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Armed Forces: Royal Centre for Defence Medicine

Volume 685: debated on Tuesday 10 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How the development of the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine in Birmingham, which treats casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan, is proceeding.

My Lords, the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine was opened in Selly Oak, Birmingham, in 2001, with academic, teaching and clinical roles. It is on course to meet our vision of an internationally recognised centre of excellence by 2010.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that optimistic statement—or overoptimistic, as some might think. As a famous Chief of the Imperial General Staff from World War I said, “I’ve ’eard different”. The centre was described by a Minister six and a half years ago as a key element in the regeneration of Defence Medical Services, which another Minister openly admitted were suffering a crisis of morale. As the Minister said, it opened in 2001 boasting the title “centre of excellence”. Does the Minister not find it slightly shameful, therefore, that it has never in fact properly got off the ground to correct those ills because of lack of Treasury funding?

There are strong rumours, which the Minister may wish to comment on, that the centre is shortly to be dispersed. Will he not recognise that failing to allow the centre to live up to its promised expectations, particularly in teaching—all its specialists get whipped off to Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan—is contributing to the Government’s overdependence on the National Health Service and on their continual inability to provide regulars and reservists with the full comprehensive and appropriate medical cover that they so richly deserve, including, of course, the aftercare?

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord with his deep knowledge of military matters will recognise the importance of morale. Having been to the Selly Oak centre myself and spoken to the staff, I know that they are quite upset about what they regard as truly unfounded criticisms of the centre at Selly Oak. They asked me to extend an invitation to any noble Lords who wish to visit the centre and to see for themselves the excellent conditions under which we care for our military personnel. The investment is being made in the development of the centre to make it a centre of excellence, as I described, and the level of care that we provide for our service people is admirable.

My Lords, the closing of all the military hospitals in the savings measures after the end of the Cold War has had unfortunate consequences for military medicine in general and the care of the Armed Forces. Will the Minister undertake to look at whether it would be wise to re-establish a dedicated military hospital, which would then be able to give a career structure to the military medical branch as well as providing care for our regulars and reserves, their families and veterans?

My Lords, the House will remember that the decision to close the military hospitals was taken by the previous Government. That decision was right. Experience has taught us that high standards are maintained only by maintaining the experience of clinical personnel by carrying out clinical care. The level of casualties that we have to look after in the military is, thank God, not large enough to sustain full-scale military hospitals. On any given day, we have in hospital fewer than 50 in-patients from the military. That is for all cases, of any type. The most efficient way for people to be cared for, therefore, is in specialist military hospital units within the NHS. You need a large NHS hospital with all its clinical experience, facilities and the range of know-how properly to look after our soldiers. That is garnered only in an NHS hospital.

My Lords, I declare an interest as honorary parliamentary adviser to the Royal British Legion in fully endorsing the concerns expressed with all his customary integrity and commitment by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. Can we now be assured that there will soon be a full ministerial Statement on steps to improve medical facilities for casualties of these deployments? Does the Minister recall the case of the mobility disabled Corporal Corrigan, who, after being flown back to the UK from Iraq, was left to make his own way home from RAF Halton to Yorkshire without even the walking aid necessary for him to do so?

My Lords, I have seen for myself, both on military operations and back in the UK, the level of care that we provide for our military personnel. The care that we provide on operations today in Iraq and Afghanistan is outstanding. I saw the investment that has gone into the very latest equipment on operations, such as CT scanners. Our personnel are experienced because of the way they have been trained in military units within the NHS. If you speak to serving members of the Armed Forces in such military hospitals, they will tell you how pleased they are with the level of care. When people come back to the UK, the care that they receive in our centres, such as Selly Oak, is excellent. Of course, if there are individual cases where matters need to be improved, we look at them rigorously and take lessons from them to ensure they do not happen again.

My Lords, did the Minister say in his original Answer that, as he speaks, there are only 50 military personnel undergoing in-patient medical treatment anywhere in the world?

My Lords, let me be crystal clear. As of last Friday, there were 14 patients in the Birmingham hospitals, as part of the Selly Oak group, from operations. On any given day, on average, there are 50 personnel in-patients in our hospitals for any condition whatever, from an operation on a knee to pregnancy. We do not have substantial numbers of cases, but we must make sure that the best possible care is given to the small number of cases that there are.