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Veterans: Recognition

Volume 663: debated on Monday 8 July 2019

1. What steps her Department has taken to recognise officially the sacrifice that veterans have made for the UK. (911762)

My Department commemorates the contribution and sacrifices of our armed forces veterans through occasions such as D-day and Armed Forces Day. We keep such events under review and ensure that veterans are properly considered and represented.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Next year, the early May bank holiday will move to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Does she agree with me that we should do much more to recognise the service and sacrifices of our veterans and that it would be a fitting tribute permanently to rename one of our existing UK bank holidays Veterans Day?

We should always look to do more to honour the sacrifices that individuals have made. Armed Forces Day is supposed to be the day that we do that, and I have asked my officials to undertake some work so we can ensure that Armed Forces Day is a day for them, not just about them. It is incredibly important that we ensure that our veterans, our service personnel and their families can really enjoy the day, not have to do extra shifts. On that point, I would praise Salisbury, which held Armed Forces Day this year for the nation. It arranged some amazing events for the public and also put on some spectacular events for serving personnel, families and veterans, including free concerts.

I know the Secretary of State would agree that there is a real need for a permanent memorial for veterans who have fallen in the two world wars and in all the wars that have followed. Will she join me in praising the communities of Evanstown and Gilfach Goch in my constituency, which have spent the last 18 months refurbishing the memorial and tracing veterans from the Gilfach valley? Will she ensure, where memorials have fallen into disrepair, as some have, that the MOD has funding to help refurbish them?

I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating that organisation and all the organisations across the country that are not just looking after historic monuments to and commemorations of our armed forces, but ensuring that the history of those individuals is properly recorded. Support for different memorials is split across Departments, and local government is involved, as obviously is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for certain memorials. If he writes to me about the specifics, I will ensure that the relevant Department hears his plea.

One group of veterans who undoubtedly deserve our respect are the veterans of Northern Ireland who served for years on Operation Banner to uphold the rule of law against the IRA, yet some of them now face subsequent investigation—even up to 50 years on, even including Chelsea Pensioners—while those in the IRA are off scot-free with letters of comfort from Tony Blair. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that, as some have recently suggested, to

“treat both sides the same”

is not only patently ludicrous, but a deep insult to all those veterans without whose courage there would never have been a Good Friday agreement in the first place?

My right hon. Friend will know my views on this matter. Although we have obligations under the Stormont House agreement and have to approach these things in different ways, our obligations to our veterans—whether they have served in an operation on UK soil or overseas—are the same.

Throughout his brave service in our forces in Northern Ireland, Germany and Kenya, my constituent Tony Pitt was exposed to asbestos that led to a cancer diagnosis in 2017. He is now in the impossible position that he has just six months before the immunotherapy treatment that is keeping him going runs out. Will the relevant Minister meet Tony and me to discuss his case, as surely the high standards set by the armed forces covenant do not envisage our veterans crowdfunding to stay alive?

That sounds like an appalling situation, and I thank the hon. Lady for raising it. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), will be very happy to meet Tony, and I will get my officials to talk to the hon. Lady after this session.

May I ask my right hon. Friend to ensure that, all these years later, someone in the Ministry of Defence checks on veterans from Northern Ireland who were grievously hurt there—such as Lance Corporal William Bell and Private Mark Young from my own company, when 17 people were killed—to make sure that they are having a good life, or as good a life as possible?

I would be very happy to look at the cases of those two individuals. It is vital that we have a clear line of sight on what is happening with individual cases. We still need to make improvements to veterans support, and part of the problem relates to the need for continuity and to ensure proactively that people are getting the care they need.

The best way to recognise our veterans is to ensure that they are well served today, yet SSAFA research shows that only 16% of veterans believe they are well served by the armed forces covenant. How is the Secretary of State auditing the armed forces covenant, to ensure that local authorities are applying it proactively?

The prime organisation that holds everyone to account for delivering the covenant is the Veterans Board, which will meet again very shortly.

The whole of Wiltshire was delighted to welcome the Secretary of State, together with the Princess Royal and a whole host of other luminaries, to Salisbury last Saturday to celebrate Armed Forces Day. Of course, it is right that we think very carefully about veterans and their needs, particularly those suffering from the physical or mental after-effects of warfare. None the less, does the Secretary of State agree that the purpose of Armed Forces Day is to think very carefully about the 200,000 fit, healthy and committed young men and women who are today serving our armed forces, to celebrate their commitment to their duties and to wish them well as they do it?

I agree with my hon. Friend and again praise Salisbury for its work in ensuring that service personnel and their families had an amazing few days. As we take the event forward, however, we need to ensure that, as an additional Saturday on which to work, it does not put a burden on our armed forces. We should be doing more free events, and businesses across the land should consider how they can contribute to making that day special.

The Secretary of State will know that one way to honour our veterans population is by fully implementing the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. She will also know that the reason why our Departments do not adhere to the spirit of the covenant is the sectarian intransigence of Sinn Féin. Is it not wrong that the people from whom our armed forces community protected us are precluding our offering service to our armed forces in return? Will she take steps to ensure full implementation?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. We are talking about the armed forces of the United Kingdom. Wherever they are serving, wherever they are based and wherever they are from, I want them to be able to take part in events, and I also want to ensure that the public services provided to them are as they should be.

The importance of support for veterans should unite the whole House. Given the appalling track record of outsourcing, will the Secretary of State explain why her Government have invited private contractors to bid to run the medal office and certain veterans services?

I acknowledge the work that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) has done on veterans support, including through the gateway and the veterans strategy, on which we are currently consulting. I have also been doing work in the Department, looking at our obligations and how we are constituted.