The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Anna Soubry)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and it has also been a great pleasure to listen to this debate. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing the debate. However, I think we made a bit of a mistake, because really we could have done with a 90-minute Backbench Business debate. If any of my hon. Friends—everyone is now an hon. Friend in this debate—wanted to put that forward, we could exhaust 90 minutes quite easily.
I am grateful for the contributions that have been made and I hope to address all the points raised. As my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will know, my usual rule is that if I do not respond to a particular matter, issue or topic, my officials will address it in writing. Members can be assured that my officials will address all the important points that have been made; I apologise if I do not cover them all.
I start by stating the obvious. We are all grateful for the service of my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke and all those who serve in whatever capacity. We did a survey last year where we looked at why people were joining our armed forces. It was interesting to discover that they did so for the same reasons that people have always joined our armed forces: a sense of adventure and a desire to see new places and experience new things, as well as a recognition of the huge skills that they gain through their service.
We heard mention of Lord Ashcroft’s report. I pay full tribute to the noble Lord for conducting the review on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Lord Ashcroft explored all the difficulties with transitions. It was a very positive report. We know that the overwhelming majority of people have a good experience when they leave service and go into civilian life, but even though the number of people who do not have a good experience may be small, it is nevertheless an important number. The issue affects each and every one of them and their families. We often forget the sacrifices that the families have already made. It is imperative that we ensure that people transit into civilian life as well as they can and that, when they fall on difficult times, we have everything there to support them. We know that the transition does not work out for some people, and it is incumbent on us to do our best for them.
The covenant is, if I may say so, one of the best things that we have achieved in government. We have put it into statute. I accept that it does not have legal force, in that it is not a principle that anyone could take legal action on, but it is very important. I am delighted that it has been signed up to by all the local authorities, apart from those in Northern Ireland. For obvious reasons, there is a difficult situation there, but all the other local authorities on mainland UK have signed up to it. To repeat, it means no disadvantage for anyone who has served or is in service or for their families, and special consideration for those who are bereaved and for those who have been particularly badly injured in service.
We talk about how we are going to enforce the covenant, and my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked about its enforcement. We in the national Government have started to deliver on it, the decision about widow’s pensions being a very good example of that, but it is incumbent on all the local authorities, which have signed up, now to deliver on it.
That does not necessarily cost a lot of money. I pay tribute to the extremely good local initiatives that hon. Members have mentioned in this short debate, because it is at local level that we actually do the work. Yes, there is stuff that Government can do, but it is locally that it is delivered. There is a real role for MPs acting in their local area, as a constituency MP, and a real role for councillors. Let us be honest: there is nothing that a councillor enjoys more. Many councillors do not have the sort of responsibility, the ability to make a difference to their communities, that they want to have. That is perhaps a feature of modern life, but councillors really can start to deliver on the covenant. I do not care which political party they belong to. They should be able to say proudly on their leaflets, “This is what we have achieved as an administration” or “This is what I have achieved as a local councillor in delivering on the covenant.”
That is so important, which is why I will write to every leader and chief executive of every local authority to ask them, “Have you or would you appoint an armed forces champion and then will you test all your policies against the document that you have signed up to?” I think that asking those questions and making them see that they can do something without, as I said, having to spend a lot of money will mean that they willingly take up the challenge.
The Minister talks about speaking directly to all the councils. Given that this comes from Westminster, is that something that she would do for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? I think that it would be important that we did do that.
I intend to write to every single local authority, so that will include all the Welsh and all the Scottish authorities; I see no division there. However, I said, after the hon. Gentleman had to pop out of the Chamber, that I know the situation is different in Northern Ireland. We discussed that at length in the main Chamber. It was an excellent debate, and I look forward to my visit and all that I will learn.
I began this part of my speech by talking about Lord Ashcroft’s report, which looked specifically at the transition to civilian life. I think that I can sum the position up in this way; it is certainly a view that I share. It seems a bit perverse to say to someone on the day that they sign up, “We want you now to start thinking about the day you leave. Plan your service accordingly.” An 18 or 19-year-old will have some difficulty with that, but it is the standard that we seek to set. The view that we take is, “You are great when you sign up. That is obviously the case or we wouldn’t take you on. But by the time you come to leave the service, you will be even better, not only as a human being but because of the skills and the other things that we will give you.”
My youngest boy is joining the military next year—he is hoping to be a paratrooper in the Army —but for more than a year now I have been trying to explain that when he chooses the branch of service, he needs to be thinking already about what he wants to do afterwards and to act accordingly, which is very difficult.
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend has said, as he did in his speech, all the things that I would want to say, so I will not repeat everything; he puts it far better than I can.
I join in the tributes paid by my hon. Friend to the big, national charities. We have talked about SSAFA. That charity is often forgotten, but it is a fabulous charity and does great work. We know the Royal British Legion. I am reminded of a study that it has just done. I am happy to share the results by way of a letter, because I cannot go through all the statistics now. It has done a big survey of veterans, and some of the things in it concern me. I am talking about the rates among veterans of, for example, long-term illness and depression. It says that they are higher, although if we look across the mental health piece, we know that actually our veterans, people coming out of service, do not suffer higher levels of mental health problems than the rest of the population. That does not mean that the issue is not important, but we have to set these things in context, because as the RBL says, there are a number of myths. One is that most people are damaged by their service. That is not true. The majority of our veterans enjoy good mental health, for example. We are told that many are homeless. We have heard the stats; it is only 3%. I know that 3% is still 3% too many, but 3% of London’s homeless population are ex-service personnel.
There is also the issue of the number of veterans in prisons, and I shall deal with some of the very good points made by my friend the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) in his excellent speech. We think that 3% to 7% of prisoners are veterans, but I heard the figures that the hon. Gentleman gave from his extensive experience in his own constituency.
I want to give a quick mention to Help for Heroes. It does a fabulous job, but when I go, as I have gone, to Tedworth House, I can see that it is a place that could take more people. I want us to get into the position whereby someone who is being medically discharged from service has the opportunity to go to Tedworth House, so that it can put them in the very place that the hon. Gentleman wants them to be in before they leave service. I want people, if they do hit troubles, bad times and all the rest of it, to have somewhere to go back to—an organisation to go back to that can then pass them on to a local charity.
The figures that I cited were not actually from the local area. They were from the rehabilitation advisory service, which works closely with the veterans project. The work involves going into prisons and talking to people; it is not just a case of writing to someone and saying, “How many veterans have you had here?” It is good evidence, and we gave it to the Minister’s predecessor.
I am very grateful. I would very much enjoy having a conversation with the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter further. I pay tribute to the work that he does and the knowledge that he has brought to this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked specifically about veterans’ accommodation. There is £40 million of LIBOR funding for that. Nine out of the 16 projects that have been successful have been announced; a further seven will be announced next month by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
There are schemes to support veterans involved in the criminal justice system. I was really interested in the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Blaydon. I have always been resistant to the idea of veterans courts, but he has begun to convince me. Certainly I am going to keep an open mind on it; he has persuaded me to keep my mind open to it. The danger, I am told, is that many of those who have served say, “Why should we be seen as something different or special? We do not need our own court.” My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke addressed that argument. My experience in the Crown court was that when a judge knew that someone was serving or had served, they took that heavily into consideration before deciding whether to pass a custodial sentence, because they recognised the sacrifice and the duty that the individual had performed by serving in one of our armed services.
In the time that remains, I want to deal with the some of the points that have been raised. In particular, I want to talk about mental health, which always comes up, and I know that it concerns so many people in this place and outside it. I give full credit to the charity Forward Assist, which the hon. Member for Blaydon has mentioned and of which, I believe, he is a patron. He brings to the debate insight and understanding. I think that the charity is a good example of how we should deliver on the covenant, namely through local delivery by a good local charity that knows the people who need help and knows how to go and find them. Knowing how to find such people is one of the big problems.
I have confidence, and I hope I am not overstating it, in where we are now. We have heard from the hon. Member for Strangford about Cyprus. We know that in respect of people who were involved in Afghanistan in the theatre of war, our armed forces have really woken up to mental health. As a society, we have woken up to mental health, and much of the stigma has been removed from it. In our armed forces, the rather macho attitude of “We do not talk about these things. Be a man and get on with it,” has given way to a much healthier attitude to mental health. It is seen much more as part of general health. People look after their weight, and they look after their head at the same time. Looking after their mental health is part of being fit for service. We are building resilience and we are encouraging people to talk about mental health. As the hon. Gentleman has identified, people go to Cyprus from Afghanistan, where they go through a period of decompression. They are encouraged to be open and to talk.
It is hugely significant that our former Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Peter Wall, chose to become president of Combat Stress when he retired, even though he had many charities to choose from. That shows that people are no longer afraid, and no longer feel that it is some sort of slight, to talk about mental health. People recognise how important it is that we get it right, and a lot of good work has been done. I am concerned about people—they are mainly men—who served in previous combats, such as Iraq, the Falklands and Northern Ireland, who did not have many of those facilities and do not come from that generation of service. I fear that they have slipped through the net. They may end up in trouble or in a bad place, and they may feel that there is nobody to support or help them.
That is where the fabulous local charities come into play, because they have the ability to scoop up such people at a local level and get them into the right place. In my constituency, there is a fabulous local charity called Forces in the Community, which is looking at schemes with the local police. If the police pick up someone who is drunk, misbehaving, or engaged in low-level crime and they discover that that person is a veteran, they do not go through the normal process of giving the individual a caution. Instead, they look sensibly and intelligently at doing things differently by, for example, placing the individual with an organisation such as Forces in the Community. If, for example, someone has a problem with drugs or drink, if they are homeless or if their marriage is falling to pieces, they are put together with local organisations that can help them. In such a way, we can deliver what we should be delivering for all our veterans.
The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned vaccinations in Iraq, and I will take that issue away and deal with it. Mr Bayley, I think I have enough time to talk quickly about the career transition partnership—
Hugh Bayley (in the Chair)
Two minutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked about the partnership, which offers transition and employment support for up to two years pre-discharge and two years post-discharge. From 1 October next year, the career transition partnership contract will include all service leavers. I hope that that is good news.
I fear that there are all sorts of other questions that I should have answered and matters that I should have dealt with, but I am running out of time. I thank all who have contributed to this debate. As I have said, it could easily have taken up 90 minutes, and probably more, and we should have such a debate. I have certainly learned a lot, and if I have missed anything, I will write to my hon. Friends and cover those points in better detail than I have done.