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Veterans (Support and Rehabilitation)

Volume 588: debated on Wednesday 19 November 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley.

I hope to outline the ongoing need to support people who have served our great country in the armed forces, once their service is complete. The issue is close to my heart and I must declare an interest, because I am a veteran. I had the honour and privilege to serve with 3 Commando Brigade in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick 9. I am also vice-president of my local Stoke Gifford Royal British Legion branch. I know at first hand how important the support network and welfare are, and in particular what is offered by the Royal British Legion.

First off, not all former service personnel need help once they leave the armed forces, as noted in the excellent veterans’ transition review by Lord Ashcroft earlier this year. It is important to point that out. As is too often the case, negative media stories mean that there is a perception among the public that veterans are likely to be physically, mentally or emotionally damaged by their time in the armed forces. In fact, the majority of ex-service personnel go on to good careers where the skills that they have acquired during their service in the military are highly valued. The negative perception, as Lord Ashcroft’s review states,

“in itself constitutes an unnecessary extra hurdle for service leavers, restricting their opportunities by lowering expectations of what they can do.”

I was proud to have served on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill, through which the armed forces covenant was enshrined in law for the first time in 2011. I find it incredible that, as a nation, we had never previously ensured through statute that the armed forces community did not face any disadvantage in getting access to public services due to their service and that special consideration was, of course, appropriate in some cases. I am pleased that South Gloucestershire council, which serves my constituents, signed the covenant on Armed Forces day in June 2013. I wrote to Bristol city council in January this year to encourage it to sign the community covenant, and it has finally done so, as have, I understand, 100% of local authorities in the country.

The armed forces covenant has created change for the better. Alabaré, with its homes for veterans, two of which are in my constituency, tells me that across all its work with veterans in the south-west

“a noticeable shift is taking place regarding the recognition and support of homeless Veterans by Local Authorities; and housing procedures are reflecting this. This, we believe is a direct consequence of the Armed Forces Covenant.”

Alabaré is, however, concerned enough to ask whether it will be the case that

“once the ‘gleam’ and positive media put upon Local Authorities for signing up to the covenant has died down…the Local Authorities remain true to their word”.

Will the Minister assure us that cross-departmental work will continue to enforce the covenant and that local authorities that are found lacking will be held to account? I await with interest the next report, due imminently, on how well the armed forces covenant is being implemented, and in particular how it supports our veterans.

I welcome the Government’s response to Lord Ashcroft’s veterans’ transition review and am pleased that the Government understand that support to ex-service personnel is needed to aid their move into civilian life. I am pleased that the Government have already started to implement many of Lord Ashcroft’s recommendations. We definitely need to be developing and maintaining contact with personnel on their transition to civilian life, which should be for longer than the six months currently proposed.

It is good that the Ashcroft recommendations on how to support service leavers into new careers now include those who do not finish their contract or who serve for less than six years. I understand that early service leavers who have served up to four years are the most likely to have experienced unemployment and other problems. We need to recognise that they, too, have volunteered to serve their country.

I hope the Minister will confirm that the career transition partnership will be permanently extended to all service leavers. It is encouraging to see the figures for the first quarter of 2013-14, which showed an 82% employment rate for service personnel who used the CTP resettlement services within six months after leaving the armed forces. However, the statistics for ex-service personnel also show that 10% are unemployed and 9% are economically inactive, meaning that up to 20% have not started new careers after six months. I would also like to know what follow-up there is to find out how ex-service personnel are doing after one year, two years and then further on. There is a risk that CTP providers could be getting veterans into jobs that are not suitable for their skills and future prospects in the long term.

The Government’s implementation of personal development pathways for all service personnel will definitely help future veterans take responsibility for their own development and should give them guidance on how their skills are transferable to the civilian world. Initiatives such as the Troops to Teachers programme and provision of free further or higher education for services leavers with six years of service and for members of the enhanced learning scheme are definitely a step in the right direction.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we should congratulate organisations such as SSAFA that do an amazing job to help veterans? I draw his attention to Lieutenant Colonel John Arthur in my constituency, who does an amazing job supporting veterans in Braintree.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We owe a huge debt of gratitude for the ongoing good work done by organisations and charities such as SSAFA. What they manage to achieve is remarkable.

Looking after our veterans is not only our duty; it is practical. For this country to continue to have the world’s best armed forces, we need to recruit the best and those recruits need to know that their service will be recognised and can be part of a successful long-term career, both while they are serving in the military and when they leave. It is encouraging to hear from Alabaré homes that the south-west veterans multi-agency mental health service, provided through the Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust, has been well received. It shows promise in making a difference in the support and rehabilitation of veterans.

I know the Government have been working with the NHS and service charities such as Combat Stress and Help for Heroes on helping those with mental health issues. Help for Heroes received £2.7 million from the LIBOR fund in 2013 to work in partnership with Combat Stress to develop the “Hidden Wounds” psychological support programme, which supports veterans suffering from early symptoms of mental injuries such as stress and depression, as well as supporting their families. The problem is often that symptoms do not show until many years after the person affected has left the service. I hope that the MOD’s “Don’t bottle it up” campaign will help to mitigate that in the future.

Alabaré homes has also told me, however, that accommodation for those receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, who may need 24-hour support throughout their treatment, is almost unheard of. I understand that care as a whole for those suffering from PTSD is improving and it is encouraging to hear that 16 departments of community health around the country will provide support and treatment to personnel from all three services. Facilitating GPs’ ability to obtain service leavers’ military medical history should help further, as should the GP e-learning programme.

Research on homeless ex-service people carried out by the homelessness charity Broadway showed that 3% of people sleeping rough in London in 2012-13 were former military personnel. That is not as high as a percentage as is sometimes cited, but obviously we would all prefer the figure to be zero. Besides, sleeping rough is not the true measure of homelessness, which also includes those who do not have a permanent home and are sleeping on a friend’s floor or sofa.

Lack of affordable housing remains an ongoing issue, and one that is particularly prevalent in the Bristol area due to a shortage in the private rental sector of suitable affordable accommodation for people who charities such as Alabaré work with. Again, I am pleased to report that the veterans nominations scheme has been used by Alabaré residents as a way of securing accommodation. That seems to be working better in the Bristol and south Gloucestershire area.

Big congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate; I consider him a real friend in this House. I thank him for his service to this country during his time in Afghanistan.

One issue I have found when working with veterans is that some of the statistics are very hard to collate. In the north-east, we have worked with people who have gone to prison. The figures for those people vary from around 4% to almost 12%—we are talking about huge differences. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is something that we can work on together to try to make sure that the statistical information that we get on veterans is much more accurate?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—my honourable friend—for his kind comments about my very modest and short military service. I will touch on veterans in the legal system and in prison later in my remarks, but as far as the figures go, he is absolutely right that it is very important that we try to put figures together that stack up across the country, that people can take seriously and that are credible.

I know that the MOD has committed over £1.3 million in support of homeless and vulnerable veterans. In October, the Minister said in response to a written parliamentary question on homeless veterans that she hoped to announce

“further funding in support of homeless hostels, drawing on the £40 million Veterans Accommodation Fund.”

Will that be happening? If so, what is the time scale?

I welcome the difference and the positive change in how local authorities treat veterans: their being allowed to apply for housing in the area where they have served instead of where they originally came from; the disregarding of any lump sum received as compensation for an injury or disability sustained in active service; and the cessation to occupy certificate given six months before leaving forces accommodation. That will all help veterans find permanent accommodation, as will the recently introduced forces Help to Buy scheme, along with Money Force.

The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) mentioned veterans in the criminal justice system, a subject I wish to touch on now—I know that we are awaiting a review of the issue by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips). I understand that an estimated 3.5% of the prison population are ex-service personnel—those are the figures from 2010, and, as I have said, it is important to get those figures right. I look forward to hearing what the Government will do to make sure that the needs of ex-service personnel are met while they are in the criminal justice system or in prison, and that once they have served their sentence they are referred to specialist rehabilitation services to help reintegrate them into society.

One of the biggest issues that a lot of veterans struggle with is where to find help when it is needed at a particular time. The review of the Veterans-UK website is a positive step, although I am nervous about the site being hosted on the website, which can be difficult to navigate and is often confusing. A directory of accredited third sector providers and accredited armed forces charities, run by a central body and with a 24/7 contact centre—as recommended by the Ashcroft review—would be invaluable, as would the proposed advice app for veterans. I know the Government are taking steps towards that and I would be interested to learn from the Minister what progress they are making.

To summarise my feelings on this matter, the issue of caring and looking after veterans is not a new one. It goes back to the inception of the nation state, from the ancient Romans giving land to their veterans to provide them with a livelihood, to Elizabeth I, who recognised the responsibility the country had to wounded veterans by passing an Act of Parliament in 1593 that levied a weekly tax on parishes for the relief of soldiers and sailors, to the modern-day enshrining of the military covenant in law. We have a duty of care, not just as individuals, politicians and law-makers, but as a nation, to ensure that the people who have served our country and have been prepared to pay the ultimate price in defence of our way of life and our freedoms are not in any way disadvantaged by their service. We must ensure that all veterans are treated with the respect, appreciation and honour they absolutely deserve.

Order. I understand from the body language of the hon. Gentleman and the Minister that neither objects to other brief speeches being made.

I reiterate my earlier comments about the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti).

It is true that organisations such as SSAFA and the Royal British Legion do great work, and that the military covenant has been a big help through its recognition of the debt we all owe to our veterans; the role of local authorities has also been critical for development work on the ground. I want to talk about some of the work being done by smaller groups, in particular a group I am involved with in the north-east called Forward Assist. That was set up by a former marine, and a colleague of mine before I came to this place. All he had ever wanted to do with his life was to join the Royal Marines. After 18 months of training, he ripped his shoulder and despite two years of medical treatment was unable to carry on in his service. He left what had been his dream job, and fell into a downward spiral of drink and drugs. Thankfully, he was rescued by a counsellor who got him back on the straight and narrow and he was able to go back to university and learn a new trade. Now, in his later life and after working for a long time in child care and in the probation service, he has decided to set up a charity to take care of veterans. He was seeing young men coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and going through what he had gone through 30 years before, and he felt that something had to be done.

Some of these guys had been kicked out of the service for various reasons. They had gone into low-level crime or got involved with drink and drugs. They had terribly low self-esteem and were guilt-ridden because they felt they had let their families, themselves and the nation down. Many of their problems are mental health related, which is natural when someone has been in the services. They will not admit that they have mental health problems because it is a big issue for anyone, but for those coming out of the services it is a huge issue.

The role that Forward Assist plays in dealing with these people across Tyneside is about telling them, “You are not a failure. We want to help you get back into the normal way of living and get used to living in a world that is completely different from what you have experienced.” A lot of these people have been in the services for 20 years and the world today is very different from what it was in the 1990s and 1980s. Through a variety of interests, Forward Assist is working with people in the north-east. For example, in the north-east the National Trust have been very supportive, as have local councils, and big and small businesses have been tremendous. They have got involved in a huge raft of work, which has enabled these people to feel now that they can contribute to society again.

I want to mention three small things that are very important to these gentlemen. Veterans have been enrolled on cookery courses and some have obtained qualifications to enable them to cook for the public. They go round community centres and cook for elderly people and community groups, so they feel that they are giving something back. Similarly, some get angling qualifications. A community centre in the town I live in took 16 people with learning difficulties to a local fishing lake and is teaching them the skills of fishing. It is absolutely brilliant stuff. When fishing, those people can release and speak openly about what they are going through and it is very therapeutic for them to work with the people who are taking care of them. People have also taken sports qualifications. Some are working with Sunderland and Everton football clubs to develop community sports on the ground. That is happening only because of the work that people have done and the huge support they have given to veterans.

One reason why I wanted to speak is that a gentleman called Tony Wright, who won a Winston Churchill travelling scholarship three years ago, spent his time in the United States looking at how they look after their veterans, and as a result we set up a twinning link between Arkansas, Texas and Tyneside. There was already a sister city relationship between Little Rock in Arkansas and Tyneside, and out of that we have developed other work. I had the privilege of going there in December two years ago and I have been there during the recess in the last few years. Some of the things we learned from them are really important.

In no way would I ever denigrate the national health service. What happens in this country is that if someone has a problem, we point them to the national health service. Everyone has problems, but veterans have greater problems. One thing the American Veterans Health Administration has learned is that the issues involve more than health problems. It has learned through the terrible experience of men who came back from Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, which was horrendous. They were treated like pariahs in America and were seen as failures, with people spitting on them and calling them all sorts of names such as “traitor”. People who had been in the forces were treated like dirt; people who were opposed to the war were treating them like dirt. It was not the fault of those guys that things went the way they did; it was the fault of our counterparts in various US Administrations over the years.

Thankfully, the light came on in the States, and as a result of that and some huge commitments by their Government, they now have the Veterans Health Administration, which works much better, possibly than anywhere else in the world. It is well resourced and provides a wrap-around service. When someone leaves the services they are provided with a mobile phone and are regularly contacted during the first year to see how they are doing. That might seem a simple thing, but it is vital for some of these people. Their education, housing, work and health needs are looked after.

We had the privilege of sitting in with a psychiatrist who was linked by CCTV to a gentleman who was 200 miles north in Arkansas. Because of benefit cuts, he could not afford to drive to meet the psychiatrist, but the Veterans Health Association had paid for the link. The gentleman knew we were there and to me it was one of the best things I have seen in my life. The guy was 65 years old and it was 40 years since he had left the services. He had worked in a mortuary in Vietnam. He had survived the trauma of that with a lot of black humour—people doing inappropriate things with body parts.

The veteran told the psychiatrist that 40 years later he was lying in bed trying to sleep, but could not. After 25 years of drug addiction he had managed to kick the habit because a judge had said, “If you come back here again, you are going to jail for life.” He had been clean for seven years and had got his dream job working in a golf club, but he said, “I am terribly fatigued because I go to bed at night and I can’t sleep, so I am going to work in the morning and I can’t concentrate, and I am terrified I am going to lose my job.” The psychiatrist said, “Look, we are going to bring you down to the hospital, monitor your sleeping patterns and monitor your medication, and make sure you can do what you want to do.” The veteran, who was a simple, old-fashioned working bloke, was delighted. That is the sort of thing we could learn from the people over there.

Another lesson from America involved the criminal justice system. The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke—my hon. Friend—referred to people who have been in prison. One thing they are doing in the States that is really innovative, is to stop them going to prison in the first place. People who have been involved in low-level crime must, first and foremost, admit their guilt. A system was set up that was developed from drugs courts. Someone goes in front of a judge in a veterans treatment court, where every one of the staff and the officials has been in the services. Their motto is that no one will fail.

The experience of the court in Buffalo, which was the first veterans treatment court, was that of 300 people who went through the system there, not one went back to crime. It worked for the benefit of the individual and society. It was economic and there was low crime. I am not saying it is foolproof because nothing is foolproof, but we should look at that seriously in this House. My party is committed to that, on the back of the experience that we brought back from over there. There will be serious discussions. I know, from discussions that we have had in the main Chamber of the House of Commons, that as part of the review that was mentioned earlier, the Government are looking at that example as a way of developing support for veterans.

When we raised the matter in our local area, I went on the radio and was assailed by someone who said, “Hang on. If someone has committed a crime we should bang them up. Why should we treat them differently from a window cleaner, a bricklayer or whatever? Why should veterans be a special case?” Well, we are a special case because of what we do.

We ask these people to go round the world and be prepared to kill for us and be prepared to die for us. We ask them to do abnormal things. If someone starts shooting at us, we do not run towards them, we run away from them, but those in the services are not allowed to run away from them. We ask them to kill people and if they do not kill people they end up in jail, whereas if anyone else kills someone they end up in jail. So veterans are a special case and we owe them the best possible support we can give them. I hope that in future discussions —I hope they will be cross-party because we should all be able to agree on this—we can learn the lessons not just of what people have experienced over the last few years, and work closely with the Americans.

During our discussions with the Veterans Health Administration in America, someone said that they are seeing a tsunami of health-related issues coming at them as a result of what people have gone through, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. People were exposed to the pressures over there for 24 hours a day, which we have not seen in the past—those who served in Northern Ireland and so on. During the second world war and so on, the pressures were not there every waking moment of their lives, but for the men and women I am talking about they have been and we must give them the best support we can.

I will leave plenty of time for the Minister because it is important to have his response. I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on giving us the opportunity to speak about this matter. It is good to be able to participate in the debate. I commend him on his service in Afghanistan. It is good to have MPs of that calibre and experience in this House so that they can relate their experience to the rest of us.

Recently, I had the chance to be in the armed forces parliamentary scheme; I declare an interest as a former part-time soldier for 14-and-a-half years. The scheme gave me a chance as a Member of Parliament to meet today’s soldiers and to hear what they were about. Opportunities that we had in Afghanistan, at the training camps in Canada, Kenya and across all the places in the United Kingdom, on the mainland and elsewhere, enabled us to hear just what they were thinking.

We heard from soldiers getting sent back to the United Kingdom about the battlefields of Afghanistan—we heard strong memories of those—and about stopping over in Cyprus. That let them step down from the pressure that they were under while patrolling in Afghanistan and relax, and it got them ready for an ordinary life back in the United Kingdom. The armed forces parliamentary scheme gave us a better chance, as Members of Parliament, to see those things.

We also had a chance to speak not only to the officers, but to the soldiers. Sometimes we got two different opinions, but it is always good to hear what the men and women think, and we got that straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Whatever issues they brought to our attention we then brought to the attention of the Minister.

In Northern Ireland, we have a tradition of service in uniform, and our level of recruitment is the envy of the rest of the United Kingdom, as Members know. Service in the Army could mean the full-time Army—the Regulars —or the Territorial Army, and our levels of recruitment in the TA and in the Reserve forces are the envy of many parts of the United Kingdom. We meet soldiers and their families every day in my office, and I want to make this point: sometimes we focus on those who served in Afghanistan and maybe we forget—not intentionally—and need to be reminded of those who served in Iraq.

A gentleman came into my office the other week, and Iraq had clearly had an impact on him. He was one of those who was vaccinated, which, as Members are probably aware, had a detrimental effect on some people. That was not the case with everyone, but it certainly affected him. When he returned, his life became very different from how it was before he went to Iraq. He lost his family, his friends and his health, and he now exists on benefits, but he is still a bright guy, which is good. At the same time, when I spoke to him, I realised that inside was a guy who was taking on the troubles of the world.

This is short notice, so if the Minister cannot answer today I will be happy to receive a response later, but what are we doing for the veterans of Iraq and those who had vaccinations detrimental to their health? It is so important that that matter is addressed. I know the Democratic Unionist party held a debate in the Chamber and the Minister responded, but none the less, today is an opportunity to hit upon that as well.

The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) referred to some of the good work being done in his area. I am amazed by the people who make the effort—the volunteers and organisations that give so much. Where would we be in this country if we did not have the thousands upon thousands of volunteers, in whatever sphere of life that may be?

In terms of the armed forces, in my constituency we have the Ards & North Down Phoenix Group, which has some 600 people on its books. It draws from those in the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Ulster Defence Regiment, and it does tremendous work—not just for them, but for the families. That is critical to integrating people back into society and to dealing with the issues that they have every day. Members have spoken about SSAFA, and those of us of a certain vintage know that organisation. SSAFA has been doing tremendous work for many years.

I want to take the opportunity to mention some of the people involved in this work in my town of Newtownards, in the middle of my constituency. Georgina Carlisle and Yvonne Ritchie are just two of the ladies who meet those who are coming back directly and who help those excellent volunteers. There is no money involved; they do that work because they want to, and we are greatly obliged to them.

There is the Royal British Legion as well. Today, there was a small reception here. I went to it because one of my friends in the Conservative party said, “It’s on today if you want to take a run down”, so I did. It was specifically for the MPs in southern England, by the way, but none the less, it was good to speak to people there and to hear what they wanted us to do. There is a wee issue there that can be addressed through the Department for Social Development and through the Minister responsible. It is a devolved matter and I would certainly be glad to take that up with them directly to make sure that we can address that issue. I believe it is important to do so.

In my area, there is a group called Beyond the Battlefield, an established charity in my constituency that does tremendous work for veterans. Rob McCartney and Annemarie Hastings are two people involved in that. Both of them do lots of interaction with veterans who return—mostly those with post-traumatic stress disorder and with serious problems. They usually fight appeals for veterans when it comes to getting pensions, disability living allowance and employment and support allowance, and they make sure that these people are looked after and not forgotten about when they come home.

When all the pressure is on veterans, the group helps them with financial, emotional and relationship advice. It is a tremendous effort. I know the Minister is coming to Northern Ireland, and I have invited her to my constituency. In advance of that, I offer to show her what the group does so that she can meet some of the people. I think she will be impressed by the group’s work. So many charities offer services, but Beyond the Battlefield is very close to my heart, because it provides help for veterans.

The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland will ensure a better and more constant level of support for veterans right across the Province. Over the last five years, I have had the privilege of participating in SSAFA’s coffee morning in Newtownards, and the good people of Newtownards have contributed some £15,000 to its coffers.

In terms of housing, benefits, employment and relationships, the military covenant is as important in Northern Ireland as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. When we debated it in the House a few weeks ago, the Minister said that things were 95% in place in Northern Ireland. Obviously, we want to make sure that we nudge along the other 5%, but I am greatly encouraged by her efforts and by her response and that of the Department. None of us is unimpressed by our veterans—by those who serve today and those who have served in the past.

I come to my last point. Sometimes I look back and think of the repatriation of those who gave their lives in Afghanistan. One thing that brought it home to me and to the nation as a whole was Wootton Bassett, because that was a reminder of their sacrifice, and today, through this debate—through the support and rehabilitation of veterans—we can be reminded of the good work that they do.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and it has also been a great pleasure to listen to this debate. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing the debate. However, I think we made a bit of a mistake, because really we could have done with a 90-minute Backbench Business debate. If any of my hon. Friends—everyone is now an hon. Friend in this debate—wanted to put that forward, we could exhaust 90 minutes quite easily.

I am grateful for the contributions that have been made and I hope to address all the points raised. As my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will know, my usual rule is that if I do not respond to a particular matter, issue or topic, my officials will address it in writing. Members can be assured that my officials will address all the important points that have been made; I apologise if I do not cover them all.

I start by stating the obvious. We are all grateful for the service of my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke and all those who serve in whatever capacity. We did a survey last year where we looked at why people were joining our armed forces. It was interesting to discover that they did so for the same reasons that people have always joined our armed forces: a sense of adventure and a desire to see new places and experience new things, as well as a recognition of the huge skills that they gain through their service.

We heard mention of Lord Ashcroft’s report. I pay full tribute to the noble Lord for conducting the review on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Lord Ashcroft explored all the difficulties with transitions. It was a very positive report. We know that the overwhelming majority of people have a good experience when they leave service and go into civilian life, but even though the number of people who do not have a good experience may be small, it is nevertheless an important number. The issue affects each and every one of them and their families. We often forget the sacrifices that the families have already made. It is imperative that we ensure that people transit into civilian life as well as they can and that, when they fall on difficult times, we have everything there to support them. We know that the transition does not work out for some people, and it is incumbent on us to do our best for them.

The covenant is, if I may say so, one of the best things that we have achieved in government. We have put it into statute. I accept that it does not have legal force, in that it is not a principle that anyone could take legal action on, but it is very important. I am delighted that it has been signed up to by all the local authorities, apart from those in Northern Ireland. For obvious reasons, there is a difficult situation there, but all the other local authorities on mainland UK have signed up to it. To repeat, it means no disadvantage for anyone who has served or is in service or for their families, and special consideration for those who are bereaved and for those who have been particularly badly injured in service.

We talk about how we are going to enforce the covenant, and my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked about its enforcement. We in the national Government have started to deliver on it, the decision about widow’s pensions being a very good example of that, but it is incumbent on all the local authorities, which have signed up, now to deliver on it.

That does not necessarily cost a lot of money. I pay tribute to the extremely good local initiatives that hon. Members have mentioned in this short debate, because it is at local level that we actually do the work. Yes, there is stuff that Government can do, but it is locally that it is delivered. There is a real role for MPs acting in their local area, as a constituency MP, and a real role for councillors. Let us be honest: there is nothing that a councillor enjoys more. Many councillors do not have the sort of responsibility, the ability to make a difference to their communities, that they want to have. That is perhaps a feature of modern life, but councillors really can start to deliver on the covenant. I do not care which political party they belong to. They should be able to say proudly on their leaflets, “This is what we have achieved as an administration” or “This is what I have achieved as a local councillor in delivering on the covenant.”

That is so important, which is why I will write to every leader and chief executive of every local authority to ask them, “Have you or would you appoint an armed forces champion and then will you test all your policies against the document that you have signed up to?” I think that asking those questions and making them see that they can do something without, as I said, having to spend a lot of money will mean that they willingly take up the challenge.

The Minister talks about speaking directly to all the councils. Given that this comes from Westminster, is that something that she would do for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? I think that it would be important that we did do that.

I intend to write to every single local authority, so that will include all the Welsh and all the Scottish authorities; I see no division there. However, I said, after the hon. Gentleman had to pop out of the Chamber, that I know the situation is different in Northern Ireland. We discussed that at length in the main Chamber. It was an excellent debate, and I look forward to my visit and all that I will learn.

I began this part of my speech by talking about Lord Ashcroft’s report, which looked specifically at the transition to civilian life. I think that I can sum the position up in this way; it is certainly a view that I share. It seems a bit perverse to say to someone on the day that they sign up, “We want you now to start thinking about the day you leave. Plan your service accordingly.” An 18 or 19-year-old will have some difficulty with that, but it is the standard that we seek to set. The view that we take is, “You are great when you sign up. That is obviously the case or we wouldn’t take you on. But by the time you come to leave the service, you will be even better, not only as a human being but because of the skills and the other things that we will give you.”

My youngest boy is joining the military next year—he is hoping to be a paratrooper in the Army —but for more than a year now I have been trying to explain that when he chooses the branch of service, he needs to be thinking already about what he wants to do afterwards and to act accordingly, which is very difficult.

I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend has said, as he did in his speech, all the things that I would want to say, so I will not repeat everything; he puts it far better than I can.

I join in the tributes paid by my hon. Friend to the big, national charities. We have talked about SSAFA. That charity is often forgotten, but it is a fabulous charity and does great work. We know the Royal British Legion. I am reminded of a study that it has just done. I am happy to share the results by way of a letter, because I cannot go through all the statistics now. It has done a big survey of veterans, and some of the things in it concern me. I am talking about the rates among veterans of, for example, long-term illness and depression. It says that they are higher, although if we look across the mental health piece, we know that actually our veterans, people coming out of service, do not suffer higher levels of mental health problems than the rest of the population. That does not mean that the issue is not important, but we have to set these things in context, because as the RBL says, there are a number of myths. One is that most people are damaged by their service. That is not true. The majority of our veterans enjoy good mental health, for example. We are told that many are homeless. We have heard the stats; it is only 3%. I know that 3% is still 3% too many, but 3% of London’s homeless population are ex-service personnel.

There is also the issue of the number of veterans in prisons, and I shall deal with some of the very good points made by my friend the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) in his excellent speech. We think that 3% to 7% of prisoners are veterans, but I heard the figures that the hon. Gentleman gave from his extensive experience in his own constituency.

I want to give a quick mention to Help for Heroes. It does a fabulous job, but when I go, as I have gone, to Tedworth House, I can see that it is a place that could take more people. I want us to get into the position whereby someone who is being medically discharged from service has the opportunity to go to Tedworth House, so that it can put them in the very place that the hon. Gentleman wants them to be in before they leave service. I want people, if they do hit troubles, bad times and all the rest of it, to have somewhere to go back to—an organisation to go back to that can then pass them on to a local charity.

The figures that I cited were not actually from the local area. They were from the rehabilitation advisory service, which works closely with the veterans project. The work involves going into prisons and talking to people; it is not just a case of writing to someone and saying, “How many veterans have you had here?” It is good evidence, and we gave it to the Minister’s predecessor.

I am very grateful. I would very much enjoy having a conversation with the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter further. I pay tribute to the work that he does and the knowledge that he has brought to this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked specifically about veterans’ accommodation. There is £40 million of LIBOR funding for that. Nine out of the 16 projects that have been successful have been announced; a further seven will be announced next month by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

There are schemes to support veterans involved in the criminal justice system. I was really interested in the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Blaydon. I have always been resistant to the idea of veterans courts, but he has begun to convince me. Certainly I am going to keep an open mind on it; he has persuaded me to keep my mind open to it. The danger, I am told, is that many of those who have served say, “Why should we be seen as something different or special? We do not need our own court.” My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke addressed that argument. My experience in the Crown court was that when a judge knew that someone was serving or had served, they took that heavily into consideration before deciding whether to pass a custodial sentence, because they recognised the sacrifice and the duty that the individual had performed by serving in one of our armed services.

In the time that remains, I want to deal with the some of the points that have been raised. In particular, I want to talk about mental health, which always comes up, and I know that it concerns so many people in this place and outside it. I give full credit to the charity Forward Assist, which the hon. Member for Blaydon has mentioned and of which, I believe, he is a patron. He brings to the debate insight and understanding. I think that the charity is a good example of how we should deliver on the covenant, namely through local delivery by a good local charity that knows the people who need help and knows how to go and find them. Knowing how to find such people is one of the big problems.

I have confidence, and I hope I am not overstating it, in where we are now. We have heard from the hon. Member for Strangford about Cyprus. We know that in respect of people who were involved in Afghanistan in the theatre of war, our armed forces have really woken up to mental health. As a society, we have woken up to mental health, and much of the stigma has been removed from it. In our armed forces, the rather macho attitude of “We do not talk about these things. Be a man and get on with it,” has given way to a much healthier attitude to mental health. It is seen much more as part of general health. People look after their weight, and they look after their head at the same time. Looking after their mental health is part of being fit for service. We are building resilience and we are encouraging people to talk about mental health. As the hon. Gentleman has identified, people go to Cyprus from Afghanistan, where they go through a period of decompression. They are encouraged to be open and to talk.

It is hugely significant that our former Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Peter Wall, chose to become president of Combat Stress when he retired, even though he had many charities to choose from. That shows that people are no longer afraid, and no longer feel that it is some sort of slight, to talk about mental health. People recognise how important it is that we get it right, and a lot of good work has been done. I am concerned about people—they are mainly men—who served in previous combats, such as Iraq, the Falklands and Northern Ireland, who did not have many of those facilities and do not come from that generation of service. I fear that they have slipped through the net. They may end up in trouble or in a bad place, and they may feel that there is nobody to support or help them.

That is where the fabulous local charities come into play, because they have the ability to scoop up such people at a local level and get them into the right place. In my constituency, there is a fabulous local charity called Forces in the Community, which is looking at schemes with the local police. If the police pick up someone who is drunk, misbehaving, or engaged in low-level crime and they discover that that person is a veteran, they do not go through the normal process of giving the individual a caution. Instead, they look sensibly and intelligently at doing things differently by, for example, placing the individual with an organisation such as Forces in the Community. If, for example, someone has a problem with drugs or drink, if they are homeless or if their marriage is falling to pieces, they are put together with local organisations that can help them. In such a way, we can deliver what we should be delivering for all our veterans.

The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned vaccinations in Iraq, and I will take that issue away and deal with it. Mr Bayley, I think I have enough time to talk quickly about the career transition partnership—

Two minutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked about the partnership, which offers transition and employment support for up to two years pre-discharge and two years post-discharge. From 1 October next year, the career transition partnership contract will include all service leavers. I hope that that is good news.

I fear that there are all sorts of other questions that I should have answered and matters that I should have dealt with, but I am running out of time. I thank all who have contributed to this debate. As I have said, it could easily have taken up 90 minutes, and probably more, and we should have such a debate. I have certainly learned a lot, and if I have missed anything, I will write to my hon. Friends and cover those points in better detail than I have done.

Sitting adjourned.