St. DUNSTAN'S FUNDING & THE FAA MEMORIAL – 13 April 2000

[ARMED FORCES PERSONNEL DEBATE]

Dr Julian Lewis: Rarely does a week go by without our being reminded of what we owe to our servicemen, past and present, and today is no exception. The Times carries the obituary of Rear­-Admiral Douglas Parker, my constituent and a member of my constituency association. It sets out his record, saying that he was

"the first British aviator to overfly and attack the Japanese mainland"

towards the end of the war. He won the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Service Cross for the fierce fighting in which he was involved at Okinawa. Earlier in the war, he was in the thick of the furious Operation Pedestal fight, the convoy that saved Malta.

That generation is getting to the age at which increasingly we expect to read their obituaries, so there will, sadly, be no shortage of such splendid records to remind us of all that we owe them.

It is a privilege for me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr Wilkinson), whom I first met in 1970 when I was an Oxford undergraduate and he was already an MP and, even then, an expert on defence by virtue of his RAF background. He was fighting then for strong defences for this country, and he has never wavered in that fight to this day.

I take this opportunity to thank the Under­-Secretary, who has attended almost all the debate, for his recent letter to me indicating that he will seriously investigate the case of Corporal Henry, the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts). Corporal Henry committed suicide after what seems to have been an extremely unjust court martial and disproportionate punishment.

In the short time available I want to do what I generally do in such debates, which is to say something about people, something about problems and something about the past. The right hon. and learned Member for North-­East Fife (Mr Campbell) did Parliament a favour in drawing attention to the questionable value of dispensing with single-­service debates and replacing them with separate debates on personnel, equipment, and so forth – ­­not that that has prevented hon. Members from bringing into the debate whatever it was they had to say about our armed forces, whether or not it had to do with personnel.

In our previous debate on armed forces personnel, on 1 July last year, I drew attention to the campaign waged by the Officers Pension Society, urging that pensions be transferred to the widows of officers who married after retiring from the services. Today, I shall concentrate on an even more worthy cause that was drawn to my attention by my constituent, Mr Trevor Emans of Holbury, who was shocked to read about the way in which St. Dunstan's ­­– the charity for servicemen and women who have been blinded in the service of their country­ – had been refused a lottery grant.

Let me tell the House about St. Dunstan's. It was founded in 1915 by Sir Arthur Pearson, of the newspaper publishing family, in the belief that those who came back from the First World War blinded should be cared for with the greatest commitment that society could afford, not reduced to beggary in the streets. St. Dunstan's takes in servicemen and women aged 19 to 90, even if blindness is a delayed effect of their service. It teaches those men and women how to manage basic daily tasks, and those who are of employable age are taught to master a trade, from shopkeeping to the handling of computers. Then they are shown how to re-­enter communities.

St. Dunstan's has about 11 welfare officers who visit St. Dunstaners, as they are called, at home or at work. The aim is to make those people, to whom we owe so much, as independent as possible and to enable them to live as fulfilled a life as possible. The charity owns about 500 properties, mostly two-­bedroom bungalows; and there are about 2,600 people on the books, including a limited number of spouses, widows or widowers of St. Dunstaners and about 30 to 40 dependent children. The charity's main base is at Ovingdean near Brighton, but 95 per cent. of the gallant veterans for whom it cares live in their own homes.

St. Dunstan's lost its last veteran of World War One only in 1998, at the age of 99. He was cared for by that charity from 1916 to 1998. Not many charities offer, as part of their raison d'être, such long­-term care for anyone. Therein lies the source of the problem. Seventy percent of the people for whom the charity cares were injured in World War Two, and the other 30 percent in the post­-war era. The problem is that long-­term care such as St. Dunstan's provides must, to a considerable extent, be funded from the interest derived from investments.

It is easy for critics to point out that the charity has about £90 million in assets – ­which it has had ­­– and so does not need help. However, those assets cannot be dispensed with: they pay for the buildings and are, above all, used for the investment income that provides only one-third of the value of the support the charity gives to the 2,600 St. Dunstaners on its books.

At the time when the request was made to the national lottery, St. Dunstan's was hoping to extend its rehabilitation and training unit and to install specialist accommodation for those receiving rehabilitation and training, such as the handless blind ­­– think about that: the handless blind. The charity was hoping to get a new bus that would have on board the sort of toilet facilities and wheelchair access facilities that would enable the more severely disabled St. Dunstaners to go on trips from which they are currently excluded.

I do not know, Mr Deputy Speaker, whether you were present at Prime Minister's Question Time on 3 November last, but I was, and I do not think that I have ever seen the Prime Minister so discomfited. It is to the credit of Liberal Democrat Members that he was. The hon. Member for Southport (Mr Fearn) had drawn Question 2, and this is what he asked:

"The millennium dome ... entails the expenditure of £758 million. Of that, £399 million is from the lottery. How does the Prime Minister square with that the fact that St. Dunstan's, which cares for those who have been blinded in the service of their country, has applied ... for lottery grants and has not received any?"

The Prime Minister replied:

"I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that four-fifths of the lottery stream goes to a host of other lottery causes. I cannot comment on the particular cause to which the hon. Gentleman draws attention."

At that moment, the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr Russell), whom I am delighted to see in his place at this debate, made a timely sedentary intervention. "Make inquiries then," he shouted across the Chamber, stinging the Prime Minister into the following response:

"I am happy to make inquiries, but it is not for me to distribute lottery money. That is done by the relevant organisation." [Official Report, 3 November 1999; Vol. 337, c. 290.]

For once, that was a New Labour promise which was apparently not broken. Within nine days of that exchange in the Chamber, something very interesting happened. The chief fundraiser for St. Dunstan's was invited onto the "You and Yours" programme on Friday 12 November 1999, only to be, as he described it subsequently, raped on radio by John Waite.

I do not know why that person was invited onto the programme at that time in order for it to present a deeply hostile and one­-sided attack on St. Dunstan's, arguing that the charity was far too wealthy and did not need lottery money. That was done, incidentally, in a pre­-recorded slot which the person who was interviewed on the programme was forbidden to hear in advance. I do not know whether that timing was sheer coincidence, or whether it was yet another favour that the BBC was doing for its New Labour friends­­

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): Disgraceful.

Dr Lewis: If they are honest with themselves, hon. Members in all parts of the House will, as my right hon. Friend rightly says, consider that disgraceful.

The charity does not have the money to carry out a roof replacement scheme, which means that its large swimming bath at the main establishment at Ovingdean cannot be used, even though it is both recreational and designed for hydrotherapy. It cannot be used for fear of masonry falling on the people using it. That is a desperate situation, and it is a no­-fault situation. The building is simply suffering from the form of concrete cancer that has affected so many structures put up in the 1960s.

St. Dunstan's also needs specialist bathrooms. There was no chance of getting them without that money, but now the charity is to try again. There is reason for hope. The Charity Commissioners have all along been carefully monitoring the situation, to determine whether St. Dunstan's was too wealthy to go on raising money. They decided some years back that it was, but subsequently realised that the charity did need to go on raising money, once its reserves ran down.

The Charity Commissioners have just agreed that, from 2 March, St. Dunstan's can expand its activities to include those people who were in the Services and have become seriously visually impaired, virtually to the point of blindness, even if that is not directly attributable to being in action. As a condition, the Charity Commissioners said that St. Dunstan's must ring­-fence its existing resources so that only those formerly served by the charity will receive the interest from them. The National Lottery Charities Board therefore has an opportunity to do a U­-turn and make amends belatedly for its previous insensitive and unacceptable refusal.

I want to refer briefly to one more event. On 1 June, the unveiling ceremony of a new national memorial to the 6,000 members of the Fleet Air Arm who laid down their lives in defence of this country will take place in Victoria Embankment Gardens. I know that the House is well aware of the importance of that good cause because I had the privilege of tabling an early-­day motion before Armistice Day last year when I gathered 100 signatures from all parties in 48 hours. It was re-tabled as early­-day motion 16 and it now has 137 signatures.

We all pay routine obeisance to the memories of those who died, but I want to conclude by referring to one of the incidents that involved 13 of those 6,000 people who lost their lives. They are the 13 Swordfish aircrew who lost their lives on 12 February 1942 when 18 airmen in six Swordfish attacked the German battle­-cruiser fleet that was sailing up the English Channel from Brest to the safety of German waters.

The deed is well known but is diminishing in the public perception as time goes by. If pushed, most people could remember that Eugene Esmonde, the leader of the squadron, was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross. On the day before his last flight, he had been invested with the Distinguished Service Order for being the first man to torpedo the Bismarck.

When the aeroplanes went in, the crews knew that they had no chance. Their top speed was just 90 knots, the battle fleet was sailing away from them at 30 knots, and they were easy targets. I conclude with the account by Terence Robertson of what faced the last three aircraft. He writes:

"They crossed the outer screen, approached the inner, losing height. Struggling to fly, bodies in ribbons, wings like skeletons with the struts showing bare and crews who must not only be wounded but dead or dying, they crossed the line of destroyers and met the smoky spumes of water thrown up by the heavy ships' 'water-­spout' barrage .... It is officially presumed that they dropped their torpedoes before the end. In this event it must also be assumed that they came out from that horrible cascade of cordite and water with the mask of death already set on their faces as they followed Eugene Esmonde into the Narrow Sea.

"Neither the three Swordfish nor the nine youngsters who manned them were ever seen again."

We will remember them and the others of the 6,000 on 1 June.