VETERANS’ AFFAIRS (FRONT BENCH) – 9 June 2004
Dr Julian Lewis: 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 [Ivor Caplin'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 the Member for Aldershot (Gerald 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 the hon. Member for Bolton, West (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. The first concerns a man who died very recently, Lieutenant-Commander Pat Kingsmill. He was the only one of the Swordfish pilots to survive the war out of the six who tried 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.
Mr John Bercow: Excellent woman.
Dr Lewis: 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 II, 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,"
adding in her own inimitable way:
"and 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 [the late Tom Harding] 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",
"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 II?"
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?"
"The sheer size of the battleship."
"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 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!"
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 were 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 I. Now we honour the veterans of World War II. Fortunately, we have not had to honour veterans of World War III. One of the reasons why there was no World War III 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 saddened 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.
Mr Bercow: 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?
Hon. Members: Hear, hear.
Dr Lewis: 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."
Mr Desmond Swayne: Quite right.
Dr Lewis: 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 6 June this year.
Mr Caplin: 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.
Dr Lewis: 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 War. 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:
"Service on the Arctic convoys during the Second World War is covered by the Atlantic Star." – [Official Report, 9 December 2002; Vol. 396, c. 16-17.]
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." – [Official Report, 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.
Mr Julian Brazier: 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?
Dr Lewis: 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.
Mr Robert Wareing: 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 percent were lost? In the Battle of the Atlantic, harsh though it was, fewer than 1 percent of our ships were lost.
Dr Lewis: 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 percent of them could get it.
Mr Tam Dalyell: 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 1 June to receive a medal from the Russian embassy for his service on the Murmansk run but has still had nothing from the British Ministry of Defence. Is not it ironic that the Russians can give him a medal, but apparently our own Government leave him unrecognised?
Dr Lewis: The Father of the House neatly anticipates the point that I was coming to: veterans of the Arctic convoys 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.
Mr Mike Hancock: 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?
Dr Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and –
Mr Caplin indicated dissent.
Dr Lewis: 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 20 May headed, "Blunkett backs medal for the Arctic veterans". It says:
"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'."
It is not often that I agree with the Home Secretary when in the House of Commons, but this is one of those occasions.
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 which 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.
Mr Dalyell: I wonder whether those in the Ministry of Defence involved in the case would at least to talk to Lord Jauncey. He is a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and has spent endless time on the matter. If he cannot be convinced, how on earth can the Ministry of Defence express these certainties?
Dr Lewis: 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.
Mr Robert Key: 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.
Dr Lewis: 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.
Mr John McWilliam: The hon. Gentleman is probably not aware that the Minister from his party who dealt with the matter at the time stood up in Westminster Hall some 18 months ago and admitted that he now felt that he had been wrong.
Dr Lewis: 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 the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr Peter 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.
Mr Caplin: 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.
Dr Lewis: That answer gets one-and-a-half out of two.
Mr Luff: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Dr Lewis: I certainly will.
Mr Luff: 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.
Dr Lewis: 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." – [Official Report, 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.
Mr Brazier: 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.
Dr Lewis: 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 the Member for Canterbury (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.
Mr Caplin: 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.
Dr Lewis: 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.
Mr Kevan Jones: 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.
Dr Lewis: I am new to this subject and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. It goes back to the issue raised earlier about the where the burden of proof should lie –
Mr Brazier indicated assent.
Mr Kevan Jones indicated assent.
Dr Lewis: I see that the hon. Gentleman agrees, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury.
Mr Caplin: 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 the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) is a distinguished member, on 5 November last year, I made it clear that in the event of failed record keeping in relation to pensions or compensation the Ministry of Defence would accept its responsibilities. We have learned the lessons of the failure of record keeping in the early 1990s and it is much better today. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) is welcome to visit Chilwell to see the mobilisation process and the record-keeping for himself.
Dr Lewis: 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.
Jim Sheridan: 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.
Dr Lewis: 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 II. 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 5 July 1941, they were en route for West Africa when a submarine managed to penetrate the escorting screen of destroyers and torpedoed the troopship.
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.