Providing transitional support to service leavers is a high priority. Those who have completed a minimum duration in the armed forces are offered a framework of support services. Of those who make use of this framework, over 90% of those seeking work find employment within six months of leaving the armed forces. However, we believe we can do more, and I announced in September the appointment of Lord Ashcroft as the Prime Minister’s special representative for veterans’ transition. He has a long-standing interest in the armed forces and a track record of support for veterans’ charities. He will review the support available to service leavers making the transition to civilian life and make recommendations for improving that support and for better co-ordination across Government and with service charities. We look forward to receiving his recommendations in due course.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Over the next two years, 9,000 brave men and women who have put their lives on the line for our country will be coming home from Afghanistan. They will need help to find a home and retrain to find a job, and support for their families. At the moment, they are often pushed from pillar to post around local authorities. If there were a veterans champion in each local authority who could co-ordinate those services, they could make the system work effectively for those veterans coming home. Will the Secretary of State consider the campaign for veterans champions in each local authority area and give it his support?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that local authorities are a vital part of this equation. I am pleased to be able to tell her that more than 150 local authorities so far have signed up to the community covenant. I will certainly make her specific point to Lord Ashcroft and ask him to consider it very carefully in his deliberations.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. As we build our Army reserve to a level of trained strength of 30,000, it will be essential that we capture the skills of regular Army leavers, not just to help us with the numbers but because of the resilience that they will give to reserve forces. I promise him that that is what we will do.
One of the tasks that we have asked Lord Ashcroft to undertake is a discussion across Government and the wider public sector to see what more we can do to ensure that service leavers have the very best opportunities in relation not only to employment but access to benefits and social housing—all the other things that they need. I assure the hon. Gentleman that from my knowledge of Lord Ashcroft I am sure he will do this extremely thoroughly.
My right hon. Friend knows very well, not least from the excellent report produced by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), that one of the biggest problems facing returning servicemen is mental health problems, not only when they first get back but for very many years thereafter. What extra steps can the Secretary of State take to make sure that we alleviate the worst effects of these mental disturbances?
As my hon. Friend will know, the excellent report produced by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is being taken forward by the Government. We will continue to work closely with the Department of Health and others to look at how best we can implement the remaining recommendations in that report.
May I congratulate the new ministerial team who have found their places on the Front Bench today? It is only a shame that that comes at the expense of their dedicated and highly effective predecessors, who deserve the thanks of everyone in all parts of the House.
Many of our armed forces are currently being made redundant. One of the worries is that the Ministry of Defence seems to be trying to save money by sacking experienced people very close to their full pension entitlement. I have been contacted by angry and disappointed family members who feel very let down by this approach. Will the Secretary of State confirm that in future rounds of service redundancies he will take into account proximity to pension qualification when deciding whom to make redundant?
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generous comments on the retiring ministerial team, and I am sure that he will appreciate that my new Front-Bench colleagues will give him an equally hard time in future.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, proximity to pension point is not and cannot be a determining factor in selection for redundancy. Wherever we set the bar—we have made some reductions in the immediate pension point for those being made redundant—some people will, unfortunately, fall just short of it and it is inevitable that they will feel a sense of injustice. The legal advice that I have received is that it would not be appropriate—we would be subject to challenge—if we used proximity to pension point as a criterion in redundancy selection.
There will be disappointment at that answer, not least in the pension justice for troops campaign, one of whose high-profile supporters is Sergeant Lee Nolan, who served our country in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo, and who was sacked just 72 hours before qualifying for his full pension. So disgusted is he that he has returned all six of his medals to Downing street in protest. Will the Secretary of State at least enter into all-party talks, with the aim of guaranteeing that no one currently serving in Afghanistan will be affected in this way? It is simply wrong and not good enough for someone who has served our country bravely and for many years in Iraq, Afghanistan or any other theatre to be sacked so close to qualifying for their full pension entitlement.
Before the right hon. Gentleman climbs any further on his high horse, I remind him that we are having to make reductions in the size of our armed forces to deal with the legacy that we inherited from the Labour party. Nobody who is serving on operations or who is on post-operational leave is eligible for selection for redundancy. The right hon. Gentleman knows that we are deeply sympathetic with regard to those very difficult cases in which people missed their immediate pension point by a very short period, but I assure him that the legal advice is unambiguous on the issue.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Newark Patriotic Fund, particularly Mrs Sue Gray and Mrs Karen Grayson, for its work? It is tireless, splendid and could very easily be copied by hon. Members, so could I encourage him to encourage them?