VETERANS' AFFAIRS (FRONT BENCH) – 13 July 2005
Dr Julian Lewis: It is great pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), not only on having secured the debate, but on the measured and deeply committed way in which she made her case. She concentrated primarily on mental health provision for Ex-Servicemen, which I also hope to touch on. However, I intend to range a bit further across the spectrum of veterans' affairs to give the Minister a wider choice of things on which to comment and to help us understand the Government's latest thinking.
I am also pleased to agree with much of what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) said. He made an important point about veterans of unpopular wars not receiving the same support as those who participated in wars that enjoyed more jingoistic support at the time. I pay credit to hon. Members from all parties who have, in recent years, shown time and again that they are able to distinguish between their own beliefs about whether a conflict should have been entered into and their unfettered regard for the Servicemen and women who faithfully carry out the orders of the Government of the day to try to bring about a successful resolution to those conflicts, with the minimum number of casualties and with maximum effectiveness.
It is important that we learn something about the mistakes of the past. We all too often pay tribute to people long after the event and regret not doing the things that could have been done to help them at the time while nevertheless proceeding behindhand in trying to deal with the veterans' problems of today. It is no good always saying, "We're sorry for the mistakes we made in the past", if we go on making them in the present.
Later today there will be a ministerial statement on Far East prisoners of war. I understand that the Ombudsman has found against the Government on four counts of maladministration of the compensation scheme. The Ombudsman's report refers in particular to those people who were interned by the Japanese in the Second World War, but were not considered to have a sufficient connection with the United Kingdom to qualify for the compensation agreed in November 2000.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr Andrew Dismore), who set up the all-party group on Far East prisoners of war and internees. When I heard about the forthcoming statement I did a quick search to remind myself of all those occasions on which we spoke and argued for compensation for the veterans who had been so sorely afflicted during those terrible years. The debates in which myself and others participated consisted of statements and question sessions on 9 March 2000, 3 July 2000, 7 November 2000 – when the then Member for Kircaldy, one of the predecessors of the current Minister, announced the scheme – and on 26 November 2001, when the hon. Members for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) asked why the criteria for eligibility for compensation for civilians interned by the Japanese in the Second World War had been changed.
I asked the Minister at the time why he was defending the indefensible and put it to him that if people were British enough to be interned, they were British enough to be compensated for that internment. He replied:
"I regret that that is not the case. I have allowed a sufficient line of consanguinity to take as many people as possible into the net ... a line had to be drawn somewhere, and it was drawn in the correct place." – [Official Report, 26 November 2001; Vol. 375, c. 654.]
Evidently, the Ombudsman disagrees.
We do not wish to keep replaying such mistakes over and over again. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock made a point about so many people who, having faithfully served the country in the Armed Forces, were finding themselves homeless and without adequate support when suffering the flashbacks of the traumas that they experienced while in the Services. Those flashbacks often emerge long after the event.
In part, that reflects the wider issue of the way in which mental health is, in general, treated in this country. There is not the in-patient support that there used to be for people who do not need permanent in-patient residence but who do need periodic in-patient support to keep them on an even keel as a result of a trauma. More needs to be done before Servicemen and women who have seen active service leave the Armed Forces. If the work is done in advance of their departure, it may be much easier to spot people who are at risk of developing mental health problems.
We need to develop schemes to help people who have not been able to get on the property ladder's first rung while serving their country overseas. I know that the Government have been thinking about that. I want to hear how far they have progressed in making it possible for someone who has completed a considerable period as a Serviceman or woman in far-flung parts of the globe to have, when they enter civilian life, a financial basis on which to make a start on acquiring a home that is the base from which they build their future career.
The pensions of members of the Armed Services has been a matter of great controversy and debate for many years. I do not propose to revisit all the arguments about those still suffering from the pensions trough of the 1970s or those who are still in anomalous positions because of post-retirement marriages. The Minister will have been addressing those issues with some concentration since he took up his post relatively recently. I want to hear what he has to offer to put right a situation that is getting easier to put right year by year, if only for the sad reason that fewer and fewer people are still alive to benefit from a rectification of the disadvantages that were incurred so long ago.
I am delighted to be able to congratulate the Government on the work that they have done in recent weeks and months to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The work on the commemoration events in the past week speaks for itself. The Living Museum, which I had the pleasure of visiting, was affected for part of its duration by the terrible events that took place last week. Nevertheless, it saw a high throughput of people making the most of the opportunity to see all that is owed to those who fought and won the fight against a much greater, more pervasive and stronger form of totalitarianism than that faced by our society on a small, though deadly, scale.
I was also pleased with the efforts to educate the wider public by bringing future generations into contact with the memories of the veterans' generations. However, when I went to the "Their Past Your Future" exhibition at the Ministry of Defence, I was surprised to see among the exhibits a claim that the late Lord Cheshire VC, who founded Cheshire Homes and was a leading hero of RAF Bomber Command and an observer at the Nagasaki bombing, had, at the end of his life, joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and campaigned against nuclear weapons. I had the privilege of being in contact with Lord Cheshire during the 1980s. Although he used to go to Japan to pray for the souls of those who died at Nagasaki, he maintained until the end of his life that the bombings were necessary and that the lives of many thousands of allied prisoners of war were saved by a speedy end to the war so that the well-established Japanese plans to murder them could not be put into effect.
David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the title of the debate is Government support for veterans, and I ask him to return to that topic.
Dr Lewis: I am happy to do that, but I believe that that is a veterans issue, because the project's work is about putting the veterans' record before future generations. I was pleased that the Imperial War Museum responded to my inquiry and corrected the record.
It is important that we draw the right lessons when we look back on what the veterans achieved for this country. We should draw the lessons that wars are sometimes fought because of lack of preparedness rather than bellicosity, and that we owe it to the veterans whose memories we have been honouring that their record is not distorted.
The issue of the award of medals involves the Government and veterans. I understand from people who have held ministerial office in the Ministry of Defence that that always takes up a disproportionate amount of Government time. The Government eventually resolved the Suez Canal Zone problem by awarding a General Service Medal to those who had served in that zone in the 1950s and a clasp to those who already had the General Service Medal and who had also served in other zones, but who were entitled to extra recognition. It was possible for that medal to be awarded retrospectively because the record was examined and the decision was taken to make the award in light of the fact that that had not been considered and rejected at the time.
So I have a positive proposal to put to the Minister with regard to the ongoing dispute about the awarding of an Arctic Star or an Arctic clasp in respect of the Russian convoys veterans of World War Two. It has been a long-standing concern of hon. Members in all parties. I have taken the trouble to do a little research in the archives and am grateful to the Cabinet Office Historical Section for allowing me to inspect the records of the Ceremonial Department that established the campaign stars and clasps that were awarded at the end of the Second World War.
I went through those records thoroughly, and I can assure the Minister that nothing in the records that were presented to me suggested that the question of making a separate award of either a campaign star or a clasp was specifically considered and rejected at the time. Therefore, I think that he should investigate further. Perhaps it would be possible to resolve this last outstanding issue from the Second World War campaign medals inventory, by finding out if the same criteria that allowed the Suez Canal Zone issue to be resolved could also be applied to the Arctic convoys.
The veterans' concerned would be content if there were a recognised clasp, such as the clasp that was awarded to those who fought in the Battle of Britain, to be attached to one of the existing campaign stars from World War Two. A solution along those lines would be acceptable. Something that does not come under the category of an official star or clasp would not be acceptable. It would be a sensible and non-controversial way to resolve the matter without opening up a Pandora's box of claims for history to be revisited and for further medals to be awarded for one reason or another. It is sensible that such awards should normally be made as a result of decisions made reasonably soon after the events.
That campaign has been something of a running sore. There has always been the suspicion that that one theatre of war was not properly recognised, primarily because when those decisions were being taken, the Cold War was breaking out. The omission is certainly strange. I put it to the Minister that a resolution is possible.
I should also be grateful if the Minister could advise us on the Government's thinking about the permission being given to veterans to wear medals awarded by other countries as a result of their gratitude for campaigns waged successfully by our Servicemen and women. Recently, there has been a certain amount of correspondence from veterans who were involved in the successful 12-year counter-insurgency campaign in Malaya, or Malaysia as it is now known, and I know that the Government of Malaysia are keen to make an award so that veterans understand that their efforts were fully appreciated and valued by the people of that country. However, I also realise that our Government gave a General Service Medal and an appropriate clasp at the time.
Finally, I congratulate the Government on the Heroes Return Scheme. I know of several people in my constituency who will be taking the opportunity to revisit those theatres where they saw action. In particular, a friend of mine, Mr Eric Spearing, who served on the escort carrier, HMS Speaker – a carrier that has obvious connections with this House – will be going out to the Far East and revisiting those places where he, as a man 6 ft 7 in tall, somehow managed to participate from the very small cockpit of a very small plane operating from a very small aircraft carrier.
The work that the Armed Services do is invaluable, especially at a time like this. We all make the right noises about how wonderful our Servicemen and women are. The Minister, however, has the unenviable task of trying to ensure that they feel the practical benefit of the Government's support, as opposed to the emotional benefit of the country's support. I look forward to hearing what he has to say about the practical measures that they shall take in respect of service conditions, post-service preparations, mental health support and, when one leaves the Armed Forces, the ability to start out with a foot on the first rung of the housing ladder.
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[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Don Touhig): … The MOD has long been committed to ensuring that Service personnel make a smooth transition to civilian life. The Joint Service Housing Advice Office, which was established in 1992, provides tri-Service civilian housing advice to Service personnel. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has raised these issues with me and I will be looking at ways in which we can examine what help, support and encouragement we can give in these circumstances ...
In fairness, I do not think that we play down the issues of veterans' health, support and pensions; we are making the right contribution the current pensions scheme is one of the most valuable available in the United Kingdom. However, we recognise that in certain respects it has fallen behind good practice elsewhere. That is why on 6 April this year we introduced a new scheme, which has implemented a number of major improvements, including an increase in the level of death-in-service benefit from one-and-a- half times pay to four times pay, a 25 per cent. improvement in the value of widows' pensions at full career and the introduction of benefits for unmarried partners … ]
Dr Lewis: Can the Minister say to what extent people have taken up that scheme rather than staying with the previous one?
[Mr Touhig: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that information now. However, I shall look into the matter and write to him and other Members who have attended the debate.
The hon. Member for New Forest, East is right to point out that very often we look back at an issue after a time and think that we should have done something better or different. He focused his initial remarks on the ombudsman's report on the scheme for ex gratia payments to former prisoners of war of the Japanese. As he is aware, I have produced a written statement, to be presented to the House this morning, that responds to the Ombudsman's comments. I do not want to trespass on that until it is available to all Members.
I say simply that the Ombudsman made some criticisms of the Government and said that we should take certain actions. She suggested in particular that we should review the operation of the scheme. I do not think that that makes any sense; there were 29,000 applications for compensation under the scheme, and 24,000 people – or 83 per cent. – have been compensated. I see no purpose in examining the entire operation of the scheme, although I recognise that its announcement and introduction were not well handled. The Government accept that fully.
I am sure that Members are aware of the issues at the time. There was an urgency and enthusiasm to introduce the scheme as quickly as possible. A number of judicial reviews and issues affected the scheme. In the first such review, the judge commented that a scheme introduced in such haste was bound to have problems. I regret that a number of people who at first thought that they would be compensated will not now be compensated, because of the issue of birth link. I sincerely apologise for that. It was wrong and the Government made a mistake. I shall be giving some thought to the Ombudsman's recommendation that I should do more than apologise and consider some tangible response. I shall refer to it in my statement this morning.
The hon. Gentleman made several points about people moving on to the property ladder, and I think that I have covered them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is keen that we should consider the issue, and I shall do what I can. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about veterans' awareness week, which was a great success and showed the determination of our country to recognise the sacrifices and commitment of a generation that kept us free ...
The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of the Arctic veterans and a clasp for them. He said that he had done some research, which is interesting. If he wants to write to me or have a discussion, I shall take his points on board to ascertain whether anything can be done. He also mentioned medals issued to British Service personnel by foreign Governments. That is a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but I shall deal with that procedure in a note to him. I thank him for his comments about the Heroes Return project, which everyone thinks very worthwhile.]
Dr Lewis: I have one last point for the Minister. The Veterans Agency has been a success for the Government. There is some talk about merging it with another organisation, and that is a little worrying. Can the Minister throw light on that?
[Mr Touhig: Yes. There is a proposal that the Veterans Agency should be merged with another part of the Ministry of Defence. I have discussed that with a number of veterans' organisations. I am considering various options and comments. We are consulting on the proposal and I shall make a decision in due course, but I reassure hon. Members that I should not want the excellent work that the Veterans Agency does, through being very focused on veterans and veterans' issues, to be diminished in any way if there were to be a merged organisation. That must be a top priority for any new body that may be set up. I am not in a position to say more now. I am waiting for comments. If any hon. Member who would like information about the proposals wants to contact me, I shall make sure that they are given all the necessary information. ... ]