplift in the number of mental health professionals conducting veterans outreach work… A Veterans Information Service (VIS) to be deployed 12 months after a person leaves the Armed Forces… trial of an online early intervention service for serving personnel and veterans.”
As part of the Government’s initial response, a dedicated 24-hour mental health support line for veterans was launched in March 2011, operated by the charity Rethink on behalf of Combat Stress and funded by the Department of Health. In addition, the number of mental health professionals was doubled from 15 to 30.
With the “Fighting Fit” report, the Government’s military covenant and the previous Government’s valuable work, much effort has been made to deal with this issue. The objective now, however, is to ensure that that wide-ranging support, financial assistance, e-learning provision and information literature continues and is focused in the most effective way possible.
I have a number of questions for the Minister to which I hope he will respond, although I accept that some information might require communication with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence. First, will funding for the dedicated 24-hour support telephone line continue after the one-year trial, which I believe is soon coming to an end? I believe that having someone on the end of a telephone at any hour of any day who is willing to listen, able to support and trained to understand must be of tremendous reassurance and assistance to affected veterans. The continuation of funding for that telephone service would indicate a clear commitment to veterans, and I urge the Minister to push for that support to continue.
With an eye on the future, I ask the Minister to outline the time scales involved in implementing the new veterans service to which the Government have made a commitment. A key issue as we discuss the future of such support is the difficulty of keeping in touch with veterans. As discussed earlier, many leave the service and move on to temporary accommodation or work. It is impossible to provide meaningful support if we do not know where veterans now live or work. Will the Government do more to track and store information about veterans, and will that information be shared with key partners?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that there is a particular problem with regard to the Territorial Army and reserve forces? Many of them are spread out across the nation, and we do not know where they are. At least, regulars have the regimental family around them, even after they become veterans. People from the TA are often out in the wide world without anyone to provide such support.
I agree. It is also worth noting that reservists tend to suffer more from mental illness, if they have experienced conflict, than regular soldiers, so it is probably even more important that we understand where the reservists are and can monitor that and target help towards them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and I support the laudable aims that he is describing. Given the established difficulties with keeping track of individual soldiers and the difficulties with giving the necessary support post discharge to all manner of servicemen and women, is it not time that we started to consider the possibility of a veterans agency that brings together all these things and provides a co-ordinating review and a hub point for all these services?
I agree. As I said, there is a real problem about the joined-up thinking that needs to be done. A tremendous amount of work and services are out there, but we need to bring that all together, under one roof. I will come on to that later if I can.
There remains a real danger that too many veterans will slip through the net because they fail to be registered for initial support on leaving the service and get lost in the system thereafter. The best way to ensure that support gets through to veterans is to keep up to date with veterans, as has been said.
Having touched on the increase in mental health nurses across the strategic health authorities covered by an armed forces network, I ask the Minister to outline the initial effect that the Government believe those nurses are having. Is there sufficient demand for the increased services? Do we need to consider increasing the numbers further? Ensuring that Government provision is frequently reviewed in such a manner will help to keep the ball rolling on this very important subject.
Without wishing to ask too many questions, I should be grateful to the Minister if he confirmed how many of the 10 health networks have now developed integrated services for veterans with specific mental health problems. As I said, ensuring that our provision is targeted correctly and effectively in supporting veterans is key.
I should now like to deal with the online package of interventions for veterans. In response to a recent written question tabled by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips), the Minister, who I am delighted to see will respond to this debate, stated that the uptake of membership of the Big White Wall among the armed forces family is exceeding expectations. It would be interesting to know whether uptake among veterans is also high. Although I am a great supporter of online interventions, my slight fear is that information, assistance and forms of community engagement are all present and accessible online, but only if someone actively searches for them. With respect to veterans who suffer from mental health problems, we cannot expect all of them to be able or even willing to carry out such research. Are those leaving the service provided with the relevant links and information before they leave?
I, too, commend my hon. Friend for initiating the debate. Does he agree that there is a key role to be played by local authorities in providing the information for veterans that he is describing? David Herbert, a constituent of mine in Halesowen, was instrumental in bringing together a veterans charter in the Dudley borough, precisely to signpost veterans towards key information in the local area, including information on provision of mental health services.
I thank my hon. Friend for that timely intervention. I agree that local authorities have a key role to play, and I agree with the point about the veterans charter, which could go a long way towards delivering what we need, because ultimately we must signpost services correctly. That is the real point. As I said, there are great services out there, but I fear that if we do not signpost them to veterans effectively, we might be missing a trick.
The hon. Gentleman has done a service to the House and to people outside it, particularly veterans, by initiating this debate today. One of my constituents, Charlie Brindley, is a veteran and a champion of veterans’ causes. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should look for the best way of using such people as champions to assist us in reaching veterans and dealing with the difficulties in relation to mental health even more effectively?
I agree. We must use the experience of such people to help us in this process. Signposting is the key. We have the strategy, but we need to bring things together in a coherent manner that best serves veterans such as those whom hon. Members have mentioned in their constituencies.
As I have said repeatedly, the work carried out in this field recently has been outstanding, yet we cannot rest on our laurels. We need to engage more public interest. We must continue to provide direct funding and support and to monitor each initiative to ensure that it is proving effective. There are so many different strands of support. My final plea is that all the excellent provision be kept together in a specific and coherent strategy. We have already in the debate heard about a number of different ways in which that might be done. If the provision is too loose, too disjointed or too sporadic in its implementation, we run the risk of undermining the general force of the positive work in this area.
I appreciate that a number of hon. Members would like to contribute to the debate, so I shall briefly conclude my thoughts. The work carried out by charities such as Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress and so many others literally saves lives. I applaud every one of them. Likewise, hon. Members on both sides of the House who have championed our armed forces should be proud of the work achieved in recent years to assist veterans who suffer from mental health problems. However, our work in scrutinising the present Government and future Governments must never cease. We have a duty to monitor and assess and to push those at the very top to ensure that veterans are at the top of our leaders’ agendas.
I save my last words for both serving and retired servicemen and women. I have never served in the armed forces family, and I expect that only those who do will truly understand the pressure, sacrifice and honour that such service entails. I do not pretend to understand what it must be like to face danger and even death on foreign shores on behalf of Queen and country. However, I can assure all veterans that I shall continuously do my best to ensure that they are never forgotten once their service is completed, that their needs are met by the country to which they gave so much and that their dedication and commitment are rewarded, acknowledged and, indeed, celebrated.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this debate. Sadly, we do not give anything like the attention we should to the consequences of our decisions to go to war. There are even instances where attempts seem to have been made to suppress knowledge of those consequences. In the past, it was possible for me as a Back Bencher to read out the names of all those who had fallen in the Iraq war and later in the Afghan war. Such practice is now expressly forbidden by the rules of the House. If I attempted to read out those names and their ranks today—I think that they would make a greater impression than any speech that I could make—it would take about 25 minutes to complete the list. The House has decided that it does not want to hear that, so it will never happen again.
There was an attempt to change the system of announcing the names of the fallen at Prime Minister’s Question Time. The names were announced on a Monday and a Tuesday, but MPs protested, saying that they wanted to hear those names announced at a time when hon. Members and the press could give them their maximum attention, so we have now gone back to the original time. I believe that the country wishes to understand the consequences of war.
I want to mention the case of a constituent of the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). If I have the hon. Gentleman’s permission to mention the details, I will be happy to relay the story. The case of Sergeant Dan Collins has moved everyone. He went to war at the age of 29. He was optimistic and courageous and had a brilliant record of service. He was shot on two occasions and on two other occasions, he was damaged by improvised explosive devices, but the incidents that tormented him the most were the deaths of two of his friends, one of whom died in the most dreadful circumstances, having lost a number of limbs. The sergeant was holding him as he died. It was that incident that tormented him. He had fine treatment from his family, a loving girlfriend and help from the local charity, Healing the Wounds. Tragically, he took his own life earlier this year—he had attempted to do so before.
If today’s tragedies are confirmed, the number who have fallen is 404. Sergeant Dan Collins will not be numbered among those and neither will many others. The results of the Afghan war will be seen not just in the numbers of the dead and the civilian dead, who are uncounted, but in the 2,000 soldiers who are now broken in body or mind. It is right that we should do all that we can to treat them with the greatest care.
We should say a word of thanks to the Welsh Government, who have taken this matter very seriously. Recently, the Welsh Minister for Health, Lesley Griffiths, announced that she was setting up a £500,000 fund to ensure that every health authority in Wales has a specialised doctor with experience in dealing with veterans to deal with those who come back from the war. It is absolutely right that we do not disguise or shy away from the consequences of our actions.
In my time in Parliament, we went to war in Iraq on the basis of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. We stayed in Afghanistan mainly on the pretext of a terrorist threat to the United Kingdom from the Taliban. That threat did not exist; there were threats from al-Qaeda, but not from the Taliban. We are now being told that we should contemplate war against Iran on the basis that it has missiles carrying nuclear weapons with a range of 6,000 miles, which do not exist.
I am grateful for your patience, Mr Dobbin. Finally, when we establish a code of conduct and a covenant between us and the soldiers, our main duty should be to put as the first line a pledge that we will never go into a war that is unnecessary. That is our duty in this House. If we are to avoid fatalities and more people being mentally damaged, our main task is to resist those who cry for war.
It is a great pleasure and a privilege to speak in this debate today. I have been in this House for nearly two years and I have not had the opportunity to raise the issue of the mental health of veterans in the way in which we have done today. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) for securing this debate and for the measured and eloquent way in which he has brought the issues to the House.
I join my hon. Friend and other colleagues in passing on our respective condolences to the service men and women, and to the families of those who died in Afghanistan so recently. I endorse everything that both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition said. It is an utter tragedy and one of the largest losses of life for many a year. I remain of the view that the sooner we bring our troops home from Afghanistan, the better it will be.
This debate is certainly overdue. I want to make a declaration. I send out my thanks and support to the various charities, volunteer groups and individuals who provide support. I echo the words of support for the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes. If I need to declare that I have raised funds for such groups while serving as a Member of Parliament, I do so. I certainly need to make a declaration that I have represented, as defence counsel, multitudes of soldiers facing criminal charges, which was a salutary and depressing experience. Many of the soldiers had committed criminal offences, which they had no desire to commit, because they were suffering from mental health problems and fundamentally from post-traumatic stress disorder.
I represented a Royal Marine who had broken down in a supermarket after he had been unable to get together the right amount of money at the till. He felt that the lady behind the counter, who had been perfectly civil to him, had not been as co-operative as she should have been and it all became too much. The nature and the prevalence of post-traumatic stress are such that it is always the very smallest things at the end of the process that result in the demise of the mental strength of people who have quite happily stormed up Tumbledown ridge, gone across the Gulf deserts and fought repeatedly in a way that very few of us in this House can even contemplate. It is how we provide support that is important. As defence counsel for some of these lads and, on one occasion, a woman, I saw very strongly how their spirit was broken. I have also seen, over the last 15 to 20 years of lawyer practice, plenty of examples of these people falling through the system.
My hon. Friend is making an important speech about how people fall through the net. My neighbour, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), mentioned Charles Brindley, who has been trying to do some work around GPs. Many GPs do not seem to be aware of the military assessment programme that is available. Often if someone presents with a mental health issue, the GP is not trained or aware of the services and support that can be made available. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to ensure that GPs are better educated and better trained in dealing with such individuals?
I entirely endorse that point. Although it is incumbent upon Members of this House to raise the profile of this issue and to try to disseminate information about the types of health care support that exist, it is also incumbent upon the relevant health trusts and authorities to ensure that in future a degree of information is passed down the net to individual GPs and action teams, particularly those teams dealing with alcohol abuse, so that the organisations in the regions are able to support the veterans who are out there.
I have worked with a charity called Veterans in Action. It involves some constituents of mine in Northumberland but it also involves servicemen and women who are based in Lancashire and all over the country, who are attempting to do various things. For example, they have a pilot project with the Lancashire Drug and Alcohol Action Team that involves meeting up with GPs to work with them and trying to do exactly the sort of thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) has outlined.
However, the worry is that, although individual groups in our constituencies are all doing very good work to provide a degree of assistance to veterans, there is no overarching body providing global support. What often happens, therefore—for example it has happened with Veterans in Action, which was set up in my constituency and is now working throughout the country—is that the individual soldiers effectively get fed up with the process and decide to provide support themselves.
I supported what the previous Government did. They were working to do a great deal more than had previously been done. Successive Governments have improved care for veterans over time. But the “Fighting Fit” report and the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) have clearly taken things to the next stage and a better level.
I will digress slightly, because in my constituency I have the Albemarle barracks and the Otterburn ranges, troops from my constituency are serving on a regular basis in Afghanistan with the 39 Regiment Royal Artillery, and the Ridsdale ranges provide all the weapons that are tested before the soldiers use them. I also have a large number of constituents who have served in the forces. For example, many Falklands veterans live in my constituency and have come to see me because of the experiences that they have suffered and the lack of support that they have experienced. That was under a different Government and, frankly, I am not here to criticise any Government. However, there is no question but that the degree of support given to the Falklands veterans was limited compared with the support that we are giving to the veterans who are returning from Afghanistan now. Things have got better.
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), I wanted to say that in the 30 years following the Falklands conflict—it is rather timely to make this point, this year being the anniversary—more soldiers were reported to have committed suicide after the conflict than had actually died in the conflict itself.
It is interesting, is it not, that today is 7 March and on 7 March 1982, exactly 30 years ago, about three and a half weeks prior to the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, which happened on 2 April 1982, the British ambassador in Argentina wrote a cable from Buenos Aires to the then British Prime Minister, saying that matters were escalating. It is very well known, and it was reported in the Franks report that assessed the Falklands war, that “contingency plans” needed to be made. That was not enough and a war began, then escalated. I certainly will not go down the route taken by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) by digressing further. However, the point is that the treatment of the veterans of the Falklands war was not as good as the treatment of veterans now, partly because there were difficulties at that time in understanding what post-traumatic stress disorder was.
From a health standpoint, PTSD is not confined to victims of conflict. There are also plenty of victims of PTSD who were involved in normal, day-to-day accidents and disasters, whether it is industrial health accidents or factory accidents; people can have PTSD arising from those things. We need to change the way that PTSD and other aspects of the mental health of veterans are visualised, because it needs to be recognised that PTSD and other mental health conditions are just as much a disease or condition as breaking an arm or suffering from cancer, and it is just as difficult to solve or treat.
I move on. I endorse entirely what was said about the current situation, and I will abbreviate my comments to making an assessment of the current situation. Various studies have shown that a very large proportion of our veterans are suffering from PSTD. At present, approximately 24,000 veterans are in jail, on parole or serving community punishment orders. That is the astonishing number that emerges if we assess how many veterans are going through our criminal justice system. It manifestly shows that, for whatever reason, we have not done enough.
Let us also bear in mind that American studies have shown that approximately 30% of the US troops who were in Vietnam suffered from PSTD, or about one in three. That is an absolutely staggering number. Therefore, although we might look at the respective troops coming home from Afghanistan, and at those who fought in Iraq and other conflict zones, and think that they are all right, three out of 10 soldiers will genuinely suffer PTSD. They may suffer it in year one after their return. Year 14 is the average length of time that it takes, but it can take as long as 25 or 30 years, and throughout all of that time, their individual families are suffering and going through particular difficulties.
I applaud the “Fighting Fit” report and the work that is being done. However, I regret to say that that is not enough. Personally, I do not consider that it is enough. I accept entirely that we are in straitened times and that, with every budget, we have to consider the way in which things are dealt with. Nevertheless, I very much hope the Minister will give the sort of assurances that charities and individual soldiers’ organisations seek about their future, and that there are commitments on an ongoing basis to the matters outlined in “Fighting Fit”, so that those charities and organisations have the reassurance that genuine efforts will be made to ensure that their funding is sustained; that mental health systems are structured properly; that the recommendations of the inquiry into medical examinations while soldiers are still serving are properly implemented; and, given that we are introducing all these ideas from “Fighting Fit”, that there will be proper assessment of those ideas after they are introduced. I agree that organisations such as the Big White Wall are not necessarily being utilised in the way that was envisaged; they are being utilised, but not necessarily in the way that was envisaged.
I would very much like to see an overarching body for veterans. I would like a veterans agency to be considered by the Government, and the Government to consider whether there is a possibility of bringing together certain parts of the NHS, the Ministry of Defence and social services and housing elements, which make up so much of all the difficulties that our servicemen suffer, and dovetailing that with the health services that are provided in prisons.
We can look at the way that people are dealt with in terms of health services in prisons. I have extensive experience of going to see clients who are former servicemen and who have received a custodial sentence or who are held on remand. There was absolutely no doubt that they were hopelessly unable to deal with the difficulties of a custodial sentence, or the difficulties of being detained, at that particular time, in circumstances that they would normally have been perfectly able to deal with.
I have agreed with much of what my hon. Friend has had to say, but I have some difficulties with the notion of the establishment of a new agency to carry out the functions that existing Government bodies are required to carry out at the moment. If there were a veterans agency, would there not be a risk that people at the Department of Health or the Ministry of Defence would shrug their shoulders and say, “Someone else is doing this for us, leave it to them”, and that the services received by veterans would be significantly worse than they are at the moment?
I accept there is always a risk that, if we create some new body, we will be in a position whereby everybody passes the buck and says, “Well, they’re sorting it out”. However, I am clear that every single MP could come to this House and say, “I have individual examples of people in my constituency, or stories that I have heard of former servicemen.” Those servicemen are continuing to slip through the net—they are unaware of the individual aspects of the services that are available to them—and the Government are not necessarily acting as an overarching body to ensure that they are aware of those services.
Let me give some examples. There is very good evidence from the “Fighting Fit” report and other studies that follow it up that there should be a leavers pack for soldiers and, for example, an ability for veterans to be monitored after they have been discharged. All those services are good, but they stop after a certain period and the Government do not go back to those individuals to ask, “Are you actually all right? Are you in a position to cope with the vicissitudes of your life and your existence on an ongoing basis?” That is the sort of thing that I would like done. I concede that it may be possible to do such things in the present Departments, but there must be more joined-up thinking, because the problem is ongoing, and there are examples.
I am conscious that other Members wish to get into the debate, so I will abbreviate my comments. I want to talk about the work of Veterans in Action, a classic charity, which is run by individual veterans. For a number of years, they have been providing in-depth support, which they have found is, sadly, lacking in the system. They tell me that there is no generic way to collect veterans’ information and that it is collected very much on a local, case-by-case basis. Similarly, they say it is extremely difficult to get organisations to work together. They also tell me that the Big White Wall is not being used as it was intended to be and that people are using the Combat Stress helpline as a first point of contact.
A great many smaller, third sector organisations and charities set up by veterans are having similar problems. With no national directory or local directories of such organisations, it is immensely difficult for individual veterans who are constantly moving around—who have problems with housing and with all the dislocation that goes with that—to harness the efforts of such organisations. Therefore, just as successive Governments have done amazing work looking after individual veterans’ health in conflict zones, we should do more to look after their mental health after they have left those conflict zones.
I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on opening this important debate.
I must admit that I am not a natural when it comes to defence-orientated debates. I do not come from a garrison town and I have no experience of the forces—I suspect I am naturally too insubordinate to fit into them. However, I have a genuine interest in this issue. It is spurred not so much by constituency cases, although a soldier came to see me who was severely traumatised by the conflict he had endured, and the atrocities he had seen, in Aden. It was an awfully long time ago, but it had scarred his whole life, traumatising him, driving him to alcoholism and creating huge mental health issues. I also dealt with a case in which a gentleman who had been advised by the Ministry of Defence to assist it with research at Porton Down on the common cold subsequently had a lot of worries that were quite unrelated to his exposure to the common cold.
What really sparked my interest, however, was my experience on the Public Accounts Committee, which produced a series of interesting reports on and around this area that showed up some quite distinctive and worrying issues. The report I want to dwell on was called “Ministry of Defence: Treating injury and illness arising on military operations”. It showed quite categorically that the forces were excellent at dealing with people’s physical ailments in the theatre of war and subsequently—the profile and the results were good, and the medical treatment was exemplary. When it came to mental health, however, there were some very odd results. For example, it appeared that American and British soldiers exiting the same theatres of war had widely disparate experiences in terms of their mental health, with more Americans reporting themselves, or being reported, as having mental health problems by a considerable margin.
Even more strangely, the figures coming out of the British forces for mental health problems showed soldiers were experiencing no real anxiety at all; in fact, they showed that troops were in just as good mental health as the ordinary population, which was odd. During the PAC inquiry, I told Sir Bill Jeffrey, who was permanent under-secretary at the time:
“I think we would all accept that war is extremely stressful and people see some horrid, fearsome things that would disrupt the psychology of almost anybody. What surprises me”—
then and now—
“is that the referral of the Forces appears to be lower than the referral rate of the population as a whole.”
I put it to him that that was intrinsically implausible:
“You would have thought there would be more mental health issues amongst a population of people who see quite traumatic scenes than amongst those who do not.”
More brutally, I said the rate of referrals
“is actually lower than the population at large. In other words, it would appear…that in the confines of Committee Room 15”,
where the PAC was meeting,
“we are far more vulnerable to mental health stress than people in the operational theatre of war.”
It can be pretty torrid in the PAC at times, but I suggest that result shows that something is going awry in the forces’ reading of troops’ mental health post-war.
Equally puzzling was the disparity between people coming out of the Iraq and Afghanistan theatres of war. Lieutenant-General Baxter, who was then the deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, explained:
“I think you have to look at the nature of combat…When you are being shot at and you can shoot back, it is a lot less stressful than when you are being bombed or suffering indirect fire.”
I do not know whether that is true, but it invites serious questions about the level and quality of screening when people are discharged.
Other reports that the PAC produced at the time were equally troubling. They showed, for example, that squaddies were far less well prepared for the outside world than they could have been when they were discharged. There were also troubling statistics, with which we are all familiar, about high rates of alcohol problems, imprisonment and homelessness among people leaving the forces.
That is all very troubling, and the causes are fairly complex, but one thing is absolutely clear: the screening of soldiers exiting the theatre of war was very poor in the British forces. Often, it was done simply through self-completed questionnaires, but people do not ordinarily volunteer any deep psychological problems they may think they have in such a questionnaire.
There was also evidence in the PAC report that I quoted that support for people in the theatre of war was relatively poor. The most that they seemed to get out there most of the time was three community nurses, along with one consultant psychiatrist every three months. If people showed up with problems in the theatre of war, those problems were unlikely to be fielded especially well. There are particular issues here, and we must be prepared to face up to them. One, although I have only anecdote to go on, is that some people enter the forces because the structure that they provide is exactly what their personality needs. When they leave the forces, however, that structure simply disappears. Often, their homes will have gone, and their families will sometimes have gone, too, so they find themselves in difficult territory.
A second suggestion is that there is necessarily a culture of mental toughness in the forces, so people are slow to own up to whatever problems they may have. Those problems might therefore go unrecognised and be submerged for quite some time, and that is at the root of some of the problems that were so well analysed by the hon. Member for York Outer.
We in this place have clocked these problems, and quite a lot has been done about them. Since 2010, when the PAC report I quoted was produced, there has been a surprising amount of really good progress. On 6 April 2010, the previous Government committed themselves to providing £2 million of new funding. They can be credited with increasing the number of helplines and endeavouring to increase the education and training of GPs. We also pay tribute to the Murrison report, which represented excellent progress. Before that, the Ministry of Defence even did some research, which helped everything along. There is strong cross-party commitment to recognising these problems and doing something about them. In a sense, therefore, Parliament can justifiably credit itself with having done something about a very real and clearly identified problem.
I would like to conclude by thinking about where we go from here. My concern is that most of the solutions that were proposed following the previous Government’s deliberations and the Murrison report involved something along the lines of specialist health service commissioning. I do not want to talk about the difficulties of the legislation currently going through Parliament, but such specialist commissioning is an issue. The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) has advocated as a solution getting round specialist commissioning to some extent by means of an agency that is a one-stop, catch-all arrangement. Creditable though that suggestion is, it will not get us out of the business of specialist commissioning, because the problems will show up locally in many diverse settings. I wonder whether the Minister will say something about that.
When I was the Defence Minister with responsibility for such matters, we set up pilot schemes with the NHS, with which Combat Stress was involved. Delivery issues are important, because in most respects the treatment is exactly the same whether the patient is a civilian or not, but some members or former members of the armed forces would prefer to talk to someone with experience in the armed forces. That is why we involved such people in the pilots.
On the other hand, other people from the armed forces did not want to see someone who had also been in the armed forces, because as far as they were concerned that life had finished, or they wanted to move on, or they had had a bad experience. It is a difficult issue to come to terms with, and that is why there is a need to mix and match support and clinical help. It is important for people to have that choice.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on bringing forward such a sensitive topic, and I associate myself with his remarks about today’s tragic news about the loss of life in Afghanistan.
Like many hon. Members who have attended the debate, I am encouraged to participate following a meeting a month ago with a constituent of mine, Mr Paul Marston, an ex-serviceman. He expressed serious concern about the lack of recognition for servicemen leaving the armed forces who are affected physically and mentally. That prompted me, as it did many other hon. Members, to look into the situation.
Approximately 22,000 armed services personnel leave the service to return to civilian life every year. There are an estimated 5 million veterans in the UK. For many of those people, who are used to support within the armed forces family, it is often difficult to cope outside the military framework. Veterans face a range of problems associated with mental health, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) drew our attention, ranging from the failure to hold down employment and problems in their personal lives to alcohol or drug misuse and contact with the judicial system. Given the contribution that veterans have made to our country, it is vital that the Government should do all in their power to provide a dedicated mental health service for veterans.
I have a further interest in the matter, as a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Like many other hon. Members, when I first arrived here I knew nothing about the armed forces, and through that scheme I have had the pleasure of visiting troops abroad and have learned something of their lives at first hand. I have met some of them at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. I have recently returned from a trip with the scheme to the Army training centre in Kenya, where I met soldiers taking part in a hot climate training exercise in preparation for a tour of Afghanistan later this year.
Having met the servicemen and listened to my constituent and other people, I welcome the Government’s commitment to act on the review carried out by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). I understand that there were four key recommendations, including an increase in the number of mental health professionals providing outreach work for veterans and the introduction of a veterans information service, deployed 12 months after a person leaves service.
The Government have also, of course, published the armed forces covenant, which sets a framework on how the armed forces community can expect to be treated. It includes improving veterans’ access to mental health services, such as building a greater focus on mental health into discharge and examination. My constituent made the point to me forcefully that early intervention is the key. We need to ensure that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health-related issues are spotted early, and I am pleased that the Government recognise that.
It is important to work to remove the stigma that is in many ways attached to mental health trauma, particularly for veterans. Such awareness could be raised by a national memorial to those who suffer mental health problems because of combat. That is not my idea, but the idea of Mr Marston, who is frustrated by the treatment of veterans. I pay tribute to his dedication to that cause. He has told me about a new veterans contact point close to where he lives, but says there is little awareness of it in the veteran community, or even the wider community. That facility has the potential to be of massive benefit to all ex-servicemen, but Mr Marston believes that it has not been sufficiently publicised.
Mr Marston would like the idea of such a monument to be pursued, and he has registered an e-petition on the No. 10 website, calling for such a memorial to injured soldiers. There are, of course, many memorials to those who have fallen in war, but the one suggested by Mr Marston would be particularly for those who suffer from physical or mental health problems, and it would raise the profile of veterans with health issues. It would also be a worthy endeavour in itself. I acknowledge that that is outside the area of responsibility of the Minister who is responding today, but it will be of substantial comfort to Mr Marston and many of his colleagues to know that consideration is being given to recognising in that way the contribution that veterans have made.
I will speak only for three or four minutes, which I think will give the shadow Minister and the Minister longer than they were expecting; but as there was not a line of hon. Members waiting to speak, I thought that I would add my voice to this important debate. I apologise, Mr Dobbin, for not dropping you a note.
I congratulate my near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), on securing this important debate on a vital issue. There are no party politics involved; we all agree about the sort of services that we want provided for ex-service personnel. I just want to tell the story of a constituent of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). He is the gentleman whom I mentioned earlier, Charles Brindley, who is the vice-chairman of the Royal British Legion in Brigg, in my constituency. He has been trying to put together a project in the area to establish better mental health and support services for veterans. He is trying to co-ordinate through the councils, and I am pleased that North Lincolnshire council has taken him up on his offer of working with it.
There is so much involved in trying to bring everything together. The e-mails that we have had from Charles Brindley and the discussions that we have had with him have been quite enlightening. He has been trying to work with the Prison Service, and he found out that one prison does not have a dedicated individual to respond to ex-service personnel there. He has been trying to work with the primary care trusts and GPs on the very point that I raised with my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman): raising GPs’ awareness of what is available through the NHS for ex-service personnel. He has also been trying to work with other organisations that I would not even have thought of, such as Age UK, which has told him that older people may now be starting to present with mental health problems that go a long way back.
A range of organisations and institutions come across ex-service personnel at different points in their lives and provide them with services, and the fact that they are not necessarily always joined up concerns me. Some of what is happening can certainly be brought together under the auspices of the local authorities, but I echo the idea of a dedicated veterans agency. The example that is probably most similar to what we want are the incredibly dedicated services, including specialist health services, provided to veterans in the United States, where veterans seem to be provided with a lot of support that we in this country sadly do not give.
As many Members have said, it is often far down the line that mental health problems start to rear up. This summer, I met one of my ex-pupils walking through the town centre. I had not seen him since I taught him when he was about 16, and I asked him what he had been doing since then. He said, “I’ve been out in Afghanistan.” I think he was in a Yorkshire regiment. He said, “I got shot. I’ll show you.” He then rolled up his trouser leg to show me his bullet wounds. I asked him if he was okay, and he said, “I’m absolutely fine. I’m going to get paid out now. I’m going to get a better pension, and I’m going to get a house. Everything’s fine.” He may think that he is fine now, but in 10 or 15 years’ time, with his career in the military effectively ended, a mental health problem, as we know, could rear its head. What will there be to support that individual then? He is getting a lot of support from the Army at the moment—he had no criticism of that—but in 10 or 20 years’ time, that support might not be there, or he might not know how to access it.
I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that another consequence of delayed stress and trauma for veterans can be the impact on their family relationships. Representing families in courts, I have seen over the years that that has caused difficulties. It has been largely a case of fathers having a less meaningful relationship with their children and being less able to take responsibility for them.
I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says. We have probably all seen examples in our surgeries of military service sometimes leading to breakdowns, which are then presented at our constituency surgery for assistance. I am reminded of the old saying: while the physical wounds may heal, the mental scars never quite go away. So I endorse what has been said by other Members today.
One of the themes in the debate today has been whether we do or do not have a veterans agency. Somebody said that the veterans agency is an American model, but the Americans do not have our GP system. Even with the existence of a veterans agency, is there not a problem with how that then interacts with the GP, who will often be the first port of call when problems occur?
That is exactly the point that the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) accepted. In creating anything, there will always be interaction problems. We all know where we want to be; how we get there is probably a bit more difficult. Now that the shadow Minister and the Minister will have a little more time, I am sure that they will expertly plot a course forward to deal with these issues.
As always, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this important and topical debate. We have heard the sad news today that six of our service personnel are missing and presumed dead in Afghanistan. It is a poignant reminder of the reality of serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families at this time.
I note that we had a similar debate on this subject last year, proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears). It explored many of the important issues surrounding the mental health of veterans. It is right that we should again take the opportunity to discuss the welfare of our serving personnel and veterans and the impact on their families. For veterans’ mental health, we need to look at the true picture of how people are affected after they have left service. Indeed, we should be paying as much attention to the issues that face service personnel and their families when they leave the armed service as when they are actually in service.
The UK’s armed services are among the best in the world, and we can rightly be proud of them. We owe them a great deal of gratitude for the work that they do in our name. The charity, Combat Stress, has shown that a significant minority of servicemen and women suffer from mental ill health as a result of their experiences. A study in May 2010 into personnel who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan showed a 4% prevalence of probable post-traumatic stress disorder. An estimated 180,000 troops have served in those two operations: if 4% develop PTSD, that equates to 7,200 more sufferers.
The study also highlighted a prevalence of 19.7% for common mental disorders, and 13% for alcohol misuse. We must look into ways in which we can deal with that and ensure that the right facilities and support are in place to diagnose and treat such conditions. Admittedly, improvements have been made in recent years. Mental health pilot schemes have improved support and treatment for personnel suffering from mental health problems.
In 2007, the Labour Government extended priority access to NHS services to all veterans whose medical conditions or injuries were suspected of being due to military service. Priority access had previously extended only to those claiming a war pension, and efforts were made to raise awareness of that. As has been mentioned in the debate, we now have the armed forces covenant enshrined in law, which I think all hon. Members welcome.
The interim report on the covenant summarises the Government’s approach, taking forward recommendations in the report by the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), “Fighting Fit”, which I also welcome. I understand that the report’s recommendations were rolled out over the past year, many of which were introduced as pilot programmes to be reassessed after their initial trial periods. I would welcome an update from the Minister on the pilots and also an assurance that his Department has been promoting them among serving personnel and veterans’ communities.
Most Members will have met ex-service constituents who have been directly affected and heard about their experiences, some of which we have heard in the debate today. We should rightly recognise the important work done by organisations such as Combat Stress, which provides an invaluable service to veterans around the country. Its centres and outreach work allow veterans to get the help and support that they need in a specialised environment, along with other veterans who are going through similar experiences.
The Enemy Within campaign run by Combat Stress seeks to tackle the stigma that, unfortunately, as we have heard today, can be a barrier to people getting the support and help that they need. Currently, they have a caseload of more than 4,800 veterans, including 228 who have served in Afghanistan and 589 who served in Iraq. The majority are ex-Army: 83.5%. Their youngest veteran is just 20. The invaluable work of Combat Stress and other organisations, such as the Royal British Legion, is to be warmly welcomed, but the Government should also take on their fair share of the responsibility. It is important that we do not view the services offered by the voluntary and charitable sector as any sort of replacement. That work should complement, not replace, the services that the Government offer.
Indeed, as we already know, the charitable sector is facing an incredibly tough time at the moment. Even though organisations such as Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion have continued to have generous support from the public, we should not assume that those services will always exist and always have enough funding to run. The Government should decide which services they have a duty to provide and should fund them properly. The Government need not always be the vehicle to deliver those services, as we have heard, but they can fund experts such as Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion to do so on their behalf.
The Government should also consider how mental health services for veterans can be guaranteed, when their national health service reforms are creating so much uncertainty. I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), although I am reassured by the Minister’s reply that a single commissioning body, the NHS Commissioning Board, will be responsible. I think that that is the right way forward.
Clearly, those in the armed forces are trained to do a tough job and rightly have to develop a tough mental attitude. This, of course, can mean that it can be harder for people coming out of the services to admit that they have a mental health problem, let alone talk about it. We should also take into account how long it can take people actually to get the support that they need. Combat Stress has suggested that the average length of time is 13 years. In some cases, it has taken veterans 40 years to seek out the help and support that they need. That is far too long, and we should do all that we can to shorten the time and to let people know that help is available for them now.
Combat Stress has also provided detailed evidence involving cases of individuals who have faced marriage break-up, unemployment, social isolation or substance abuse because they were unable to deal with their mental health problems. However, as with all mental health conditions, a great deal of stigma still surrounds it, which can make it much harder to talk about openly. Until we tackle that stigma, it will be difficult to make significant changes.
I appreciate that it is hard to establish the level of need without a tracking system. As we know, there is no record of how many veterans are being treated for mental health problems on the NHS. Clearly, if we cannot quantify the problem, it is difficult for the Government to quantify the true cost of treating mental illness among former members of the armed forces.
Nor should we overlook the impact of deployments on the mental health of our reservists, as has been mentioned. As we know, the Government’s Future Force 2020 plan showed that the role of reservists will increase significantly in the coming years, mirrored by reductions in the number of regular service personnel. It must make sense for the Government to ensure that support is in place for reservists prepared to take on those extra responsibilities.
I commend my hon. Friend for his speech. Is there not a problem in the offing, given that the Army is being reduced to 82,000 soldiers and certain regiments are being disbanded? We need to know what the NHS Commissioning Board and the Department of Health are doing to aid those who will soon be former soldiers entering civilian life and to determine their mental health issues and what type of help the NHS can provide.
I absolutely agree that we must ensure that ex-service personnel are supported. I am sure that the Minister will respond to that in his closing remarks.
One recommendation in the report “Fighting Fit” stated that a veterans’ information service should be deployed 12 months after a person leaves the armed forces and that regulars and reservists should be followed up approximately 12 months after they leave. Will the Minister update us on how that is developing, and what plans the Government have for the future funding of the Combat Stress-led 24-hour support telephone line for veterans? Will the Department provide an evaluation of how the funding for “Fighting Fit” has been spent, what it has achieved and what will happen for future funding? What additional steps is the Department taking to raise public awareness of issues that relate to veterans’ mental health?
While my hon. Friend is on the subject of funding, is he, like me, keen to hear from the Minister whether he supports our call for a £1 million fund for research into legacy issues from Afghanistan and Iraq, with a focus on mental health? That could be paid for by a reduction in generals in the forces.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Labour Front-Bench defence team has made that commitment, which is laudable. Redistributing part of the saving to serve veterans’ mental health shows that the issue is a priority for us.
This debate has provided us with the opportunity to explore the issue of our veterans’ mental health and welfare. I pay tribute to Combat Stress, the Royal British Legion and other groups that, along with many service organisations and charities, play an outstanding role in supporting the whole armed forces family, for which we should thank them. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer on securing the debate. We must ensure that our servicemen and women receive support after their tour of duty is finished. Surely, we as a nation owe them that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am delighted that the House once again has the opportunity to debate an important issue, although it is sad that we are holding this debate against the backdrop of tragic news from Afghanistan. We await the final details of what has happened over there, but we must give full consideration to the families and friends who might be suffering at this terrible time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this debate. I also thank the other hon. Members who have taken part. The number of hon. Members in the Chamber for a Westminster Hall debate shows how important it is and why a debate is justified after we had one only three months ago.
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Guy Opperman), for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) on their contributions, and I thank the hon. Members for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and for Southport (John Pugh) for theirs, but I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer on the measured, informed and caring way in which he introduced the subject. It became clear as I listened to him that it is important to him as both a constituency Member of Parliament and as an individual. That came through during the course of his remarks.
As hon. Members will be more than aware, members of the armed forces put their lives on the line for their country, but it is we as parliamentarians who send them into combat. It is therefore incumbent on us to do everything that we can to protect their health and well-being, that of their families and that of veterans. There is no issue of greater importance for this Government, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it one of his priorities.
It is crucial and universally accepted that the health care provided by the Defence Medical Services to serving members of our armed forces is second to none. It is equally important that services are provided for our veterans for the rest of their lives when their health is affected as a result of their service, and that those services should be second to none. That is why I am pleased that in recent years, great strides have been made. I was particularly delighted to see in the Chamber a former Minister who had responsibility for veteran affairs during the previous Administration: the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who was here to listen to and participate in this debate. While he served in that post, he had a record of which he could be justifiably proud.
Several Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, raised the question of funding. Real-terms funding for the NHS as a whole is increasing, as we all know, but we have invested more than £7 million of funding in veterans’ mental health over the spending review period. I reassure hon. Members that we will continue to fund veterans’ mental health initiatives for the lifetime of this Parliament.
The focus of this debate is on raising awareness of veterans’ mental health. I feel strongly that we are now tackling the issue from a far more informed position than we once did. Thanks to charities such as Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, awareness of the well-being of the military community is high both in Parliament and, fortunately, among the general public.
I highlight the work of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), to whom many hon. Members referred. The report that he produced will push forward the agenda to improve and enhance veterans’ health. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked my hon. Friend to conduct a study on the relationship between the NHS and the armed forces, including former service personnel, in terms of mental health. The result was the report “Fighting Fit”, which I commend to those who have not already read or seen it, although, judging from my hon. Friends’ speeches, a disproportionate number of hon. Members in the Chamber have read it.
I am proud to say that both the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence have been working on the report’s implementation ever since it was published, which represents a milestone in the effort to improve mental health care for ex-service personnel. For me, one of the strongest themes of the report, and a factor that is particularly relevant to the topic of this debate, is the effect that service care can have on the mental health and well-being of those who have served. Some obvious themes emerged from the findings of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire, echoed in research by some of our partner organisations, in particular our strategic partner, Combat Stress. Its research shows that the average ex-serviceperson can take up to 14 years to seek help for anxiety and depression that has developed as a result of their service in the armed forces. Combat Stress put it vividly, and said that
“those veterans suffer terribly in silence, often for years, before seeking help”,
a fact that was echoed in hon. Members’ speeches.
We must keep that in mind when services are designed. The help that we offer must be accessible throughout veterans’ lives, not just when they return from duty. We must also remember that today, we may just as well be designing and delivering care for Falklands veterans as for those who have served bravely in Iraq or Afghanistan. We owe it to all groups of veterans to get things right, to understand that mental health issues can come into an ex-serviceperson’s life long after they have been discharged, and to communicate that message to the public. It should be a key part of any awareness campaign.
“Fighting Fit” makes it clear that some veterans can never bring themselves to seek help—those who will not admit, even to themselves, that they have a problem, and who must rely on close family members and friends to help them move forward. In partnership with Combat Stress, we have launched a 24-hour veterans’ mental health support line run by a charity, Rethink. The helpline is based on the principle of lifelong care and offers support to veterans of any age and at any stage in their lives. Families may also contact the helpline, both for themselves and to talk about a loved one. It allows both groups to receive targeted support from people trained and experienced in dealing with often complex mental health needs.
Both my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) raised the issue of funding the helpline and its future funding. I am extremely pleased to announce that the total number of calls taken by the helpline is now upwards of 5,000. Hon. Members may be aware that we initially launched the helpline as a one-year pilot, which expired at the end of February this year. However, I am pleased to announce today that we are continuing to fund it for the next year and will consider future funding after that. Working closely with Combat Stress and other partner organisations, it will continue.
We are also working to introduce a veterans’ information service over the next two months or so. It will routinely contact service leavers 12 months after they are discharged to establish whether they have any health needs that require attention. The “Fighting Fit” report refers to the service as something of a safety net to help veterans once the support structures available to them during their service lives are no longer readily accessible. To get it right, it is essential that we are able easily to identify veterans, so we are working with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that a veteran’s status is properly recorded on his or her records. However, we must equally recognise that some who leave do not wish to have their veteran’s status recorded, and it is right to respect those wishes.
Returning to the issue of the safety net, there is another key point when it comes to an awareness of mental health issues of any sort. Perceived isolation can have a bad effect on mental health problems. The problem is bad enough anyway, but among ex-service personnel, it is often particularly bad, because the camaraderie that exists within a forces setting is so pronounced. It makes sense that once the institutional support network goes, an ex-serviceperson might feel alone, adrift or isolated. Support services should not necessarily try to recreate that camaraderie. It is often more beneficial in the long term to help veterans come to terms with their change in circumstances. By creating services that are easily accessible and trustworthy, we are going some way towards building an environment in which an ex-serviceperson feels accepted and understood, and in which recovery is more likely.
At the heart of easily accessible services should be a requirement to make them readily available in each local area. Having a service in each area, especially if it has a high military profile, goes a long way towards raising awareness of veterans’ mental health issues in the country as a whole. I am particularly proud of the effort that the Department of Health and my officials have made to spearhead the set-up of armed forces networks in each of the old strategic health authority areas. The networks are groups of representatives from the national health service, service charities and the armed forces who can represent the health and well-being interests of serving personnel, their families and veterans in the local area.
As part of meeting the “Fighting Fit” recommendations, integrated veterans’ mental health services are now being set up in each network area by the local NHS working in conjunction with Combat Stress. The services are at different stages of development, but I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, who specifically asked about this, that six of the 10 are already up and running and the remaining four will come online shortly.
We have also increased the number of mental health professionals providing services to veterans, not by the 30 recommended in the Murrison report, but by 50. My hon. Friend will be aware that the recommendation was 30, but we have been able to exceed that, and there are now 50 in place, which will considerably help to provide support and assistance to veterans.
No, I will not, because I am almost running out of time.
The partnership with Combat Stress and the innovative solutions delivered by the NHS at a local level is to be applauded. Regarding effectiveness, we are still in early days, but initial feedback has been positive, with more veterans being identified in the mental health care system and receiving the treatment that they need and deserve.
I want to point to an example of what is happening in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer. The work of Andy Wright with the vulnerable veterans and adult dependants project is particularly noteworthy and warrants praise. I am delighted to report that the project has delivered high levels of patient satisfaction, with 85% being very satisfied with their therapist. It is an excellent example of collaboration, which can only serve to raise further the profile of veterans’ issues more generally.
There is a final and vital aspect of veterans’ mental health and care that I would like to explore, which hon. Members have mentioned, and that is stigma. The title “Fighting Fit”
“recognises the importance of stigma and of making interventions acceptable to a population accustomed to viewing itself as mentally and physically robust.”
Stigma is a big barrier standing in the way of ex-service people getting help, and it is vital that we do everything we can to reduce it. Many Members on both sides of the House will be aware of the “Big White Wall”, an online well-being network for serving personnel, their families, veterans and the general public. It is a social network that allows people with mental health problems from every walk of life to engage with others who have similar problems. The anonymity of the network allows for a free and frank exchange of experiences, with a view to generating a wider sense of support, and it is staffed by professional counsellors. The Department of Health and the MOD are funding a one-year pilot for service personnel, their families and veterans on the “Big White Wall”. I am pleased to say that it has had excellent take-up. Up to 1 March, 2,019 places of the original 2,400 provided in the pilot have been filled. Of those, veterans represent 40%, with 38% being serving personnel and 22% family members.
Launched on the same day as the “Big White Wall”, and in conjunction with the Royal College of General Practitioners, an online e-learning package aims to educate civilian GPs about the conditions from which veterans often suffer. The idea is to reduce the stigma attached and increase the likelihood that GPs will be able to give veterans effective and suitable care. That has been successful with its target audience; the package has had almost 14,000 hits since its launch.
I believe that there is a consensus on both sides of the House that much is being done, but much more remains to be done. The more we as Government can engage with veterans, the public and the media, the more likely mental health issues will be understood more widely. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will continue to work together to help the services reach their full potential, so that no ex-serviceperson ever has anything less than all the support that they need of the highest quality.
Typhoon Aircraft (Exports)
I am delighted to have secured this debate on support for export sales of Typhoon aircraft. It also gives me great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), is responding. That is appropriate considering all that he has done on recent visits, on behalf of the Government, to India.
It is always a pleasure to speak on behalf of my hard-working constituents in Fylde, many of whom are employed in the aerospace industry. In my constituency, BAE Systems’ Warton site employs 6,272 people, with a further 4,000 employed in neighbouring Samlesbury. Indeed, BAE Systems provides one in four of all local manufacturing jobs in Fylde. Typhoon is the world-class platform on which the long-term success of UK military aerospace is predicated. That is why I called for today’s debate.
Those jobs are vital in our mission to rebalance the British economy, by returning manufacturing to its core. The military aerospace sector represents 70% of all UK defence exports, which are worth £4.5 billion a year to the British economy. Typhoon alone directly supports 10,000 jobs in the UK, and more than double that indirectly. At a time when all parties are rightly worried about youth unemployment, it is important to appreciate BAE Systems’ commitment to training and developing people, with 1,000 apprentices and 500 graduate trainees at any one time. It also sustains a supply chain made up of many small and medium-sized enterprises, including 1,200 suppliers in the north-west alone.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Companies such as C-MAC and Norfolk Capacitors in Great Yarmouth are also part of the supply chain to MOD projects and other organisations’ projects. Does he agree that the issue affects SMEs across the country, including in places such as Great Yarmouth?
Absolutely. BAE Systems is always the company one thinks about in relation to Typhoon, but my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that component suppliers—large and small—are located in every corner of the country. I know he has spoken up on behalf of his constituents on the matter.
As well as benefiting the economy as a whole, supporting the Typhoon programme has direct advantages to taxpayers by reducing the Ministry of Defence’s unit costs. Savings are generated through increased production runs and a global network of operators, as well as through the pooling of spares and other support-related activities. Exports level out the peaks and troughs of domestic demand and give the MOD more programme flexibility. They also underpin some of our most important strategic relationships.
BAE Systems’ highly skilled work force have extensive expertise and experience over many decades of working in-country with global partners to deliver platforms that best fit their unique operational requirements, such as the Hawk trainer in India and the Tornado in Saudi Arabia. I have no doubt that the same work force are more than capable of continuing to deliver that level of service with Typhoon.
In all defence exports, the importing Government are the customer, and their relationship with the exporting Government is vital. That is why our support is so vital: customer Governments need to know that a Typhoon acquisition will enable interoperability, and facilitate a close and enduring relationship between the air forces of the two countries, with opportunities to train together, share assets and doctrine, and determine ways to enhance capability and reduce the cost of operation. Here the support of the MOD, in particular, is crucial. It is important that we continue to give our partners that confidence.
I believe the Government understand that. That is why, while respecting Germany’s role as consortium leader, the British Government have given such strong backing to the sale of Typhoons to India.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate because the Eurofighter and BAE Systems are critical to his area. He talks about the Government’s relationship with BAE Systems. One anonymous industry source was reported in the newspaper as saying about the Typhoon Indian contract:
“Our defence industry is not working in tandem with the Government as much as the French worked with Dassault.”
What would the hon. Gentleman say in response to that?
The hon. Gentleman summed it up: it was an anonymous source. My experience is that the British Government and BAE Systems have no criticism of each other in the way they have been working to try to achieve the best for the work force in Warton. The Prime Minister himself took a leading role in the UK’s largest trade mission to India in living memory. I was encouraged.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As he knows, BAE Systems at Brough is just outside my constituency. We have a few choice things to say about BAE, but that is for another time. In relation to the Typhoon contract, which was another blow for the whole of BAE, including in Brough, does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite bizarre, given how much foreign aid we give to India—I think four times more than the French—that we are not in the running? There is still an opportunity for the Government to get their full weight behind the contract and to say to the Indians, “We expect something in return for what we give in aid.”
My hon. Friend has put that in words that I possibly could not. I will come later to some of the things that I think the British Government could do.
It is important to clarify the importance that the British Government place on this. I was encouraged, not just by the Prime Minister’s visit to India, leading the delegation, but by his proactive approach and extensive knowledge of the topic at a recent meeting that hon. Members held with him at No. 10 to discuss this important matter. I also thank the Minister for his two ministerial visits to India within the last year; he need take lessons from no one when it comes to upholding the interests of the UK defence sector abroad. None the less, I would encourage him, in his ongoing discussions with his Indian counterparts, to urge them genuinely to review, even at this late stage, the details of this contract, in particular, to note the advantages that working with BAE Systems on Hawk has brought the Indian air force. It should not be forgotten that both the Royal Air Force and the royal Saudi air force use the Hawk as the trainer aircraft for Typhoon. Together, those aircraft mark a perfect partnership in Anglo-Indian co-operation.
India has always been a proud nation; now it has truly come of age. India’s new role is not just regional but international. Britain has consistently supported United Nations Security Council reform to recognise that reality. However, if India is to play its full part on the world stage, it needs the very best military equipment. Typhoon, I believe, is the best fighter jet currently on the market. Diplomatically, India’s international position would also be enhanced by stronger relations with the UK and other partner nations—Germany, Italy and Spain.
It is important to remember that the consortium is made up of private sector companies that need to take primary responsibility for any commercial deal. They must continue to work together to provide a united front for potential customers. They must be proactive in seeking deals on behalf of their shareholders. Perhaps most importantly, they must be competitive on price. However, Government can play a supporting role, as the example of Nissan proved so successfully yesterday. To that end, I ask the Ministry of Defence to give a long-term commitment to enhance Typhoon with operational capabilities that are essential to both the RAF and export customers, such as e-scan radar, and the integration of new weapon systems.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point. He is passionate about BAE Systems. That passion is there for all to see and has been ever since he was elected. The Government’s White Paper, “National Security Through Technology”, suggests that British companies no longer have priority when it comes to MOD contracts. What does that say to foreign Governments, if the UK Government are unsure about whether they are going to buy their own products?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which, were it to be taken literally, as he just said it, would be a cause of concern. However, the White Paper states the UK Government’s commitment to research and development very clearly, and that is an area on which we lead the world. The Government, through the White Paper, are determined to continue to lead the world in those strategic sectors.
Typhoon exports are not just a matter for the Ministry of Defence. I appreciate that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence is responding to the debate. However, Typhoon exports are inherently cross-departmental. It is vital for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, from the Secretary of State down, to engage fully with its German and Indian counterparts. I also urge all relevant Departments to ask their Indian counterparts whether they are looking at this contract beyond price, as this product offers world-leading capabilities.
The India deal is by no means done, but we would clearly not be here today if it had gone perfectly thus far. We must never allow ourselves to be in this situation of uncertainty. The good news is that the upcoming bids will be led by Britain. The British-led consortium is well placed to take advantage of our historical ties with Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Qatar and, crucially, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Foreign Secretary’s leadership in reinvigorating our vital Commonwealth bonds should also stand Typhoon in good stead. While the Minister can only respond on his Department’s behalf, in his response, will he please give an indication of the level of Government support for engagement with those countries? In particular, can he reassure me that the Ministry of Defence has played its full part in enhancing relations with Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and will continue to do so in the coming months? I also ask him to encourage other relevant Departments to be as proactive as he has been.
We should never be shy about supporting British defence exports—other countries are not. We must not allow ourselves to be caught queuing, while others are elbowing their way to the front. Let us never forget that the Typhoon is an exceptional aircraft, built by the finest work force in the world, and that it showcases the very best of British engineering on a global stage.
This is rather earlier than I had anticipated. It is an enormous pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, as you and I share a number of matters in common.
I am delighted to respond to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) on securing it and on having brought with him reinforcements from both sides of the House in support of his case. It is good to see the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and my hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) and for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), who has just made an outstanding speech in the House in tribute to Her Majesty, as befits a former Army officer; he did so with great aplomb.
Since my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde first arrived in the House, he has been extraordinarily assiduous in making the case not only for his constituency, but for the wider aerospace industry. In that, he is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Michael Jack, who was always a doughty champion, too. As my hon. Friend made clear in his speech, the aerospace industry is vital to the economic life of the north-west.
The Government attach great importance to the role of exports in restoring the country’s economic health, following the catastrophic destruction of the public finances by the previous Prime Minister. In line with the Government’s commitment to promote responsible exports, as set out in the coalition agreement, we have been especially active in supporting and promoting defence exports to overseas customers. We have intensified our support for bilateral engagement by directing that every Minister travelling overseas will promote the best that Britain has to offer, including its defence exports. I hope my hon. Friend will take reassurance from that.
Let me stress that such activism by the Government is founded on responsible exports, taking full account of UK legislation on licensing and our international treaty obligations. Our keenness to support UK industry does not translate into a cavalier policy to sell anything to anyone. As I shall say later, defence exports play a critical role in enhancing our international relationships, to which my hon. Friend referred.
Although this is an effort right across the Government and the lead for trade promotion rests with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Ministry of Defence has been doing much of the heavy lifting to bring practical effect to this Government policy. In that endeavour, we enjoy massive support from the Defence and Security Organisation element of UK Trade & Investment, led by Richard Paniguian, whose team do an outstanding job for us and for Britain’s defence industry.
With regard to Typhoon, the cross-Whitehall effort is brought together at the very top, as my hon. Friend acknowledged. Must of that is down to the personal leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister himself. Ministers and senior officials meet continually with a view to ensuring that industry has the appropriate Government support to help further its various campaigns across the globe. I pay a particular tribute to our ambassadors, high commissioners and defence attachés around the world for their contribution to that team effort. It is, astonishingly, quite a joined up exercise. It is more joined up, particularly between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the MOD, than I ever anticipated when I was in opposition.
In my role as Minister for International Security Strategy, I have already visited 15 countries so far, including Chile, Brazil, United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia, pressing the case for Typhoon or promoting the Type 26 global combat ship, and, always, championing the depth and breadth of British industry’s capability in the defence and security sectors—businesses large and small.
I have a concern about some of the export orders. Some of them involve new build at the factory sites of Samlesbury and Warton, but some involve displacements from the RAF. When the Minister is seeking new orders, is he seeking new build orders, or is he seeking to displace some of the Typhoons that were destined for the RAF?
As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde made clear in his speech, the customers are overseas Governments. We do whatever we can, within reasonable limits and within the constraints that apply to us in providing the equipment that our own armed forces require, to provide what the customer is looking for. Clearly, new build is preferable because we understand that it generates jobs in the United Kingdom. However, other countries are increasingly looking for technology transfer and partnership. Trying to deal with that issue is challenging.
I recently returned from a successful trade mission to India, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde mentioned, where I led a delegation of 25 British defence companies, large and small, to promote the very best that Britain has to offer. That kind of initiative is designed to demonstrate to our friends in India our serious intent to build lasting partnerships with them. I am due to return to India for its defence exposition later this month, so I will see the Indian Minister again. I will mention India specifically in a moment.
Typhoon has already secured a number of export contracts beyond the four partner nations, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has ordered 72 to date, and Austria, which has ordered 15. The MOD is actively supporting DSO and working with Eurofighter Typhoon’s three other partner nations on a number of other campaigns, which are at an advanced stage, including in Oman, Malaysia, the UAE and a further tranche for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The UK is in the lead in responding to the requirements of Oman, Malaysia and the UAE, and Her Majesty’s Government and BAE Systems, as UK prime contractor, are also fully involved in those campaigns, led by our partners.
The MOD’s support activity has included deployments of aircraft to the Dubai and Malaysian air shows. The latter engagement also took in valuable participation in a multinational exercise within the five powers defensive arrangement. The RAF has also made platforms available to carry out impressive flight evaluation trials here in the UK, so that the overseas customer can witness Typhoon’s superb performance at close quarters. That is pretty impressive stuff by any measure, but all the more so when viewed against the backdrop of recent operations.
Earlier this month, a delegation from Malaysia visited the UK to undertake such a flight evaluation trial. RAF Coningsby hosted the Royal Malaysian air force, and a demanding schedule of sorties covering a wide range of mission scenarios was carried out, supported by maintenance demonstrations by teams on the ground.
We were very pleased to receive Oman’s request of 21 January for a proposal from BAE Systems for the supply and support of Typhoon aircraft. That represents an important step towards the contract and is a further sign of the strong and enduring relationship between our two countries. My noble Friend Lord Astor and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan) are well connected in the two countries I have just mentioned and have performed a huge service in adding to the strength of the British engagement.
As I mentioned, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to purchase 72 Typhoon aircraft, under the former Government. That is welcome, and together with initial logistics and training packages, it is worth several billion pounds to the UK and our European partners. We hope to provide a further tranche in future.
In the UAE, following representations from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, Eurofighter Typhoon was invited in November to submit a bid for 60 aircraft, when it had been thought a deal with another contractor was about to be signed. We are all working hard to prepare an attractive, competitive bid to one of Britain’s oldest allies. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is due to visit the UAE shortly. This morning, I talked to Alan Garwood from BAE Systems, who returned this morning from the UAE. I assure all hon. Members in this Chamber that that is indicative of the effort that has been put into this campaign across the Government and industry.
Of course, we are disappointed about the decisions made in Japan and India, but of course we fully respect their decisions. The Indian Government have chosen not to take Typhoon into the detailed negotiations phase of their medium multi-role combat aircraft competition, but the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium and the partner nations stand ready to enter into further discussions with the Indian Government, should that be their wish.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Fylde on securing the debate, which is important for his constituency. I have a genuine question for the Minister, relating to how optimistic we should be about the prospect of the Indians changing their minds. Will he tell hon. Members how many contracts the British Government have got to that stage that have then been subject to such a change of mind, because that is not common, is it?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising an important point. India had to select from two bids on the basis of price, price, price—nothing else. We understand that that is the procedure in India and that, unless and until negotiations with L1—the lowest bidder—have been exhausted and do not lead to a contract, at that point and only that point the Indian Government will be able to enter into negotiations with the other bidder. I assure the hon. Lady that we are maintaining a close interest, but we have to respect the Indian Government’s decision. Beating them about the head and saying, “You made the wrong choice,” is not the best way to win friends and influence people, least of all to encourage a customer to turn to a company.
We stand ready. I have to say that, in this case, the UK is not and never has been in the lead. The campaign in India has been led from the outset by Germany and EADS Cassidian, not by the UK and BAE Systems.
A great strength of Typhoon is that it is proven on combat operations, as we found out in Libya. I thought that it might help if I put on the record some of those achievements. Typhoon’s performance stood out from its coalition contemporaries. Fully loaded with up to six air-to-air missiles, four 1,000 lb bombs, a targeting pod and two under-wing fuel tanks, it was able to cruise at more than 500 knots and at heights in excess of 40,000 feet, taking it well clear of rough weather.
The combination of Typhoon’s long-range radar and data-link integration gave its pilots exceptional situational awareness, which enabled them to control and co-ordinate less well-equipped coalition assets. In six months of deployed operations, the Typhoon force flew more than 600 sorties for a total of just over 3,000 flying hours, without any requirement for an engine change, and delivered more than 200 precision weapons. The aircraft’s excellent reliability resulted in no sorties lost owing to serviceability issues. That is a pretty outstanding record.
Defence exports generally make an important contribution to sustaining our defence industry, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Some 300,000 people are employed in the defence and aerospace industries, which provide tens of thousands of highly skilled jobs. In 2010, defence exports amounted to approximately £6 billion and made a significant contribution to the balance of payments. Figures from UK Trade & Investment show that in the first decade of this century the UK was, on average, the second most successful exporter of legitimate defence equipment in the world, not least in my hon. Friend’s and my constituencies.
It is not simply about money and getting cash in. As my hon. Friend implied, helping our friends to build up their own defence and security capabilities contributes to regional security and helps tackle threats to UK national security closer to their source. No other industry in this country can leverage influence so much as defence, which is why we are giving it such a high priority.
I pay tribute to the UK companies, large and small, throughout the supply chain that are participating in this export drive, including Rolls Royce, SELEX, Martin-Baker, MBDA and Ultra. That reminds us that the Typhoon is not just a BAE product, but encapsulates a range of outstanding British and European technologies. Having paid such a tribute, I extend it to my hon. Friend and highlight the contribution of companies in Lancashire, because in calling this debate he pays tribute to the company and its employees for bringing so much back into the constituency of Fylde and the north-west more generally. I shall, of course, forbear from saying too much about the north-west, as I represent the Farnborough Aerospace Consortium in my neck of the woods, but we are complementary.
I reassure my hon. Friend that Her Majesty’s Government, led by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, are working to support Typhoon exports and British industry more widely, but in these straitened times others are doing much the same and we should not expect an easy ride. The UK enjoys historic ties with a wide range of countries, often dating back centuries, greater than any other nation can claim. Our strategy is to revitalise those ties, both in the interests of our mutual defence and regional stability and to the benefit of our outstanding aerospace industry, of which this country can be truly proud.
Syria and Lebanon
In January I joined a parliamentary delegation to Lebanon, organised by the Council for Arab-British Understanding, which included my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). We set out to examine the effect of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon, to meet with Syrians, including opposition representatives and refugees, in particular in the border areas, and to speak with Lebanese politicians about their perspective on the crisis.
Lebanon and Syria are two countries whose geography was once one, whose history is shared, whose ethnic and sectarian make-up is similar and whose economies are intertwined. Lebanon’s sole functioning land border is with Syria, from where it gets many of its food imports, while Syria depends on Lebanon for banking and financial services. Lebanon is possibly the most affected of the neighbouring countries by the crisis inside Syria and is an example of why that crisis, in contrast to the Libya situation perhaps, is so dangerous to the border region.
The impact of the crisis is felt in many ways, at security, political, economic, confessional and ethnic levels, each of which I shall touch on briefly. On security, Syria presents a serious risk to Lebanon. I will come on to refugees later, but their numbers, which are increasing at present, will undoubtedly affect the sectarian and political balance in Lebanon. Even before the crisis, an estimated 300,000 Syrian workers were in Lebanon, all with families inside Syria. Many Syrian opposition activists, some of whom we met, are active from within Lebanon. Many told us that it was and is unsafe for them in Beirut, where they feel monitored by supporters of the Syrian regime.
We visited Tripoli, and sectarian clashes were clearly a possibility, especially along the fault line between the Sunni and Alawi areas—sadly, subsequently, three deaths resulted in February. The security situation has not been helped by Syrian interference in Lebanon; there has been a series of kidnappings in the Bekaa valley in recent weeks, as a result of the security vacuum in the border area, some apparently for money but others clearly political. I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), what representations the British Government have made to the Lebanese Government about their responsibilities towards Syrians living in Lebanon. In Lebanon, we heard many unsubstantiated accusations of al-Qaeda activity in the Bekaa valley, but many Lebanese to whom we spoke were dubious. Has the Minister received reports of such activity, and what is his assessment of what is happening in the Bekaa valley?
Politically, Lebanese politics is polarised into two groups, those who support Assad and those who do not, referred to as the coalitions of 8 March and of 14 March. Hezbollah is the most powerful force in Lebanon and remains supportive of Assad. Critical questions that everyone was asking when we were in Lebanon were about how strong that support is and what Hezbollah’s position would be as and when the crisis in Syria deepens. I ask the Minister whether the Government will sanction discussions with the 8 March parliamentary bloc about the Syria crisis. It is important for us to persuade that group of the advantages to Lebanon of not becoming directly involved in the internal affairs of its neighbour.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate on this important issue. On the position of Syrians in Lebanon, there is an assertion that, predominantly, the security forces in Lebanon are very much unsympathetic to those opposing the Assad regime. Did he see evidence of that?
The picture is, indeed, complex. Broadly speaking, the 14 March coalition is opposed to Assad and 8 March is broadly sympathetic. Clearly, Hezbollah has strong connections with the Assad regime and, if we are to take its views at face value, it places a great deal of importance on maintaining that regime, but we heard conflicting views about who was standing where exactly. As the situation in Syria deteriorates, we are yet to see what will happen in Lebanon, and that is one of the issues that I am raising in the debate. Does the Minister agree, if I may put it this way, that there are all the ingredients for potential civil conflict and tension within Lebanon, the tragic history of which we all know?
On minorities, there are almost 300,000 registered Palestinian refugees, living mainly in 12 UN refugee camps and some 20 unofficial camps. We visited two camps during our visit to Lebanon, and it became painfully clear that the Syria crisis has polarised opinion in an already difficult situation, so the Syrian problems are not helping the future of the Palestinian people living in Lebanon. There is also minority solidarity; Lebanese Alawis are of course concerned about the fate of their Syrian counterparts, as are the Druze, the Sunnis and the Christians. Recently, even the Maronite patriarch was moved to support the Assad regime, claiming—I have to say, somewhat ludicrously—that it was the most democratic Government in the region. Similarly in Turkey, the Turkish authorities fear the effect of the Syrian crisis on their Arab Alawi population and their Kurdish community.
The two countries are somewhat dependent economically. Sanctions are hitting Lebanon as well as Syria, and tourism is down. Many of the communities that we visited close to the border were dependent on smuggling, and those communities are suffering the substantial additional burden of hosting the refugees. Does the Minister agree that the international community should look at how to assist Lebanon in handling the economic impact of the crisis in Syria?
The most important consideration is the refugees. The UN is reporting that, following the crisis in Homs and the shelling of other areas in Syria close to the Lebanese border, between 1,000 and 2,000 refugees are trying to cross the border. That is in addition to the some 7,000 refugees already registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the north and the many thousands unregistered in Lebanon; the UN estimates that around 1,500 vulnerable Syrian refugees are in southern Beirut. The total number of refugees, according to the UNHCR, now exceeds 15,000 and is growing fast. According to Save the Children, about one quarter of those refugees are children under the age of four.
We visited Tripoli and Wadi Khaled, close to the border, where refugees were being hosted. Their stories confirmed the litany of horrors that we have all heard concerning the events in Syria and in Homs in particular. There were no refugee camps, and people were surviving in abandoned homes and other buildings, frequently with no heating and inadequate shelter. They were dependent on Lebanese families, some of whom were relatives, who were already incredibly deprived, and had lost out due to the absence of cross-border trade.
The Red Cross told us that it could cope with perhaps another 2,000 refugees before pressing the panic button. That was in January, and during the two months since then that figure has been overtaken. Many of the refugees were entering Lebanon via the Bekaa valley, a Hezbollah-controlled, Shia-dominated area. That was, and is creating tensions. All the refugees were fearful of the Lebanese security forces, and many were too scared to register with the UN, fearing that their details would be shared with the Lebanese authorities.
The UNHCR was operating in far from perfect conditions regarding the status of the Syrian refugees. Under international law, they are clearly refugees, and deserve all the rights and protections that go with that status. However, Lebanon has always been deeply sensitive about refugees, and prefers to refer to them as Syrians fleeing the unrest. The Lebanese Government would not recognise them, nor grant them their legitimate rights; for example, they have not issued them with refugee IDs. As a result, they cannot leave the border areas. Our understanding from the UNHCR is that immediate additional funding is needed to cope with the crisis. What assistance is the UK providing to UNHCR? Will the Minister consider providing further assistance as a matter of urgency to help with the looming crisis in that country?
What did the Minister make of the recent comments by the Lebanese President that the influx of some Syrian families into Lebanon as a result of the turbulence does not constitute a major problem because they can “stay with their relatives”? He continued:
“We are treating the Syrians who fled as families, as relatives and not as refugees.”
Do the Government accept that they are genuine refugees? What discussions have there been with the Lebanese authorities on their responsibilities to recognise and protect refugees, and accord them their full rights under international law? What plans have the Government made with their international partners about the possibility of a humanitarian disaster in Syria if the economy there crashes, the security situation deteriorates even further, and the regime falls, which is a real possibility, leaving chaos in its wake? Have the Government discussed contingency plans with their Lebanese counterparts? In particular, has the Minister raised the issue of humanitarian access from Syria to Lebanon? What support can the EU and the UK give to the UNHCR to meet its needs should that happen?
The situation in Syria is critical and deteriorating, and that is having a significant impact on Lebanon. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that the Government are not only monitoring the situation in that country, but are ready to take action to support those in need at the present time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) on obtaining this debate. It is absolutely the right time for the House to be discussing the issue in greater depth than we have been able to do so far. The humanitarian situation in Syria is clearly of enormous international concern, and is frankly nothing short of outrageous, which is an overused word.
My hon. Friend and I met a young boy in hospital in the north of Lebanon, who had been severely injured by what was probably a nail bomb used by the Syrian authorities, perhaps the armed forces, to make war on children, in this case on a child of four or five. The Syrians’ medical skills saved his leg, and that is a great triumph, but it belies the fact that many other children have been killed in the conflict. The plight of refugees in Lebanon is genuinely pitiful. My hon. Friend made the important point that the Lebanese Government do not accord refugees any form of proper status under international law, so they are outwith what international law dictates they should do. I again ask the Minister whether it is possible to exert pressure on the Lebanese authorities to reconsider the matter, because that would make a material difference to the way in which refugees can be treated in Lebanon.
As my hon. Friend said, many refugees in Lebanon are housed with family and friends, but sometimes with total strangers. We saw families with many children packed into small rooms, sometimes without fathers, and often without proper access to financial support. Their plight is difficult, because many refugees are not registered with the UNHCR. Of the 15,000 or 16,000 refugees in Lebanon, perhaps only half are registered with the UNHCR, and depend on assistance from groups such as Save the Children, or perhaps friends and relatives, but the problem of what aid is available to the UNHCR and its assessment of need is a real one. I hope that the Minister can throw some light on what the international community is doing in that context.
The other issue that I want to put on the record is the need to recognise that what is taking place in Syria is enormously important in its own right, but may also have a hugely destabilising effect on Lebanon, a country that has known massive destabilisation for many years. Frankly, the region cannot afford to have Lebanon plunged again into crisis, because that would have an impact not only on Lebanon, but on its neighbours, including Israel, and the capacity for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so on. The issues are much more than those that apply to a country that in recent times has received relatively little attention in our media.
The humanitarian crisis and political destabilisation are extremely toxic, and I hope that the Minister can provide some assurance that at international level the situation in Lebanon is at least part of the consideration as we rightly debate internationally how to push Syria towards a better future, how to get rid of the vile Assad regime in Damascus, and how to move the whole region to a better place.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) on securing an Adjournment debate on this important subject. He is extremely knowledgeable and experienced. As he explained, Syria and Lebanon have an intertwined history, and what happens in each affects the other. The Assad regime has long played an unhelpful role in Lebanon. In addition to ensuring a peaceful transition in Syria and ending the atrocities there as soon as possible, an important priority of this Government is to ensure that stability in Lebanon is not another victim of Assad’s repression.
Let me first address what is happening in Syria, and what we are doing about it. 15 March will mark the passing of the first anniversary of the Syrian regime’s sustained and brutal violence against its own people. In the last year, the UN has estimated that more than 7,500 people, including 380 children, have been killed. As the hon. Members for Edmonton and for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) said, the suffering is appalling, and the suffering of so many children is atrocious.
As well as the large number of people who have been killed, the Syrian regime is engaging in an horrific campaign of repression through widespread and systematic human rights violations, including the torture and rape of men, women and children. In recent days, much of the focus has been on Homs, where the Syrian regime has conducted a campaign of indiscriminate shelling and violence against the civilian population. Reports from Paul Conroy and other brave journalists demonstrate the appalling human suffering inflicted by the regime. The Syrian Government must bring an immediate end to violence across the whole of Syria, in Homs, Hama, Damascus, Deraa and elsewhere.
The Minister will know that the European Union imposed crippling sanctions on the Assad regime in order to stop the killing and repression. Is he concerned that to a certain extent Syria has been able to wriggle out of those sanctions by working with banks and financial institutions in Lebanon?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that, and I shall cover it in some detail in a moment. As I understand it, 114 individuals and 39 entities are now subjected to asset freezes and travel bans. The latest round of sanctions, which was agreed at the end of February, included freezing the assets of the Central Bank of Syria and restricting the regime’s access to the gold and precious metal markets. We will look into my hon. Friend’s point about Lebanon and Lebanese banks that may also operate in Syria, and I will make sure that I write to him about that.
We are gravely concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria, and the actions of the regime are making it incredibly difficult for humanitarian agencies to respond. The UK is doing all it can to address the humanitarian situation in that challenging context. We are providing funding, as well as stepping up political pressure on the Syrian Government to allow unimpeded access to the UN and aid agencies, a full assessment of civilian needs, and the delivery of vital relief goods to all those affected by violence.
We fully support the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, Baroness Amos, in her plans to visit Syria to negotiate for humanitarian access and gain a better assessment of needs on the ground. I was fortunate enough to meet Baroness Amos last Monday in New York. She is now in Syria and we urge the Syrian Government to allow her full access to travel safely and freely in the region.
President Assad continues to exert brutal military force against his own people, and he is responsible for the appalling situation in Syria. We believe that he has lost legitimacy and can no longer claim to lead his country. As the Government have repeatedly made clear, he should step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people.
It is vital that those committing these awful crimes are held accountable for their actions. We have sent experts to the region to help gather and document evidence of human rights violations and abuses, and they will work closely with UN agencies, NGOs and other key organisations. The UK fully supports the Arab League’s efforts to end the violence in Syria and its plan for a Syrian-led political solution to the crisis. The establishment of a Friends of Syria group of over 60 countries is a further important step towards putting in place a political plan that addresses the concerns of all Syrians, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. We also welcome the appointment of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the joint special envoy of the UN and the Arab League on the Syrian crisis. The UK extends to him its full support, and stands ready to provide assistance to his team in its vital work to bring an end to the violence in Syria.
In the EU, the UK has been at the forefront of delivering 12 rounds of sanctions targeted on those supporting or benefiting from the regime, and those associated with them. I will not repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), but we have made a start on restrictive measures, and it may be that further such measures will be required.
The Minister can rightly claim that the Government have been at the forefront of tightening the sanctions regime against Syria. Would it be possible to begin to identify not only those at the very top such as President Assad, but those around him who have taken part in war crimes? If we could begin to identify such people by name, that would bring pressure to bear on senior players in the Assad regime.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to identify those people, and we will ensure that expert help is available for that work of identification and analysis. As I said earlier, those who have committed these terrible crimes will be brought to justice.
Last week, the deteriorating security situation and risks posed to our embassy staff led the Foreign Secretary to withdraw our staff from Syria. That decision in no way reduces our commitment to active diplomacy and to maintain pressure on the Assad regime to end the violence. We will continue to work closely with other nations to co-ordinate diplomatic and economic pressure on the Syrian regime through the Friends of Syria group and the EU.
Let me now look at how the current violence within Syria risks destabilising the region. As the hon. Member for Edmonton made clear, the despicable actions of the Syrian regime inside Syria impact on Syria’s neighbours. Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey are all affected by the continuing bloodshed, and the consequent flow of refugees has potential implications for their security and economies. Lebanon’s historical, confessional and economic links to Syria make it particularly vulnerable.
The number of refugees fleeing violence in Syria to safety in Lebanon is steadily increasing. Determining the numbers, however, is difficult. The UNHCR has registered at least 7,200 Syrians near the northern border of Lebanon, but there are undoubtedly many others. We estimate that the real figure is closer to 20,000, with a further 5,000 unregistered people likely to be in the northern border area and Tripoli; 5,000 in the Bekaa valley; 2,000 in the southern suburbs of Beirut; and 600 in the southern city of Saida. The Qatari Red Crescent has said recently that it believes a total figure of 50,000 Syrian refugees is credible. That is a huge figure, and shows the sheer scale involved. The hon. Members for Edmonton and for Manchester Central made an important point about displaced Syrians who have found refuge with relatives or host families, and I note the concerns that such arrangements might reach the limits of sustainability if those numbers continue to increase. We have regularly urged the Lebanese Government to continue their work with international agencies to provide shelter and protection for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Generally speaking, the Lebanese Government are responding effectively in a difficult political context.
I was asked what the UK is doing to support the international effort, with particular reference to the UNHCR. We have doubled core funding to the UNHCR this year to help it carry out its work globally, including in the middle east. The Department for International Development provided £39 million for 2011-12, and we remain in close contact with UNHCR as this fast-moving situation develops. A DFID humanitarian adviser has been deployed to the region to get a better understanding of events on the ground and identify ways in which the UK might be able to help.
We will work closely with the Lebanese Government to improve conditions for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Importantly, that includes work to improve the governance and security arrangements in the refugee camps. To that end, the UK committed £117 million of non-earmarked funding for 2007-11 to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
I am listening carefully to the Minister’s speech. One recent concern was about the actions of the Lebanese authorities in trying to restrict the numbers of people coming across from Syria, particularly in the Homs area. We should be urging the Lebanese authorities to open up humanitarian access, should conditions in Syria deteriorate. Will the Government make a commitment to urge the Lebanese authorities in that direction?
We will certainly look at that point and I will take the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on board.
The UK is continuing to look into reports of limited Hezbollah involvement in Syria. Any Hezbollah support for the Syrian regime’s ongoing brutal repression would be a huge mistake and counter to Lebanese interests. Hezbollah’s rhetorical support for President Assad has exposed the hypocrisy of its supposed commitment to the poor and oppressed, and significantly undermined its credibility across the region. We urge all parties in Lebanon with any influence over the Assad regime to use that influence to seek an early end to the repression.
As has been expressed, the impact of events in Syria on the Lebanese economy should not be overlooked. We are working closely with the Lebanese Government to support economic reform, including offering support on regulatory processes to ensure long-term prosperity in Lebanon. UK companies have been involved in assisting the Lebanese Government to explore potential oil and gas resources in the country’s maritime waters, and our embassy remains active in supporting UK companies to play a greater role in Lebanon’s ambitious plans to develop its infrastructure. As part of the prosperity agenda, I assure the hon. Member for Edmonton that we are working hard at improving our bilateral trade. Indeed, we have made a commitment to increase such trade by 15%, year on year, over the next two years. That is what we are doing to try and bring wealth and prosperity to the people of Lebanon.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue, and if there are points that I have not covered, I will write to him. The UK is committed to ending the bloodshed in Syria, to preventing it from destabilising Lebanon, and to helping the peoples of that region realise their aspirations for a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous future.
Question put and agreed to.