Debate on the Address

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:44 pm on 7th November 2007.

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Photo of Viscount Brookeborough Viscount Brookeborough Crossbench 9:44 pm, 7th November 2007

My Lords, it is daunting enough to be No. 40 on an evening like this, especially after the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, with which so many noble Lords agree. I am sorry if my speech is an anti-climax; I shall have trouble competing with that of the noble Lord.

I should like to talk about the Armed Forces themselves and the welfare of our servicemen because they are the most important single element of our Armed Forces. Failure to recognise this would have a seriously detrimental effect on recruiting, retention and operations in support of much of our foreign policy. I am concerned about the effects of the present conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, indeed, any future conflicts, on our soldiers and their families in years to come when many of them may no longer be serving. However, the effect will still be there in the community.

I must declare several interests. I am honorary colonel of the Second Battalion of the Royal Irish, which were the Rangers, who are going to Afghanistan next year. I am president of the Army Benevolent Fund in Northern Ireland. This is all relevant to what I am going to say. I am president of the Ulster Defence Regiment Association and I am on the board of a brand new UDR and Royal Irish Regiment aftercare service, more of which later.

I shall not address the issues of battlefield casualties as they are already in medical care, except to join others in expressing sympathy to all those who have suffered and to their families. I am interested today in those who may seem unaffected in the short term but who in years to come may show symptoms and have problems which inevitably affect those most dear and closest to them. This is not a guesswork prediction but a certainty and will be a greater problem than we all expect.

Due to our experiences in Northern Ireland during the last 37 years—I accept that the conflicts are different—the military and the police are at the forefront of coming to terms with these problems. This is all well researched, in particular in a paper written by an HQNI command psychiatrist, Commander Ronald McKinnon, who was later a consultant on combat stress. The paper concerns the effects of cumulative stress, which is quoted by many experts today as "corporate suffering". It is important to note that the corporate element here is the complete family circle of the service personnel. A measure of this is that we have had 62,000 people serving in our home service forces in Northern Ireland and we now have almost 6,000 live cases of many descriptions needing welfare support. Although the peace is only recent, this occurred some time after the major conflict.

The police in Northern Ireland were the first to tackle this issue. Under the Patten review they set up the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust in 1999. A point to note is that this is funded by the Government—outside the police budget—at £2.2 million per annum. The Government are also providing £2 million a year to the Northern Ireland Police Fund to alleviate suffering.

This year the UDR and Royal Irish aftercare service has been put in place based largely on the PRRT with a psychological, neurological and physiotherapy support centre planned to be co-located with the police facility. The cost of this package is approximately £2 million a year, to be reviewed after five years. I shall not go into all the details of it here and now; I just wish to establish the principle of the support that we should be demanding for our service community throughout the Armed Forces. The mission statement of our aftercare service is fairly simple—to provide and facilitate appropriate welfare, vocational, medical and benevolent support to ex-members of the UDR and Royal Irish Regiment (Home Service) and their families in order to reduce suffering. A service such as this should be available to all British service personnel.

Some have said that Northern Ireland is lucky and is a special case. I say that the provision of this service restricted to one regiment is not lucky, exceptionally earned or anything else. It is fair and justified, and it is only fair and justified to provide it to our entire service community in future. Some people—some are members of organisations to whom I have talked recently—say, "But we have regimental associations, the Army Benevolent Fund, the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress, et cetera". First, we have all those in Northern Ireland. Secondly, we have a valuable UDR and Royal Irish Regiment benevolent fund that yearly disburses £700,000 in addition for deserving cases. We still need the aftercare service on top of all that. The Government often rely on charities to carry out functions that the public purse should fund, and they should look at that. They always welcome such charities as Help for Heroes, of which I am becoming a patron. It is a good charity, but no wonder people welcome it when it does the job that they should do.

You are often asked what the differences are in justification today compared to previous times and conflicts, such as World War 2, Malaya and Korea, let alone World War 1. Here are a few. National standards of social care and responsibility have dramatically developed since those times; we must remember that. We had conscript forces, so the whole nation was involved in everything. The whole nation is not as involved as it should be now. Families are the support that enables people to volunteer to serve; do not let us forget that they are heroes too, remaining quietly at home and suffering often in silence. Regiments are becoming more stationary, so people live more in the community and rely less on service providers and get their medical, spiritual and shopping needs from outside. Therefore they become more independent and less in communication. They will form circles of friends outside. Everything that they do will make them a little more remote, and the day they leave we will have trouble following them. When the serviceperson leaves it will only exacerbate the situation.

Today, we have small, professional Armed Forces and must treat them in a thoroughly professional and responsible way. Let us look briefly at the situation on the ground. The other day, newspapers showed that questionnaires were being offered to those close to bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why only those? That is not as revolutionary as you might think; we gave questionnaires to several thousand people who left the Royal Irish in the last year. They were evaluated, and we can now target those who may need assistance. Where is that for the rest of the Army and the forces?

A few days ago, an article in the Daily Mail started off by talking about the private suffering and anguish of families, saying that 32 per cent of families had noticed a negative change in family members coming back. That is only the start. I do not want to be depressing, but the real symptoms of stress other than the immediate ones appear seven to 12 years down the line. Units, regimental associations and other groups cannot cope in the longer term, especially after personnel have left the service. Apart from anything else, most people are not members of the associations. Many ex-soldiers are too proud to come forward for help through traditional lines, and our aftercare service is an outreach service with visits. One of its performance indicators is that it visits every family bereaved since 1970 two or three times a year. That does not happen in the remainder of the UK.

In the modern day, we need to establish a service that supplies support to the client base—people as they come into the services, while they serve, while they are leaving, and in their future life. That should be a seamless journey, not one punctuated by moving from one isolated silo to another with little or no communication in between. It must be a joined-up, holistic process and not be approached piecemeal. In Northern Ireland, the establishment of the aftercare service was only as a result of extreme pressure on the Government. Estimations of need for such a service must be made, and funds must be properly given. Therefore, it is up to us in Parliament as a whole to insist on and demand a comprehensive service and support for our service personnel and their families in future, or we will not have a service or a foreign policy.