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Veterans (Mental Health)

Volume 561: debated on Monday 15 April 2013

Before I answer the question, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Jamie Webb of the 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment, who died in hospital in Kandahar on Tuesday 26 March 2013 from wounds received in Afghanistan on Monday 25 March. He died in the service of his country and our thoughts, and those of the whole House, are with his family and friends.

The Government are committed to ensuring that each and every one of the roughly one in 10 adults in this country who are veterans receive the support they require from across the whole of Government. Responsibility for delivering mental health support lies with the Department of Health, with which the Ministry of Defence works closely. Together we are providing greater access to mental health care for the first six months after discharge, an increase in the number of veterans mental health professionals, a 24-hour helpline in partnership with Combat Stress, and an online mental health support and advice website called the Big White Wall.

The north-east provides more servicemen and women, proportionally, than any other region in the country, so I am pleased to say that we have award-winning mental health services such as a veterans well-being assessment and liaison pilot, in partnership with Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion. They expect a surge in referrals as our troops withdraw from Afghanistan next year, but the pilot ends in March. What plans does the Minister have to meet the expected increase in demand for mental health services?

As I say, this will partly be a responsibility for the Department of Health, with which we work closely, but I take the whole issue very seriously, and I have tried personally to meet as many people as I can who are involved in this issue, for instance Sir Simon Wessely at King’s, Andrew Cameron at Combat Stress and Dr Hugh Milroy at Veterans Aid. The Government will continue to reach out to these and other experts to provide the right care for those to whom we owe such a debt of gratitude.

Some great work has been done on mental health care for veterans since the seminal report by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), some years ago. Does the Minister agree that there is a particular problem associated with members of the Territorial Army and other reservists who have come back from active service and who may not know that they have a mental problem? It may be many years later, when they have left the regimental family, that the problems become apparent. What extra can be done to help members of the Territorial Army who have been dispersed around the country?

I understand the issue that my hon. Friend raises. Like him, I pay tribute to the excellent “Fighting Fit” report, which addressed mental health for both serving personnel and veterans. He may be aware that there was a lacuna a few years ago in that reservists returning from theatre were not subject to the same decompression package as regulars and did not necessarily receive the same mental health briefings as regular troops. We have changed that so that reservists coming back from theatre get the same decompression package and mental health briefings as their regular counterparts, which helps to alleviate problems later on.

Will the Minister tell us what problems the Government have experienced in transferring medical records of former service personnel from Defence Medical Services to GPs?

There has been an issue, partly compounded by difficulties relating to the matter of consent. The FMed 133, as the form is known, provides a summary of a person’s medical history while in the services, and is given to members of the services when they leave. They are encouraged to present it to their GP when they resettle in the civilian community, so that the GP knows that they served and are now a veteran. The form provides information to the GP on how to receive more detailed medical records from Defence Medical Services if the GP decides that that is appropriate.

Will my right hon. Friend outline to the House what specific help the Government are giving to Combat Stress in its valiant efforts to help the whole of the military services family with regard to mental health?

We work very closely with Combat Stress, which is a valuable charity. As I intimated earlier, I recently met Andrew Cameron, who helps to run that charity so effectively. As my hon. Friend may know, it has a number of residential centres where people who suffer from such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder can receive help over a period of weeks or months if necessary. I hope to visit one of these centres in the near future.