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I am delighted to be able to open this debate. This is the first time that the House has had the opportunity to debate veterans' affairs. It is, I believe, a significant day for the House and it offers us a chance to reflect on not just last weekend but the wider matters relating to veterans' affairs across the United Kingdom.
I have been in post for about a year, and I intend to look back at what we have done during that time and to look forward to future strategies. As I do so, a recurring theme will be partnership—with veterans' organisations as well as across Government—so I am very pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend Dr. Ladyman, is here today to wind up our debate, showing the cross-Government approach that we take.
I am sure that the House would also expect me first to say something about last weekend. In doing so, I record my certain belief that all of us in the House recognise the huge debt owed to all those veterans who served during the second world war and who did so much to secure the freedoms that we enjoy today.
I recently had the pleasure and honour of attending the 60th anniversary commemorations of the campaigns at Monte Cassino, as well as spending three days in Normandy with our veterans, and I certainly look forward to attending further events leading to the final VE-VJ day commemorations next July.
Last weekend's commemorations of the Normandy landings received huge support from veterans and many other people from across the United Kingdom. We estimate that at least 20,000 people travelled to Normandy for the weekend. I was very glad to be able to provide logistical support from our armed forces to the Normandy Veterans Association in managing that huge and significant event. The result was a weekend of ceremonies that were a fitting commemoration of a most historic event and which will be a lasting memory for all who were there and, I hope, for the millions of people in this country and around the Commonwealth who saw the excellent television coverage.
I know that the whole House, together with the Normandy Veterans Association and the Royal British Legion, were pleased at the attendance of Her Majesty the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and other members of the royal family during the weekend. The success of the events is attested by the words of the veterans themselves, one of whom said to me:
"We have been treated like heroes. It was wonderful to come back here."
The House will recognise that such events are very much a team effort, but I should like to mention a few individuals, in particular the special efforts of General Martin and Leslie Frost, the president and chairman respectively of the Normandy Veterans Association, Air Vice-Marshal Pocock, the Defence Services Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, and Brigadier Shouesmith, Commander 102 Logistic Brigade, whom I thank for all their and their teams' hard work and commitment, which ensured the success of last weekend's events.
During my visits to Normandy and other anniversary events, I had the privilege of meeting a large number of second world war veterans. They are remarkable for their modesty in recalling personal achievements, for their comradeship, and for their pride in the forces in which they served. I was moved by the comment of one Normandy veteran, who said: "I can tell you for a fact that we are not the heroes; it's the chaps who died who are the heroes." Such people are an example to us all, and our society has much to learn from them.
Before the Minister leaves the subject of D-day, on behalf of my right hon. Friend the leader of my party and all those from the parliamentary delegation who attended, I want to put on record our thanks to the Minister for arranging for us to be part of that very historic day. Many veterans spoke very highly of him as a Minister. In the time that he has been in that role, he has developed policy very well, and the House should congratulate him personally on what he has done.
My hon. Friend may not find my intervention quite as helpful, although I must say that he has done a sterling job as Minister and that the Government have done veterans a great service by appointing a Minister with such responsibilities for the first time.
While my hon. Friend is on the subject of the heroes of the second world war, I want to raise two outstanding issues that may seem minor but are very important to the individuals concerned. First, a small number of civilians who were prisoners of the Japanese are still excluded from compensation by the nationality rules. That matter has already been to the House of Lords. In all honesty, it would not cost us a great deal and would beef up the wonderful scheme that the Government introduced to compensate those who were affected.
Secondly, there is the question of people who served on the Arctic convoys. My own late father served on minesweepers out of Iceland; I am not sure whether he would qualify. Those people feel a real sense of injustice that their contribution was not recognised. The answers that I have been given seem a little artificial. Apparently, the King ruled many years ago, in the 1940s, that there should not be a medal for them. The time has come to re-examine that, as we did with the Suez medal.
I intend to deal with medals and other commemorative issues later, so my hon. Friend will have to wait for a more detailed reply.
I want to conclude my remarks about last weekend. First, let me relate a story from one of the glider pilots who landed at Pegasus bridge on that famous night. Incidentally, a replica of the Horsa glider has been reproduced there; hon. Members may wish to go to see it at some stage. He told me that they landed at about 70 mph. When I asked, "What constituted a good landing?", he simply replied, "Everyone had to get out alive."
To conclude on the Normandy events, it would be helpful to give the House some of the statistics that we currently have. I say "currently" because it is only in the past two or three days that we have had the chance to compile them. Some 18,500 people registered with the Veterans Agency for passes to the various events. We estimate that in the bi-national ceremony at Bayeux on the morning of
We had to give medical assistance to 73 British veterans or their helpers, and 17 were admitted to hospital. I regretfully have to tell the House that one veteran has since passed away. Our thoughts are of course with his family. The embassy in Paris and the Ministry of Defence are arranging support for the family and the repatriation of his body.
I should like to share some other statistics with the House. The logistical support that we provided to the Normandy Veterans Association included 72 Portaloos, 200 umbrellas and, perhaps most amazingly, 48,000 bottles of water, which were certainly consumed in the course of the day.
I had the pleasure of watching—not the Portaloos, but the ceremonies—on television. May I say, in the cross-party spirit that is developing, that the shadow Defence Secretary struck a particularly heroic pose? I was very impressed by his demeanour. However, there was one sour note about the weekend—that the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, opportunistic as ever, sought to make party political propaganda out of it in connection with the attendance or non-attendance of First Ministers from Scotland and Wales. Now that we have the first opportunity seriously to discuss veterans' affairs in this House, where are they? They are absent, as usual.
My right hon. Friend makes a pertinent point about the nationalists. I do not plan to comment further other than to say that of course Her Majesty's Government invited the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly to be represented at the events, and that such decisions on attendance are a matter for those bodies under their devolved powers.
In conclusion on Normandy, it might be worth our reflecting on the extent of newspaper coverage in the week running up to D-day and over the weekend. The souvenir issues and photographs that the British press produced were excellent. It is not often that we say that in this House.
This is certainly not the end of the D-day celebrations. The Minister will grace Wolverhampton with his presence next weekend, when he is coming to celebrate with the whole city. We are celebrating D-day with our veterans, the Suez medals that the Minister played a major part in having produced, and 300 years of Gibraltar. Those three celebrations are combined in one event in the mayor's parlour. The Minister is coming to present Suez medals to veterans. I pay great tribute to him for all the work that he has done on all those fronts. He has done an excellent job of work, and we are extremely grateful to him. We look forward to welcoming him to Wolverhampton—he is as welcome as the flowers in May.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I very much look forward to meeting him and his veterans next weekend. In France, the D-day weekend is the commencement of 80 days of celebrations, taking in all the other campaigns in northern France and leading up to the liberation of Paris in the third week of August.
I welcome my hon. Friend's remarks about the Suez medal. I will say more about the current position later, but suffice it to say that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister took the decision to award the Suez medal having referred it back to a sub-Committee of the Honours and Decorations Committee.
Last Thursday, when the branch of the Normandy Veterans Association that is most closely associated with Taunton left for Normandy, I waved goodbye to Mr. Ken Prescott and his colleagues—all 50 of them—as they set off. They told me that local newspapers, particularly the Somerset County Gazette, had been vital in raising the £18,000 that enabled the veterans to get across the Channel for the whole weekend at a minimal cost per person. However, it took a lot of effort by local people, as well as, finally, some national help. Does the Minister accept that there were problems in trying to get the Government to acknowledge the likely size of last weekend's pilgrimage, and will he take up the issue? It cannot be allowed to happen again.
I am afraid to say that I do not accept that. I shall say something later about "Heroes Return", which I think had a dramatic impact on the number of people attending. There was a simple way of ensuring that awards were made to veterans' groups. We made it as simple as possible, and to date we have had 12 calls on the helpline since the weekend, with what I would describe as very minor complaints. I have to say they tend to have been caused by people not having read, or recognised, the helpful instructions that the Ministry of Defence tried to give them. That is a pretty small number of complaints to receive given the size of what occurred last weekend.
I think that I met the hon. Gentleman's Taunton veterans on the Friday afternoon at the first major event in Caen, and I think that they enjoyed themselves, judging by what I saw of them during the afternoon—[Interruption.] In that part of Normandy, the equivalent of what people drink quite a bit of in Taunton is called calvados.
Before the Minister leaves the important events of last weekend, may I point out that a constituent of mine, Mr. Jock Wilson, who is 100 years old, is the oldest living survivor of those veterans? He was there at the weekend, and said that it was a very proud moment for him. It was also a proud moment for me to see him being honoured by the Queen, and I would like to place on record my thanks to the Minister for all that he did to allow those people that opportunity.
I am going to move on now. My hon. Friend has already asked me a couple of questions, and he may want to hear the answers later—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend has persuaded me to give way to him.
Indeed, I was pleased to see that. I certainly recognise the role of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women in our armed forces, and I shall have something more to say about that subject later.
Having reflected on last weekend, I shall ask a question: what is a veteran? My answer is simple. A veteran is anybody who has served in the United Kingdom armed forces. Including such people's widows or widowers and dependants, that definition covers some 13 million people. It is deliberately broad, to ensure that we embrace all parts of the veterans community.
Obviously, needs and aspirations vary, and I hope to demonstrate to the House that our approach is tailored to take account of that. The result is that while we continue to recognise the special place of older veterans in our nation's history, we also look ahead to the next generation of veterans—today's servicemen and women—who carry on the proud tradition of service established by their predecessors.
Work to ensure that the 60th anniversaries would be successful has taken up a great deal of my time and that of my officials in recent months, but that is only one area of an extensive veterans agenda being pursued across Government, covering three broad areas. First, I want to ensure that the personnel now serving in our armed forces have as much help as possible when they make the transition back to civilian life. Secondly, I want to ensure that the relatively small proportion of veterans of all ages who face difficulties in civilian life receive appropriate support. Thirdly, I want to ensure that the contribution made by our service personnel to the freedom and security of the United Kingdom is properly recognised and understood, and that the achievements of veterans from all generations are suitably commemorated.
The hon. Gentleman knows that we do, of course, recognise Gurkhas as veterans—but there are other issues related to their return, to Nepal or elsewhere, when they leave our armed forces.
When the representatives of the Veterans Agency appeared before the Public Accounts Committee, I questioned them closely on the Gurkhas and their eligibility under the war pensions scheme, and the Minister's officials were unable to give the Committee any proper advice on what decisions may have been made about eligibility. Can the Minister tell us more? Those people have given tremendous service to this country, and it is seven years since they were relocated from Hong Kong to here.
I am afraid that I do not recall seeing that in the PAC report; I shall have to have another look at it, and perhaps I could write to the hon. Gentleman.
I shall say more about each of the three issues that I raised just before those two interventions, and in doing so I want to bring out three key themes: the enduring importance of partnership and co-operation across Government, and between Government and the voluntary sector in addressing veterans' issues; the progress achieved so far; and my plans and visions for carrying veterans' issues forward, not just in the next few years but for decades to come.
My job is to ensure that veterans-related issues are recognised and taken into account across all levels of government, but especially by those responsible for policy and delivery of services affecting veterans. As my speech will highlight, the issue of veterans' affairs is a pre-eminent example of joined-up government in action, not just between Departments, but with the voluntary sector too.
May I ask the Minister to heed the urgings of the Royal British Legion, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and the Select Committee on Defence, which all say that it is a mistake to raise the burden of proof for those wounded or otherwise injured on military service for the next generation of veterans?
I have a feeling that the hon. Gentleman has asked a question to which he knows the answer. We have debated those matters long and hard on Second Reading, in Committee and on Third Reading of the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill, and we have made our position clear. My noble Friend Lord Bach will open the Second Reading debate on the Bill in the House of Lords tomorrow.
An effective partnership with the voluntary sector is vital, particularly with the ex-service organisations that have a long and successful history of providing support to veterans. I have greatly enjoyed working with those organisations over the past year, and am grateful for the advice and co-operation throughout that time.
I do not think that it would be welcomed if the Government tried to replicate or control those independent and distinguished organisations. I see my role as trying to provide the focal point within Government with which the ex-service organisations can raise issues and develop appropriate co-operation. That is a role that those organisations have pressed on Government for many years, and it is a credit to this Labour Government that they have been the first to respond positively. We now have a much more focused approach to veterans' affairs across Government.
I believe that the level of co-operation achieved is a model of its kind. For example, the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations attends as an equal partner all my major meetings with other Ministers. The relationship achieved with ex-service organisations is mature and realistic. Both sides recognise that we will not agree on all matters, and that we should not be frightened to be critical of one another where necessary. The voluntary organisations may choose to co-operate with the Government on some issues, while campaigning separately on others. I welcome that businesslike approach.
On being critical of one person or another, my hon. Friend may know that yesterday several hon. Members from different parties attended a short and moving service outside Westminster Abbey conducted by Dr. Wesley Carr for the 29 who lost their lives in the Chinook disaster and the two pilots. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I say that some of us are astonished that the Ministry of Defence can be so certain when it failed to convince Lord Jauncey, a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, for eight years. The Minister for the armed forces knows very well that that man travelled frequently from Scotland to London, paid enormous attention to the case and, at the end of the day, was extremely sceptical about the view of the Ministry of Defence. As we are considering co-operation, would not it be a good idea to re-examine that emotive issue?
Placing veterans' affairs in the Ministry of Defence has been essential in ensuring so many of this year's achievements for several reasons. First, as many ex-service organisations recognise, risks such as operational stress—which can unfortunately affect some veterans—can be prevented or managed at the outset in-service only as part of a "through life" approach in our armed forces. Secondly, the way in which the services prepare personnel for transition to civilian life in terms of life skills and housing advice has a direct impact on longer-term veterans-related issues.
Everyone at the Ministry of Defence and in our armed forces has a positive approach to veterans-related issues. Of course, the service personnel recognise that they will be veterans one day. Indeed, we have several in both Houses. They also recognise that the way in which the services address veterans' issues can affect recruitment, retention and morale as well as public support for our armed forces.
Funding is a major spur when carrying forward any new initiatives. In addition to other sources, I was pleased that we were able last year to introduce a new veterans challenge fund to pump-prime individual veterans-related projects either undertaken by veterans' organisations or commissioned by the Ministry of Defence after consultation with other interested organisations. The fund totals £2 million over three years—a significant sum by any standards. We will review further arrangements in the light of the initial results.
I can give examples of some of the projects approved so far. They include a grant to the Royal British Legion to produce a veterans wall chart for schools to promote understanding and support for remembrance and veterans' issues; research by Citizens Advice to identify how it can improve the delivery of information and advice to veterans, and funding for Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association Forces Help for the modernisation of two playgrounds in its "stepping stone" homes, which are based in the constituencies of the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend Mr. Thomas and my hon. Friend Mr. McWilliam.
With the increasing emphasis on multinational military operations, I passionately believe that co-operation on veterans' issues needs to be international as well. Many of the issues and possible solutions to problems that veterans sometimes experience can best be tackled through international exchange of information and best practice. That can be especially important when researching potential health problems associated with specific operations.
On international co-operation, has my hon. Friend given any thought to the possibility of our striking an ex-serviceman's medal for the first time in this country for all people who have given excellent service to our armed forces? Whatever time they have served and whenever they served, we should, as a nation, recognise their contribution and present every former serviceman with a medal for service. Most European countries give an ex-serviceman's medal and I invite my hon. Friend to consider that.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. I intend to deal with status and recognition shortly.
I have had productive meetings with veterans Ministers from the United States, Australia and New Zealand and I can confirm to the House that I am looking forward to hosting a ministerial summit on veterans' issues in the United Kingdom early in 2005 to discuss even closer co-operation. Last Friday, I was pleased to have been able to sign a memorandum of understanding with my French ministerial colleague to cement our co-operation on commemorative events and other veterans-related matters. That is an especially important development given France's role in the 60th anniversary events over the next year. A copy of the memorandum is being placed in the Library of both Houses today.
What has been achieved? As I said earlier, transition is a key matter. The priority is to help as many service leavers as possible to make a successful transition to civilian life. For most service leavers, that means finding a suitable second career outside the armed forces. One of the most important elements in that transition is training to enable those who leave the services to find employment as soon as possible. That is provided under the career transition partnership contract, and is designed to equip those who leave with the skills necessary to make their transition a success.
Overall, our resettlement process is considered to be among the best for employees anywhere. Our current statistics show that an astonishing 95 per cent. of service leavers who make use of the services available under the career transition partnership find employment within six months of leaving the armed forces and that the vast majority of service leavers make a smooth transition to civilian life. I would like to take the opportunity today formally to thank all those who have been involved in that incredibly successful scheme.
Preparation for transition to civilian life best begins as early as possible in a service career. Adult learning programmes, developed in co-operation with the Department for Education and Skills, provide service personnel with increasing opportunities to develop skills that will stand them in good stead in civilian life as well as in our armed forces.
There has, however, been a gap in provision of support and advice to some service leavers. Until recently, not all personnel who left our armed forces each year have been eligible for resettlement advice. The group includes those who are compulsorily discharged, those who are unsuitable for military service or those who are discharged while still under training. The introduction in April of a tri-service "early service leavers initiative" seeks to bridge the gap. The new policy ensures that all early service leavers receive a mandatory resettlement brief and interview. Trained unit staff provide guidance, including advice on organisations that can help, such as Jobcentre Plus, the joint service housing advice office and the single persons accommodation centre for ex-services—SPACES—as well as the ex-service organisations.
During the interview, staff will try to identify the small proportion of personnel at risk of falling into social exclusion and arrange more specialist assistance as necessary. That is an important improvement to our service discharge system and means that, for the first time, there is a resettlement umbrella that covers all service leavers.
Although those enhanced transition arrangements are a major step forward, I know that some who leave our armed forces may need more closely targeted assistance. The Ministry of Defence has therefore commissioned King's college London to conduct research into the provision of more tailored support for vulnerable ex-service personnel.
Ensuring that service personnel make adequate housing arrangements is another important key to the smooth transition to civilian life.
My hon. Friend will understand and accept that statistics show that, throughout the United Kingdom, several ex-service personnel find themselves homeless. That applies not only to the major towns but to rural areas. I therefore welcome my hon. Friend's comments on adequate housing arrangements. I think that that could help.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I want to say a little more about that later and I hope that I shall cover his point.
Current service personnel are encouraged to attend briefings on housing options throughout their careers. The relative number of people who face problems is small but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, we want to help where we can. On
Fostering a sense of comradeship and belonging is something that concerns the services just as much as the ex-service organisations. I have recently written to the services' principal personnel officers to remind them of the vital role that ex-service personnel can play in maintaining support for our armed forces and how, in addition to the resettlement provision that is available, marking the transition to civilian life and nurturing links thereafter can fully repay the investment made.
When I first became Minister for veterans, I was very concerned to hear of many cases involving the demeaning practice of destroying service ID cards in front of those who hand them in as part of the leaving process. I personally intervened to ensure that this practice should end, and I am pleased to report to the House that this commitment has now been fully met by all the services.
It is important to emphasise that the vast majority of service personnel find their service a positive experience and settle well in civilian life after their service careers, but we obviously need to help the small percentage who are less successful, sometimes many years after leaving the forces. I have taken a close personal interest in this matter, and I view it as one of the most important parts of my responsibility for veterans.
The MOD's evolving policy for tackling homelessness among a small minority of veterans has been developed in close co-operation with other Departments and in partnership with the voluntary and private sectors. That has already led to several successful programmes to assist service leavers at risk of homelessness, as well as homeless veterans. Those include the SPACES project at Catterick, which I mentioned earlier, and the armed forces project at Colchester. I am always happy to see Bob Russell in his place for a defence debate.
We are also working closely with the Ex-Services Action Group, which brings together representatives from the voluntary and public sectors. As part of that work, the MOD has been actively supporting the development of new, short-term, supported accommodation in London. We also continue to work closely with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the devolved Administrations on wider housing policies. That has resulted in the extension of the group of people recognised as having a priority need for housing to include those considered vulnerable as a result of service in the armed forces.
I am grateful to the Minister for his comments on housing. Would it not be appropriate for the MOD to make better use of surplus MOD housing by allowing former MOD personnel who have a problem to live in it? This is not just about the Conservatives' policy of selling off such property to Annington Homes, although that is a contributory factor. Hundreds of homes that are still under the control of the Defence Housing Agency are not being used; they could be used to house the very people the Minister is talking about.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that he has answered his own question: the vast bulk of service family accommodation was sold during the privatisation of 1996.
Of course, the impact of all of this work needs to be measured and evidence for future policy changes provided. We have therefore commissioned a new UK-wide study into the causes, extent, costs and impact of ex-service homelessness. The work, which began earlier this year, is almost complete in England and will now move to Scotland and Wales. I am also committed to extending the research to include Northern Ireland.
Employment is another important factor in assisting people to break out of social exclusion. In 2001, we established another ground-breaking partnership, this time with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Business in the Community, Training for Life, the defence industry and the Ex-Services Action Group on homelessness. The partnership, known as Project Compass, provides new employment opportunities and support for homeless veterans. In November last year, I accompanied the Prince of Wales, who has been involved in Project Compass since its inception, on a visit to the project. I do not usually speak for the prince, but I think that I can safely say that we were both impressed with the results of the pilot scheme.
Our partnership with Business in the Community has attracted the attention of several leaders in the corporate sector, including KPMG, Tesco, Marsh UK, Armstrong International, Publicis and Cisco Systems, who are keen to support the next phase of Project Compass. We are working with KPMG to develop a business plan for the project, which we hope will attract even more corporate interest in tackling problems associated with ex-service homelessness. Next week, I shall attend a reception with major stakeholders to present our plans for the next stage of the project.
The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet, will deal with health issues in his wind-up speech, but I want to reflect briefly on mental health problems, which are currently a high priority across government. While the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence have an obvious interest, it is increasingly appreciated that good mental health is a community-wide and through-life responsibility, with opportunities for older people, the devolved Administrations, local authorities, employers, schools and voluntary organisations all to play a part. We are therefore involved, along with many other organisations, in the social exclusion unit's mental health project, which seeks to help people with mental health symptoms across the range of severity to enter and retain work and to enjoy full social participation.
Evidence collected by the project confirms stigma and perceived discrimination to be major influences in discouraging people from seeking help. Those are also issues for the armed forces. The project will soon move to implementation, and a major strand of the work will focus on discrimination. I am meeting colleagues in the near future to discuss our further involvement in that important range of work.
In the context of veterans' health issues, it is also appropriate to mention the long-standing arrangement that war pensioners should be given priority in NHS hospitals for examination or treatment relating to their pensioned disablement. I can assure the House that I take this matter seriously, as does the Department of Health, and we intend to ensure that hospitals, GPs and other key players in the referral process are aware of the arrangement.
I now want to address the wider commemoration issues. It is very important that, as a society, we continue to recognise the enormous contribution made by veterans to our security. I see two principal obligations, which are closely inter-linked: first, the commemoration of those who died in the service of their country; and secondly, the need to raise and maintain public awareness about the vital and lasting contribution made by those who have served their country so well.
Next year's commemoration of events leading up to the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war will provide a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives, as well as to all those who served this country in that historic conflict. The anniversary will also provide a unique opportunity to raise awareness about veterans and to celebrate the role of the veteran in society. A great deal of effort is being put into making the occasions special for veterans and their families. The Government are acutely aware that this might be the last chance for many of the men and women who lived through those events to commemorate them in any numbers. Just as importantly, it could also be the last chance for new generations to learn at first hand from the veterans themselves what it was like to be involved in the second world war. Their memories and experiences will provide for future generations a lasting legacy that needs to be harnessed.
Last Sunday, it was said:
"It is incumbent upon us to entrust it"— the legacy—
"to new generations."
Those were the words of President Chirac in his address at the international D-day event. Equally telling are the words of Mr. Ray Rosen, the president of the Birmingham Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women:
"It is important that we should never forget and that the children should know what happened."
This is the passing on of the baton of remembrance referred to by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his message on the D-day weekend in last week's House magazine. So our plans for the commemorations of the end of the war on
I can confirm that the main events will be in London, and will include a religious service, a lunch and an event on Horse Guards parade. They will be attended by many thousands of veterans of the second world war, including those who served on the home front. Other events will be planned for the week leading up to
The week will act as a pilot for further annual veterans awareness weeks. I see those events as crucial in ensuring that younger generations appreciate the sacrifice made by their forefathers.
My aim is to develop new themes each year around the core aim of commemorating our veterans and involving all generations in associated events across the nation. I am pleased that the project involves close co-operation with, and support from, our ex-service organisations as well as other stakeholders.
While the official celebrations of the 60th anniversaries in 2004–05 are obviously hugely important, I realised some time ago that many veterans would like to return to the areas in which they served for their own individual commemorations. I also recognised that their exploits and memories could provide wonderful educational material for today's youngsters. I am glad to say that both those strands have been brought together by the Big Lottery Fund's "Veterans Reunited" programme, which allows national lottery money to be used to enable veterans and young people to commemorate the events of the second world war. Indeed, under this Government, more money than ever before is being put into ensuring that veterans can attend commemorations.
The largest part of the "Veterans Reunited" programme is the "Heroes Return" scheme, which is providing £10 million of funding for veterans, their spouses and, where required, their present-day carers to visit the overseas areas where the veterans saw active service in the second world war. By the end of May—less than four months after the scheme was launched—more than 1,600 awards had been made, with a total value of £1.9 million.
Of course, the biggest commemorative event to receive funding so far is the Normandy commemorations of last weekend. By the end of May, the "Heroes Return" programme had distributed nearly £1.2 million to veterans wishing to travel to the D-day commemorations. Funding had been received by 2,128 veterans, 963 wives or husbands, and 1,166 carers—a grand total of 4,257 individuals. With the ability to make awards retrospectively, we expect the funding and the number of individuals funded to rise significantly.
The "Veterans Reunited" programme also includes about £10 million for educational projects under "Their Past, Your Future", while £7 million can be used for grants to organise events and exhibitions in the United Kingdom as part of the "Home Front Recall" aspect of the project. In total, "Veterans Reunited" has £27.5 million allocated from the lottery for the next two years.
In carrying forward the MOD's involvement in these projects, I have the crucial support of the Veterans Agency in Norcross, near Blackpool. In addition to its role in the administration of war pensions and provision of welfare support to pensioners, the agency represents the focal point in the MOD for delivery of support to the wider veterans' community, particularly in respect of advice on the services available from the Government and the voluntary sector. Its free helpline and other information services are heavily used, and I know that they are valued by many veterans.
I am pleased to report that the agency has played a major role in the "Heroes Return" scheme by providing initial advice to potential applicants. The agency has provided a helpline for inquiries about "Heroes Return" and has so far dealt successfully with more than 28,000 calls. That represents a 40 per cent. increase over the helpline's normal information traffic. I would like to thank, on the record, all those concerned in handling that huge amount of extra work in such a short time. I am sure that that work is appreciated across the House.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on that point about the "Heroes Return" scheme. I do not want to malign in any way, shape or form the wonderful work that is being done; it is a credit to the Department and to the country that we are doing this for veterans. However, is he really confident that such a scheme, which, given the age of the veterans, is going to happen in such a short time, can put in place the mechanism for them to return to the countries where they served before they unfortunately pass away?
My hon. Friend raises a pertinent and important point. I can assure her that while there is a need to claim in the two-year period up to the end of 2005, if veterans want to travel after that date, that will be permissible within the scheme. We have ensured that the scheme covers carers, should that be necessary. We hope that as many second world war veterans as want to travel can do so. She will be aware from questions that I have answered in the House on this matter that, at the moment, we are restricting "Heroes Return" to second world war veterans and not extending it further. That is a discussion that we may have in the future.
As the House will be aware, to help veterans attend those commemorative events overseas during the two-year period, the Home Office announced last year that concessionary one-year passports would be made available. Veterans and their organisations have warmly welcomed the scheme and, so far, 636 of those passports have been issued.
I was extremely pleased that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was able to announce recently that all British passport holders over the age of 75 will now be eligible for free 10-year passports in grateful commemoration of their efforts before and during the war years.
There seems to be some confusion about when that arrangement will start. I was talking to an elderly gentleman and I suggested that he go to the post office. He went to the post office and found out—
No, no. The post office was still there—my hon. Friend is not being very helpful. However, it did not know about the scheme, and when we phoned up the passport office it said that the scheme had not started yet. It is very important that we get out the message as to when what the Home Secretary announced will start so that people are absolutely clear about it.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend's post office is still open of course, but most importantly he is right that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced the intention to introduce those 10-year passports. We are working on the detail, and as soon as it is available I shall of course inform the House accordingly.
Education of our young people about veterans' matters is one of my most important priorities. The "Veterans Reunited" programme will also raise awareness among young people in a different and, I hope, exciting way. The "Their Past, Your Future" education programme will give young people the opportunity to research and understand the role played by service veterans and civilian groups in ensuring our national security and survival.
The programme, which is a good example of collaboration on veterans-related issues across the official and voluntary sectors, will support local partnerships between schools, museums and veterans groups. I was very pleased to meet pupils taking part in the project during the Normandy weekend. Their teacher, Helen Yarrow, told me that her group enjoyed their trip tremendously and will remember it for the rest of their lives. Their enthusiasm was reassuring and certainly confounded those who sometimes criticise today's youth and the educational opportunities available to them. This passing on of the baton of remembrance is crucial if future generations are to understand the freedoms we have today and why we have them.
I am interested in what my hon. Friend has been saying about the contribution that veterans can make to young people in learning about the suffering that occurred, not only among people in this country but all over the world, as a result of the second world war. Does he have discussions with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to ensure that in history lessons, perhaps as part of the national curriculum, young people learn rather more about the second world war, the reasons for it and how it was fought than about Henry VIII and his six wives?
I resisted the temptation to list the Departments involved in "Veterans Reunited", but it is a collaboration involving the MOD as well as the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, together with the Imperial War museum and the national lottery. Matters to do with the curriculum are for the relevant Department.
Although the education programme focuses on the second world war commemorative events taking place over the next two years, it is also intended to develop into a longer-term project. There will be resources for schools to use in the citizenship and history curricula if they want to do so, and opportunities for young people to participate in commemorations at home and abroad. Education projects of this kind are intended to help future generations to remember and understand the experiences and sacrifices of veterans of all types and their role in our nation's history.
I very much welcome the new initiatives that the Royal British Legion is taking, and I had a useful meeting with its executive a few months ago to discuss its forthcoming projects.
The House should now be aware of a further recent initiative that links the current commemorations, "Heroes Return" and the education projects. Recently, I sent Members of both Houses a commemorative booklet covering the events of D-day. So far, the Ministry of Defence has produced other booklets on the battles at Kohima and Monte Cassino. Further booklets are planned for other major second world war campaigns, and I hope to extend the series eventually to more recent campaigns and operations as their anniversaries come round. For the benefit of Mr. Bercow, I of course intend to ensure that copies of the booklets are available in the Library. The booklets are available to veterans, among others, and I know from discussions with veterans that, for example, members of the Burma Star Association were very pleased with their booklet, as were the veterans whom I met at the Monte Cassino commemorations.
I also presented badges to veterans at the Monte Cassino commemorations. They will also be available to first world war veterans, D-day veterans and others who receive grants to make "Heroes Return" visits. Given the success of the badge already, I am considering how it might be extended. That will require further decision making, and I shall inform the House accordingly.
Veterans rightly demand that service be recognised where appropriate through the award of campaign medals, as my hon. Friend Mr. Turner pointed out earlier. I was glad that, after a review by a sub-committee led by Lord Guthrie, following the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, we were able to meet the long-standing demand for a medal recognising service in the Suez canal zone from 1951 to 1954. The strength of feeling on this issue is witnessed by the demand for the medal. We have received 38,450 applications, although the level of new applications is tailing off a little. Obviously, it takes time to handle that level of demand. The Army, which has the highest number of applications, estimates that it will clear them over the next two years. The Royal Marines is assessing claims as they arrive, and the Royal Navy and RAF hope to clear their backlog by the first half of next year.
I intend to keep the House informed of progress on the distribution of the Suez medal. Between the announcement in June last year and the medal being struck in November, a significant backlog has been building up in all the medal offices. We are still trying to assess the cases, which takes time. There is an individual assessment, followed by creation of the medal with the veteran's name on it, which takes time. I hope that the House will bear with us on this matter.
I see from the Minister's smile that he anticipates exactly what I am going to say. I hope that I will be able to make this point at greater length, if I catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker. If he attaches such importance to clearing the backlog, why is he choosing this precise moment to close the Army medal office, losing most of the expertise and skilled staff there, and transferring it miles down the road to Gloucestershire? Would he not be better advised to scrap the idea entirely? If he is not prepared to do that, could he at least put the closure on hold for three years, to enable that skilled body of men and women to issue the medal, as they wish to do, to veterans, who, tragically, are dying before receiving it?
The hon. Gentleman and I have met on this matter and exchanged correspondence on it, and we simply do not agree. We need to bring the medal offices together to try to create an environment in which medals can be delivered more quickly and efficiently to veterans. That is one of the reasons why we are doing it.
Although a great deal of valuable work is rightly going on to support the 60th anniversary events in 2004–05 and other commemorations, I also want to begin longer-term initiatives to ensure that the baton of remembrance is passed on to future generations. I have made two visits recently to the national memorial arboretum in Lichfield, and I was deeply impressed on both occasions. I am especially pleased that the Government have been able to provide a significant grant in aid for a three-year period to help the new management from the Royal British Legion to carry the project forward. This project has received warm support from veterans groups and is a fitting way to commemorate the sacrifices made in more recent times. As many Members will know, there are also plans to place the new armed forces memorial there, and longer-term proposals for an education facility.
Will the Minister spare a moment to say how grateful we all are to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and to General Sir John Wilsey, for their work, which we were all able to see on television? All around the world, it is important to veterans, and to the rest of us, that Commonwealth war graves are maintained in a decent state.
Clearly, there has been a leak, because the next line of my speech was that I should also mention the continuing excellent work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A number of Members of this House, including Mr. Soames, are commissioners. It is not always appreciated that the United Kingdom, in line with its proportion of the dead of the two world wars, meets almost 80 per cent. of the commission's costs through an annual grant of about £30 million from the Ministry of Defence. Those who have visited the commission's cemeteries around the world will testify to the wonderful work of its staff—drawn from many nations—in caring for those who have fallen in the service not only of the United Kingdom but of our partners in the Commonwealth. I commend the commission's new website, which provides outstanding assistance to those seeking to trace people who may be buried in one of its sites. I understand that the number of hits on the website now runs at more than 250,000 a month, from all over the world.
The commission is also actively exploring options for education projects. Like Mr. Key, I am pleased that the commission site at Bayeux played such an important and prominent role in the D-day commemorations, and that it looked in such superb condition, as did the memorial at Cassino last month.
Commemoration and recognition of veterans rightly deserves high priority, especially now, but also in the longer term. Our efforts and plans demonstrate our commitment to remembering the service given, and sacrifices made, by so many during the second world war and throughout history.
I realise that the Minister is coming to the end of his speech. Earlier, he was asked about the Arctic convoys, and medals for those who served in them—four such veterans are in the Gallery today—and I hope that he will accept that this is a perfect occasion for him to announce that the Government have changed their mind and will award that medal to those deserving citizens of the UK. We can talk time and again about the role of those veterans, but there is one way in which we can commemorate their action, especially on the Arctic convoys: by giving them the medal. I would not want the Minister to miss this opportunity to put his side of the story and, for once, I hope, to agree with the rest of the House.
I answered questions on this matter in some detail at Defence questions on
So what are our plans for the future? I have already said that I would like to develop many of our current initiatives. I believe that the various strands of commemorative and educative work, including veterans awareness week, will be particularly important as fewer and fewer people in wider society have direct knowledge of the essential work of our armed forces.
My vision as I approach this task is of making recognition and commemoration of veterans' achievements in support of their country a part of our national heritage—one that we can celebrate with the veterans among us, but can also pass to succeeding generations. I have emphasised our efforts to focus on the needs of younger and future veterans as well as those of their distinguished predecessors. To that end, I intend to continue the progress made on enhanced arrangements for the transition from service to civilian life by keeping the new programmes introduced this year under careful and constant review. I also intend to develop the role of the Veterans Agency in providing information and support for veterans, and to lock into other Government information services. A review of our veterans-related information strategy is in hand, as are individual collaborative projects on information and communications.
We have a range of new initiatives across Government and in partnership with the voluntary sector to tackle aspects of social exclusion and vulnerability among an important minority of veterans. I want to make progress on that as well as on the work relating to health matters, which will ensure that our veterans enjoy the full support of the national health service and can enjoy long and healthy retirements. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet, will refer to that later.
I am sure the House will recognise that it has been a busy year for veterans' affairs in the United Kingdom. We have righted an injustice with the award of the Suez medal, introduced new and different approaches to the transition from service to civilian life, enhanced the status of veterans across the United Kingdom, and successfully assisted with the 60th anniversary commemorations of D-day. Moreover, we have £27.5 million of lottery funding to spend on veterans to help future generations understand what happened.
There is, however, no room for complacency. There is much more to do, and the Government are strongly committed to continuing to recognise and enhance the role of the veteran in our communities.
When the debate began I felt that I was coming in as a novice, but after an hour and six minutes of the Minister's excellent speech I feel that I have become something of a veteran myself. The reason I appear as a novice is, however, a good one, of which the Minister is aware: our official spokesman on veterans' affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth, is today attending the funeral of his uncle and godfather—who, incidentally, was himself a wartime paratrooper. As my hon. Friend pointed out, he is in a way doing a service to a veteran although he cannot be here today to do the same for all veterans, as he would like to.
The Minister rightly observed that this is the first full debate on veterans' affairs to be held in the Chamber—although I remind him that, appropriately enough on VE day 2001, a full debate on the subject took place in Westminster Hall. That was at the initiative of Ruth Kelly, who has subsequently become a Treasury Minister and is therefore now in a position to implement some of the recommendations that she rightly made on behalf of veterans at that time.
Let me add my congratulations to the Minister, the Government and all who organised the magnificent event at Normandy. It really was an outstanding affair, which was of course entirely predictable. Any of us—which means all of us—who have personally come into contact with veterans of the second world war, and indeed of other conflicts, know what marvellous people they are and what a life-enhancing experience it is to meet them.
We all have our favourite little stories. Before I embark on the substance of my speech, I want to share one or two of them with the House. One concerns a man who died very recently, Lieutenant-Commander Pat Kingsmill. He was the only one of six Swordfish pilots to survive the war who were involved in trying to stop the German battle fleet when it sailed up the English channel. It was a suicide mission. The leader, Esmonde, was awarded the VC; all the planes were shot down. I read about the event when I was a lad, and never dreamed that circumstances with which I shall not detain the House would bring me into contact with Pat Kingsmill and the other survivors. I had an opportunity to bring them to the House, where they met Speaker Boothroyd at what was probably one of her last engagements before she stepped down.
She is indeed an excellent woman, and if there was any doubt about that she showed it in spades that day. She invited those heroes to visit the Speaker's apartments, and made a little speech to them. What she said to them could be said to all the veterans of world war two, including those whose presence in the Gallery today I am not allowed to mention but who were on the arctic convoys. What she said was, "Without what you and your comrades did, we would not have a free Parliament today." She added, in her own inimitable way, "I would probably have ended up in a concentration camp." Quick as a flash, Pat Kingsmill said, "Yes, but we would have been right there beside you."
The spirit of these people is absolutely indomitable. My second little anecdote also concerns the Fleet Air Arm. I went to a reception and lunch for the Telegraphist Air Gunners Association, and sat at a table next to a veteran who was busily drawing attention to the achievements of everyone else who was present. That is an example of what the Minister rightly described as the modesty of veterans about what they themselves had done. This gentleman was pointing out this and that person, saying, "There's Les Sayer: he got the DSM for the attack on the Bismarck", and "There's Dickie Richardson: he got the DSM for the raid on the Palembang oil refineries in 1945." Eventually I turned to him and said, "Excuse my asking, but were you not involved in any particularly interesting actions in world war two?" He looked a little embarrassed and said, "Well, I did fly in the raid against the Tirpitz."
As the House will know, the Tirpitz was the sister battleship of the Bismarck. She was attacked first by midget submarines and badly damaged, then by the Fleet Air Arm and damaged again, and finally by the RAF Dambusters, who capsized her. I asked this gentleman, "What was your overwhelming impression of that raid?" He replied, "The sheer size of the battleship." He said, "We came down sharply, as you can imagine, and flew the length of the ship. As I was the telegraphist air gunner I was facing rearwards, and I could see the length of the ship unrolling as we flew along. It went on and on and on." I asked him a rather obvious question: "Do you think you hit it?" He allowed himself the ghost of a smile. "Couldn't really miss from that height," he said.
I do not know about you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I think I speak for all of us when I say that when I walk out of a room after meeting veterans who have described such experiences—which can be replicated, because Members of Parliament are given opportunities to meet these wonderful people—I feel about six inches taller. I feel my back straightening, and I feel very proud to have met and known them. That is why I sometimes wonder a little about the reluctance of some of our officials at the MOD to advise Ministers that it is not only right to commemorate these events as long and as prominently as we can, but as a very good thing to do. It is good for them, it is good for the country and it is good for future generations. It was never in doubt that if a big ceremony was held to celebrate the 60th anniversary of D-day, it would be done well; the question was whether it would be held. The Minister will recall that there were some quite sharp exchanges both here and in Westminster Hall as recently as October and November last year about what level of representation there would be.
These tributes are very important. It is essential that they should continue and I think that the Government have acknowledged that lesson.
I would like to say something else about the events for which we are today acknowledging sacrifice. Before these veterans, there were the veterans of world war one. Now we honour the veterans of world war two. Fortunately, we have not had to honour veterans of world war three. One of the reasons why there was no world war three was that we won the cold war. One of the people who was responsible for us winning the cold war was President Ronald Reagan.
I am sorry to inject a slightly disappointed note into my remarks but I was disappointed that, on Monday, the day we came back, the Foreign Secretary paid no tribute to President Reagan until he was provoked into doing so by the shadow Foreign Secretary, and the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman paid no tribute to him at all even then. Today, we heard reluctant tributes from the Deputy Prime Minister and from the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman. President Reagan's contribution deserves better acknowledgment than that.
In its first report following his death, the BBC stated that President Reagan described the Soviet Union as an evil empire but later changed his mind. That was news to me. I thought that it was because of the way he confronted it as an evil empire that he changed the Soviet Union and was able to reach agreement with it on disarmament measures that benefited all mankind. According to the BBC website, the Prime Minister said:
"At home, his vision and leadership restored national self-confidence and brought some significant changes to US politics."
Some significant changes to US politics—big deal.
"Abroad, the negotiations of arms control agreements in his second term and his statesmanlike pursuit of more stable relations with the Soviet Union helped bring about the end of the Cold war."
We all know that during President Reagan's first term he pursued tough policies with which people now in government did not agree, but they should be big enough to admit that he was right, because he was right. He helped to save us from having to commemorate veterans of a third world war.
I applaud my hon. Friend's tribute to President Reagan, whose commitment to individual freedom, personal responsibility and the doctrine of peace through strength was exemplary. Does he agree, as millions of veterans would testify, that if the alternative approach of hand-wringing appeasement and unilateral nuclear disarmament had held sway, our world would be vastly less free and infinitely more dangerous than it is?
I think that the reaction of colleagues on the Conservative Benches is sufficient endorsement of what my hon. Friend said. I cannot resist pointing out that the first time I made his acquaintance was in 1983, when I had occasion to brief him on issues about nuclear deterrence and disarmament, and it has been downhill all the way since then.
Let us move back to the substance of the debate, and I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your indulgence when I made that slight but necessary diversion. I want to refer to topics such as reunions, memorials, medals, pensions, stress and homelessness. We have all heard how important reunions and recognition are. They are important for the people who took part, for the historical pride of the country, and for the understanding and commitment of young people who will have the destiny of this country in their hands.
I appreciate that the Government will take the view that in some sense it has to stop somewhere—they cannot go on having large-scale commemorations indefinitely for every major campaign. However, that is no reason to believe that there should not be continuing support on a lower level, certainly from the armed forces, for all those veterans who feel that they are strong enough in wind and limb to continue commemorating the events that lead us today to regard them as heroes and to miss the people who never grew up as a result of the sacrifices that they made.
I for one was pleased to read in The Sunday Telegraph at the weekend a story headed "We'll carry on as long as there are veterans, says Gen Jackson". The article stated:
"Britain's most senior Army officer has defied the Ministry of Defence by promising that future D-day commemorations will be conducted as long as there are Normandy veterans."
A senior military officer, who perhaps understandably remained anonymous, is quoted as saying:
"The general is a great and active supporter of several veterans' organisations. He is not going to allow civil servants to tell him or any other soldier when, where and how they will remember those men and women who gave their lives for this country's freedom."
I was hoping to get a response and my hon. Friend did not let me down.
I would like a commitment from the Minister at some point that no obstacles will be put in the way of the armed forces when they are ready and willing to give commitments to support veterans who are able to go on commemorating the activities that led to victory in the last world war and in subsequent conflicts, even if they do not feel that they can stage an operation at the same level of intensity as was successfully carried out on
I must get my own back after the interventions earlier. There is no dispute about the issue. Commemoration is important and what General Jackson said is right. We obviously will discuss with the Normandy Veterans Association and Royal British Legion how they would like to take commemoration forward. We have to be realistic. In 10 years, for example, the veterans who did us proud in Arromanches town square on Sunday evening will be 90-plus and therefore we have to have some serious conversations about the long-term future of commemoration.
I am grateful for that intervention. I regard that as one out of one, and I will keep score as I go through the remainder of my speech to see what other positive results I can get.
The question of medals has been brought up several times and I propose to spend a little time on it, for a very good reason. There has been an ongoing dispute about the events surrounding the award, or non-award, of a medal for those in the Arctic convoys during the second world war. I have benefited from the compilation of documentation prepared by the House of Commons Library. I would like to press the Minister a little further on that matter, even though he rather disappointed the House by hiding behind the fact that he had had an exchange on it at defence questions.
Let me explain a little about the campaign stars and service medals that were awarded in the second world. If someone was in the Royal Air Force and flew in Bomber Command, they got the Air Crew Europe star. If they were in the Battle of Britain, they got a Battle of Britain bar to the 1939–45 star. If they fought in the far east, they got the Pacific star or the Burma star. If they were entitled to both, they were given one with a bar on it signifying that they also earned the other. The same was true with the Mediterranean, where they were eligible for the Italy and/or the Africa star, and the Atlantic, where they were eligible for the Atlantic star and sometimes also the France and Germany star. The major area where that does not appear to apply is the Arctic convoys to Russia.
I do not know the reason for that omission. According to excellent documentation provided by the Library, time and again Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have suggested that the reason was that those who served in the Arctic convoys were entitled to the Atlantic star, but some stars required a longer period of service in theatre than others, and people had to be in theatre for a very long time to qualify for the Atlantic star—too long a period for most of the nearly 700 ships that took part in the Murmansk and other Arctic convoys.
All the other campaign honours relate to specific battle fronts, and the arrangements were devised cleverly, fairly and comprehensively, but the only way in which we were involved in the important battle front relating to the Soviet Union was through the Arctic convoys, and at the very least, if the authorities did not want to award a separate star—which I think they should—they should have made it possible for the bulk of the people involved to receive the Atlantic star. The Minister's predecessor seems to think that they could have, because he said:
Well, not for those on about 690 of the 697 ships involved.
The Prime Minister himself said:
"I would like to pay tribute to the bravery and dedication of all those who sailed in the Arctic convoys. Those who served in the arctic convoys during the second world war were awarded a medal, the Atlantic Star, at the time to mark their important contribution."—[Hansard, 20 November 2003; Vol. 413, c.1146W.]
Well, no, Prime Minister, they were not.
I understand the Government's difficulty. The danger always is that if we revisit such events so long after they have happened we will open up other claims and there will be no end to the need to revise historical arrangements. However, for the reasons that I outlined, I believe that this case stands by itself. Why is there such reluctance to comply? I think that it comes down to the fact that it would make an awful lot of work for the Ministry of Defence. That really sticks in the craw, because one of the advantages for civil servants in the MOD or anywhere else is that, although they follow an honourable profession and may have a distinguished career, they do not go short of recognition and awards. The armchair warriors of the MOD are quite good at awarding themselves medals when the time comes, and it does not sit well that veterans who served in especially hazardous conditions should be deprived by bureaucrats of that to which they should be entitled.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. Does he agree that there is something very strange about the Government making a special case for the Suez medal—honouring a group of men who indeed served in very uncomfortable circumstances but took relatively few casualties—but refusing to recognise a body of people who served in one of the world's most hostile atmospheres and took extremely heavy casualties?
The Government will say that the difference is that in the case of the Suez medal they were not able to prove that a recommendation had been made and turned down at the time, whereas that is the case with the Arctic convoys; but that leads us to ask why that recommendation was turned down, and I believe that it may have had something to do with the fact that our ally at the time the medal was earned had become our potential enemy by the time the decision was taken.
Should not there be another consideration in favour of the Arctic convoy veterans, in that of the nearly 800 ships that sailed outward to Murmansk and Archangel, no fewer than 7.8 per cent. were lost? In the battle of the Atlantic, harsh though it was, fewer than 1 per cent. of our ships were lost.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point, but I do not want to get into a bidding war about which of these vital battles was the more costly. The nub of his point is correct: by any criterion, the Arctic convoy veterans should qualify. If the idea was that they would get the Atlantic star, the conditions for that medal should have been constructed such that more than just a few per cent. of them could get it.
I want to draw to the attention of the House the case of a former West Lothian county councillor, William Pender, who came to London on
The Father of the House neatly anticipates the point that I was coming to: veterans of the Arctic convoy are allowed to wear the medal that they have been awarded by the Russians, and when that permission was given in the 1990s, the Government made it clear that it was given because the situation in Russia had improved significantly, which simply adds force to my point that there may have been a political motivation behind the decision not to award the medal in the first place.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to agree that many of the veterans are confused about the messages coming from the Government. The Secretary of State says no, but figures as senior as the Home Secretary and the chairman of the Labour party have recently signed up as active supporters of the campaign, saying that the Government should give the recognition that is due. Whose message should prevail?
I see the Minister shaking his head, but the Portsmouth edition of The News, which has been waging a magnificent campaign, contained a report on
"Two days after the Ministry of Defence appeared to deliver a huge blow to the campaign for a medal, the tough-talking Sheffield MP said: 'They deserve a medal'."
I do not want to belabour the point much further, but it is very important. It is a matter of honour, a matter of bureaucracy, and a matter of the ability to make exceptions to the rules, readjust them or if necessary reconfigure them to allow an injustice to be put right. The Government should realise that this issue is not going to go away, or at least not until the last of the veterans has ceased to draw breath, which I trust will not be for some years yet. The Government should face up to the issue, get on with it, tackle it and put it to bed.
In talking about injustices, I shall make just a passing reference to the earlier intervention by the Father of the House on the Chinook disaster. I, too, attended yesterday's memorial to mark the 10th anniversary of the disaster, and the people who organised it made it clear that it was held in commemoration of all who had died, and not part of the ongoing campaign to overturn the verdict against the pilots.
I take this opportunity, however, to reiterate a point that I have tried to impress on the Government before. The rules by which dead pilots have been blamed for a crash, when by definition they cannot put the case in their own defence, have been changed as a result of this case. If that crash happened again in the same circumstances, those pilots would not be blamed. It would be an injustice for a situation to continue in which, although it was felt necessary to change the rules as a result of the unsatisfactory outcome of this case, the reputation of the pilots in the case itself had not been cleared. I suspect that much face-saving is involved in this issue. I understand the need to acknowledge that senior officers may well have taken the decision that appeared right to them with the rules as they were at the time, and that is no discredit to them, but the rules have been changed and the pilots should benefit from that.
The key word in what the Father of the House has just said is "certainties". The original rules were drawn very tightly and said that no deceased pilot was to be blamed unless there were no doubt whatever about what had happened. Yet there is debate, dispute and controversy. There is doubt about what happened, so the pilots should not have been blamed. Given that they were blamed, however, and given that the rules were changed as a result of their being blamed, it is manifestly unjust that they should continue to be blamed. This is a tragedy not just for those who died, but for those who survived them, because 10 years later they are still haunted by the case.
Is not the situation worse than that, because the Scottish accident inquiry refused to come to the conclusion that the pilots were negligent, as did the original RAF board of inquiry? It was the conclusion of the experts that was overturned. The situation is bizarre, and absolutely against natural justice.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know that he has long campaigned on the matter and knows a great deal more about it than I. I still feel that with good will, even at this stage, it should be possible to find a form of words that would satisfy people that the senior officers did what they did in good faith but that the time has now come to overturn the verdict. I should have thought that that was the common-sense, compassionate and humane way of dealing with the matter.
I am aware that a number of people have changed their views, but obviously, the concern must be that in putting this matter right, we do not then denigrate the integrity of the senior officers, who almost certainly do not deserve such an outcome. In the light of the many articulate, clever, legally trained, inventive and ingenious minds available in this House and in the Ministry of Defence, it ought to be possible to come up with a form of words that would resolve the situation—at last—in an acceptable way to all concerned.
I shall deal very briefly with some other topics. I thank the Government for providing satisfaction in respect of the Suez canal zone medal, but I can only reiterate the concern expressed so effectively by my hon. Friend Mr. Luff about the closure of the Army medal office in his constituency. The Minister said that he anticipates that the Army will have cleared the backlog after two years. It that proves true, it will be a pleasant surprise. An article in Soldier magazine of May 2004 said that that is not nearly so likely an outcome, and it has been suggested that several years could be added to the time it will take to get those medals issued. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head. I trust him, and if he assures me that he has the staff on the job to get those medals out in two years, I will forthwith move on from this topic.
I have made it clear that I will keep the House informed of progress on the dispatch of Suez medals. Changes will be made to the way in which the medal office operates, and I hope that they will create efficiencies both before closure and afterwards.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I encourage him not to accept that assurance at face value. The Minister plans to make most of the staff at the Army medal office redundant. The "Suez canal" website of the Veterans Agency says:
"Checking eligibility is a skilled, time-consuming and exacting job, but the medal offices have skilled staff who are experts at assessing eligibility quickly and accurately."
Not if the Minister has his way.
The Minister's mark has gone down to one out of two, and I am now provoked to make another point on this topic. According to an article on the cost of producing medals, a new medal for the Arctic convoys might cost £140 per medal for the Royal Navy alone. If the people making these calculations are the same people who are calculating the time it will take to issue the Suez canal zone clasps and general service medals to the veterans who will be awarded them, one cannot have a great deal of confidence in the reliability of their timetabling. However, I shall move on because the issue has had a sufficient airing.
I have only one more point to make about medals, and it concerns what used to be called the reserve and territorial decoration. The Opposition applauded the decision that decorations for reservists were to be awarded both to officers and to other ranks. That was a change for the better, but it was decided that, instead of both officers and other ranks having the initials "RD" or "TD" after their name, in future nobody would have the benefit of such initials to signify receipt of those awards. That was not a change for the better.
I raised this issue with the Secretary of State for Defence back in April 2002. I said that all concerned should be able to put these initials after their name, rather than nobody, now that all in the reserve forces were eligible. He said:
"I will certainly look at that practical suggestion, but I will refer later to questions of recruitment and retention. I will set out some of the efforts that the Ministry of Defence is making to ensure that we have the right numbers of people coming in and remaining in the armed forces for as long as we need them."—[Hansard, 11 April 2002; Vol. 383, c. 176.]
I suggest that one reason why people join, and remain in, the armed forces in a voluntary capacity is the knowledge that their service will be recognised in a public way.
I am someone with a vested interest in that I am able to place the initials "TD" after my name, though, unlike many earlier holders of that award, I have never seen active service. May I tell my hon. Friend as a matter of historical fact that the War Office took exactly the same dim, foot-dragging view after the first world war when the same case was made? That designation was achieved only through many hundreds and thousands of eligible people simply placing the initials after their names—and eventually, acceptance just happened. That may well have to be the case again.
I must say that I did not know that particular piece of historical information and I am glad that my hon. Friend has shared it with the House and me.
Before finally leaving the issue of commemorations, I should like to draw the House's attention to a letter that I recently received from Vivien Foster, who is president of the National Merchant Navy Association. He makes the point that the Merchant Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service were in action during the Falklands conflict in 1982
"when 17 merchant seamen lost their lives".
"To honour their memory, a group of supporters and friends of the Merchant Service met after a Remembrance Service at the Falklands Islands Memorial Chapel at Pangbourne to discuss plans to build a small memorial to these brave men. This project is now firmly under way, the Memorial will be set in the Merchant Navy garden near the main Monument. To this end, a Trust has been formed, the Memorial has been designed and funds are being sought."
They are not being sought, as far as I know, from the Government, but I would have thought that the lottery might be interested and that hon. Members might, on an individual basis, want to highlight and promote the project.
Let me move on briefly to the issue of pensions. As the Minister pointed out, the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill has enjoyed—if that is the right word—many hours of detailed debate both on the Floor of the House and in Committee. We maintain that veterans from the armed forces are unique and that they have a special status because of the special risks that they undertake. It should not be said that certain concessions should not be granted to them because of any read-across to other public servants. Members of the armed forces are in a category of their own because of what they do. That should be recognised.
I entirely endorse the intervention of my hon. Friend Mr. Brazier, when he expressed his concern about changing the burden of proof in compensation claims. The Defence Committee noted in paragraph 69 of its report that, because of the special risks run by members of the armed forces,
"we continue to believe that the onus should remain on the Government to prove that service was not responsible for causing or worsening a condition for which a compensation claim is made."
We are sorry that the Government have not accepted that.
I have spoken about the special status and special conditions of the armed forces. In that regard, we remain unhappy that the widows of people who served in the armed forces but retired before 1978 receive no pension at all on the death of their husbands if they married them after that time. The Government should ask themselves why servicemen would have delayed getting married for so long. It is precisely because they were servicemen. It is connected with their special service, and it is a shame—a word I use deliberately—and a disgrace that their widows are not benefiting from the fact that their husbands served their country for so long in such way.
There is also continuing concern about the widows of those who died before 1973, who receive only one third of their late husbands' pensions: whereas, post-1973, they would previously have received a half of that pension, they will receive nearly two thirds in future.
These are inequities. The number of people involved is going down all the time, and it is sad that the Government do not feel able to deal with the anomalies.
The Government have expressed a concern that existing war widows are likely to remarry and that the number of people for whom pensions would still have to be paid would be quite large. The Government should do away with the anomaly that means that war widows who remarry after what are called the non-attributable deaths of their husbands—that is, deaths that cannot be attributed to their conditions of service—are a burden on the Treasury. Will the Minister say how many of the existing war widows who, in December 2000, were granted the concession to retain their pensions for life have subsequently remarried? I suspect that the figure is not all that high.
I turn now to combat stress. When people are injured in battle, we regard it as our duty to treat the wounds of the body, but it is clear that we must do more to treat the wounds of the mind. I welcome the fact that the Government take this matter seriously, and I note yesterday's written statement announcing the establishment of an academic department to deal with defence mental health issues.
However, although I do not want to detain the House much longer, I want to set out some of the caveats that I have. I want it to be recognised that some minds are more vulnerable than others to being wounded. If it is possible to identify people with that propensity, they should not be recruited as service personnel in the first place. Those who are recruited should be tested, and trained to cope with what they may have to endure. We do no favours to recruits if we gloss over the risks that they run when they opt for a military career.
Combat is, by definition, traumatic and stressful. The combatant's mind must be strengthened before combat, and supported after it, but no force will ever be battle worthy if concepts emerge such as those described by Robert Vermaas of King's College, London—the very institution to which the Government are looking for advice on this matter. In an essay that appeared in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute in June 2002, he stated:
"By 1990, a mood of recrimination, blame and culpability emerged in the UK, as large numbers of soldiers argued that they should have been adequately briefed about the potential psychological effects of their work. It was the beginning of a political and financial nightmare for many western armed forces. Falklands veterans began to pursue legal action, claiming they were not fully warned of the hazards of their profession and, once returned to civilian life, that they were not adequately treated for the trauma they had experienced."
One can agree that there is a need to support people on their return to civilian life. However, it is rather naive to imagine that, when people are thinking of signing up for careers in the armed forces, it is the duty of those forces to impress on them that war is terrible and combat vicious, and that horrible sights will be seen that it will be impossible to forget. Interestingly, a case based on that approach in May last year did not succeed in the High Court. It would be very difficult for any country to have an armed force that was effective, deployable and resilient if that force could be sued successfully by its members for not warning them that they would be going into situations that would threaten their lives and their psychological and physical well-being.
Finally, on the topic of health, I reiterate the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot for a public inquiry into Gulf war vaccinations. The Government have some sympathy from us on the issue because it has not clearly been shown—and that is agreed—that a single syndrome is responsible for all, or even the bulk, of the ailments suffered by people after they came back from the first Gulf war. However, on the face of it, there is an arguable case that the cocktail of vaccinations that the people were given may have had some serious side effects. That is one aspect that deserves further investigation.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I hope that he will accept that it is important that the independently commissioned research follows its full course before any decisions are made.
One has to strike a balance between allowing enough time for research results to be known to be valid and recognising that the more time is allowed, the harder it is for the people who may be suffering from the syndrome that the research is trying to establish.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that another difficulty with an inquiry would be locating records? The Ministry of Defence has admitted that recordkeeping of what type and combination of vaccines people received before the first Gulf war was non-existent in some cases and poor in others.
I had not planned to intervene again, but I feel I must do so for the sake of the record. When I gave evidence to the Defence Committee, of which my hon. Friend Mr. Jones is a distinguished member, on
I thank the Minister for that invitation and either my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot or I may take it up. My hon. Friend called for an inquiry in response to a written answer in the other place to a question from the Labour peer Lord Morris. The Minister for Defence Procurement, Lord Bach, confirmed that the Government were aware that some of the combinations of vaccination used could cause serious side effects and that vaccinations went ahead despite warnings from the Department of Health and the deputy chief medical officer. That is a serious admission. I do not wish to press it further today, but my colleagues who specialise in such issues may return to it in the future.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is wrong that the Government do not fund services for veterans who suffer from mental illness? My constituency includes Erskine hospital, which cares for disabled ex-service people and which my hon. Friend the Minister has kindly visited. That organisation is totally dependent on charity and has received no funding from this Government or the previous Government. Is it right that ex-service people should be dependent on charity in this day and age?
That situation is not confined to veterans with mental health problems. I think of St. Dunstan's, for example, which cares for seriously physically disabled veterans. I once instituted a debate on the denial of lottery money to that organisation. I would say only that the Government cannot be expected to do everything that service charities do so well, but they can be expected to help. Whether sufficient Government help is being given must be examined on the merits of each case.
I was pleased to hear the Minister's remarks about homelessness. It is a grave concern that a high proportion of people out on the streets have an ex-service background. Is that because they were insufficiently looked after in service or when they left the service, or are they people who should not have been selected for the services in the first place? The point has been made that people sometimes join the services to get away from unsatisfactory conditions at home and then after their period of service go back to the very conditions that led them to join up in the first place. That problem cannot be laid at the door of the services, but it must be dealt with in a humane society.
I shall close by relating one more story from world war two. The Minister movingly said that the veterans to whom he spoke told him that the real heroes were the ones who did not come back. Over the years, I have read a number of stories about people who did not come back. Some of those stories are very well known, but there is one that I have never seen except in a book about the George Cross. It is the story of a Royal Air Force chaplain, Herbert Cecil Pugh, who was on a troop carrier, the Anselm. On
The account states:
"When it was clear that the Anselm could only remain afloat for a few more moments Padre Pugh discovered that there were a number of airmen trapped in a damaged part of the ship and all efforts to get them out had failed. He asked if it was possible to lower him to them and was told that it was but that there was not time. If he went down, the chances were that he would never get out again.
The chaplain's reply to this comment was: 'Those men need me. Let me down'."
So, the account continues,
"much against his better judgement, one of the ship's officers lowered the chaplain into the damaged hold.
The scene below was illuminated by a pale shaft of light and, in numbed silence, the officer watched the chaplain as he signalled to a small party of frightened men. They gathered round him and he said some words that the officer could not hear but it was not difficult to guess at their meaning. The chaplain sank to his knees on boards that were already inches deep in water and some of the airmen knelt beside him. Others stood silently in the background. Padre Pugh joined his hands together and lifted his face towards his God and, as the water rose around his body, his lips moved in prayer. The water reached his shoulders and he remained on his knees. Then the stricken ship gave a final lurch and a stunned ship's officer made a last second dive to safety."
I do not know how that affects you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I first read that story 40 years ago. I find it hard, even now, to read it without emotion.
First, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his comments about the Blaydon project, which is well appreciated in my constituency. I have been involved with SSAFA over the years and know how well the organisation works with veterans who have problems. It does a valuable job.
That is not the main reason that I rise to speak today, however. I want to speak on a matter that has already been mentioned: the injustice done to the survivors of the Arctic convoys. I am sorry that the Minister regarded the position he set out at Question Time in March as satisfactory. It is not.
When the Arctic convoys went into the Atlantic on the summer route, they went through the Greenland-Iceland gap, turned to starboard and headed for the Arctic ocean, the Norwegian sea and the Barents sea. They could do that only during the very short Arctic summer because the ice had retreated far enough for them to get through. The winter route, which lasted for some nine months of the year, went straight from Scapa into the Norwegian sea, and on to the Arctic ocean and the Barents sea, before ending up at Murmansk, which was less than 30 miles from the German-Finnish front line, or Archangel.
On those routes, the convoys were subject to attack by surface raiders and, when they were further out, long-range bombers; they were also subject to the most atrocious weather conditions imaginable. In February, my hon. Friend Mr. Jones and I were in north Norway. We spent part of the time in the mountains with 42 Commando and part of the time with the Assault Squadron in a fjord based in a German U-boat pen dug out of the virgin rock by slave labour. On the night that we slept out in a 10-man tent, the temperature outside dropped to minus 30°; inside, it was a relatively modest minus 11° or 12°. But the kit that we were wearing was light years away from anything that was issued to the brave men who served on the convoys. They were not only from the Royal Navy, but the Royal Marines, the merchant marines, and—in the case of the gunners on the merchant ships—the Army.
We are talking about some of the bravest men who served in the second world war. The RAF Hurricat pilots were fired off their ships in a catapult, with no place to land, to take on masses of German aircraft attacking their convoy. Their only hope of survival was to land close enough to a ship to be picked up out of the water in the very few minutes in which they could live in those temperatures. They ended up in Russian army hospitals being looked after by Russian army doctors and nurses. Cruelly injured or suffering from frostbite, their uniforms would be gone, so they would have to wear Russian army uniforms, and they would be subject to attack from German bombing. Yet that service did not count towards the Atlantic medal—they were not allowed to be considered for it.
I have been in correspondence with the Ministry of Defence on this issue for several years, including under previous Governments. My hon. Friend the Minister told me earlier that the award of medals was scrupulously fair. Dr. Lewis observed that the criteria for awarding medals differ, but he did not say by how much. A campaign medal was awarded to those who served for one day in the Mediterranean, Pacific or Burmese waters, whether they were in action or not. They got a medal for sailing gently through the south seas for one day without coming under attack.
The Atlantic Star required six months in the theatre of war, but the men on the Arctic convoys had little chance of achieving that. We have heard the figures already: of 670 ships' companies involved, only six qualified. That does not recognise the sacrifice that those men made. My hon. Friend Mr. Wareing gave us the figures: 7 per cent. of ships sunk, as against 1 per cent. in the Atlantic—but the figure that he did not give us was the proportion of casualties from each ship sunk. Ships sunk in the the Norwegian sea, the Arctic ocean or the Barents sea would have virtually 100 per cent. casualties, whereas in the Atlantic there would be far fewer.
I do not need to explain further the heroism and fortitude that those men displayed. I have no need to say anything more about their individual qualities—but in this week when we remember the Normandy landings, I have to say something about what they achieved. Had they not served on those convoys, protected them and resupplied Russia, the Normandy landings would not have happened when they did. Indeed, if Germany had conquered Russia, the former Speaker of the House might have been right to say that we would not be enjoying the democratic freedoms that we enjoy in the House, in this country and in Europe today.
Those men made a vast contribution, out of all proportion to the numbers involved—so why did they not get the medal in the first place? The hon. Member for New Forest, East was right: it was simply because they were resupplying the Soviet Union, and immediately the war ended the Soviet Union became not just our tentative enemy but our absolute enemy. Almost throughout my life, the Soviet Union was the enemy of this country and of the west.
That must have been terribly embarrassing for those officials at the time. Could we possibly give a medal to people who had resupplied our enemy? They forgot the fact that had it not been for the bravery and the losses that the red army suffered, if it had not been for the losses and the bravery of the civil population, D-day would not have happened.
I was privileged to see the mass graves in what was then Leningrad, but is now St. Petersburg, with colleagues from both sides of the House on a private visit some years ago. I was amazed. There was a tiny museum, and in it we saw what the bread ration for the civil population was for the 900 days of the siege—a siege that was lifted only because of the supply delivered through Murmansk and Archangel. The bread ration was the size of a packet of 20 cigarettes, and half of that was sawdust. Thousands and thousands of people were in those graves; an appalling sacrifice was made.
The fact that we did not agree with the Russians' politics, or with what they wanted to do to us, is not a good enough reason for not recognising the contribution that people made—but it was inconvenient for the establishment of the day to recognise it.
The civil service works on precedent. I have been a civil servant, and I know that—but precedent is of value only if there has been no significant change in circumstances. The Minister was proud to announce the award of the Suez campaign medal for the 1951–54 campaign. However, there was no significant change in the circumstances that prevailed between us, Egypt and the Suez canal zone between 1951 and 1954. There was no significant change in the circumstances between our country and Japan after 1946 when we decided—eventually and properly—to award payments to Japanese prisoners of war. However, there has been an enormously significant change in the circumstances between our country and Russia since 1946.
In my desk drawer, I have one of the last British military government of Berlin passes ever issued, which I got because the Defence Committee visited Berlin immediately after the collapse of East Germany. The Foreign Office did not know what sort of reception we would get, so rather than chance us going through the checkpoints with our passports, it issued us with government passes. It was unbelievable to walk down the Unter den Linden, which is in eastern Berlin, and to see the bullet holes that had been left in the wall to commemorate the Russians taking the city. I did that on a lovely May day with my jacket slung over my shoulder as I went to visit the British delegation. No one in a black leather jacket followed me, tried to tap my conversations or eavesdrop. It was amazing to see people going about their daily business and the lines of Trabants queuing to fill up to avoid increased petrol costs due to currency unification. It was amazing to see the President of Russia at the D-day ceremony last weekend, although it was right for him to be there. It is also amazing to see the role that Russia is now playing in world affairs, not least at the UN yesterday. It is time to stop the nonsense and the silly things that have been going on.
The leader of the Arctic convoy veterans, Commander Grenfell, received a letter from a civil servant, Mr. Sinfield, the head of DS Secretary (Secretariat), dated
"Dr Moonie did not tell Mr McWilliam that, if appropriate, he would make a recommendation to the"
Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals
"to fully consider the request."
Of course, that is a Cabinet Sub-Committee rather than a committee of the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office. The letter continues:
"He said that, if a request were forthcoming, such a recommendation would be made. I should emphasise that the recommendation referred to is to consider the request, not to make a particular decision either way. It would be for the FCO to refer the matter to the HD Committee."
There is a complete bureaucratic muddle. If the then Minister could make such a request, why did he make it to the Ministry of Defence rather than the Cabinet Sub-Committee? Why did he submit it to the MOD, with which we are having the argument? That is like having a fight with the wife and asking one's mother-in-law to adjudicate—it is silly.
What is going on? It cannot be the cost, which must be minute compared with that for the Suez medal because so few of the men are still alive. The veterans' calculation is £670,000.
The hon. Gentleman is slightly mistaken about the cost. I believe that that applies to the Ministry of Defence, too—its estimate was £14 million, which is staggering and unbelievable. The hon. Gentleman is right to pursue the lack of joined-up government. The figures should be questioned.
The sum of £14 million was mentioned to the veterans but the medal manufacturers reckoned that the cost would be approximately £670,000. If the hon. Gentleman wants to add a few thousand pounds for administration, that is fine.
I want to underline my point about the politics of the matter, which the hon. Member for New Forest, East also mentioned. I received a letter from the then Minister, my hon. Friend Dr. Moonie in August 2002. It states:
"An approach was made by the Russian authorities in the early 1980s when their 40th Anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War Medal (also known more commonly as the Russian Convoy Medal) was offered to British ex-Servicemen by the Russian authorities. Originally instituted in 1985 and offered to British veterans shortly afterwards, permission was not granted for it to be accepted and worn at that time. Some years later, further official approaches by the Russians to the British Government through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were reconsidered. In 1994, the Queen"—
I am quoting from a letter; otherwise I would not use that expression—
"granted permission for this medal to be accepted and worn by eligible British citizens. This was considered acceptable in the light of changed circumstances in Russia since the medal was first issued".
We therefore have it from the Ministry of Defence that there was a significant change in circumstances. There has been enough pussyfooting. Let us honour those brave men, recognise their sacrifice and huge contribution to victory in the second world war, and give them their campaign star.
Let me take hon. Members back to the beginning of this afternoon's debate and the Minister's rightly long introduction about the celebrations to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-day. As someone who was heavily involved in the 50th anniversary celebrations in this country and in France, I felt that, once again, both sides of the channel had done justice to the veterans. I was therefore sad that the Minister chose not to acknowledge the huge commitment—financially and in hospitality—that the people of the city of Caen, the region of Normandy and the French Government offered to the veterans, their families and others who crossed the channel. It was a mistake that the Minister chose not to thank them for the enormous amount of work that went in to making the celebration and the commemoration such a meaningful event.
I know from personal experience of working with the governments of the city of Caen and of Lower Normandy for the 50th anniversary and, to some extent, on the celebrations on this side of the channel for the 60th anniversary, about the amazing amount of work that goes into ensuring that things move smoothly and swiftly. Wherever possible, every effort was made to accommodate the needs of the veterans. It is to the veterans' credit that they rightly acknowledge the hospitality and the warmth of the welcome that they receive every time that they go to Normandy. The people of France, especially in Normandy, have never forgotten the debt that they owe. They witness it every day along the streets and the byways in the countryside of Normandy when they pass the allied graves, which are sadly so numerous.
In my day in France on Friday, I took the opportunity to thank the various mayors and the prefecture of the Lower Normandy region for their help and support. Indeed, in the meeting with the French Minister for veterans, I made clear on behalf of Her Majesty's Government our thanks for the help that we had received from the French Government during the preparations for that weekend.
Having done that in France, I felt that I should reflect more this afternoon on the actions of our own United Kingdom staff, including members of our armed forces.
I thank the Minister for his comments. It is right and proper that that was done, and I was sure that it would have been done, if not by him then by the Prime Minister. I am delighted that the Minister has now put the record straight in the House. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the people of my own city, who did a great deal, over three days, to offer hospitality, good will and all possible assistance to the veterans. Close on 50,000 people took part in the various activities last weekend in and around the city of Portsmouth, and we are mighty proud of our continuing association with the Normandy veterans and of the rightful recognition that people on both sides of the channel give them.
It is not often that we are privileged enough to have four real heroes in our presence, but we have that privilege today. Four members of the Arctic convoy campaign group—Eddie Grenfell, Dave Nash, John Hobbs and Frank Sanders, all from the Portsmouth area—have come to the House today to listen to this debate. They travelled here in the optimistic hope that there would be a change of heart on the part of the Government. They have been campaigning for many years, and their ages add up to well over 300 years. Their service to the nation in the Royal Navy in various forms ranges from six to more than 30 years' commitment. All of them gave valiant service, such as that described by Mr. McWilliam, in the Arctic convoy campaigns, and several of them made more than one trip.
Many of the Royal Navy veterans whom the Minister met on the beaches at Arromanches last weekend were sailors who wore the Atlantic Star with pride. However, they were unable to wear with pride the medal that they should have received for the part that they played in the Arctic convoys. Instead, many of them wore with amazing pride the medal presented to them by the Russian Government. How right the hon. Member for Blaydon was to expose the shabby and shameless way in which those people have been treated. At first, the Government even resisted giving the men permission to wear the medal that the Russian people wanted them to have, but then allowed them to wear it when circumstances changed. That is the case here, is it not? Circumstances have changed. Perhaps only one or two Members here today will be able to remember a time when Russia was not perceived as the No. 1 enemy of this nation, but things have moved on. That is the only possible reason why those men were denied the justice and recognition that they deserved in 1946. There is no excuse for allowing this situation to continue.
I said in an intervention earlier that this matter was not an example of joined-up government. The hon. Member for Blaydon pointed out that one Department, the Foreign Office, advocated the award of that medal. I must also mention two senior members of the Government: the Home Secretary and the Chairman of the Labour party—also a Cabinet Minister. I should like to quote the Chairman of the Labour party, who visited my constituency recently in an effort to boost Labour's chances in the European elections. He said that he understood the merits of this case, and that Arctic veterans were fully deserving of this recognition. He stated:
"Following my visit to Portsmouth, I will take this matter up with the defence secretary."
How can the present situation be right, when Members on both sides of the House, including the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of my party and two members of Her Majesty's Cabinet, support the justice of this case? A number of Labour Members have pointed to the justice of those men's case and said that the medal should be awarded.
Does my hon. Friend recall that there was a similar obstruction to the Suez canal zone medal? Could quite simply the four worthy heroes not resolve this matter by seeking an audience with the Prime Minister? Quite clearly, he is the one who gave the go-ahead for the Suez medal.
How I wish that it were so easy to arrange. I went with the Arctic veterans, along with two other Members of the House, to Downing street. What did we get? We got as far as the front door, which was enough to hand over a petition signed by 44,000 people and supported by my local newspaper, The News, which has led this campaign for justice.
How nice it would have been if a Minister had agreed to meet those veterans. It would have been nice if the Minister had met them in this country in his office. He met some of them when he shook hands on the beaches in France, but they were not offered hospitality when they asked for a meeting with a Minister two years ago and again last year.
I plead with the Minister not to sit back and rely on the answers given in previous debates. This is a simple request from people who put their lives on the line and who deserve the justice that the House knows they deserve. The only people saying no to them—I am sure he is not saying no—are bureaucrats who have forgotten the plot when it comes to honouring the heroes of this country. It is not too late to say, "We made a mistake and let's do it. Things have changed."
While we are discussing medals, I want to ask the Minister to give a firm assurance that every effort will be made to speed up the process of issuing the Suez medal. He was quick to say that the Prime Minister overturned the original decision, but it took a long time for him to have that change of heart. Time and again, Members of the House pleaded with Departments of State to do something to recognise the Suez campaign and the efforts of the men and women who took part in it. Like them, I am disappointed.
I was told as recently as yesterday that one of the reasons for the delay is the insufficiency of people who can properly engrave the medals. That is the excuse, but surely those people who have waited 50 years for this recognition should not have to wait another two years for the medal that is due to them. I hope we can make progress.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the vast majority of the men who served in the Suez canal zone were national servicemen? They were conscripted into the Army and sent there; they were not volunteers. If they have to wait upwards of another two years, they will have had to wait longer for the medal than they served in the Army.
Once again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a great pity that we do not treat these issues with the speed and importance that they deserve. The decision was taken, so all the stops should be pulled out to ensure that those medals are issued quickly.
I beg his pardon. The Government's contribution to speeding up the issuing of the Suez canal zone medal is to close the Army medal office and the two medal offices in Gosport, risking the loss of all that expertise. Those men and women are anxious to deliver the medal punctually, but they will all be lost to the service.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely. It is a great pity that there is not greater recognition and understanding of the efforts of the men and women in those departments. Should not they at least be kept on for the next three years, as he suggests? I am sure that there will be a change in relation to the Arctic medal. In the end, the moral case will prevail and the Minister will come to the House to say, "The Prime Minister has had a change of heart."
The only alternative is for all those veterans and their families to vote Tory, because the Tories have said that if they come to office they will issue the medal.
People should not have to do that. It should not be an issue in relation to people voting Tory, but they have an incentive to do so. We would support it because of the justice of the case, and we do not need to be in government to recognise that. Had we been in government, the veterans would have had the medal in 1946. If we were in government today, they would not have to campaign. We will support whoever decides to give the medal, because it will be the right decision.
I want to speak about some other issues, which the Minister touched on without going into specifics. I am delighted that a Minister from the Department of Health will wind up the debate, because one of the biggest issues facing veterans and their families at present is Gulf war syndrome. I want to read out a letter from a Gulf war veteran, with whom I have been working for the last three and a half years and with whom I must have corresponded 100 times. He wrote to me on
"I am writing to . . . inform you, that I have as from the
Not only have I thought about my actions for some months . . . I have deliberately chosen the
That is from Alexander Izett. He featured on the "Today" programme yesterday, because his health has deteriorated considerably. He is close to having to be taken to hospital, and recently signed papers refusing any sort of medical treatment. As a young soldier of 20-odd years, he went to take part in the first Gulf war. He was given a cocktail of injections, and the MOD cannot tell him what they were. He is convinced that the illness that prevailed a few weeks after his service in the Gulf was completed has wrecked not only his life but his family's life. He is not taking this action for himself, however. He is doing it for his generation of servicemen who took part in the first Gulf war and for their families. Some of those have already died and some have suffered unimaginable pain and suffering.
I hope that the Government will do something to recognise Mr. Izett's case. They are not ignorant of it—I have written several times to several Ministers about the case, and they have written back to me as recently as
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making such a powerful case. Does he agree that the Royal British Legion is right to point to Gulf war syndrome as a particularly striking example of how raising the burden of proof in compensation claims would make a mockery of the hopes of such people?
The hon. Gentleman knows that he has my fullest support. On an individual basis, I would think that the majority of Members of the House are fully behind him. The shifting of the burden of proof is a serious mistake that does nothing for the veterans' cause, and it should have been the No. 1 goal of any Minister responsible for veterans not to get that through the House. He should have rejected it and recommended refusal to Members of the House. He lost a great opportunity in that regard. Of course, it will make the plight of Alexander Izett and other such people much more difficult.
Let me give another example of how individuals and families are affected. The Minister mentioned this, but did not go into detail. A young soldier from the Portsmouth area was killed in Bosnia. Simon Jeans is the name, a name that has appeared in many newspapers because for many years Simon's father Terry has campaigned in an attempt to bring the culprits—those responsible for his son's murder—to justice.
Because Simon was married at the time of his death and his German-born wife was his next of kin, the MOD does not support his father's request to be at the trial and witness the final chapter in this sad saga of the taking of a young soldier's life in such tragic circumstances. His father cannot have the satisfaction of closure. The cost would probably have been less than £2,000, yet the MOD, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have refused to budge and to give Mr. Jeans that satisfaction. They have continually used the fact that he was not the next of kin. Simon's former wife has remarried and moved on: she has been able to have closure, but his father has not. If, as the Minister suggested, we truly reflect when dealing with veterans' affairs a duty of care not just to veterans but to their families, surely Mr. Jeans is entitled to that duty of care, and we should do all that we can to help him go to Croatia to see the end of the case.
Another injustice, which has continued for more than 50 years, is shown in the case of the nuclear test veterans. I saw that group of veterans in their blazers in Portsmouth at Sunday's remembrance service, and I saw the television coverage. They are Normandy veterans and nuclear test veterans. Where is the Minister's concern for their plight? How sad it is that Labour Ministers have simply followed the same line as their Conservative predecessors, and ignored those men's claims relating to the enormous risks that they were put through in the name of military technology and developments in the 1950s and 1960s. Once again it is "out of sight, out of mind"—but those men are not out of sight and out of mind to their families, who see them deteriorating daily because of the effects of those nuclear tests.
Men and women who have served in our armed forces and our naval bases die each week from asbestos-related conditions. How nice it would have been if the veterans Minister had come here today and said, "I will allocate Ministry of Defence money to supporting those suffering from proven asbestos-related conditions and their families."
Let us suppose that the only occupation of a worker in a naval dockyard from the age of 15 to the age of 50 is as a lagger, cutting asbestos from pipes or lagging them with it. The chances of his contracting an asbestos-related illness in any other way will be pretty remote. The MOD, however, does not accept that all such cases are connected with work that people have done for it. It continually battles with individuals who seek justice. Time and again, coroners reporting on the sad deaths of such men and women reflect on the need for the Government to get a grip and not just support families after their loved ones are dead, but help people have a better life while they are living. A veterans Minister with any credibility would do just that.
Many Members have mentioned the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre, and I do not want to add much to what they have said; but I am disappointed that the Minister and the MOD have again denied justice to those two pilots and their families. I think it was all too easy to leave the blame there, but things have changed now. If that accident happened today, the pilots would not be held responsible.
How can it be right that memories of those two men should be scarred in that way? How right it would have been if the veterans Minister, who has a duty of care not only to the living but to the memory of the dead, had said today, "We shall look at it again and reverse that decision." A former Prime Minister has said that he was wrong. For goodness sake, surely the House owes it to those men, to their memory and, most of all, to their families to get it right.
Is not part of the problem, albeit only part of it, that the officials who took the original decisions have either been promoted or have retired? The present officials must look at documents from the past, rather than exercise a judgment. Of course, it has now come to light that the officials of the time appear—we cannot know the detail but it goes back to Lord Jauncey—not to have been entirely frank with the then Secretary of State, Malcolm Rifkind.
I agree entirely. The Father of the House has desperately tried time and again to get recognition of that point. The former Secretary of State for Defence has made it clear that he got it wrong and that, had he been aware of the information that is available now, he would have overruled that decision. He has had the courage to say that. It is not often that politicians have the courage to say that they got it wrong.
The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the officials have either retired or been promoted. The Secretary of State should have the courage to say, "I shall not allow that mistake to continue. As the democratically elected principal head of the MOD, I will overturn that decision." That is what the public expect him to do, irrespective of the points made by bureaucrats or former air marshals about the merits of the case. The Secretary of State must know that there is a compelling case to which he should respond.
This debate has been useful. The Minister got plaudits from hon. Members on both sides of the House. They were well deserved for this weekend's performance probably, but I am not as generous as those who say that he is the best veterans Minister that we have ever had. We have only had two and the first one was a slightly difficult character to do business with. We should leave it at that. Nevertheless, he was a fair person.
I hope that, when he leaves office, the Minister will have the feeling that the House and veterans in the wider community are congratulating him not on the organisation of a commemorative event, important though that is, but on his commitment to veterans as individuals and to their families; on his commitment to natural justice, whether it is the award of a medal or proper compensation for accident or injury; and on his commitment that their families will be properly taken care of and their housing needs met.
It is a national scandal that the MOD still controls empty houses while ex-servicemen struggle to find somewhere to live in the same area. It is not just about Addington Homes; it is about how the MOD handles the housing issue. It needs to be more understanding and generous to its personnel and their families, because it has a duty of care to those inside and outside the service.
If, when the Minister leaves office, veterans queue up to pat him on the back and say, "Thank you; as an individual, you did a great service to the veterans' cause," I will have been wrong this afternoon and hon. Members who praised him will have been right. But I fear that we have a long way to go before the majority of veterans say that.
There is no doubt that one of the greatest stories of the second world war is that of the role played by the Merchant Navy, which suffered 30,189 deaths, 4,402 wounded and 5,264 missing. I offer no apology for returning to the subject raised time and again in this debate, of the worst test of the Merchant Navy's courage in having to suffer the hazards of the Arctic convoy route. There was the continual strain not only of the blizzards, ice and snow but of the relentless air and underwater menace. My hon. Friend Mr. McWilliam spelled out what that meant.
These men sailed in snowstorms, often in semi-darkness, as in that part of the world it can be pitch black for 24 hours, in sub-zero temperatures, sometimes as low as minus 40, and often with the spray from near misses from enemy bombs hitting the deck as ice. The 1941–45 Arctic campaign involved taking supplies of weapons, food, fuel and other resources to aid the red army in its courageous fight against the Nazis, which saved us. As has been said, without their bravery, D-day would have been impossible. Imagine what would have happened had the Soviet Union succumbed to the Nazi onslaught. I was struck by what Dr. Lewis said about his discussion with Betty Boothroyd, who said that she thought she would not have survived the second world war had the Russians succumbed.
When I look around the Chamber, I ask myself how many chaps, like me, actually lived through the second world war. I do not think that there are more than one or two. I lived for 14 months, in the period between the fall of France and the invasion of the Soviet Union on
I must have been the only baby who was evacuated to London. I was taken to London by my parents in 1942, when my father was sent to repair bomb damage to main cables, and I lived not far from Battersea power station, which was a major target.
I have never heard of anyone being evacuated to London—clearly, someone had it in for my hon. Friend.
I lived on the wrong side of the ring road in Liverpool, beyond which one did not get evacuated, so I remained throughout the Blitz. The worst part was in the first eight days of May 1941, when we were bombed for eight consecutive nights.
I can remember more about those eight nights than I can about any eight nights in just the past week or so.
Such was the importance of the contribution of the red army that once the Nazis had turned their onslaught against the Soviet Union, our lives became much easier. Yes, there were some air raid warnings from time to time—the last was as late as December 1944, when it was feared that a V1 might come towards Merseyside. We were fortunate in that regard; it was the poor people of London who suffered from the V1s and V2s. They bore the brunt of that. But from the time when the Nazis turned their forces eastwards, our lives became easier. This might be difficult to appreciate now, but people in Liverpool used continually to say, "Thank God for the red army!" I grew up with the feeling that we owed it a debt. Indeed, I remember going to the cinema and seeing Lord Beaverbrook speak in Trafalgar square. Not many Tory politicians actually speak in Trafalgar square, but he did. I remember him saying that we must never forget the debt that we owed to the red army and to the Russian people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon referred to the siege of Leningrad, and it was that sort of heroism that carried Russia through the war and saved us. Of course, the Russians did not do that on their own. They depended to a considerable extent on the assistance that our people were giving through the Arctic convoys. I am pleased that the Portsmouth edition of The News took up the cudgels on behalf of the "Last Chance for Justice" campaign, because Portsmouth is the home of the Royal Navy. However, the people who sailed in the convoys were not only of the Royal Navy, and they did not come only from Portsmouth. I have a list of people from Liverpool who are still alive today and who served in the Royal Navy and the mercantile marine in those convoys, throughout that period.
I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend on such an important point, but is he aware that the difference between the mercantile marine and the Royal Navy at the time was that when a merchant ship went down, the crew's pay ceased immediately? Their families had nothing to rely on, and if a sailor ended up in a Russian hospital for six or eight months, there was nothing.
I appreciate what my hon. Friend says. Of course, that time in hospital was not taken into account for any medal whatever—it would not even have qualified towards the Atlantic star, which those people were offered.
Throughout that time, the convoys sailed again and again with more than 3.5 million tonnes of war material to Murmansk and Archangel, while the red army, to use Winston Churchill's words, was
"tearing the guts out of the Nazi war machine".
Yet despite the valour of our seamen in the Arctic convoy campaign, they are still refused the reward that they originally deserved. Reference has been made to the Russians showing their admiration of our seamen for their sacrifices by awarding them a commemoration medal. I was pleased to meet, with Mr. Hancock, some of those veterans outside this place. The Russian medals that they were wearing were very distinctive, because Russian medal ribbons are rather different from those that we produce in Britain. Those veterans were wearing the medals very proudly. I am sure that they would be even prouder to be able to say that they had been honoured by their own country, but our country denies them that honour.
Explanation has already been given as to why the Atlantic star could be awarded only to the crews of some half dozen ships of the 670 that sailed in the Arctic waters. Many of the young people who served in the Merchant Navy in those horrendous conditions—we should remember that in those days, the school leaving age was 14—would have been 15 or 16.
I wonder whether any other Members have experienced the winds that blow in the north cape. I was fortunate enough to spend part of a holiday there during a parliamentary recess, when there was constant daylight. The winds take one's breath away, even in mid-summer. Imagine what those winds are like in the middle of winter, with temperatures of minus 40°.
Apart from the severe winter conditions, the Arctic convoys faced constant harassment from enemy bases in occupied Norway. In addition to its bombs and torpedoes, the Luftwaffe dropped mines ahead of the convoys. There was the constant danger of the big ships, such as the Tirpitz, coming out of Norwegian ports to overwhelm all but the heaviest escorts. For example, on
Some 792 ships sailed outward and 62—7.8 per cent.—were lost. Some 739 ships sailed home and 28—3.8 per cent.—were lost. As I pointed out in an intervention on the hon. Member for New Forest, East, in the Atlantic, on the other hand, fewer than 1 per cent. of ships were lost. I am not belittling the battle of the Atlantic, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman misunderstood me earlier in this regard. Indeed, the battle headquarters was in Liverpool, so I by no means dishonour the memory of those who served in it. But there was a real difference, as I hope my explanation shows.
On the Arctic run, the Royal Navy lost two cruisers, six destroyers, three corvettes, three minesweepers and 1,840 men. Thirty per cent. of one convoy that sailed past the north cape was lost to U-boats and enemy aircraft. Charles Jarman, the then Secretary of the National Union of Seamen, told of an Arctic convoy of 40 ships, only three of which reached Murmansk.
Veterans have fought for their rights for decades, as we know. The "Last Chance for Justice" campaign was launched on
So far, however, there has been no positive response from the Government. If he had been allowed to get away with it, the Minister would have ignored the problem completely this afternoon. It was only when the matter was raised in this place that any consideration was given to this particular scandal—the lack of support for decent people who were willing to give their all, as some did, for the freedom of this country and the world. The cost of £14 million was mentioned, with others arguing that it could be only £0.5 million. I say, so what? My God, we spend more than that on this building every summer on work that often does not really need to be done. We could find £14 million quite easily.
The Government might ask for a little bit longer and then say that it all happened more than 50 or 60 years ago and the people involved are dying. Perhaps they would like to wait still longer for more people to die so that there would no longer be a campaign. If that is the Government's attitude, I think that it is disgusting.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point. There are currently just about 2,000 survivors left out of the tens of thousands—I believe that there were about 30,000 crew members—who served on those ships. We are running short of time to secure justice for those people, but the story will not end when the last one is dead, because their families will continue the fight, as will hon. Members in the House.
May I say that they would be quite right to do so? I would remind the Government, in case they think that time will somehow see the problem disappear, of what happened in 1853. Queen Victoria awarded a Royal Navy campaign medal, 38 years after Napoleon's final defeat at the battle of Waterloo. We should bear in mind the fact that life expectancy today is far greater than it was in 1853. My hope is that many of the 2,000 people to whom the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South referred will remain alive for many more years to come. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I hope that, before they depart from this planet, they will enjoy recognition by their country.
I suspect that it is not all simply the Minister's fault. I suspect that civil servants in the Humphrey style are saying that this is not the sort of thing that we usually do. [Interruption.] Sir Humphrey—yes, we must give him his rightful honour, and he probably had his medal as well. There is a typical Sir Humphrey style and I can imagine civil servants telling the Minister that it is not the sort of thing that the Department does, that it all happened a long time ago, that precedent has to be considered, and so on and so forth.
I certainly hope that the Minister is in command of his Department. It is always useful for anyone who is to be a Minister and serve in a Government to read chapter 14 of Anthony Sampson's "Anatomy of Britain". He says that there are two types of Minister: the Minister who controls his Department, and the Minister who is controlled by his Department. I would like to think that the Minister in charge at the moment is one of the former rather than the latter Ministers. [Interruption.]
Briefly, Portsmouth's The News was particularly upset about the fact that the Prime Minister promised that he would personally look into the matter and review it, but the review was carried out in the Ministry of Defence by the same two civil servants who were advising Ministers to say no all along. This time round, Ministers, if not the Prime Minister, should look into the matter personally.
I completely agree. A petition of 44,000 signatures was submitted to 10 Downing street about two weeks ago. The Prime Minister has indicated that he is willing to look at it, and I hope that he does so. His position is very difficult, but the matter is worth looking at.
I was under the impression that the Prime Minister was giving the matter some consideration. However, so many representations have been made from hon. Members of all parties in this debate that it is clear that the issue arouses strong feelings. When he replies to the debate, I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health will say that he will take the matter on board. I know that he may not be able to promise anything today, but we are asking that the people involved receive the consideration that they deserve. The Arctic convoys helped the Russians to help us. If there had been a collapse in the east, D-day would never have happened.
My hon. Friend the Minister, who opened the debate, referred to the document prepared by his Department for hon. Members. I was pleased by that reference, as it is a very useful piece of work. I am glad that further such documents will be produced, on other issues. I note that the Minister begins his foreword to the document by quoting the words of Winston Churchill, who said:
"A nation that forgets its past has no future."
How right Churchill was.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Wareing. I welcome this debate very much, and it may help the hon. Gentleman, and the House, to know that I am a Tory who has spoken on a number of occasions in Trafalgar square. However, I remain an ambitious politician, and do not want my side to know on which occasions I did so.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby said that there were two sorts of Minister—those in control of their Departments, and those not—but I was a Minister for six and a half years and I had no Department at all. That must have reflected a certain lack of confidence in my skills, whatever they might have been. Finally—and I say this with some trepidation—I am a Member of Parliament who was born well before world war two broke out.
I counted it a great honour to be invited to be an official guest at last Sunday's commemorative events in Normandy. I have made some calculations about who attended. Four Ministers were there, including the Prime Minister and—quite properly—the Minister with responsibility for veterans' affairs, Mr. Caplin. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition was there, as were the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and that party's defence spokesman, Mr. Keetch. Also present were the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence—and me.
I did not know whether the Government made a mistake in inviting me, although mistakes are well known in ministerial circles. Perhaps they thought I was a Normandy veteran, but I hope that the reason for my invitation was that I instituted a debate on dealing with the commemorative aspects of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the D-day landings. I am very grateful for having the opportunity to go there.
I have come to praise the Minister who opened the debate. I shall not spare his blushes, as I believe that there has been a change in Government policy.
There was, as the Minister will know, a debate in Westminster Hall on
"It has also been suggested that the Government could provide financial assistance to veterans for their transport and accommodation expenses. It would not be possible—neither would it be fair—to be seen to provide assistance for one anniversary or group of veterans and not another."—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 11 November 2003; Vol. 413, c. 29–30WH.]
However, in my Adjournment debate, he was able to say that
"direct financial assistance is now available through the New Opportunities Fund"—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 25 February 2004; Vol. 418, c. 94WH.]
I applaud the Minister for that change of heart. He gives a good name to doing a U-turn. He changed his mind not out of any defensiveness or weakness, but to show magnanimity, and I applaud him for that.
The Heroes Return Fund was launched on
I was deeply moved when I attended three particular events last Sunday. It was a long day for me, although I have no doubt that for the people involved 60 years before it was the longest day of their lives. The service in Bayeux cemetery was attended by Her Majesty the Queen and President Chirac of France. As I went through the entrance, I passed some gravestones. The first gave a name and continued:
The next one gave an age of 18. Those gravestones brought home to me the tragedy of what happened as well as the glory of the dedication and service given by our troops.
Then we moved on, as the Minister will know, to the international gathering on the hilltop at Arromanches, attended by 17 heads of state, including Her Majesty the Queen, President Chirac, President Bush and President Putin. I was delighted to see that Herr Schröder, the Chancellor of Germany, was also present. The third event was the UK-only—if I may put it that way—event in Arromanches town square, facing the beach, at which Her Majesty the Queen reviewed the 800 or so veterans as they marched past. That was a hugely moving occasion.
I also had the opportunity during the day to meet some Barnet members of the Normandy Veterans Association, including the chairman of the north London branch, Mr. Terry Burton. I am proud to have such people as my constituents, as we all are. We have deep gratitude for the sacrifices made by so many people. As Her Majesty the Queen said, there are 22,000 Commonwealth graves in Normandy alone.
I would like to quote something that I felt compelled to write after the event.
"One of the most pleasing aspects of the celebrations was the perception of the younger generations. I believe that the 60th anniversary celebrations have awakened their interest, and that they properly appreciate the huge sacrifices made for their liberty. They will also realise the full ghastliness of war and the futility of wasted lives. This must give us extra resolve to avoid war if we possibly can, but at the same time, this anniversary shows that there are times when we must stand up against tyranny.
Though this will probably be the last major celebration in Normandy, we must continue, through the services that will be held in our own country, to remember those who fought for our country. The sacrifices made by the thousands of men and women who fought in Normandy mean Britain and Europe continue to enjoy freedom from tyranny."
I welcome the appointment of a Minister for veterans' affairs and the initiatives taken so far. They are only a start but the Government have made a good move. I welcome, too, the Public Accounts Committee's call for speedier pension pay-outs for war veterans, and the idea of lapel badges. They will be a source of pride for the many veterans who want to wear them and will, in time, give greater public recognition; if only inquisitively, some younger people may ask, "What is that badge?"
I want to comment briefly on some topical issues. The first is the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill. I do not want to revisit all the arguments, but I ask the Government to consider three points. The first is the deadline for pension applications regarding disabilities attributable to service in the armed forces. I am critical of the proposal to reduce the period from seven years after leaving the service to five years from the incident. Will the Government think again about that?
Secondly, will the Government also think again about the change proposed in the Bill on the standard of proof? The proposed change is from "beyond reasonable doubt" to
"on the balance of probabilities".
Will the Government consider seriously the point made by the Royal British Legion that such a change could cut the number of applications by up to 50 per cent? I realise that the Government do not accept that figure, but I ask them to look into the likely effects of a change.
Finally, in relation to the Bill, there is no question but that some widows face great hardship, which could be remedied without spending too much money—not that that should be the benchmark for whether they should be helped. I remind the Minister that in the last year alone the number of those widows fell from 48,000 to 46,000.
Like many other Members, I want to touch on Gulf war syndrome. As has been mentioned, one possible cause is the cocktail of vaccinations that was given to members of the armed services before they left for the first Gulf war. They seem to have been vaccinated against everything from anthrax to yellow fever, sometimes only 24 hours before their departure. In some cases, the vaccinations led to a number of conditions, including osteoporosis and depression. Either it is wrong to give multiple injections over a short period or such a cocktail of vaccinations compounds the remote chance of adverse side effects.
Of course, I realise that there are other possible causes of Gulf war syndrome: depleted uranium poisoning, the pesticides used to control flies, and pollution from oil fires. However, although I have no medical qualifications, my gut feeling is that the cocktail of vaccinations was probably the main contender, simply due to the fact that some men who received the vaccinations were affected even though they did not go to the Gulf. Will the Government continue to inquire into the matter?
It would be a fool who did not add his voice to the request that the Government look again at the award of the Arctic convoy medal. I have sympathy for Ministers; if they make an exception and bring in a medal, the floodgates will open. However, the evidence is so overwhelming in this case that I certainly give my support to the issue of an Arctic convoy medal.
Perhaps more importantly, because I want to be constructive, I believe that we need a new policy on the award of medals in future. Ideally, that policy should be understandable, unambiguous, rational and acceptable. If it is possible to achieve that, I would give the Government my full support in reviewing the issue. In this day and age, when awards are made or medals are struck, we should consider the role of civilians, as well as the armed services, in armed conflict.
I was interested to hear the Minister's wide-ranging definition of "veterans", which embraced about 13 million people. It is more comfortable to belong to a bigger minority than a smaller one. The way in which we treat our veterans—the soldiers, sailors and airmen of yesteryear—is not unrelated to the recruitment and retention of our armed forces personnel today. They are entitled to have confidence that when they have given service to our country, they will not be forgotten; and if they give their lives in the service of our country, we have a special obligation to their widows and loved ones.
Ten years ago, when the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of D-day were taking place, it was felt that that would be the last major celebration. It was only when servicemen and women began to object to holding fairly low-key 60th anniversary celebrations that the public bodies responded—as they did magnificently—to the demands for major celebrations this year. I congratulate the Ministry of Defence and all those who were involved in those celebrations. It has been mooted that the 60th anniversary should be the last major celebration. That may be so, but it would be wise to wait and see what celebrations the servicemen and women who took part this year want in 10 years' time.
I want to speak mainly, but not entirely, about veterans other than those of the second world war. I was interested to hear about how the Minister sees veterans. The young men and women who walk into recruitment offices this week and sign up to join Her Majesty's services will be the veterans of tomorrow, whether they serve for only a few years or their whole working life. The vast majority will have careers outside the armed forces. It is crucial for the Ministry of Defence and for us here in Parliament to recognise that the period that people spend in the armed forces, however long or short, is very special, because we ask very special things of those who join Her Majesty's armed forces. We ask them not only to put their lives at risk, but to give up many of the rights and freedoms that those of us in civilian life take for granted and enjoy. We expect them to move from one end of the world to another at the drop of a hat, to come back from operations and turn round to go somewhere else, and to disrupt their family life and put it on hold. We expect them to be treated in a way that people in civilian life would never accept.
That is crucially important if we are to have an effective and well-oiled military machine—it is part of the deal that is done. However, I sometimes think that the Ministry of Defence gets into a mindset whereby it assumes that when those men and women leave the armed forces they can continue to be treated in the same way as they were as servicemen and women.
That is why I so much welcome the establishment of a Minister for veterans. As a constituency MP dealing with a variety of cases involving ex-servicemen and women over the past seven years, I have noticed that the Ministry of Defence often has a jobsworth approach to such issues. It is often obstructive, and treats such people as it would expect a serving soldier or sailor to be treated.
It is important to change the culture within the MOD; that is one reason why it is so important to have a Minister for veterans. When someone comes towards the end of their service they should be treated properly, and there should be proper planning for their career when they leave. I welcome some of the initiatives that have been taken over the last couple of years, especially the career transition partnership, the work being planned for early leavers, and what is being done with projects such as Project Compass. Such projects are important, and I am sure that all Members in the Chamber will have had constituents with major social problems after their service with the armed forces, who are struggling because they are homeless or have not been able to settle down properly into civilian life.
It is crucial that the Ministry of Defence recognises that its responsibility does not end the moment that somebody leaves the service of their country, and that we have an ongoing responsibility. For many of the reasons that have been raised in the debate, that responsibility needs to be there in the long term, after military service is over.
I sense that what happens in a small case when someone leaves the service is likely to be repeated on a larger scale. I am in dialogue with the Minister at the moment about such a case, involving a constituent of mine with long service, who was not treated very well when he left. The same jobsworth attitude is often to be seen: "It doesn't conform to the rules," or "It'll set a precedent, so it will be very difficult to do that, Minister."
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point. It is surely no criticism of the current Minister, who is energetic in his job, to point out that that is exactly why, in America, the veterans ministry is at arm's length from the Pentagon. That was the arrangement for which the Royal British Legion pressed, because the organisation whose focus is, rightly, on fighting the wars and fulfilling the commitments of today, will never have its eye fully on the ball of the kind of case that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.
I am grateful for those comments, and I shall come back to them in my final few remarks.
Let us think about the issues that have been raised this afternoon. The problem with the Arctic convoy medals is a classic. If we asked Members anonymously, the vast majority would say that the men who served on those convoys should have a medal, and it is up to MOD officials to find a way of giving them one. However, I fully understand the difficulties that Ministers may have in sorting that out, because civil servants will always come up with a reason not to do it. That is one reason why we need a Minister for veterans, but the job is only half done.
That brings me back to the comment made by Mr. Brazier.
Since we have had a Minister for veterans, much progress has been made on several matters but we have not reached the point where we need to be. The Minister has much more work to do to deliver on many of the issues that we have discussed.
We must consider, for example, the way in which we deal with people when they have left the services. I spent 1998 and last year on the armed forces parliamentary scheme with the Army. I therefore spoke to many of the servicemen and women who were involved in the Iraq campaign last year. Former servicemen and women are expected to serve as reservists, but the assumption since the second world war has been that a reservist would be called up only in the case of a direct threat to the United Kingdom. My father told me a few years ago that he was nearly called up to go to Korea but the general assumption in the UK was that once people had left the Army, the Navy or the Air Force, they would not be called up unless the Russians came over the German plain and we were fighting for our existence.
Iraq shows that the situation has changed—it was expected that the reservists would be called up. Although the Territorial Army generally responded well to the call-up, many reservists assumed that they would not be called up unless there was a threat to the UK and found all sorts of reasons not to respond. We need to sort out what is expected of people when they leave the services. If they intend to continue as reservists, they must be clear that they could be called up for relatively small peacekeeping campaigns if that was the military's requirement. We must ensure that men and women who leave the services understand their obligations and future role. Many issues have not been properly sorted out because matters have drifted and we have assumed that things will simply carry on.
Many of today's contributions, especially on the Arctic convoy, have been powerful and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take them on board and acknowledge that change will happen. He has a major job of work, which is half done. He has made significant progress in the Ministry of Defence in improving the way in which we deal with servicemen and women when they reach the end of their service and move into civilian life and their treatment during that transition period. Many good initiatives have taken place and the Ministry's response to the D-day celebrations was excellent; everybody deserves congratulations on that.
However, we should not believe that we have reached the end of the process. The job is half done. Perhaps we may have to revert to considering whether the Minister for veterans should remain at the Ministry of Defence. Much progress is being made, however, and compared with the position seven years ago, when I became a Member of Parliament, matters are immeasurably better. If progress can continue at such a pace, we may well reach where we should be by the time I leave the House.
I am pleased to follow Mr. Borrow. Indeed, some of my remarks follow from his points.
It is appropriate that the debate is being held this week. The tens of thousands of men who crossed the small strip of water close to my constituency where ferries ply today were on an uncertain mission. Most of the amphibious landings that allied forces attempted in both world wars failed and Hitler never tried a major amphibious landing. Although in physical terms the distance was small, when we consider that they faced minefields, barbed wire, concrete emplacements—some of which are preserved and were shown on television—and being swept by formidable fire from determined defenders after a bone-shaking sea crossing, it is clear that they were a remarkable group of men.
I pay tribute to my local branch of the Normandy Veterans Association, headed by the redoubtable Frank Risbridger, which commemorated this remarkable event. I also join other hon. Members in congratulating the Government on the organisation and work that went into the commemorations. It is particularly encouraging to see the number of young people who have been so impressed by them. I further congratulate the Government on the announcement of the £27 million package that the Minister has extracted from the national lottery to carry on the commemorations by reminding young people in our schools of the sacrifices that were made by people of previous generations.
It is easy to pay lip service to the achievements of our veterans when we have a focal point as obvious as the recent anniversary, but it is also our duty to remember the countless other wars and operations on which we have sent our armed forces. Today, we are thinking mostly about D-day; tomorrow, our thoughts will no doubt return to Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. Since the end of the second world war, we have sent our forces to, among other places, Palestine, Korea, Egypt, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden, Oman, the Falkland islands, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Kuwait and—again and again—Northern Ireland. Each of those engagements required the courage, professionalism and dedication to duty for which our armed forces—regular and citizen—are so well known.
Successive British Governments have been able to undertake those actions because, no matter what technical or geographical problems lay ahead, we could be confident that our armed forces would surmount them, and they are rightly admired all round the world for doing so. The men and women of our armed forces go to those places without complaint—British soldiers have always enjoyed a bit of chuntering, but they go willingly and without hesitation or reservation. We are very fortunate to be so well served.
In so many debates on the armed forces, we acknowledge the debt that we owe our forces and rightly pay tribute to those who have been killed. We owe the members of our armed forces a duty of care, and I sometimes wonder whether we are fulfilling it. The whole nation was moved when it watched those brave old men make their pilgrimage to the beaches and drop zones around Normandy. It is all very well to talk about our debt of gratitude to the people who fought in the second world war and in subsequent conflicts, but each conflict produced its heroes and each man or woman involved had a story to tell, and all those events left scars—some mental, some physical—on many of the survivors.
That is why this year, the 60th anniversary of D-day, is an incredibly inappropriate time—not that there would ever be an appropriate one—for Her Majesty's Government to introduce proposals to alter the arrangements for war pensions. The worst of the changes is the raising of the burden of proof, to which the British Legion and the other service welfare organisations have objected so strongly. My hon. Friend Sir Sydney Chapman referred in his powerful speech to the shortening of the time periods for most medical cases from seven years to five, and to the fact that procedures and tribunal arrangements will be much more complicated.
I know that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to mislead the House in any way. It would be right for him to say, therefore, that the new compensation arrangements are for events that occur after
The Minister is, of course, entirely right, but that is exactly my point: we owe those who are serving in the armed forces now—our future veterans—the same duty of care that previous Governments have accepted since the first world war. It applied to those generations that went over the top on the Somme, on to the beaches of Normandy and to all the places I listed.
We owe that same debt to people who next year will serve in theatres in which we are still involved—Iraq, Afghanistan and so on—as well as in subsequent years and subsequent conflicts. The new arrangements are a shabby change. The Defence Committee put it terribly well:
"One of the main objections to the proposals continues to be the change in the standard and burden of proof for claims under the scheme . . . The Royal British Legion claims that this is a cost-saving exercise, which will make it harder for claims to succeed, and which at least initially will not even save any costs (as most claims"— as the Minister has just said—
"will continue to be under the old scheme)".
The Committee's report points out that the Government's defence is the astonishing assertion that it is necessary to bring things into line with civilian practice. However, the powerful speech from Mr. Borrow made clear a range of ways in which the armed forces are very different from the civilian community. The Committee said:
"Because of the special risks that Armed Forces personnel are required to run, and because they are likely to be involved in situations of great uncertainty, with uncertain effects on their health, we continue to believe that the onus should remain on the Government to prove that service was not responsible for causing or worsening a condition for which a compensation claim is made."
The Minister has just alluded to both Houses of Parliament. Having voted against these proposals at every possible opportunity in the House, may I say that I very much hope that another place throws out this mean-minded little measure, striking it from the Bill?
I want to make one more point before moving on. One of the things that worries large numbers of people across all parts of the political spectrum—my private Member's Bill addresses a tiny part of this—is the growth in the litigious culture. Many people who have served in the armed forces are extremely worried about the demoralising and corrosive effect on morale and the command structure of the growing number of successful litigious claims being brought against the MOD. I can think of no other way of ensuring with greater certainty that the number of cases taken to the civil courts will spiral than such an emasculation of the internal procedures. What message do we send to the shades of the men whom the crosses in Normandy represent when we tell them that this is how we are treating their military descendants—our current armed forces?
Family life in the armed forces has been desperately hit by overstretch over the past few years. When this Government took office, the average divorce rate for the armed forces, which is very different among the three services, was well above the national average; since then, it has risen in the Army by almost another third.
The truth is that service families have aspirations too. Besides the obvious effects of overstretch, with husbands or wives being away for such long periods, one area where the pressure is greatest is housing. I pay tribute to the Minister for his work at the hardest end of the problem, which is considering the issue of the homeless and the fact that between 10 and 20 per cent. of people on the streets are former service personnel. That worries us all, but it is only a small part of the total.
The much wider problem for service families is the huge gap in respect of the aspiration, which they share with the civilian population, to own their own home. The reality is that the peripatetic nature of life in the Army and parts of the Air Force means that people cannot do so for the bulk of their service.
Indeed, the experiment that we introduced in the early 1990s to encourage soldiers to buy homes—the Navy concentrated mostly on south-west England—was a disaster, and resulted in a big increase in people leaving prematurely.
If we want to continue to attract and retain good-quality people in our armed forces, which are still under strength, despite the fact that the manning targets keep getting reduced—[Interruption.] I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to make a point.
The Government must address the issue of housing in the armed forces. One of the key factors must be to recognise the importance of continuing to provide a decent subsidy for rent, so that members of the armed forces can save to own their own homes.
Almost every Member who spoke in the debate mentioned the Arctic convoys. One of the Arctic convoy veterans, Commander Rodney Gear-Evans, whom I feel privileged to know, lives in my constituency. He is a quiet, self-effacing man and he does not talk about his experience. It is extraordinary, however, that of the two great outstanding medal issues, the Government have chosen the other one. I welcome the fact that the canal zone medal is being struck—by chance, my father served in the second half of that, the Suez operation, and not in the canal zone. It was deeply uncomfortable for the people there, and extremely hot, but there were relatively few casualties.
What those soldiers went through, however, in a hot, sticky, unpleasant environment, periodically getting shot at, cannot be compared with the incredible danger and discomfort that people on the Arctic convoys went through, with minus 40° weather, continued bombing raids and torpedo attacks. Only a small number of other parts of the service, such as Bomber Command and Fighter Command during the battle of Britain, suffered a death rate that was remotely comparable. The idea that we can agree to make a special case for the canal zone veterans, worthy as their case is, but turn down the Arctic convoy veterans, strikes me as extraordinary. On a visit with the Defence Committee to Moscow, it was strongly pointed out to me how much the sacrifices made by those brave sailors of both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy, whose casualties were much heavier, were appreciated. I hope that the Government will consider that again.
This has been an excellent debate in the most appropriate week of all. We owe our veterans a tremendous debt of gratitude. We pay tribute to the dead, and the best way in which we can do so is by looking after their comrades who survived not just the second world war but all the subsequent wars and those who will survive the wars that, sadly, no doubt are to come.
Perhaps all of us are prone to overstatement in this place, but it is a privilege to contribute in a small way to a debate on such momentous events in our country's history. A couple of Opposition Members have mentioned the younger generation, and I hope that I can speak as a representative of that generation. One of my main points relates to how we remember, as we go forward into this century, the events about which Members have spoken so eloquently today.
Although I am no expert on military matters, I suppose I have family experience that is common to many British families—experience of loss in one of the great wars of the last century. My great-grandfather, Edward Burke, a soldier in the King's Regiment (Liverpool), died as a prisoner of war in Cologne during the first world war. That is mirrored in the experience of thousands of families in my constituency and throughout the north-west, and thousands more have given service to the armed forces. It is in recognition of service to our country that I speak today. In the second world war 1,800 people from our borough lost their lives, and in what is perhaps a more selfish era it is humbling to think of what they did for us and the enormous debt of thanks that we owe them.
The weekend's dignified events in France provide a sharp counterpoint to our more complicated and possibly more troubled times. Although they might have seemed to jar somewhat with a Europe-wide election, it was actually quite fitting that they took place at the time of an election in which issues such as racism, nationalism and isolationism are all on the agenda. I do not want to make a party-political point, but it was as if Europe was receiving a stern message from the past: that co-operation always defeats isolationism, that patriotism always defeats nationalism, and that our common humanity always defeats racism.
Over the weekend it was reported that Chancellor Schröder, who I think was very welcome at the celebrations, had said that the post-war period was finally over. I feel instinctively that that is true, but it prompts us to ask what we must do today to ensure that the sacrifices made in the last century are remembered by my generation, by my children's generation, and throughout this century. It is vital for us to support the organisations that will help us to remember those who died, and will continue to teach generations to come the lessons of the last century.
Let me say something about what we are doing individually to thank those who gave us the freedom that we enjoy today. I welcome what the Government have done, and join others in praising and thanking the veterans Minister, who has done a sterling job since his appointment: many hon. Members have mentioned the "Heroes Return" scheme, and passports for the over-75s enable them to travel freely in the free Europe that they helped to create. Those gestures are fitting and right.
The Minister mentioned the celebrations that will take place in July next year. I trust that they will be a great success, and hope that one of my constituents, Mr. J. R. Rollings, who was a driver for Field Marshal Montgomery when the Germans surrendered, will be able to play a part in them.
It would be a grave mistake, though, for policy-makers or politicians to imagine that we could ever do enough for the veterans, or that we have done our duty by them. In preparation for the debate, I met John Kelly and Jan Thomas of the Leigh branch of the British Legion. They asked me to raise with the Minister an issue related to the war disablement pension. I hope that the Minister will raise it with his colleagues in other Departments as part of the Government's spending review.
I believe that £10 of the war disablement pension is disregarded in the calculation of entitlement to pension credit. The same applies to any means-tested benefit. The disregard has not been uprated since 1990, when it was uprated from £5. According to the most recent figures supplied by the House of Commons Library, 11,200 people receiving war disablement pensions that have been taken into account receive pension credit. Currently, 251,400 war pensions are being paid, which suggests that many veterans are not taking advantage of the pension credit. That may be because it would not benefit them greatly, given that the disregard is only £10. I am not necessarily asking for a 100 per cent. disregard, but I hope that we can do more for elderly people in retirement who have given great service to our country.
Apparently, only a couple of years ago, 284,000 people were in receipt of war pensions. The number is now down to 250,000. It is declining sharply. It would be a small gesture to enable them to have more comfort and dignity in their well-deserved retirement.
I come on to the organisations that will help my generation and generations after that to remember what our forefathers did to give us the freedoms that we enjoy. I am sure that my area is not alone in this but, a few years ago, we lost the Royal British Legion club in Leigh because of financial difficulties and there is now no permanent branch in the town. One of the problems faced by such clubs is their dwindling memberships, which means that they are less able to draw on the membership to keep the club in existence. It is an issue not for the Government but for the Royal British Legion, which may need to be flexible when it comes to trying to help those clubs to carry on. The loss of the premises led to a capital receipt, which is held nationally by the Royal British Legion. I believe that a club has to have 200 or 300 members before the Royal British Legion will help it to acquire new premises.
I hope to help my hon. Friend. In response to Rev. Martin Smyth, I referred to my meetings with the Royal British Legion. I have made that point. Clubs are getting older because their memberships are getting older. The challenge for the Royal British Legion, which it entirely accepts, is how to get younger veterans into Royal British Legion clubs. It has a project team looking at that. My hope as the Minister for veterans is that, in the longer term, the Royal British Legion will have more clubs and a lot more younger people going into them.
I welcome the Minister's intervention and hope that that review will produce something concrete. It is a chicken and egg situation. The longer there is no permanent club, the more the membership declines. The members of the Royal British Legion to whom I referred earlier, John Kelly and Jan Thomas, are working hard to keep the flame alive. They need some help but they cannot access the capital receipts that are held nationally for them because they do not meet the membership requirement laid down by the Royal British Legion. I welcome that review and hope that it will make progress.
This year, I will work with the Holocaust Educational Trust to take a group of 16-year-olds from Leigh to Auschwitz. The trust will do an increasingly important job this century in telling generations to come of the lessons of the previous century, but I do not believe that it receives substantial public funding. There may be a case to be made to help it to pass on the memories of what happened to other generations.
I hope that, in discussions with colleagues at the Department for Education and Skills, the Minister will make the point that every school should give young teenagers the chance to go to the Commonwealth war cemeteries. It is such a moving and memorable experience. Even the hardest of nuts will be moved when they see the rows and rows of graves marked, "Anonymous. A soldier known unto God." That is one thing that all our schools should be involved in. Incidentally, my brother, John Burnham, who is a teacher at Birchwood high school in Warrington, is taking a group to Ypres this Monday. It would be worth investing in such visits.
My hon. Friend refers to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and mentions the graves that are there for all to see, but the most important thing to say is that the Thiepval memorial records the names of people whose bodies have never been found. That is a profound message and younger generations need to be given the opportunity to see that at first hand.
Absolutely. It is crucial.
That brings me to my final point, which is about organisations that are keeping the legacy alive and passing on memories to another generation.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission does a marvellous job in putting families back in touch with their loved ones and preserving their memory. It clearly needs to be fully financed, which should not be a party political issue—there should be complete unanimity across the Chamber. As well as physical memorials, the commission uses new technology to preserve our collective debt of thanks. I want to give a personal example of the incalculable value of that.
The commission runs an internet service known as the debt of honour register. Three or four years ago, when the service was launched, my brother searched for my great-grandfather, and now we have a document that says:
"In memory of Private E. Burke of the King's Liverpool Regiment, died aged 34, 28th of October 1918. Commemorated in perpetuity by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Remembered with honour."
That is fantastic for my family.
My great-grandfather's wife and daughters searched throughout Germany to try to find where he was buried, but they never found him or what happened to him. In the end, my gran and her sisters wrote to the Vatican, but that produced no results, so they never knew. It is amazing that I am more in touch with my great-grandfather than they were. That is what new technology can do for my generation.
If the House will indulge me, I shall quote from a letter that we discovered from my great-grandfather to his twin brother Walter on
"I had a good talk last night over Old Ireland. Walter, there are thousands of Irish boys here and I may tell you it is God help the Boche if they come across them. Then they say Ireland is not doing her fair share in this war."
"Also, the Jocks are fine fellows."
Poignantly, the final paragraph reads:
"By the time you get this letter, things will have happened here and I ask you to pray for me that our holy mother will protect us from all danger. That I may see you again, Walter, is my sincere wish."
It goes without saying that such memories are priceless for families such as mine, keeping us in touch with what happened in the last century. They are among the most cherished collective memories of this nation. Long may they continue, and long may the Minister continue in his excellent work for veterans, their families and all who have served in our armed forces.
I congratulate Andy Burnham on a most moving speech.
It is a great privilege and honour to represent more than 11,000 Ministry of Defence employees, half of whom are in Her Majesty's forces, and half civil servants, scientific civil servants or in support roles. Thousands of my constituents are veterans. By disposition, I am an optimist. After all, war represents a failure of diplomacy and politics.
Summer 1944 was a very important time for me. My parents had survived the blitz in Plymouth. My father was rector of Stoke Damerel, part of the dockyard community. My brother and sisters had survived night after night in the cellar while my father was out on air raid patrols in the dockyards. The summer was a time of some celebration, of which I am living proof, because I was born in April 1945, at 1 Penlee way, Stoke Damerel.
In 1947, we moved to Salisbury, a garrison city. I was brought up with the traditions of the military and military uniforms.
Yes, the military all wore uniforms in the street as a matter of course in those days as they went through Salisbury. Last Sunday we had our D-day service in Salisbury cathedral. Our Dean, the Very Rev. June Osborne, reminded us that although our minds were focused on Normandy, we should not forget what had happened on the eastern front and we should be remembering everyone who sought to liberate Europe, whether they were in Budapest or Brest. Sitting opposite me in the cathedral was the former Father of the House, my constituent the right hon. Sir Edward Heath. I should like to pay tribute to his wartime record and all that he achieved in those dark days. He had in his own right a distinguished career in the military.
We look forward to celebrating in my constituency on
If anyone doubts the spirit of the young people in our armed services, I invite them to visit Amesbury town centre on a Saturday night. They will then be in no doubt of the mindset of our young people, who work hard and, by golly, play hard. Perhaps by contrast they could then visit the Winchester Army training establishment or the Army foundation college at Harrogate to see the quality of the young people who wish voluntarily to enter the finest army in the world. They would not be disappointed.
Yesterday morning, along with my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis and the current Father of the House, I attended the memorial to innocent victims at Westminster abbey for short prayers to commemorate all those who died in the crash of Chinook ZD576 on the Mull of Kintyre 10 years ago. Various comments have been made on that, which I shall not repeat, but I shall just say that I am grateful to the Prime Minister for agreeing to see some people who, like me, have been involved in the campaign for a long time. A point of law is involved in the case. In my judgment, it is not a matter of a technical assessment of what went wrong, because none of us will ever know. That is the whole point. The burden of proof required to condemn men to gross negligence—that there is no possible doubt whatever—is more rigorous than the burden required for murder. This is not a technical issue, but a matter of political judgment.
When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, I went to see her at No. 10, with several other hon. Members in a cross-party delegation, about blood infected with HIV and the way in which haemophiliacs were affected. We looked her in the eye and she looked back and said, "You're right. Morally, you're correct". So without any question of liability or admission of guilt, an ex gratia payment was made to found a fund to support people who were victims as a result. In the same way, I hope that we can now move on from what may have happened in the case of ZD576. I see this as a great opportunity for the Prime Minister to do his best to show that he is no less a Prime Minister than Margaret Thatcher was when she changed the minds of the Government, Secretaries of State and civil servants on that issue.
I welcome the Minister for veterans. It is a pleasure to work with him, as I do on many constituency issues. He is always welcome to visit my constituency, as are all Ministers in the Ministry of Defence, and I know that he and they do so regularly. I recall that it was when I was a serving member of the Defence Committee in 1996, and we produced a report on Gulf war syndrome, that we concluded that we needed a Minister for veterans' affairs. Having visited Washington, we concluded that we did not need a Department of veterans' affairs but that we did need a Minister to co-ordinate the MOD's response and do a bit of joined-up government. That recommendation was in the Conservative manifesto in 1997. Sadly we were not able to carry that out, but I am glad that the incoming Government saw the wisdom of that course of action.
The Veterans Agency has grown in stature very rapidly indeed, and I can save many minutes of my speech by simply referring Members to its excellent website, www.veteransagency.mod.uk, and by pointing out that it performs a wide range of services for veterans. But I would not want to forget what is done by other agencies, particularly the Army Families Federation, which makes a huge contribution, as do the Royal Naval and Royal Air Force family organisations and the Army welfare services themselves. All of them look after not just existing servicemen but veterans who need support.
Of course, we first and foremost think of the Royal British Legion in this connection. Last November, I attended my 21st Remembrance day ceremony, in Guildhall square, Salisbury, as its Member of Parliament. We in Salisbury are immensely proud of our Royal British Legion—the main branch is in Salisbury but we have other branches, including in Amesbury—which is a very active part of our community. But we should never for one moment think that the RBL is all about looking after the elderly, because that is not always the case. In fact, it looks after a great many people. Some 13 million people in the UK are eligible for its help: 5.5 million ex-service people and 7.5 million dependants. That is about 20 per cent. of the population.
Interestingly—this is not widely known—anyone can be a member of the Royal British Legion, ex-service or not. One need not be an RBL member to receive assistance, but one must be an ex-service person or a dependant. In fact, anyone who has been in the British armed forces for seven days or more is eligible for help. In only one year since the second world war—1968—has a British service person not been killed on active service, so the work of the RBL is ongoing. It will always be there for future generations, and for that we are deeply grateful.
I am also particularly grateful to the Soldiers, Sailors and Air Force Association, which does wonderful work in my constituency and throughout the country by supporting the regimental benevolent funds. Thank goodness we have a regimental system in this country; it is the envy of all other NATO countries. The regimental benevolent funds are not limitless, and SSAFA helps a great many people, including, of course, veterans and their dependants.
There is one particular issue that I want to deal with before I finish. In July 1999, Wiltshire constabulary began inquiries into allegations made by a former serviceman, who said that during his national service, he had taken part in research into finding a cure for the common cold at Porton Down. He subsequently said that the experiments and tests carried out on him had nothing to do with common cold research, and that those who conducted the experiments had assaulted him. He also alleged that another serviceman had been killed in an illegal experiment at Porton involving nerve gas, in 1953.
As a result of that complaint and of other allegations, Wiltshire constabulary initiated a major inquiry, Operation Antler, the purpose of which was to examine the issues associated with the service volunteer programme at Porton Down and experiments relating to the use of chemical and biological agents during the period 1939 to 1989. Some volunteers claimed to have suffered long-term illness or injury. More than 250 were interviewed and 25 cases were selected for development, with a view to ascertaining whether criminal offences had been committed. Of those, eight were selected to progress to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration in respect of the offences of administering an unlawful substance, and of assault. More than 700 ex-service personnel and their relatives had made contact with the Wiltshire constabulary or had been contacted by the inquiry team. Although some claimed to have suffered illness or injury, others were shown to have experienced no adverse long-term side effects, and they made no claims.
Operation Antler came to a conclusion, and last summer the Government announced that they were not going to take any action. That has caused a great deal of consternation for many hundreds of veterans. Only this week has a lot more information been put on the public record, as a result of a parliamentary question that I tabled in January.
Although I received a letter from the Solicitor-General in March, explaining why it was taking a long time, the results were published on Monday this week. It is important to put the minds of many hundreds of veterans at rest by explaining briefly what had happened.
The testing of chemical agents at Porton Down goes back to the use of poisonous gas by the Germans in the first world war. The participation of servicemen in testing, in connection with the use of chemical agents, began on an organised basis back in the 1920s. Recent surveys have found that more than 20,000 servicemen were involved, of whom about 3,000 participated in studies involving nerve agents, 6,000 in studies involving mustard gas and several hundred in studies evaluating the effects of other incapacitants, mental or physical. The evidence gathered under Operation Antler provided considerable detail on these matters.
The Crown Prosecution Service has examined in general terms the evidence concerning the conduct, authorisation and supervision of tests carried out at Porton Down—from ministerial level downwards, through the internal and external supervisory committees, to the point of testing there. Contemporary knowledge was assessed in respect of the foreseeable risks to the health of servicemen. The CPS considered evidence about the information provided to servicemen prior to the tests. It also examined evidence on what was administered or done to the observers and on both the immediate effects and subsequent ill health. Modern expert evidence has assessed various aspects of the treatment of the servicemen at Porton Down by the standards applicable at the time, including medical ethics. The CPS also had access to formal interviews with surviving potential suspects.
The lawfulness arising in each of the selected episodes of testing reflected in the advice files is, it seems to me—though I am not a lawyer—a novel issue in the context of our domestic criminal law. It concerns the legal principles applicable to non-therapeutic medical experimentation on human subjects, and, in particular, the principles bearing on the issue of consent.
The inquiry has shown that, although there was a substantial body of evidence suggesting that military station notices did refer to common cold research at Porton Down, no such notices have ever been found. There has been much confusion about that. There was a common cold research institute outside Salisbury—at Harnwood hospital—and it also ran a volunteer programme, which was a confusing factor.
There is no clear evidence that the staff at Porton Down ever sought to misrepresent the testing that was carried out there. Whatever reason the volunteers had for attending Porton Down, once there, they were told in very clear terms that the research was connected with chemical and biological warfare and defence. That means warfare prior to the mid-1950s and defence afterwards. We have done no offensive work on chemical and biological warfare in this country since the mid-1950s: it has all been defensive.
The obvious criminal offences against which to evaluate the evidence were administering a noxious thing, contrary to section 24 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and assault occasioning actual bodily harm, contrary to section 47 of the same Act. In addition, there is the general common law rule that it is not in the public interest that a person should wound or cause actual bodily harm to another "for no good reason". Accordingly, such conduct is unlawful, regardless of the consent of the injured person. Non-therapeutic research on human subjects carried out in accordance with contemporary standards of reasonable medical practice is highly unlikely to be regarded by any criminal court as other than properly conducted.
The point that I am getting to is that there has to be sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of proving to a criminal standard that specific testing at Porton Down was a substantial cause of any subsequent ill health suffered by an observer. Evidence of subsequent ill health is necessary before assessing the prospects of success in proving a criminal charge. There is no evidence: that is the final word of the Crown Prosecution Service.
Having considered all the evidence, the CPS concluded that it did not provide a realistic prospect of conviction. The weight of the evidence revealed that the testing had been carried out in the public interest, and in accordance with the accepted professional standards of the day. Moreover, the observers volunteered for the nature of the act, and there is no evidence to suggest that the testing caused any subsequent ill health.
There were some problems to do with the quality of the evidence, and with evidence that had gone missing in the long period since the events took place. However, the CPS concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute any person for any criminal offence. That decision was taken after the most thorough and careful consideration of the evidence.
We must start a new chapter at Porton Down. For five years, my constituents at what is now the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory there have gone to work every day knowing that 20 police officers from the Wiltshire constabulary, and a number of Minister of Defence police officers, were undertaking criminal investigations into work carried out by my constituents' predecessors. For five years, retired scientists have feared the knock on the door from police calling to interrogate and, possibly, arrest them. For many years, retired civil servants—and volunteers and veterans—have been telephoned and doorstepped by journalists coming hotfoot from the old Public Records Office at Kew as official documents came to be released under the 30-year rule. The names of the scientists who participated in trials many years ago have, of course, been released.
There are more than 1,000 dedicated employees at DSTL Porton Down, and another 800 at the Health Protection Agency next door. Many are world-class scientists. I visited the US last year with the Select Committee on Science and Technology, as part of our inquiry into the scientific response to terrorism. Wherever we went—from the White House, to the centres for disease control in Atlanta or the Lawrence Livermore laboratories in California—we learned of the high regard in which the scientists at Porton Down were held.
They are all dedicated professionals, whether they be scientists, civil servants or support staff. They are dedicated to saving life. They work to save the lives of our service men and women. Increasingly, they are conducting research into nervous disorders, and into saving the lives of people suffering from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. I salute them, just as I salute our proud and noble veterans.
I commend the work undertaken by my hon. Friend the Minister who opened the debate, and his contribution to what was a very moving weekend of commemoration.
Last night, I met two other veterans. Jack Jones and Bob Doyle were members of the International Brigade in the Spanish civil war, who volunteered to fight fascism when it appeared in its earliest form. I welcome the fact that the Government are considering what commemoration could be afforded to them and the sacrifice that they made. Last night, a plaque was unveiled at a ceremony held by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers to celebrate and commemorate the 70 members of the National Union of Seamen and National Union of Railwaymen who fought for the International Brigade. If the brigade had been successful, it is possible that we could have avoided world war two and its consequences, including D-day.
I want to refer to a matter that I and the Royal British Legion raised two years ago, and that is the records of British ex-service personnel. At that time, the Government announced proposals to privatise the Ministry of Defence records office based in Bourne avenue in Hayes, in my constituency. The office stores all the records of all service personnel, going back to well before world war one. Visitors to the office can see the historical artefacts that are the actual records of each serviceman: indeed, when I visited, the staff there brought out my father's second world war records.
The records are stored and archived by a team of dedicated staff, many of whom have served there for a long time. They are extremely caring, diligent, conscientious people. The records are very sensitive, as they contain the personal details of all ex-service personnel of all ranks. For example, they also include the records of personnel who have served recently in Northern Ireland. Some of the records were used in the Bloody Sunday inquiry.
In December last year, the records operation was sold to TNT and the site was sold to ProLogis for development. The records are being transferred to a TNT warehouse in the midlands. The MOD staff, who have given loyal and dedicated service, have been transferred to the private company, TNT, and most will lose their jobs within 15 months. As well as the loss of my constituents' jobs, the MOD will lose their expertise and care.
I am also concerned about the risk to those irreplaceable and historical documents. Parliamentary questions have revealed that more than 40 complaints have been made about the performance of the private company in handling those records since the transfer in December. Large numbers of new agency staff are now operating on the site and have access to those sensitive records. The speed with which those staff have been granted sufficient security clearance to gain access to those records is remarkable. The speed of that security clearance has never been observed in an MOD establishment before.
I pay tribute to the existing staff who are doing all that they can to maintain a high quality service. I pay tribute in particular to Dolores Moody, the Public and Commercial Services Union representative, who seeks to protect the working conditions of her fellow workers as well as to ensure the standards of service delivery and the protection of those precious documents.
I urge Ministers to re-examine the operation of that public-private partnership. If it were up to me, I would invoke the penalty clause and bring the service back into public ownership and the control of the MOD. If that is not possible, Ministers should at least consider how they can ensure that both the staff and the records they tend are protected. Under the new arrangements, those documents are at risk, and that puts the security of some of our ex-servicemen at risk, too.
It is right and proper that this debate should be conducted a few days after the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of D-day last weekend. I hope that the Minister does not think that I am being facetious if I say that Britain likes to celebrate its retreats as well as its victories. My father was involved in one of our most celebrated retreats—from Gallipoli, where he fought with the Berkshire Yeomanry in the first world war—and I also have in mind the retreat from Dunkirk.
I have a high regard for the Minister for veterans. I would go so far as to say that he is the best we have had—although he is only the second. I admire his dedication to his cause in sitting through this debate—although it has been a good one to have to sit through, with some moving and memorable speeches from different generations with various reflections on what being a veteran means—but he is in grievous error on two counts. If he were to beat a tactical retreat—like those at Gallipoli and Dunkirk—on the issue of the Arctic convoy medal and the closure of the Droitwich Spa Army medal office, he would be even more popular with the veterans whose causes he generally espouses so well.
I am pleased to follow John McDonnell, because there is a strange synergy between the points that we wish to make on behalf of our constituents in relation to the protection of records and excellent services based in our constituencies. I am deeply and seriously concerned that the closure of the Army medal office—and of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines medal offices in Gosport—will seriously prejudice the issuing of medals.
I saw at first-hand the efficiency of the Droitwich Spa Army medal office when I visited it for the first time as its constituency MP some years ago. The staff asked me about my father's service record and I described his service in the first world war with the Berkshire Yeomanry, the Imperial Camel Corps and the Worcestershire Yeomanry. They asked whether he had served in the Home Guard during the second world war. I confirmed that he did, so they asked whether he had claimed his defence medal. I did not know, but I knew that I had only his first world war medals. They looked up the records on the spot and established that my father had never claimed his defence medal. They issued it to me and, two years ago on Remembrance day in Droitwich, I was able to wear his three first world war medals alongside his second world war medal.
That was a proud moment for me. I know how much the Royal British Legion appreciates the wearing of veterans' medals by their descendants. I owe the medal office a debt, but the veterans owe the medal service a very big debt indeed for the remarkable job that it does.
I want to make three points. First, I want to discuss the general wisdom of moving the Droitwich Spa Army medal office to a new location based at the RAF medal office at Innsworth. Secondly, I want to look at the impact of that change for the Suez medals and, to a lesser extent, the Iraq medal. Thirdly, I want to look at the detail of the financial case that the Government are fighting for closure.
My view overall is that the Government have been led into an error of judgment through unblinking adherence to a simple tri-service agenda. The facts are being made to fit the model when actually the model should be made to fit the facts. I do not dismiss the possibility that at some stage in the future merger of the three offices may make sense but, as the Minister knows, I genuinely believe that this is the worst possible time in the history of the medal offices to make such a change.
The change did not come as a great surprise. I heard rumours from the trade unions at the site in late March that the move was on the cards, but the event was publicly confirmed only with the Minister's statement on
"Consultation with MOD Trade Unions about the choice of the three sites from which JPA"— the new joint personnel administration—
"will be delivered has been undertaken and detailed local consultation about the implications for staff will start shortly."—[Hansard, 20 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 11WS.]
It is both the absence of that detailed consideration of the implications for the medal offices and the whole strategy of the JPA that cause me concern, which is hardly surprising as medal offices are not currently part of the structure that will form part of the JPA. They are outside the AFPAA—the Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency. This is a difficult subject area for civilians to venture into—the acronyms are, in the best military tradition, truly blinding.
I have a letter written to veterans' organisations by the senior national officer of the Public and Commercial Services Union, Mike Duggan, which summarises the situation extremely well. It states:
"Currently our members at Droitwich undertake all the research required to ensure that awards and medals are properly granted to Army personnel and are responsible for the stamping and issue of all medals to the three military services."
That is a very big operation indeed, by the far the biggest of the four medal offices.
Sometimes, concern is expressed about the length of time it takes to issue medals, but it is difficult to speed up the process, especially when it involves checking the records of older campaigns. It has to be a meticulous affair. Several Members have spoken about the difficulties of determining the length of time that people were in theatres in order to justify the issue of a medal, but very specific criteria are attached to each medal and the process and the work involved are indeed complex.
The PCS letter also states that
"the loss of the majority of the Army Medal Office staff at Droitwich, with the formation of the Joint Medal Office at Innsworth, will have a severely detrimental impact upon the levels of experience amongst staff handling enquiries and requests for awards . . . with the current backlog of requests for medals and the further campaigns which the Government has recognised for awards, now is the worst possible time for the transfer of work and loss of experienced staff".
We have heard a number of estimates of the length of the backlog for the issue of the Suez medal. Today, the Minister told us that it was two years. I understood that three years was nearer the mark and some people take an even more pessimistic view, but the backlog is certainly considerable.
All those factors combine to make me ask the basic question: why move the operations away from Droitwich? If there has to be a joint medal office, why not concentrate the expertise at the biggest of the medal office sites in Droitwich? If that is not possible, why not delay the closure for at least three years, to enable the current heavy work load to be dealt with effectively?
This is the busiest time in the office's life. The Suez canal zone medal, which has been generally welcomed, has produced thousands upon thousands of applications—more than 30,000 in total—most, but not all, are Army applications.
The campaign in Iraq is generating a new flood of medal-issuing demands. As regards the second world war, about 500 or 600 applications are received each month, and the events of last weekend will have again prompted many veterans and relations of deceased veterans to claim their medals.
Then there is the ongoing business of replacing lost and stolen medals. Establishing beyond doubt that medals were genuinely lost or stolen is a very time-consuming process. Reissuing medals from earlier campaigns is equivalent to issuing money, because they are very valuable, and careful checking has to take place beforehand.
The Minister told me in a parliamentary answer:
"The Army Medal Office at Droitwich is currently responsible for the issue or replacement of some 332 medals or awards."—[Hansard, 29 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 1173W.]
He promised to send me a complete list of the medals, which I have not yet received. I would love to see it. Until recently, the Army medal office issued medals from the Boer war to proven descendents of that conflict. It did a marvellous job in issuing the Queen's golden jubilee medal; to date, it has issued, again according to a parliamentary written answer from the Minister, more than 95,000 such medals.
I met the Minister with Mr. Foster to discuss the implications of the closure of the site. Many of its staff come from my constituency, from Worcester and from Wyre Forest. I am grateful to the Minister for the courtesy with which he heard our representations and the courteous letters that he has sent me subsequently. However, the warm words that he has offered do not reassure me. As he knows, I wrote to him again on
"I am very far from reassured. I urge you to re-think this policy and either to delay the closure of the Army Medal Office for three years and announce that as policy or, better still, to exploit its expertise and instead concentrate medal issuing at Droitwich rather than at Innsworth."
I was particularly concerned to see that the investment appraisal assumed that only nine members of staff out of 55 or 60 at Droitwich would be transferred. The rest would be lost, with all their crucial expertise.
All this comes out of a plan developed by the Government to harmonise the work of the Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency, which is based at four sites—Glasgow, Worthy Down, Centurion at Gosport and Innsworth—into three sites under a new joint personnel administration centre. As far as I know, the investment appraisal team responsible for that work has not visited the Army medal office in Droitwich Spa. Certainly, the consideration given to medals has been superficial, to say the least. Issuing medals is a very different and specialised operation, but I am afraid that that has not been properly considered. The experience needed and gained by staff is huge.
It is also worth pointing out—I say this as someone who married into a naval family, so it goes against the grain to admit it—that the RAF and the Navy often look to the Army medal office for guidance on medal-issuing procedures. Because of its history, the medal office has unique records for the Home Guard, from which I benefited during my visit there regarding my father's defence medal. The bullion room secures safely all the blank medals for all the armed forces—it is a very important secure facility. It is unthinkable that all that should be prejudiced by this ill-considered move.
When I asked the Minister how many staff work in the various Army medal offices, he told me that there are 89 in total, of whom nearly two thirds—55—are at Droitwich; it is by far the biggest of the facilities. Extraordinarily, in a written answer of
"part of a risk reduction strategy aimed at minimising disruption to medal service delivery."—[Hansard, 25 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 1613W.]
I have to say that it is a risk maximisation strategy aimed at maximising disruption to medal service delivery. The Minister's phraseology was most bizarre.
The issuing of the Iraq medal has now at last begun. It was badly delayed because of the uncertainty over the site. It would have been better had the staff employed to issue the Iraq medal been placed on a three-year fixed-term contract to take account of a closure period three years hence, but they had to be employed on a casual basis.
That will really prejudice the issuing of that medal, but it has now begun, and the money for equipment—which was previously frozen, for reasons that I do not understand—has been made available. At last the Iraq medal is beginning to be issued, but too many veterans of the Iraq campaign will not wear their medals this Remembrance day, because of the uncertainty at Droitwich.
The Suez medal is, quite reasonably, hugely popular, and there is a serious backlog. A staff member is quoted in the Soldier of May 2004 as saying:
"Let's face it, Suez veterans aren't getting any younger and we are involved in a race against time to get their medals out to them before they die. Scrapping the Army Medal Office is going to make that backlog much, much bigger and sadly a large number of people are going to miss out".
The article also quotes
"Charles Golder, 76, who has fought for 50 years for the Suez Canal Zone medal", as saying:
"'Veterans, like me, just want to see our medals before we die and to be honest we are dropping like flies.'"
It is inevitable that the disruption caused by closure will mean that more veterans will "drop like flies"—to use that blunt phrase—before they receive their medals.
In another answer to me dated
"Checking eligibility is a skilled, time-consuming and exacting job, but the medal offices have skilled staff who are experts at assessing eligibility quickly and accurately."
Not for much longer, I am afraid.
Time presses on, and I want to make sure that the Minister has a decent chance to respond to the debate, so I shall not quote at length all the cuttings that I looked up from provincial newspapers about Suez veterans who have received their medals, and the pride that they derived from receiving them. However, only yesterday in the Western Morning News we read the following:
"Veteran Mike Hardy, of Crediton in Devon, said some old soldiers were already dying before receiving their medals. 'It is very sad,' he said. 'In the last few months I know of four veterans who have died. People are already being told that they may have to wait three years for their medal and the disruption caused by the closure of the medal office"— those are his words, not mine—
"is bound to add at least a year to that. There are a lot of West Country veterans still waiting, and you can imagine that in four or five years' time there will not be so many of us left. People feel very let down. Mr. Blair gave us hope last year, but we feel as if we are being fobbed off now. There is no political will and no resources being put into it."
Indeed, the resources that are around are being squandered. In my hand I have the quotations from the other soldiers about their experiences during the Suez campaign, which show just how sad the reality is.
It took a lot of work to get the investment appraisal for the plan out of the Government. Originally I received an answer on
"did not deal exclusively with the issue of the Army Medal Office."
There was no sign of the investment appraisal, so on
The document is pretty disappointing, because it is not an investment appraisal about the Army medal office at all, but one
"for the future siting of AFPAA including JPAC".
It mentions the four existing sites for AFPAA, but not the medal sites. The only reference to Droitwich that I can find in the document is in a footnote, as follows:
"As a supplement to this IA and to inform the consultations with TUs, a specific analysis was done of the option of forming a Joint Medals Office at Droitwich compared with it being formed at one of the AFPAA sites—this option was highly unattractive on both business and cost grounds and has been discounted. (Reference [TBC once letter to TUs is finalised]."
In other words, that had not been done. The document was being written after the decision, and the facts were being made to fit the model, not the other way round. The published document actually says:
"TBC once letter to TUs is finalised".
That is not very encouraging, and it is the only mention of Droitwich in the entire document.
There is a hint about the timing, which we do not know much about. In the timetable, "Medals—Innsworth" appears under "Early 05, Stage 2", which suggests that closure is scheduled for next spring, but we do not know. The document also says, bizarrely:
"Where possible, functions will co-locate at the site where the greatest concentration of staff currently exist."
The greatest concentration of staff currently exists in Droitwich, but that is not where it will happen.
The document contains a forecast of the number of staff required to issue medals in the United Kingdom. The figure is 74 staff for April 2004, but that is lower than the figure cited in the parliamentary answer that I received, so I do not understand the discrepancy. It is forecast that the number of staff required to cover all three services in April 2008 will be 34, but that does not fill me with much hope given the detailed and labour-intensive nature of the medal-issuing process.
The section of the document on risk contains no mention of the risk that veterans might not receive their medals, which it should. The only significant mention of medals appears in annexe H under the heading "Medals and Awards Administration". It says that an advantage of the proposal is that there will be:
"Reduced distance for the majority of staffs needing relocation".
No, the proposal will increase distances for the majority of staff needing relocation. The appraisal says that the proposal "reduces staff movement", but staff movement would increase because the Government are consulting on providing a bus service from Worcestershire to Gloucestershire for medal office staff. The document says that the proposal "reduces business risk", but that is frankly an ugly turn of phrase to use about the issuing of medals to veterans. The proposal will increase business risk because it will put the operation on one site rather than four, so there will be more risk of disruption, not less.
We find a clue in a separate side letter dated
"It is a key part of the Defence Estates strategy that the accommodation and estate held by the MOD should be rationalised . . . DE advise that the Droitwich site has potential for high quality residential use were it to be disposed of by the MOD. The Investment Appraisal undertaken to support the establishment of JPAC on three of the four existing AFPAA sites assumes the disposal of the Droitwich site and an income of £3.9M from that disposal."
I have some news for the Minister that he has not heard before: Droitwich has allocated all the housing land that it needs until 2011. The land in question is employment land, and special planning policy guidance is in force to protect such land—unless, of course, the Deputy Prime Minister hears about it. The land is not available for high-quality residential development and would not fetch £3.9 million. In fact, the Chancellor might want to buy it for continued use by Customs and Excise, which also occupies the site.
The Minister will make a serious error of judgment if he pursues the policy. I am delighted that he has made two visits to the national memorial arboretum, so will he please make one to Droitwich—he will do better than his officials if he does? He should not casually accept the bland assurances that he receives from his officials. Disruption would be inevitable and the proposed cost savings are illusory. The document that I cited regarding the value of the site makes the most pessimistic assumptions possible about the cost of remaining at the site and the most optimistic assumptions possible about the benefits of change. Pursuing the policy would not save costs; in fact, costs would increase due to additional redundancy and transport costs. Additional equipment would have to be bought and money would have to be spent on redecorating, re-equipping and so on, so the process would be a costly nightmare. Honouring our veterans and ensuring that they receive their medals on time is more important than blind loyalty to a superficial tri-service agenda and a study that would disgrace most management consultants.
There is often the problem that Ministers have ideas that they want to pursue and officials think that they must ensure that they are delivered. It is like when Henry II said:
"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest" and the knights rode off and killed Thomas à Becket—the turbulent priest syndrome. The situation in government is often like that: Ministers have ideas, but their civil servants are too scared to challenge them, so they rush off to kill the archbishop instead of challenging Ministers' views or the prevailing wisdom in their Departments. I suspect that the Secretary of State, rather than the Minister for veterans, has said, "Will no one deliver me a proper and effective tri-service agenda?" The officials have said, "Oh yes, we'll deliver it, and hang the consequences." However, the consequences are serious. Although the Minister for veterans will probably not have that responsibility when the scheme is implemented—he might have moved on or even be out of government—I forecast that it will lead to serious delays in the issuing of medals.
I make that forecast with absolute conviction.
I end by citing one of the greatest parliamentarians. He was not always a great hero of mine because I come from the faithful city of Worcester, but in a letter to the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland in 1650, Cromwell wrote:
"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."
I have seldom heard an hon. Friend likened to Henry II. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence assures me that he has no intention of killing any archbishops, although we looked at each other quizzically when the matter was raised because the thought occasionally crosses our minds about one or two.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his introduction to our wide-ranging debate. He clearly set out the issues that are important to veterans, those who currently serve in the United Kingdom armed forces and their families. Praise was lavished on him not only by Mr. Luff but by several other hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) and for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman). My hon. Friend Mr. Turner appeared to want to organise a party in his honour, such is the quality of his work. Even Dr. Lewis praised him. My hon. Friend is doing a marvellous job as the veterans Minister.
The celebrations that my hon. Friend played such a big part in organising at the weekend were extremely successful. Praise was therefore well deserved. However, I noted that he celebrated the D-day landings by visiting not only Normandy but Monte Cassino, whereas I celebrated at Margate. I wonder why I got Margate and he got foreign travel; nevertheless, the weekend was incredibly successful.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to wind up, because it is important to take the opportunity of the first debate of this type to spell out how the health and social care system is trying to meet veterans' needs. I was also parliamentary private secretary to the Minister for the armed forces for two years and I have therefore attended many defence debates, but this is the first time that I have been allowed to speak in one.
Like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and others who have spoken, I must start by acknowledging the huge debt that we owe those veterans who served in the second world war and did so much to secure the freedoms that we enjoy today. If they had not done what they did, would we be here today, debating in a free Parliament or casting our votes tomorrow in free elections? I doubt it.
Like my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for New Forest, East, I was moved by the accounts in the media over the weekend of the personal experiences of those who took part in the campaigns at Monte Cassino and the D-day landings in Normandy. I was especially struck by the accounts of the children and grandchildren of veterans, including those from the United States of America. Although my trip was not perhaps as exotic as those that my hon. Friend went on, I was proud to stand with veterans at the D-day celebrations in Margate on Sunday and to hear at first hand their accounts of that miraculous day. I asked one elderly gentleman in a wheelchair, whose breathing was assisted by oxygen and who had been there on the day, "Can you remember what it was like?" He replied, "Like it was yesterday." The events are as fresh as yesterday in many veterans' minds, so amazing and momentous was the day.
I was struck by how much has changed for those concerned with health issues in the 60 years since D-day. I delighted to say that there has been unprecedented growth in health and social care services. Back then, health and care services focused largely on veterans' physical needs but at least we are now prepared to acknowledge the psychological impact of conflict on mental health and social functioning. We all need to apply better understanding of the wider impact of conflict and of the difficulties that people face simply in making the transition from service life to civilian life to ensure that we do better for veterans in the future than we have done in the past.
Happily, we are now much better prepared to support those who live with the mental and physical consequences of the trauma that conflict brings and, although we still have much further to go, I believe that individuals themselves are now more prepared to come forward and seek help. We have made progress, but we are still a long way from perfection, and I suspect that I am not unusual as a Member of Parliament in having on my books several veterans who have found themselves in my MP's surgery because of health problems or difficulties with adjustment. Some saw action, and some did not, but all have found transition difficult and need multi-agency support. To a greater or lesser extent, all have encountered difficulty in getting that support, and we must learn from their experiences and do better in future.
We must do better for the veterans whom we celebrated at the weekend and all the veterans of the last century's world wars, better for the veterans of Korea and Suez, and better for the veterans of Northern Ireland and all the other conflicts of our generation. We must also do better for the young men and women serving today in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. I am therefore especially pleased to be able to draw to the House's attention the work that we are doing in partnership with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to support people with a history of service in the armed forces.
I know from conversations that I have had with my constituents how difficult it can be to re-engage with ordinary life after leaving the armed forces, and how much more difficult that must be if a person is vulnerable, stressed or suffering from a mental illness, however short term. That is why our Departments will be working together to build on the support that the Ministry of Defence already provides. We will ensure that those leaving the services have information especially configured to their needs, and we shall look to the veterans' associations to help us with this and to provide us with advice. Above all, we shall look to the veterans and members of the services themselves to tell us what they need and how we can improve.
I do not want to second-guess what this guidance should contain, but I do know that it should be practical, relevant and focused on the basics as well as on some of those issues that we know are the most difficult to handle. It should cover subjects such as how to register with a general practitioner, what questions a person should ask if they need counselling or a psychological therapy, where they can get further information or a specialised assessment, and what to do if the services they need are not being provided.
Of course, health services for veterans do not stand alone. In this country, we have a national health service—in my view, a truly great concept and a great organisation—that provides quality care to all, free at the point of need. Its existence is the reason that we do not need a separate veterans service, as some countries do. I think that Mr. Key also came to that conclusion when he was serving in the previous Conservative Government. So when we drive up standards in the national health service, as we are, and when we take on more doctors and nurses, cut waiting times and improve services, as we have been doing, we improve services for everyone as well as for veterans. It is in that context that we must view the work that we are doing to improve, reform and modernise mental health services, and to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.
Mental ill health goes hand in hand with social exclusion, and it features at every level of our society. It blights the workplace, with about one in five workers—around 5 million people—reporting symptoms of stress. It is also the leading cause of sickness absence, and restricts people in their capacity to live productive lives. It should therefore come as no surprise to us that members of the armed forces suffer from mental ill health just like the rest of us, in service and after service. We need to accept that and to help.
Much is said about the macho culture in the armed forces, but we know that young men, whatever their backgrounds, find it difficult to ask for help for social and emotional difficulties. That is a particularly worrying observation, given that young men are one of the leading risk groups for death by suicide. We must therefore tackle mental ill health with as much vigour as we tackle physical ill health, and we must drive up standards not only in health care but in social care. As well as driving up standards generally, we need to keep a special focus on the particular challenges that face veterans.
I should like to turn to some of the points raised by hon. Members today, and I shall begin with the hon. Member for New Forest, East, who correctly stated that tributes are important. I entirely agree with him on that.
He also rightly pointed out that they are important not just to those who remember these events, but to young people, our children and our grandchildren in establishing the respect that we ought to have for the freedoms that we have in this country. They will become fragile if we ever take our eye off the ball and forget to protect them.
Tributes are important, but I say to the hon. Gentleman, who seems to have made up his mind that celebrations of D-day need to continue almost annually, that some veterans I was talking to on Sunday said that this should be the last, as they do not want the celebrations to peter out and fade away.
I think that is right, and it is why my hon. Friend Mr. Borrow said that we must keep an open mind and engage in discussions with veterans. That is very much the position of my hon. Friend the veterans Minister. We should make the decisions with veterans, not for them. That is important.
I want to chide the hon. Member for New Forest, East a little, however. He mentioned several times the need to get the balance right on a number of issues. He spoke for 56 minutes, and very good his speech was too. I very much enjoyed it and it was very eloquent, but he was 39 minutes in before he got to the nitty-gritty of how to improve services for veterans or mentioned any of the issues that affect their lives today, other than the issue of medals and the Chinook issue, which I accept are important. Indeed, he spent longer on his paean of praise for President Reagan than on pensions for veterans.
I criticise the hon. Gentleman gently, but no more than that. Where I will not be gentle in my criticism, though, is in respect of Mr. Hancock, who alone today gave what I have to say was a rather mealy-mouthed speech. I understand that it is easy for the third party in British politics to climb on every bandwagon and to support every campaign that comes along, but simplistic answers to complicated problems get us nowhere. At least he could have recognised the fact that some issues that he raised are complicated matters of judgment. People do not find it easy to make these decisions, so for him simply to say that he supports every campaign that comes along did him and his cause no justice at all.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Arctic convoys, as did my hon. Friend Mr. McWilliam, who has campaigned on the Arctic convoy medal for a long time; the hon. Member for New Forest, East; my hon. Friend Mr. Wareing; and the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet. I shall not add to what my hon. Friend the Minister for veterans said, as this is not an issue on which the House particularly wants to hear the views of a Health Minister, but let me say here and now that no Labour Member doubts the bravery of or the contribution made by those men.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby that I was brought up in Liverpool as well, although I was not born until 1952. Even I, as a child, was told about the change that happened when the red army started to advance and the benefits that that delivered for Merseyside, so nobody needs to tell me what contribution those brave people made.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South raised a number of housing issues. I shall return to some of those, but he said that surplus housing was available that was not committed to the Annington Homes scheme. That is not the case. I understand that any surplus housing identified by the MOD has to be released to Annington Homes.
I would rather not as, unfortunately, I have only six minutes in which to speak. My hon. Friend the Minister for veterans is dealing with that issue and I know he will have listened to the hon. Gentleman's comments.
The hon. Member for New Forest, East also raised the possibility of pre-screening recruits for predisposition to mental health problems. That has been considered, primarily in other countries, and has never been found to be particularly satisfactory. The insensitivity of the screening processes is the issue, although, obviously, those with a severe or current mental illness or learning disability would be excluded. It is right, however, for training and preparation of those going into combat to include coverage of the psycho-social aspects of health as well as physical issues.
On limiting traumatic stress-related disorders on deployments, measures are in place to help to reduce the risk of such disorders occurring among service personnel. Those preventive arrangements for the armed forces have been developed over a number of years, and will continue to be reviewed in the light of developments in the field of stress management and medical treatment.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South raised the issue of Alexander Izett and Gulf war syndrome. I am sure that he will know that I am not in a position to comment on the treatment that Mr. Izett is receiving. That is a matter between him and his doctor. I strongly encourage him to give up his hunger strike, however, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has done, as it will not benefit anybody. He is currently resident in Germany. Were he living in the UK, however, as a war pensioner, he would be entitled to priority national health service assessment and treatment for any condition to which his pension was related. Nothing that he or any other veteran of the Gulf war has presented with is beyond the capability of the national health service.
It is important that we gather robust evidence concerning the health needs of our veterans. The MOD is spending £8.5 million on research on Gulf war syndrome and the issues concerned. That research is being directed by independent medical experts. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet raised a number of possible factors: vaccines, pesticides and oil fires. That points to the need to do proper research rather than to jump to conclusions.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet also raised a number of other issues. He welcomed lapel badges for veterans, and said how positive they would be. I share that view. He was the first Member to mention today's service people in the debate. One or two of us have forgotten today's service people. That point was also picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble, who joined in the call for services for tomorrow's veterans also to be improved.
Mr. Brazier raised his concerns about the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence has engaged in argument with him on the matter, and it will now go to the House of Lords. There is nothing that I can add that will satisfy him, and I am sure that we will return to the debate in the future.
Other Members made moving speeches, particularly my hon. Friend Andy Burnham. The hon. Member for Salisbury also made a careful and considered speech.
My hon. Friend John McDonnell raised the issue of privatisation of the records office in his constituency. That is a matter on which I am unsighted, so I cannot satisfy him on it today. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence has agreed to read his comments, however, and to respond to him.
Mr. Luff raised the issue of the Droitwich Army medal office. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary assured the House that the backlog for Suez medals will be cleared in two years. I know, however, as I am the Minister who deals with health service issues for Mid-Worcestershire, that when the hon. Gentleman gets a bone in his teeth, he will not let it go. I therefore suspect that my hon. Friend will be hearing more from him in the weeks to come.
The issue of homelessness shows how dealing with services for veterans needs a multi-agency approach. It is therefore important that we build the needs of veterans into the new vision for adult social care, which we are developing. My hon. Friend and I will work together to ensure that the views of veterans are built into that new vision, and that services for future veterans reflect the contribution—
It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.