“The provisions of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 prevents the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and the Health and Social Care (HSC) sector in Northern Ireland in providing war veterans with priority over other individuals with respect to healthcare treatment.”

This is recognised as a problem, as far as the implementation of the military covenant in Northern Ireland is concerned. The “Report of the Task Force on the Military Covenant” of September 2010 stated that “Service personnel” based in Northern Ireland

“are disadvantaged more than their contemporaries elsewhere…For example, Service families in the province are prevented from identifying themselves as such due to the security situation. This can cause difficulties for partners in explaining their career history to prospective employers and for Service children in obtaining the necessary support in schools, among other issues.”

The report, in making some recommendations, states:

“One possibility currently under consideration is to extend”

the Northern Ireland aftercare service

“to cover all veterans based in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland”.

We Democratic Unionist Members would be happy to see veterans of the UK armed forces who reside in the Republic of Ireland covered by the aftercare service, so that they get the help they need when they need it. I hope the Minister will give careful consideration to the proposition that the aftercare service should be extended

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to include not only veterans living in Northern Ireland but serving members of the armed forces who live in Northern Ireland and, for whatever reason, may require treatment or access to other services for themselves or their families.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I have received two letters from former southern Irish soldiers who served in the British Army asking that they be given the same rights under the military covenant as their compatriots living within the United Kingdom. I think that is a good idea; it should come almost as part of the package. I entirely endorse what my right hon. Friend says.

Mr Donaldson: I thank my hon. Friend. We both serve on the Defence Committee. I have great respect for his knowledge and understanding of the armed forces—not least because of the time he served in Northern Ireland. I know he is due to come back to the Province in the near future; we will welcome him very warmly indeed.

I have suggested that the Northern Ireland aftercare service should be expanded to provide support to all veterans living in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland who have served with our armed forces and to the service personnel who reside in Northern Ireland and whose families are based there at present.

Another way of addressing the problem of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act and the impediment it provides to the implementation of the military covenant in the part of the United Kingdom that I represent is to consider legislation to grant an exemption to any action taken under section 75 by a Government Department in Northern Ireland pursuant to the implementation of the military covenant. We will want to discuss that further with the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office. We believe it is important that no obstacle should be put in the way of implementing the military covenant. I know that when section 75 was implemented it was never intended to have such a consequence—but it does, so we need to fix the problem.

I know, too, that the Minister, in recent comments to the Welsh Affairs Committee highlighted the particular challenge in Northern Ireland of implementing the community covenant. Some local authorities in Northern Ireland are controlled by Sinn Fein. Unfortunately, too, there seems to be some reticence on the part of the SDLP when it comes to implementation of the military covenant. As hon. Members have said, let us hope that that is loosening up and that people are now beginning to recognise the fact that, ultimately, we are talking about human beings. We are talking about men and women who need help and support, and it should not matter that they wear the uniform of this country. When they need that support, it should be given to them. I should like some Northern Ireland Members to adopt a slightly more humanitarian approach to the issue.

As the Minister pointed out when he gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on 30 October, some local authorities in Northern Ireland seem reluctant to support the full implementation of the covenant. We shall want to discuss with the Government ways in which community covenants can be implemented throughout Northern Ireland without being impeded by certain elements in local government.

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I also think that there is a great need for some kind of respite facility for the armed forces in Northern Ireland. At present, a veteran or current member of the armed forces living in Northern Ireland who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and needs recuperation must go to Hollybush House in Scotland. I should like the Government to work with the military charities, the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association, and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland to find a way of resourcing a respite centre there.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): May I suggest that a respite centre in Northern Ireland might not always be a suitable alternative to Hollybush House? Some members of the Army might feel a certain sensitivity about receiving respite care in Northern Ireland. I was extremely concerned to learn from some of my constituents who are retired servicemen that their opportunities to benefit from recuperation and help at Hollybush House have been reduced because resources are not going into that facility. I should be hugely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman if he would call for increased resources for Hollybush House as well.

Mr Donaldson: I can only echo what the hon. Lady has said. I agree that there should be adequate resources not just for a proposed facility for Northern Ireland, but for other facilities for veterans and members of the Northern Ireland armed forces. I take her point that not all of them would want to receive their respite care in Northern Ireland itself.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The week before last, I had an opportunity to meet a gentleman from Help for Heroes, a charity of which every Member present will be aware. When I mentioned this very issue to him, he said that although the organisation currently made no such provision specifically for Northern Ireland, it was seeking to do so, and I hope that that will be possible in the near future.

Mr Donaldson: I thank my hon. Friend for that information. It is worth noting that the people of Northern Ireland are very generous when it comes to military charities. Year on year, Northern Ireland consistently gives more to the poppy appeal than any other region of the United Kingdom, and Help for Heroes is well supported there. We receive a share of that, and we do not in any way criticise any of the military charities. However, it would be good to see those charities unite with the Government, the RFCA and others in considering what enhanced facilities we might provide in Northern Ireland. That would constitute recognition of the generosity of the people there who support them.

I said earlier that we would meet Ministers to pursue the issues that I have raised. We have already met the Minister for the Armed Forces and we should be happy to meet the Minister of State and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office as well. Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), we have secured a meeting with the Prime Minister early in December, when we will discuss with him matters relating to the implementation of the military covenant in Northern Ireland.

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Her Majesty’s Government have a duty to support the armed forces and the veterans who have served this country so well, and we support them in pursuing the work that they are undertaking in relation to the military covenant. No political obstacle and no political party should get in the way of full implementation of the covenant in every region of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. I commend the motion to the House.

Mr Speaker: I now have to announce the result of the deferred Division on the question relating to the draft Benefit Cap (Housing Benefit) Regulations 2012. The Ayes were 283, and the Noes were 203, so the Ayes have it.

[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]

5.5 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr Mark Francois): I greatly welcome the opportunity to open this important debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. It is a particular pleasure to respond to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson). As he knows, I have taken an interest in Northern Ireland matters down the years. In fact, some years ago I visited Northern Ireland as his guest. We are debating a serious subject, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not mind my telling the House that I also bumped into him in 2009, when I was in Northern Ireland during the European elections. We were each separately with our respective campaign teams when we came around the same corner. As politicians do on these occasions, we exchanged some banter, and one of the right hon. Gentleman’s fellow campaigners described me as a “communist.” I have been called a number of things down the years, but that was a personal first for me. I have happy memories of that trip, and I was determined when I saw this debate coming up to get that quote into Hansard.

Let me begin by saying that we greatly value the contribution that all our armed forces make, and in particular that made by the Irish regiments over the years. The right hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues rightly touched on that. As evidence of this contribution, one statistic stands out. Some 173 Victoria Crosses have been awarded to members of the armed forces who were Irish. That is more than one in eight of all such awards, including the first ever Victoria Cross, which was awarded to Charles Lucas from Scarva—in the constituency of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson)—which he earned while serving as a mate on HMS Hecla in 1854. Following a swift promotion to captain, Charles Lucas eventually retired at the rank of rear-admiral. So that is a not a bad start for the VC.

Continuing this naval theme, I should like to mention HMS Caroline, about which there has been good news following our decision to gift the vessel to the National Museum of the Royal Navy. It has agreed to keep the vessel in Belfast, where it has been berthed since 1924.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): HMS Caroline was built in the Devonport dockyard and it is the last surviving ship from the battle of Jutland, at which my grandfather was a gunnery officer on HMS Valiant. This is incredibly good news, therefore, and I will make sure everybody in Plymouth rejoices.

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Mr Francois: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s grandfather and his service in that epic battle, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for being so fleet of foot with his intervention.

As my hon. Friend has taken a close interest in this ship, he will know that HMS Caroline, a light cruiser, was built in 1914, measures 128 metres and was capable of a top speed of 28.5 knots. She is the last surviving warship of the battle of Jutland and before decommissioning was the second oldest ship in the Royal Navy. Her parts are 85% original—which is more than can be said for some Members of this House—and she is the only vessel in the world from the time of the great war still to have its original engines. A recent National Heritage Memorial Fund grant of £1 million, supplemented by £100,000 from the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, will enable urgent repairs to be carried out on the vessel. We very much hope that she will be open to paying visitors by the centenary of the battle of Jutland in 2016 and, together with the Titanic centre, will be a focus for tourism around Belfast’s great maritime history.

Mr Dodds: The Minister mentioned his previous visits to Northern Ireland. He will be permanently and for ever welcome in Northern Ireland as a result of the good news about HMS Caroline—the Prime Minister announced it but the Minister followed up recently. This has been an excellent example of working together between Whitehall, the Northern Ireland Executive and my colleague Arlene Foster, Belfast city council and the Friends of HMS Caroline. This fantastic news has been warmly welcomed throughout Belfast and Northern Ireland, and we say well done to the Government.

Mr Francois: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I have to report to the House that there has been a leak, because my speech says, “This has been an excellent example of practical co-operation between the Ministry of Defence, the national museum of the Royal Navy and the Northern Ireland Executive.” He also rightly mentioned the friends group. In all seriousness, this is one where everybody got it right. It is proper and appropriate that HMS Caroline remains in Belfast, and I hope to be able to visit her at some point in the near future. So I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words and the spirit in which they are offered.

In more recent times, the contribution of those who served alongside the Army in the former Royal Ulster Constabulary has also been remembered, most notably through the awarding of the George Cross to the RUC. I also pay tribute today to the work of the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation and the Northern Ireland Police Fund, which look after former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and current members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland so well. In the same vein, I should like to pay tribute to the veterans of the Royal Irish Regiment and its home service battalions and the Ulster Defence Regiment. It is for them that the bespoke Royal Irish aftercare service, to which the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) rightly paid tribute, is in operation. Funded by the Ministry of Defence, that important organisation has supported a client population of up to 63,000 veterans in the delivery of psychiatry, physiotherapy and welfare casework. I will

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undertake to look at his suggestion as to whether that service could be extended to other members of the armed forces in Northern Ireland, but I must enter the obvious caveat that that is subject to resource constraints. So we will look at that, but standing at the Dispatch Box this evening I cannot guarantee a positive outcome.

Such proud traditions of service continue right up to the present generation. I, too, should mention the sad death of Corporal Channing Day, who grew up in Northern Ireland and joined the Army in 2005. Corporal Day, who served with 3 Medical Regiment, died alongside Corporal David O’Connor, of 40 Commando, after being injured on patrol in Helmand province on Wednesday 24 October. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) had the privilege of attending her funeral service, which was said to have been the largest that the small church had seen in some 400 years. I pay tribute to Corporal Day and Corporal O’Connor this evening, and in doing so I echo a number of the tributes that have been paid by the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues tonight.

In terms of current operations, I should also like to mention the personnel of 204 field hospital, who are shortly about to deploy from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan to serve as part of the role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion and to provide other medical services to troops in theatre. I recently had the privilege of visiting Camp Bastion and the hospital, and I laid a wreath to commemorate those who had fallen in operations in Afghanistan.

I should now like to turn directly to the armed forces covenant. As the House knows, its key principles are enshrined in law in the Armed Forces Act 2011. I am proud to say that the Government published the covenant in May 2011. In essence, its principles are: that those who serve in the armed forces, whether regular or reserve, and those who have served in the past, and their families should face no disadvantage compared with other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services; and that special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most, such as the injured and the bereaved. The covenant extends to the armed forces community, which is defined as serving personnel, including members of the reserve forces; veterans; and their families. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generous tribute to the reserves as well as to the regulars.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): Will the Minister take time to consider the interaction between the MOD and the Department for Work and Pensions on benefit payments and armed forces compensation scheme payments? The compensation scheme payments invalidate claimants’ eligibility for some DWP payments, which seems very wrong. Special consideration should be given in such circumstances.

Mr Francois: I am aware of the issue and pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his persistence on these and related matters. We had an Adjournment debate recently on a parallel issue, although not exactly the same one. I believe that we are doing what we can to try to solve the problem, but as it is quite technical, as he knows, if he wants to write to me on the specific points I would be happy to look into them and get back to him.

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In common with other legislation, the provisions of the 2011 Act extend to Northern Ireland in the same way as they apply to all other parts of the United Kingdom. Those principles are important because they influence the formation of policy, but there are other sides to the covenant, too. One of those is the community covenant, which seeks to bring together local authorities and other local organisations with members of the armed forces community who live and serve in the area for which they are responsible. To date, more than 200 local authorities across the United Kingdom have signed a community covenant. I am proud to say that in Essex the other day, I signed that covenant on behalf of the Government in my own county, and some 13 local authorities signed one after the other.

We are clear that by forging such relationships the community covenant is starting to have a positive impact on the lives of the armed forces community and on the wider community. For example, in Gateshead the council is making arrangements, among many other measures, to explore opportunities for serving personnel and veterans to access leisure facilities to support their overall health and well-being needs, including their mental health needs.

In Oxfordshire, the county council, by working with the NHS and 145 (South) Brigade, has been able to help resolve problems of access to GPs and dentists for the families of serving personnel. Dental services have also been extended in some areas to address a shortfall and the referral process for primary care services has been made easier.

Also in Oxfordshire, the local authority has arranged for school places to be allocated to service families in advance of the family’s actual move, based on a letter from the relevant unit. That has been a long-standing problem when military units move from one location to another, but I understand that the Department for Education is now encouraging other local authorities to take a similar approach to try to alleviate the difficulty.

In the past, members of the armed forces could also be pushed towards the bottom of local housing waiting lists, as the need to move from base to base often meant they could not prove a local connection to the area in which they wanted to live, but, thanks again to the armed forces covenant, many local councils will now ensure that due consideration is given to service families so that they are not at a disadvantage when applying for a council home. That extends to serving people, families and, importantly, veterans.

One of the chief benefits of the community covenant is quite simply that people are now talking to one another in a way that they never did before. To some degree, we are doing that in the House this evening. Local authorities, which deliver many of the vital services at ground level, are being made aware of the needs of the armed forces community, which they might not have considered fully in the past. At the same time, it is fair to say that service personnel and their families are becoming increasingly aware of what life is like beyond the wire and how they can help their local communities.

As the House knows, the 2011 Act also places an obligation on the Secretary of State for Defence to report annually to Parliament on the state of the armed forces covenant. The first of these statutory reports will

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be published before Christmas and will set out in more detail what the Government are doing to deliver in the key areas that the covenant covers.

I now want to speak about extending the armed forces covenant to Northern Ireland. Hon. and right hon. Members from Northern Ireland will be aware that many of the main areas covered by the covenant, such as housing, health and education, all lie within the devolved field and that these services are provided by Northern Ireland Departments, which are answerable to Northern Ireland Ministers in the Executive, not all of whom currently support this agenda, as the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley intimated.

Northern Ireland Departments and other public authorities also need to give due regard to the statutory obligations placed on them by section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act to promote equality of opportunity in respect of all the functions they perform and the services they provide. Herein, as it were, lies the dilemma. It is not for Westminster to tell Stormont what it must do in respect of the covenant—it is for Northern Ireland Executive Ministers to debate and negotiate and agree how the armed forces covenant should apply in Northern Ireland to the extent permitted by law.

There are some who say that section 75 is a hindrance and should be amended to somehow allow the covenant to be applied. Of course we want to see the armed forces covenant principles applied right across the United Kingdom. However, if the Northern Ireland Executive decide not to proceed with the covenant, that does not justify amending section 75, which is one of the cornerstones in the architecture of the Belfast agreement that was endorsed in referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

I think it is fair to say that Northern Ireland has made great progress since the dark days of the troubles. This month we saw the Taoiseach lay a wreath at the war memorial in Enniskillen following on from the historic wreath layings—both at the garden of remembrance in Dublin and at the Irish war memorial at Islandbridge—by Her Majesty the Queen during her highly successful state visit last year. That, of course, built on the historic joint unveiling in 1998 by Her Majesty and the President of Ireland of the Messines peace tower on the site of the battle of Messines Ridge, to remember the Irish dead of the first world war—also mentioned earlier this evening—and to inaugurate the Island of Ireland peace park.

Mr Donaldson: I understand the point that the Minister is making. However, the Northern Ireland Executive have not decided that it should not proceed with the military covenant and Ministers in their Departments are free to proceed with implementation. It is just that the equality provisions in section 75 sometimes present an obstacle to that. The Northern Ireland Act cannot be amended by the Northern Ireland Assembly; that is a matter for this House. That is why we want to discuss with the Government how we can overcome that obstacle.

Mr Francois: I think what the right hon. Gentleman has said is very reasonable. I hope that some of the acts of remembrance that I was referring to a few minutes ago will inspire those in the Northern Ireland Executive to work together to find a way forward to apply the covenant principles in a practical manner, and I hear what the right hon. Gentleman has said about their

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only being able to do so much. I think that that is something we could all discuss when we meet the Prime Minister next month. If, in that time, the right hon. Gentleman can explore what could be done by the Northern Ireland Executive, I believe that would materially inform that discussion. Then we need to see where we can go from there. I will leave it to the Minister of State to say whether there is any more that he can add to that when he winds up at the end of the debate, but I hope that I am replying to the right hon. Gentleman in the spirit in which he intervened on me.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State has invited me to visit Northern Ireland. I have accepted his invitation to visit in the new year, to see for myself how the covenant operates in practice and whether there are any practical difficulties. I hope that it will also be possible for me to meet personnel from 38 Brigade. I think that, after the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, I am now honour-bound to visit a cadet unit as well; and as my own father served in the Royal Navy, perhaps I might be able to squeeze in a visit to HMS Caroline, too.

In conclusion, we appreciate the complex history of Northern Ireland, and the sensitivities in this area, but we also appreciate the valuable service in our armed forces given to the Crown by so many from Northern Ireland—and indeed the whole of the island of Ireland—over many generations. It is important that we remember that service, and that we do our best for those who have served with such distinction—and for their families—because they have helped to keep us free.

5.24 pm

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The military covenant has to be lauded as a fantastic aim and programme put in place by this Government, with cross-party support. It is a collective demonstration of the desire of representatives here and the people we represent to do far more for our deserving armed forces personnel. From a personal perspective, I know why a military covenant is needed: my grandfather fought for four years in the trenches of Flanders; my now 87-year-old father fought in the Combined Operation Pilotage Parties; and my community was home to Stan Hollis, a company sergeant major in the Green Howards who was the only man to receive a Victoria Cross for action on D-day. The people in my area, like those in many others in the United Kingdom, share those values.

Our villages, communities, towns and cities buy in to the need for the military covenant, and the great partnership working by Government and local authority bodies and the voluntary armed forces charities to achieve its aims has been excellent, but today I want to draw the Government’s attention to anomalies that will undoubtedly affect members of the armed forces to their detriment, and, in some cases, take standards backwards for serving and former armed forces personnel and their families.

In April 2013, thousands of families will have their housing benefit reduced by up to £80 a month because of the new bedroom tax. When I am out in my constituency, meeting residents and asking them about their concerns, that issue is becoming more prevalent. The coalition Government have said that persons classed as “of working age” who have an empty bedroom in their house will lose 14% of the rent value, and 25% if there are two or more spare bedrooms. As a result, some people will have to find more than £1,000 extra a year just to stay in

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their home. Children under 10 are expected to share a room, and children up to 16 are expected to share a room with a same-sex sibling, so a family of four living in a three-bedroom house could still be charged an extra £44 a month even if there are no unoccupied bedrooms. Hundreds of local families will be affected and I could talk at length about them, but that is for another time.

One of the many people to contact me is Alison Huggan from Coulby Newham in Middlesbrough. She has been a tenant of the same housing association for nearly two decades. Why is that relevant to today’s debate? Alison single-handedly brought up her twin boys in her three-bedroom house, which is owned by a local housing association, and both, now 18, are serving as soldiers in the Army. Alison said:

“The Government has made no concessions and have totally disregarded personal circumstances. If the Government forces these changes, when my sons return home after defending our country and serving its people, they will not have a bed to sleep in at their family home. I have spoken to my housing officer about moving to a smaller one-bedroom property, only to be told that they do not have enough one-bedroom properties to meet the need of everyone.”

The problem Alison is facing is shared by people right across my constituency, Teesside and the wider country, and people from all over the East Cleveland area have contacted me about the tax.

What is also highly disappointing is the state of affairs regarding under-25s losing their entitlement to housing benefit. The Government recently decided to disband the 2nd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards, with the proviso that the cap badge, regimental heritage and legacy be maintained, with the strong likelihood of their being adopted for the Territorial Army battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment. Again, that is a separate matter and cannot be debated today, but the issue of redundant troops—the real human cost—has yet to be addressed in relation to housing benefit.

A number of parents, who want to remain anonymous for the sake of their sons and daughters serving in the armed forces, have raised concerns about how the housing benefit changes will affect personnel who leave the armed forces under the age of 25, with very little in the way of savings, and who are looking for housing and benefits after April 2013. They are not from wealthy families and do not have the luxury of the bank of mum and dad to help with a deposit—if, indeed, they have a job to go to that will enable them to maintain future payments. Unemployment in my constituency is always high.

As yet, the status of soon-to-be-former armed forces personnel aged under 25 in relation to housing benefit is still in question, but it has to be said that on Teesside—an area with a high level of local young people serving in the armed forces juxtaposed with some of the highest unemployment and, in particular, youth unemployment in the country, and where some of the poorest wards in the country are to be found—we find it incredibly difficult to accept that recently former armed forces personnel aged under 25 will not have access to housing benefit. That is an obvious anomaly and flies in the face of the guarantees stipulated in the military covenant regarding “special considerations”. I dearly hope that the Minister will take this issue on board and quickly resolve it.

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5.29 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), who has reminded me of something that happened eight or nine years ago when I was fishing in Robin Hood’s bay with my son, who was about 12 at the time. We were surrounded by a gang of lads who were watching us and what we were doing. I turned to them and said, “I imagine you’re joining the Army, aren’t you?” They said, “Not just that, but the Green Howards.” It is a wonderful regiment with wonderful recruits. What a curious decision to disband it.

I pay tribute to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) and to the service of Ulstermen and, indeed, men and women from the Republic in the armed forces. With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I should like to add some comments of my own about the application of the military covenant in my own constituency of Newark.

I will not bore the House, but I spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland. I was a fighting soldier and spent my time in difficult areas. We were not thanked by the individuals there—on the contrary, they shot at us—but when we were outside of those areas, I was struck by the people of Ulster’s warmth and their admiration for and understanding of the military culture. That is not unique, but it is rare in England. I was terribly taken with it. I think that, given the pressures of operations such as those that took place in Iraq and those that continue on the Pakistan border in Afghanistan, we forget today the sorts of pressures that not just my colleagues in the regular Army, but Territorial soldiers and officers and men in the Ulster Defence Regiment, the Royal Irish Regiment, the Royal Ulster Constabulary reserves, the RUC and now the Police Service of Northern Ireland have faced and continue to face on a day-to-day basis.

Clearly, war is difficult. War is hell. It was all very well for a regular soldier such as I to have carried out a six-month or two-year tour in Northern Ireland and to then go home to sunny England, and it is all very well to serve in Afghanistan today—which is clearly immeasurably worse than anything I experienced—but we did not have to face the same sorts of pressures as these brave men and women who often lived cheek by jowl with individuals who were sympathetic to our enemies and who were, therefore, enemies themselves. It was hellishly difficult for those individuals. It imposed a toll and it continues to impose a toll, as the previous debate showed, on those who live in dangerous and difficult circumstances. The toll is not necessarily a physical one, but it is certainly a mental one.

Let us therefore make sure that the brave men and women who have served the Crown in Northern Ireland are looked after properly when their service finishes, and I mean not just soldiers, sailors and airmen, but police officers, prison officers and the whole gamut of those who are proud to wear the Crown on their uniforms.

I am amazed and dismayed by my right hon. Friend’s comments that respite care cannot—I think I am right in saying this—be carried out in Northern Ireland at the moment. That is a terribly important point. The Minister, who understands military affairs extremely well, knows that individuals who have served wish to recover among

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their comrades, if at all possible. With respect, I say to the Minister that if anything can be done for those brave men and women, I would be most grateful. I utterly endorse my right hon. Friend’s comments.

I also admire the conduct of Her Majesty the Queen. I admire it in every way, but particularly admired it during her recent visit to the Republic and what she did there. She laid wreaths not just for our own men who fell as a result of the difficulties in the Republic, but for those many men who fought for His Majesty at the time, as exemplified by the Royal Dublin Fusiliers memorial in Dublin, which is hideously known as “traitors gate” by some and admired by others. Her Majesty showed no prejudice in the way that she respected those dead. I hope that the Taoiseach will accept my invitation, at some stage, to visit the graves of the Sherwood Forester soldiers, from the Sherwood Forester Brigade, who were killed in Dublin in 1916 and who now rest in their native soil of Nottinghamshire. I do not know what the reaction will be; so far, it has not been positive, but in the future I hope it will be.

Moving on to the application of the military covenant in my constituency, I hope that I can suggest one or two things that the Minister might find useful. In 2007, a young man, Lance Corporal Davis of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, lost a leg on operations in Afghanistan. I knew his family slightly, but did not know him at all. I went to see him at hospital in Selly Oak. We thought that he was going to die. Two of his colleagues in the team with which he was patrolling did die. Luckily, Lance Corporal Davis recovered.

That presented a problem in Newark, however. His father was not only having to take two children to school, but having to hold down his job as a lorry driver while his wife lived in Birmingham with their dangerously ill son, whom they thought was going to die. The road haulage company for which Mr Davis worked—which will remain nameless—was desperately unsympathetic to him. He was told that he had used his holiday and his leave, that he had no further opportunity to take time off work and that the mere loss of his son’s leg was no excuse.

In one of the very few moments as a Member of Parliament when I have known that I was 100% right and have operated in a completely uncompromising fashion, I rang the managing director of the firm and asked whether he would like some publicity. He said that he would love some. I asked whether he would like to be on the front of every national daily the following day. He said that he would love to be. I said, “Well, not for the reasons that I am about to outline.” It worked a treat. Mr Davis was helped and he got his time off. He was able to look after not only his other children but his hero son.

That case led us to establish the Newark Patriotic Fund. In the few years since, we have dealt with more than 12 amputees and a number of men and women who have presented—I think that is the word—with all sorts of mental difficulties. The earliest case with which we are dealing is a survivor from the Korean war. I am not here just to plug the Newark Patriotic Fund, although I will mention Mrs Susan Gray and Mrs Karen Grayson, who work tirelessly for it. I commend what it does to other Members. It raises large sums of money, principally to help the families.

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There is a gap in the way that the Government honour the military covenant. It is a gap not of commission but of omission, and the situation is evolving. Some useful precedents were set after the first and second world wars in how we deal with such men. I hope that we will not have many more people with traumatic injuries coming back to the Newark constituency, but we might have. However, we will definitely have a wave of mental illness that presents itself over the next decade or so. We have to look after those men—they are mainly men, although there are one or two women.

I have a suggestion for the Minister, although I appreciate that it would involve expense. I believe that part of the military covenant should be that every soldier, sailor and airman, whether regular, reservist, territorial or whatever they are called in the future, should be offered medical screening on discharge. The medical services could advise on what the interval should be, but I would have thought that it should be about every three years. The individual should be looked at and given a chance to talk. Most people who are discharged are fit, but this would be an extremely useful way to monitor those who are concealing injuries, those who have injuries they do not know about and those who are in the developing stages of mental illness. It would not be cheap or easy to administer, but it might just prevent problems that could be nipped in the bud.

To give an example, I was seen by a doctor in Lincoln about five years ago because of the injuries that I received in Northern Ireland. She said that I not only had the problems with my wounds, but extensive frostbite in my right foot. She said that unless that was put right, I would develop a problem in the future. That is a simple illustration, but unless I had seen that doctor I would not have known about it. If no one had said to me, “Look Colonel Mercer, behave yourself. Own up to what has happened and we can help you.”, life would have been more difficult for me.

John Glen: Given my hon. Friend’s experience, is this more about somebody’s willingness to engage and open up about difficult mental health issues than the availability of screening and services? A physical injury is one thing, but is the real issue the barrier of people not wanting to own up to the fact that there might be a problem?

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful for that helpful intervention. My hon. Friend is absolutely right and he will probably face many cases in his constituency that are similar to those in Newark.

In another plug for the Newark Patriotic Fund—forgive me, Mr Speaker—one thing we find is that those who are without an arm or leg have probably come to terms with that. The groundswell of support and popularity—I do not quite use the word “glamour”, but I hope the House will understand what I mean—helps those individuals to come to terms with their situation. Those who are nursing, hiding or developing mental health problems find that much more difficult to talk about, but we find at our so-called drop-in centre that people are able and willing to talk in the company of other brave men and women who are empathetic and sympathetic.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab) rose

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Patrick Mercer: I give way with pleasure to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr Jones: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I looked at this issue when I was the Minister responsible for veterans, and may I suggest that screening at the point that someone leaves the forces is not the answer? We must ensure that individuals are flagged up so that GPs know they are veterans—the Labour party made a commitment to that, although I am not sure whether the Government have followed it through—and improve their access to mental health services. A lot of the problems that the hon. Gentleman mentions do not present until many years later and would not be picked up. I would prefer the money to go to help people at a later, rather than earlier, stage.

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention but I am obviously not making myself clear because that is exactly my point. There will be awful problems with this. It was difficult enough for us catch up six months later with one regular soldier who had been discharged, and ask him to re-enlist in the Territorial Army because he had disappeared into the system. I understand that this matter is not simple. Care must be provided in five, 10 or 15 years’ time and offered to everyone, as the hon. Gentleman said, not just to those who leave the forces having identified a problem.

Mr Jones: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This could be quite easy but I was frustrated with GPs who wanted to charge for putting an indicator on the QOF—the quality and outcomes framework. That is where money should be spent so that if people present after they have left the armed services, GPs will at least know that they have served in the forces. I am not sure whether the Minister has made any progress on that, but it is an important point and would be a better way to spend money.

Patrick Mercer: Absolutely.

Mr Francois rose

Patrick Mercer: I will, of course, give way to the Minister.

Mr Francois: I have not intervened purely to mention the Newark Patriotic Front—oh look, I appear to have done it. [Hon. Members: “ Fund!”] Forgive me—fund. With regard to the question from the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), the Government are continuing to look at this issue but there is a difficulty concerning patient consent—I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) with his considerable military experience will understand that. The intention in principle is to evolve a system—we are working on it now—so that when an individual leaves the armed forces and registers with a GP, that GP will be informed that the person is a veteran. If the veteran then begins to present symptoms, including mental symptoms, which might be an effect of their service, the GP will hopefully have been informed that the person was a veteran when they moved across.

We already have TRiM—trauma risk management—in which we invite men or women in a unit to look out for each other. If one of them starts to show signs of

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mental problems, the others do not shop them, as it were, but encourage them to speak to higher command to get help.

Patrick Mercer: As the Minister, with his military experience, will know, those systems have been in place informally for many years. I am not pretending that the measures will be simple, cheap or infallible, but if those who are discharged understand them, we stand a better chance of spending to save.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): The last three hon. Members to intervene have mentioned looking after the mental health of soldiers when they return, but since 2009 American soldiers have been screened before going out. Their weaknesses and strengths are measured—their strengths are recognised and their weaknesses are strengthened. When the troops return, they are given therapy, including mindfulness-based therapy, which is cheap and three times more effective than drugs in treating depression and related conditions.

Patrick Mercer: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right, and prompts me to share a very short anecdote. The last time I was in Afghanistan with the grenadier company of my old battalion, the company major told me that every single man in the company had used his weapon and killed or injured. I said, “Are they all right?” He said, “They’re fine, except for the company sniper. He’s killed more than 25 men now, and he’s the one man I really worry about, because he enjoys it too much.” That illustrates the point exactly—that is the sort of thing with which we must cope in future.

I will not detain the House for much longer, but I should like to make one more suggestion to the Minister. My view is that how we looked after serving and discharged personnel—it is now called the military covenant, but it was not called that at the time—was much better after the first world war than after the second world war. I commend not only the various patriotic funds that were set up, but the schemes in various large cities and towns—it was a different economic period—to set up taxi services specifically to be run by, mainly, limbless soldiers. Vehicles were bought and adapted for the men, and areas where veterans taxis would run were specifically designated. The cities and towns included Nottingham, Derby and Middlesbrough. I am not suggesting we replicate that scheme exactly, but other imaginative things can be done to help those men and women to return physically and mentally to their place in society. We could look at that suggestion to everybody’s benefit.

Bob Stewart: One problem with getting rid of regiments and making the infantry and other parts of the Army smaller is that we are losing regimental headquarters. Up till now, the regiment has been the one organisation to keep a proper trace on soldiers until they die. Soldiers are looked after by regimental headquarters, and friends warn when there is a problem. It is very sad, but that is one problem with losing our regimental headquarters.

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend. How on earth can we talk about localism while we are disbanding local regiments? I find that difficult

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to understand. I entirely endorse his point that the regimental structure was as much charitable as tactical, but there we are.

We have heard about the contribution of people from Northern Ireland, which I respect and honour. I would point out that Nottinghamshire—man for man—took more casualties proportionately than any other county in Great Britain in the first world war and won more Victoria Crosses. We should respect our veterans, whether they come from Fermanagh, Derby, Nottingham or London. We must give them exactly the deal they understood they would get when they enlisted. I hope some of my suggestions will be put into practice by the Minister.

5.49 pm

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) and his right hon. and hon. Friends on bringing forward this very important debate. I am pleased that we have some time to debate this issue. It is also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who spoke with great authority from his experience of military life.

The failure to provide adequately for the needs of ex-service people stretches back well over a century, so I shall not make any political points today one way or the other. Kipling wrote of Tommy Atkins giving everything in service and returning to face virtually nothing in return. David Lloyd George, in a momentous speech at the beginning of the last century, poignantly referred to ex-service men returning from war as “broken men”—they mostly were men, then—and deserving of special treatment such as exemption from the payment of national insurance.

How much has changed in the intervening decades, and many conflicts later? The topic we are discussing today is the military covenant—the pledge to the armed forces that we will continue to look after the welfare of veterans after they leave the service. It is evident that the majority of armed forces personnel adjust to civilian life normally after discharge. Despite this, a significant and—alas—growing minority of veterans experience acute social rupture when discharged from active service, becoming homeless, cut off from mainstream welfare services and isolated. Unless they undertake further training or are fortunate enough to have completed relevant training prior to joining the forces, it can be very difficult for veterans to enter further education and/or employment.

If a veteran falls into a downward spiral, it is likely that he—and it is predominantly a male problem—will fall foul of the criminal justice system. Abuse of alcohol and drugs, and mental health problems, often act as catalysts. There is a lot of good work going on—it is not all downs—and next year, one of the main banks will announce a suite of financial services dedicated to ex-service people. I am pleased and proud that I have persuaded the bank to do that. It will be rolled out in Wales first and, if successful, then throughout the UK. One of the problems of people who have been in the forces for a long time is that they understandably get out of the normal money management routine that we all have to deal with every day.

I have campaigned for greater recognition of the welfare needs of veterans over the years and have raised the issue in the House and elsewhere since 2008.

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In 2010, I published a paper entitled “Support for Veterans”, which contained detailed recommendations for increasing the support available to veterans, in particular those who came into contact with the criminal justice system. I chair the veterans in the criminal justice system all-party group, held under the auspices of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group. The group comprises parliamentarians and representatives from criminal justice trade unions and charities, including the National Association of Probation Officers, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Prison Officers Association, the Royal British Legion, SSAFA Forces Help and others.

When our campaign began, very few were raising the issue, but I am glad to see that it has now become a core manifesto commitment for every party. The Armed Forces Act 2006 also enshrined the principles of the covenant in law. Much work has been done—and that is to the Government’s credit—but much remains to be done, and I await the annual report in the coming weeks.

As a matter of urgency, a thorough audit should be completed of the number of ex-service personnel who are in our prison system.

Mr Kevan Jones: We did one.

Mr Llwyd: I am not going to get involved in arguments about figures with the hon. Gentleman. We have tried that before—I do not accept his figures and he does not accept mine. NAPO and various other organisations do accept my figures.

Mr Jones: The right hon. Gentleman is like a broken record. As Minister, I got all the data for all three services, in some cases going back to 1968. The Howard League report accepted those figures. I am sorry that they do not match up with some of the figures that he and others want to keep perpetuating, but I do not know what else I could have done to get those figures or what the Minister could do now.

Mr Llwyd: I was an adviser to the Howard League report. The hon. Gentleman’s scoping exercise did not include women, reservists—

Mr Kevan Jones: That is not true.

Mr Llwyd: Well, that is what the then Minister told the Howard League. It did not include reservists, those under 21 or those who had served in Northern Ireland—that is what the Minister at the time told the inquiry. [Interruption.] That is the evidence that we were given and some of the conclusions we reached.

Mr Jones: Is the right hon. Gentleman really suggesting that to get the 25% figure that he often quotes—

Mr Llwyd: No, I never quoted that.

Mr Jones: Well, I think some of the right hon. Gentleman’s colleagues have. The figure was about 3% or 4% of the prison population. Is he seriously suggesting that he could make another 23% by adding reservists to it?

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Mr Llwyd: I have never said it is 25%: 10% is the highest figure that I have ever canvassed, so I am not getting involved in a sterile figures argument. There are other issues to discuss.

As a matter of urgency, we need to have another look at those who are involved in the system. I became involved in this issue when I was working in courts in north Wales and Cheshire. I noticed that an increasing number of those appearing for very serious offences professed to come from a military background. Thus, I tabled some questions. At the time, in 2008, no information was held centrally. The shadow Minister says that a scoping exercise was thereafter undertaken—fine, I accept that.

Mr Jones: It was not a scoping exercise.

Mr Llwyd: Well, an exercise to determine the figures was then entered into by the Government. I accept that. Whatever the figure is, it is quite substantial—that must be common ground.

I honestly and sincerely believe that more resources should be put into helping veterans with mental health problems. Many people who have served leave the forces without any trauma whatever. However, at present, as I understand it, veterans do not undergo a compulsory mental health assessment prior to leaving the armed forces, except for the more obvious cases that demand it. Because of that, it is difficult to calculate the prevalence of mental health issues most commonly associated with veterans, among them post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a convenient umbrella term, but it is just one complaint. The difficulty with it is that it can become evident within a couple of week or after 12 years.

Mr Jones: If the right hon. Gentleman wants to get the figures, he should read Simon Wessely’s very good study, going back to the first Gulf war and before. It provides the figures for PTSD, which are between 3% and 4%. It is a very good study that is internationally recognised as a groundbreaking work.

Mr Llwyd: That may or may not be the case, but in the United States, for example, the authorities talk about 35%. There is a substantial problem and I hope that we are able to look not just at PTSD—that is just one thing—but traumatic brain injury and other conditions. We have yet to see the scale of the fall-out from the first and second Iraq wars and from Afghanistan. However, I think there is a tendency to focus on PTSD. There are literally dozens of other mental health conditions that can affect personnel, including traumatic brain injury and anxiety-related problems, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and depression. The idiosyncratic needs of the veteran community must be taken into account when providing funding for research and treatment.

A paper recently produced by Dr Ian Palmer of the Medical Assessment Programme of King’s College London reported that, based on the findings of a clinic-based study on a self-selecting group of 150 veterans, veterans involved with the NHS mental health service tended to be middle aged, ex-army and male. That demographic picture reinforces the view that mental health problems can take years to develop—from the time of discharge to up to 12 years later.

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I gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, and, as I understand it, so did the Minister. The impression was given that the problem of alcohol misuse was being addressed, and that it was less of a problem than it had been. According to the report, however, 80% of those in this group had misused alcohol, and one quarter had encountered problems with the law. The barriers to seeking help included pride, guilt, shame and remembrance of lost colleagues. Obsessive compulsive symptoms were prevalent among many of those who reported problems readjusting to civilian life, while those not in a stable relationship were less likely to seek help, reinforcing the view that support from loved ones is vital for returning veterans.

Further research would have to be done, but the results are telling. Most crucially, it is clear that psychological assessments should be made mandatory for all those leaving the forces. The shadow Minister and the Minister talked about GPs flagging up patients who have done military service, but I understand that there might be a problem with data protection. I do not know whether that is right, but it needs to be cleared up. The flagging up is perfectly acceptable and a very good idea, but we need to address the data protection issue, so that we can provide a seamless service.

Mr Francois: There is a problem with data protection and patient consent, but we believe it can be overcome, and work on that is taking place.

I should declare an interest: King’s College London, to which hon. Members have referred several times, was my alma mater. I did my MA in law studies there. It is widely acknowledged that it has great expertise in the field of service mental health, and if it gives the right hon. Gentleman even slight reassurance, let me say that I am going there next week to meet Professor Simon Wessely and others to learn as much about this as I can.

Mr Llwyd: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that intervention, and I am pleased with his comments. I know that a lot of work is being done, but I also know that a lot of work needs to be done, and I accept and appreciate his remarks in the tone they were given.

We need to address the huge dependency on alcohol and other substances that many armed forces personnel develop. Alcohol is frequently treated as a catalyst to unwinding by those on leave, and it can be no coincidence that many veterans leave active service displaying an overdependence on alcohol. Who am I to talk about that? I have never seen the hell they have been through, and one can understand why it occurs. Nevertheless, counselling on substance misuse must be a vital part of decompression.

During passage of the Armed Forces Act 2011, I tabled amendments based on the recommendations of a parliamentary group on veterans in the criminal justice system, as well as those made in the paper published in 2010. I was unfortunately prevented from sitting on the Bill Committee—the only time I have been unsuccessful in applying for a Bill Committee position in my 20 years in Parliament. I am not sure what happened. I was able to make a contribution on Second Reading and Report, however, and progress has now been made. As I stated, the principles of the military covenant are now enshrined

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in law, which is important, but we need to go further and ensure not only that we talk about the covenant but that it is a means of delivery for those who need these vital services.

I am pleased to have taken a brief part in this debate. There is good will among Members of all parties in the House to increase awareness of the problems faced by veterans, and the issue has now become popular with the media. We know, for example, that there are thousands of veterans charities doing fantastic work, but perhaps more could be done to link some of them together, to provide specialist services in some corners and add to the Government services being provided.

Bob Stewart: My worry is that once the Afghanistan campaign has gone in a few years and when these problems really start to present themselves, we will not have the public support that we have now, and we will probably not have the money to help that we have now. Then it will become primarily a Government problem; therefore, the Government have to understand that they must take responsibility for looking after these people until the time they die.

Mr Llwyd: I agree entirely, but there has been a problem historically. For example, I remember that there was a designated centre in north Wales dealing with PTSD that was run by a very experienced clinician called Dr Dafydd Alun Jones. I went to see the then Labour Minister at the MOD and asked whether he could put in a good word to secure funding for people to be treated there. He gave me a wry smile and said, “I sympathise with you, but unfortunately it’s a matter for the Health Department.” Some months later the Minister was transferred, as Secretary of State, to the Department of Health, so I went to see him. I got the same wry smile and words of sympathy: “It’s not my problem, guv. Have a word with either the DWP or the Ministry of Defence.” What that implies to me is that until very recently this matter was never taken as seriously as it warrants.

Mr Kevan Jones indicated dissent.

Mr Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. That may be his view, but I am pleased that this matter is now being taken seriously. The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs is now looking at it and the Welsh Government are doing good work, as are our colleagues and friends in Scotland—for example, in Edinburgh there is a one-stop shop, which again could be a model for all countries in the UK—so at long last stuff is happening.

I want to end on what might be a discordant note, by quoting from a letter I received a couple of weeks ago. It is from a gentleman who served in the armed forces who lives in Barry, in the Vale of Glamorgan, and he says:

“I spent much of my working life as a member of the RAF as an aircraft engineer, completing over twenty years service. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, I suffered a spinal injury that eventually led to the RAF and I going our separate ways after a medical discharge. Some months later the spinal damage worsened and led to my being hospitalised for an emergency operation to remove a damaged disc. However, due to a delay, much of my nervous system was wrecked, although I did manage to gain some mobility…The upshot of all the foregoing trauma was that my mobility was curtailed due to nervous damage and continuous pain. Over the past 17 years my condition has worsened due to

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age, however I can just cope—or I could until recently, when I received a letter from the DWP which informed me that I had to go and play performing monkeys for ATOS.

The question is: ‘What the hell happened to the much trumpeted Covenant between the Armed Forces and the Government?’ And no it cannot just apply to the Army. From personal experience, those on the other side give no heed to the colour of the uniform worn—they will try to kill you anyway. As I understand it the Covenant promises to take care of those injured in the service of this country. Seems from my point of view to be failing big time—not a good thing for those lads and lasses putting their lives on the line in Afghanistan. Has the MoD told them this fact yet?

So what does the future hold for me and mine? Playing performing monkeys for ATOS, whose operatives are, as I understand it, under orders to fail 90% of all those seen. So given that I have a 90% chance of failure, this will mean that I will lose the use of the Motability vehicle that is my only mode of transport, however, now being housebound, I’ll probably not have a house to live in, as the loss of income will put our mortgage in jeopardy. Even so, I would launch an appeal against the ruling which, if the various stories I have heard are true, I will probably win. This has its draw backs as those that have won their hearings are then dragged back by ATOS to undergo the whole process again…as many as four times. Isn’t this illegal under the Disability and Equality Act?”

That confirms what the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) was saying about the DWP, and about the need for extra care when dealing with ex-service personnel. The letter supports what has already been said.

We spend many months training these young men and women to the highest level to prepare them for active duty. Once deployed, they will often witness the kind of horrors that few of us, myself included, could ever comprehend. The least we can do for them is to spend a similar period decompressing them as they approach their discharge, and to ensure that no veteran is left to fend for himself or herself. As the Ministers know, there is a time-honoured maxim in the armed forces: “Leave no man behind.” Unless and until we can make the military covenant fully and positively deliver the necessary services, however, that is precisely what the Government will be doing.

6.10 pm

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I congratulate the Democratic Unionist party on having the foresight to secure this debate on the military covenant. It was perhaps sad that we were unable to discuss the matter immediately before Remembrance Sunday, as it would have been particularly pertinent at that time. The debate nevertheless gives me an opportunity to talk about some of the issues that affect the military in my constituency.

I also want to thank the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) for his announcement about HMS Caroline. That was brilliant news. I would like to ask the DUP and the Executive in Northern Ireland to ensure that representatives from Devonport are invited to see it in Belfast, because it started life in Devonport; that is where it was built. It was one of the last ships to be built there, in 1914.

I pay tribute to those Northern Irish and Irish soldiers, sailors and airmen who have served in our armed forces. I also want to pay tribute to those members of 3 Commando Brigade who died during the troubles in Northern Ireland. We need to recognise them. All too often that has not happened because people were more interested in what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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I welcome this opportunity to talk about the military covenant. A number of things need to be done, and I welcome the fact that the Government will be publishing their first report before Christmas. The issues affect not only the regulars but the reservists. I want to say a little about the reservists, because it is their families who end up bearing an awful lot of the brunt when their husbands or partners—or even their wives—go abroad to serve on operations. I hope that we can have a debate about what we are trying to do for reservists’ families.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): The families do not lack support when the reservists are away; the support received from the regiment is second to none. It is when a reservist is demobilised and returns to civilian life that they feel the most isolated and in need of support. When a regiment comes back from theatre, the individual soldiers have the support mechanism of their comrades and the family of the regiment itself, but the reservists go back to being civilians. They lack having comrades around them who understand what they have been through and the readjustments that they are having to make.

Oliver Colvile: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. That is certainly the line from the Army, but those in the Royal Navy—or, for that matter, the Royal Marines or the Royal Air Force—do not necessarily live on base in the same way, and therefore both regulars and reservists can feel isolated during that process. Those serving in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines do not normally live on base. They are encouraged to buy their own homes. The Government need to look at how we can encourage such people to get on to the property ladder.

The reservist families need a significant amount of support. When I was on Woodbury Common last year on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I came across a Royal Marine—I do not know whether he was a reservist, but I suspect he was—who lived in Aylesbury. He said that when he went home, he experienced some real difficulties. He wanted to talk to his friends about what had happened during his time in Afghanistan, but he found that it was not easy to do so. When he went back to his wife and said, “I have had an interesting time”, she said, “Don’t talk to me about what kind of day you’ve had; I’ve ended up having to answer 300 e-mails.” Perhaps she was working for a Member of Parliament and replying to constituents. He had been under mortar fire for seven or eight hours during the day and found it difficult to talk to her about that, so he went off to find his mates, but they had not been through that experience either, and they also had difficulty understanding what he was talking about. He thus had to go and find his fellow Royal Marines to talk to, as they understood his experiences.

We need to ensure that we set up a chat room for those reservist families so that they are able to talk to each other while their husbands or family members are away. I very much welcome the comments made about TRiM—trauma risk management. We recently had a breakfast here with the Royal Marines, and they talked enormously about it. In Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, we have signed the community covenant, too, which is working incredibly well. Last Friday, we talked quite extensively about how to ensure that people are looked after in respect of housing, for example.

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Mr Francois: I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, but to give all due credit to the Royal Marines, my understanding is that they initially helped to develop the TRiM programme. It was such a success within the brigade and its commandos that it was exported to the rest of the armed forces. It is quite right to pay tribute to the Royal Marines as basically they came up with the programme.

Oliver Colvile: I suspect, if I may say so, that the programme is very good because the Royal Marines is a small unit able to deliver it, but there are many lessons to be learned.

Finally, the Royal Navy in Plymouth and Devonport, with the help of the Prime Minister, is doing an enormous amount of work on dementia, because it understands the impact on a family when personnel are abroad. We have a lot to do, and I would be interested to know when we are going to have the debate.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, especially when he is close to finishing his speech. The issue of the particular needs of servicemen also relates to the provision of sheltered housing for homeless ex-servicemen. Will my hon. Friend reflect on whether we should follow the model, already pioneered in Catterick, of specialist provision for homeless ex-servicemen so that they can relate to each other in a way that might not be possible in other forms of sheltered housing?

Oliver Colvile: My hon. Friend is quite right. One organisation he may wish to talk to is Alabaré, which does a lot of work on homes for ex-servicemen and is very well regarded by the Minister for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan). We have a lot of work to do, and I look forward to the report on the armed forces covenant.

6.18 pm

Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate on our armed forces and the military covenant. Our servicemen and women sacrifice so much in defence of our country, as do their families, and they continue to serve across the world, most notably at present in Afghanistan, putting their lives on the line. Even in recent weeks, some have sadly paid the ultimate sacrifice, including Corporal Channing Day of 3 Medical Regiment, about whom we have already heard. Sadly, she died alongside Corporal David O’Connor of 40 Commando Royal Marines. I understand that Corporal Day was from Newtownards in County Down. She will be terribly missed by her family and by all who knew her. Her death reminds us that no corner of the UK is untouched by terrible sadness and tragedy when our forces pay the ultimate sacrifice.

It is just a matter of days since the nation paused together to remember the fallen. From the thousands of people lining Whitehall to the events in all of our communities, it would appear that the number of people who participate in acts of remembrance is, if anything, rising.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) for reminding us about the Irishmen who served in the first world war. My great-

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grandfather was one of those men—he was a Royal Dublin Fusilier—and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, it is extremely important for us to remember their service as part of the commemorations of the great war.

I welcome the new Minister to his post. I recognise his commitment to our forces, and I appreciate that, as a former reservist, he will have first-hand experience of some of the issues that we are discussing.

We must bear in mind that, at its heart, the armed forces covenant is first and foremost about people. Labour Members worked hard to strengthen the Bill that became the Armed Forces Act 2011. We supported the move to give legislative recognition to the covenant, and we will support the Government in seeking to enshrine it at all levels and in all departments of the public sector and, indeed, extend it further.

Today’s debate is timely, given the forthcoming publication of the Government’s first annual covenant report. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House read with interest the interim report that was published late last year. In my view, however, the Government have already done the easy bit, and the next steps will prove to be the real hard work. There is a small degree of scepticism in the services community about the enshrining of the covenant in legislation, and we must ensure that that is not just warm words, but is backed up by action.

None of us particularly wants to be in opposition, because we cannot do all the things that we would like to do, but being in opposition does not mean that we cannot do anything. I was delighted when, earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) launched the veterans interview programme, which involves a range of companies guaranteeing interviews to veterans with the skills that they seek. As Members will know, a number of different charities and organisations operate veterans employment schemes, and that variety is welcome, because we have not yet got it right.

A large number of service people will be “transitioning” in the coming years, and they will have skills and experience that we should use in business, in public service, in innovation, in problem-solving, in leadership, and in getting the job done. We need a better framework for their transition to civvy street, and we need better routes to work. Unemployment is higher among veterans than in the general population, and that should not be the case.

Earlier this month the Government announced the introduction of a kitemark for companies that support their reservist employees, and I think that it could be extended. That possibility was discussed at a recent event organised by Recruit for Spouses and sponsored by the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry). A kitemark could be awarded to companies that adopt a positive attitude to the employment of veterans, reservists and forces, spouses. If there is to be such a kitemark, it should be a badge of honour, and we should consider how to reward employers who have it. I urge the Government to consider again whether the kitemark could be taken into account in procurement decisions, because we do not agree with them that EU procurement rules would prevent that.

Some veterans, however, must deal with more pressing, urgent issues before they can even think of employment. Some of our veterans are living with extremely serious

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injuries. When we speak of veterans we tend to think of them as older people, but many are not very old at all, and they want to live their lives. We should ensure that if we can remove a hurdle, a worry or a barrier, we do so.

I welcome the guarantees on prosthetics that arose from the review conducted by the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). Now that he is a Minister in the MOD, he will be well placed to ensure that those guarantees are delivered. However, I urge Ministers to consider whether such guarantees could be extended to cover other types of health care provision and treatment. I should welcome any details about progress in relation to mental health services and IVF provision.

The whole point of the armed forces covenant is that no one who has served should be disadvantaged by that service, but I hope that we can also use the umbrella of the covenant to highlight examples of excellence in the way in which the forces community are treated, to raise the bar, and to end the postcode lottery method of decision making. Time and again, I hear about people leaving the forces being sent to the back of the queue for local authority housing. Someone who is leaving the forces—and many are not doing so through choice at the moment—and has been in service accommodation will need to find a new home for his or her family. It should not be the case that no local authority will take responsibility for them, or that they can only apply as homeless, or that they do not have a choice about where they can relocate.

Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): I am sure my hon. Friend will be as happy as I am that most of Scotland is now served by local authorities that are signed up to the community covenant. However, in Scotland that has been hindered by the Scottish Government cuts, which have been handed down to local authorities. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Scottish Government, as well as the UK Government, have a responsibility for supporting local authorities to enact the community covenant and protect our servicemen and women and their families?

Gemma Doyle: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unfortunately, we are continuing to see a patchwork of provision across the UK, and it is to be hoped that we can address that problem through the community covenants.

Over the last couple of months a number of cases have been highlighted in Scotland by the Daily Record. Calum Grant served in Afghanistan and Iraq with the Highlanders. He has been told he is likely to be offered a house in about nine years. Scots Guard Jason Eadie also served in Afghanistan and his son has cerebral palsy. He has been told he will wait for about 15 years for a house.

Unfortunately, the Scottish Government are sitting on their hands. They say they have issued guidance to local authorities and it is now up to them to sort it out. The Scottish Government housing Minister is also the veterans Minister, however, so he can no doubt arrange a meeting with himself to sort out a solution. He has said that

“the housing needs of those who have served in the forces should be considered sympathetically by local authorities. It is the responsibility of”

councils to ensure that families

“have all their options explained.”

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However, knowing what their options are and being listened to sympathetically does not get families a house. It is not good enough to pass the buck to local authorities.

I read the evidence the Defence Minister gave to the Welsh Affairs Committee recently and I am concerned that he may share the Scotland veterans Minister’s view, because he said he wanted veterans to be given “the maximum possible consideration” by local authorities in respect of housing priority. Again, however, consideration does not necessarily get people a house. I say to him and the Scottish housing Minister that we need a framework that all local authorities and housing associations can sign up to. It has to be a framework that is stronger than just giving consideration to, or listening sympathetically to, veterans.

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP) rose

Gemma Doyle: I am very sorry, but I am not going to give way as I am conscious that other Members still want to speak.

Clearly, Northern Ireland faces particular challenges in taking the covenant forward, as Members have made clear today. I hope that a solution can be found.

The British public have given generously over the years, and have supported a vibrant and varied armed forces charitable sector, which not only provides services but pushes all of us in this Chamber to do better by the service community. Its role is invaluable, but it is not a substitute for Government action, and it should not be taken for granted.

The Minister and I attended the recent COBSEO—Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations—annual general meeting. He was in the hot seat, and I was in the cheap seats at the back. I am sure he will recall questions about the fund which has been drawn from bankers’ fines, for which charities have been invited to bid. I welcome that fund, but there were concerns about its administration, in that charities have, perhaps, not been given sufficient notice to make applications. Some guidance on and criteria for applications would be welcome.

Our armed forces consistently go above and beyond the call of duty, making great sacrifices in the defence of our country. We will never be able to thank them enough for what they do. A career in the forces is a career like no other: it asks for so much, not only from those serving, but from their families as well. The covenant challenges all of us to ensure our forces, veterans and forces’ families do not face disadvantage because of their service. They deserve the best from us, and it is the job of all of us to make sure they get it.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. The wind-ups are going to start at 6.40 pm. Three Members remain to speak, so if they take just under four minutes each everybody will get in. If they take interventions, I really should ignore any injury time.

6.29 pm

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): It is not long ago that people taking a stroll around the pubs in Westminster or elsewhere in the country would often

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see posters saying that members of the armed forces were not welcome to drink there. As a country, we have undergone a massive cultural change in our level of appreciation of our armed forces and how we show it. We hope that the armed forces covenant will take things to a new level, and it is tremendously important that this is led by the Government and local authorities.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): On 18 July, Lyndon Chatting-Walters of 9 Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers was blown up in Afghanistan and came home with serious injuries. While he was still very ill and at home having them dealt with, he had to sign a form for compensation, and that is now being used to reduce his compensation package. He is seriously ill, and we need to deal with this situation.

Penny Mordaunt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was going to make five brief points to the Minister about what he should be focusing on as he develops the covenant, and the role of Service Complaints Commissioner was top of the list. It is a unique position. The person has tremendous knowledge and expertise, yet they were not involved in developing the armed forces covenant and they are not involved in the writing of the annual report. It would be tremendously helpful if the Minister could rectify that.

Secondly, I was going to mention the integration between civilian services and services in the armed forces, where health care tops the list of areas that need to be examined. Thirdly, the covenant is really a call to arms. It is a call for good ideas to be brought forward and acted on, so will the Minister ensure that he has enough resources and capacity to be able to examine them and implement them? Fourthly, a lot of money is being put into all kinds of organisations that provide services and support to our armed forces, in part because of the kind of operations we are undertaking at the moment. That might not be the case in the future, so I urge all Departments to take a long-term view of how they plan to upkeep those rehabilitation services when there is less money coming in.

Finally, I ask the Minister to examine the low-level issues as well as the headlines. We have had wonderful, long overdue announcements under the covenant in areas such as education and in vitro fertilisation, but we need to address the downright boring stuff that will make a great difference to men and women in our armed forces, for example, getting their joint personnel administration accounts to work and getting the shower fixed when they are overseas. I urge him to examine those issues and not let up on reforms in that area. I also just wish to say that I am delighted that he is at the helm, and I think that great things can be done under this initiative.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Thank you for your brevity. I call Jim Shannon.

6.32 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say a few words, Mr Deputy Speaker. First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) on bringing

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this matter to the House and on setting the scene clearly for us all. I am proud to stand here today beside my fellow British men and British women to say a big thank you to all those who put their lives, their mental health and their physical health at risk every day.

My constituency was devastated recently by the news of the loss of young Channing Day in Afghanistan. She was a courageous and heroic young lady who gave much. My right hon. Friend and I were both at a dinner in London when we heard the news filtering through that night, and it came as a shock to everyone there. I was shocked to the very pit of my stomach. Many of us were shocked to learn that someone who came from a place not 10 minutes away from my office would never be home in physical body again. The community of Comber turned out in great numbers at the Royal British Legion service on the Saturday before the service that the Minister of State attended in Comber church, and it was a very poignant occasion. All the RBL remembrance services in my area served as a particular reminder, because not too far away was a young lady who gave her life. The Army quickly stepped in to provide the assistance necessary to help the family—to bring them over to receive Channing’s remains when they came home and to come to Comber. The funeral was an occasion of some poignancy and tears for all of us. Those are things that we remember.

Let me make a couple of very quick points. About a month ago, we had a coffee morning in my office for SSAFA—the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—which raised some £3,600. We have raised £14,000 over four years. That is only a drop in the ocean when it comes to what is necessary, but it underlines the fact that a great number of charities, including SSAFA, ABF and the Royal British Legion, are all doing their best to ensure that the opportunities are open to everyone when it comes to ensuring that people have the chance to receive the help that they need.

I am very privileged to come from an area where people join the armed forces—it is not just an exception, but an everyday part of my life. In my office alone, my secretary’s nephew and my researcher’s friend and husband are serving Queen and country. That is three people out of my office and shows the service from the area. I am proud to stand in the Chamber on behalf of the people of my constituency of Strangford and the service they give across the whole world. It is true to say that wherever a person goes in the world, they will find a soldier from Northern Ireland either fighting a battle or cleaning up afterwards. Wherever I have been in the world with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have met soldiers from my constituency who are doing just that—giving a great service across the world.

I have also been an avid supporter of the British Legion’s “Honour the Covenant” campaign, which we should all support. I believe that there have been many changes in how the MOD and the Government treat our returning soldiers. As many Members have said, we need to consider their mental health, but there is also a physical aspect to the question. With growing numbers of injured personnel coming home from Afghanistan, there is an immediate need for a dedicated strategy on care for them and their families. They need to know what they are coming home to and we should be providing that strategy.

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Finally, whenever I meet servicemen, they say to me that they will give all they have if we will take care of those they love back home. We have a responsibility to the families, too, and we should and must act on that. I think of this comment: they offer their tomorrows so that we can have our today. Let us honour that and honour the covenant, and let us enshrine it from these green Benches so that it covers each and every corner of the United Kingdom.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I call Mr Weir, who should finish no later than 6.40 pm.

6.36 pm

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I am glad to be able to make a brief contribution to this important debate. I fully support the motion. I would have preferred it of it had it referred to “nations and regions”, but we will not fall out over that.

Scotland has a long military tradition, of course, and Scottish soldiers, sailors and airmen and women have served and continue to serve with distinction and courage. They are justly proud of their reputation as among the best in the world. They, their families and veterans are an integral part of Scottish society and their local communities. I represent 45 Commando, based in RM Condor by Arbroath. Many personnel have married locally and settled in the area after leaving the service. Recently, the unit raised a lot of funding, much of it locally, to provide the Woodlands memorial garden to commemorate those who have fallen in conflict, from Northern Ireland and the Falklands to Iraq and Afghanistan. It not only remembers them but provides an opportunity for all those who have served to have a quiet place for reflection, as well as providing a place for children to play. It reminds us that not only those who serve but the families are important. Those families are often left behind, worrying about those who are in the services, whether they are in Afghanistan or elsewhere..

Many of the services required by the military covenant are devolved in Scotland, including health, education and housing, and are the responsibility of the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government are committed to the armed forces covenant and to ensuring that no member of the armed services, service family member or veteran in Scotland faces disadvantage when accessing services or support. We have a veterans Minister, Keith Brown, who is a former Royal Marine from 45 Commando who served in the Falklands war. We have published a paper, “Our Commitments”, which sets out the Scottish Government’s support for the armed forces community in Scotland and has been widely welcomed, including by the head of veterans services at the MOD’s service personnel and veterans agency.

I want to address one specific point. I was very disappointed that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) made a ridiculous political attack on housing, because that is an important issue for veterans and servicemen. The Scottish Government have introduced legislation to ensure that service people’s local connections are taken into account when they leave, which is something that Labour never did in its eight years in power although it was Labour that introduced the original legislation. We do not have a stock of housing we can just pull out of a hat and give to anyone

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who comes along—there is a serious difficulty, irrespective of what the covenant says, with the supply of social housing.

Too often in the past, service people have been told that they have no local connection because they have moved around a lot, and their local connection is in an area where perhaps they have not been for many years, as a result of their service. The Scottish Government have ensured that they are treated as having a local connection; they will be considered for social housing. However, there is not enough social housing, because successive Governments—Labour in particular—failed to build social housing when they had the chance. The Scottish Government are now building new social housing to deal with the lack that there has been for so long. I think it is appalling—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. We must begin the wind-ups. Mr Paisley.

6.40 pm

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): This has been a wonderful debate. We have seen a very good response from across the Chamber, and it has provided people from every arc and part of this kingdom with an opportunity to come here and voice the issues that are of concern to them about veterans and their needs, and about how we, as a Parliament and as a nation, should treat them. It really has been a tribute to our armed service personnel. I hope I speak for everyone when I say that it is Parliament expressing the high esteem in which we hold our veterans and our armed service personnel.

Soldiers have been ambassadors for Northern Ireland. As one Member mentioned, when those soldiers who came from the mainland and served in Northern Ireland got to meet the ordinary folk—the people who supported them, the people who welcomed them, the people who knew that they were there to protect their life and their property—they became ambassadors for those people when they returned home to their families. Likewise, soldiers who have travelled from Northern Ireland, who have been recruited in Ulster and worked for the British Army overseas, have been ambassadors for our country, and have told great things about it. Of course, as my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has just recited, many have paid the ultimate sacrifice for being the ambassadors of our nation. It is for that reason that we should do all that we can as a Parliament to help them, and to assist their families, and to ensure that the military covenant is honoured not just in spirit but in the letter of the law in every part of the United Kingdom, not just some parts of it.

When my colleague and right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) opened the debate, he said how such service has affected not just people in the United Kingdom but people in the Republic of the Ireland. We welcome the efforts that were made by the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to establish a memorial garden to the fallen victims of world war one who had volunteered to fight for Crown and country and should have been honoured but were treated so disgracefully.

But what gets me is the fact that before this debate, we had a previous debate, with pious tones about leadership, about what we should do for our country, how we

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should stand up and be together; and as soon as the debate on the military covenant started, I was caught in the breeze as the three SDLP Members were hurtling out of the door so fast they nearly took the hinges off it. I think that is a disgrace. I think they should have been here, and they should have debated this issue and felt comfortable debating this issue. The fact that they made themselves absent makes it all the worse for them, because they have let down many people in Northern Ireland tonight, whom they should have been speaking for and should have been supporting.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley rightly indicated that section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is a great impediment to many of the proposals that we seek to introduce, especially in housing. I would like it if, when a former soldier presents himself or herself to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, he or she would automatically get 200 or 300 points on the list; in other words, they could choose where to live. They will never be able to live in certain parts of Ulster, so they should have the advantage of being given extra points right away to be housed. They do not get that; we need that sorted out. I know that the Minister is listening to that, because we have spoken about it before, and it is crucial.

In addition, the children of a former soldier should be able to get into the right primary school, where the parents know they will be safe. If a person has a roof over their head, and feels that their children are safe and free from fear, that person will be a better person in society. We need to do all we can to bring that about.

I was delighted by the comments by the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). We will give him room, between now and, I think, 12 December, when we meet the Prime Minister, to iron out some of the issues, because he is right: not everyone does support the agenda that we have set before the House tonight. Let us use the time, so that when we get to 12 December we have an agenda that is not only agreed but can be taken forward and implemented. I hope that we can do so.

The Minister mentioned the 170 Victoria Crosses awarded to Irishmen in the service of our country. One hailed from my constituency—Robert Quigg, from Bushmills. He was a brave and gallant man—a shepherd—who laid his life on the line during the battle of the Somme and rescued 16 people, I believe, from no man’s land close to enemy lines. What a gallant soldier and what an inspiration to local people in the community, where he is still hailed with wonder.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) talked about how the Green Howards are being disbanded. He is right to question and challenge that decision, as was the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who highlighted the difficulty for veterans in Northern Ireland who have to live next door to people who would previously have had them on their hit list. He is right to say that, very soon, a wave of such cases will come before us which we as a nation will have to deal with, and deal with appropriately.

The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), with his lovely Welsh lilt, as usual entertained the House with everything from an apt reference to

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David Lloyd George’s speech after the war about the “broken men” to the project he is launching on banking services. I think that is a great idea, and we will watch with interest to see whether there are components that we can pick up and run with, not only in Ulster but in other places, I am sure. The military covenant should be something that emboldens people to be creative and to find opportunities to deliver other services.

I will leave the right hon. Gentleman to his dispute with the former Minister, but I think we all agree that we want more money in the system for our veterans. On that point, the Defence Minister reassured us in an intervention that the data protection and patient consent issue is now nearly sorted out. That is really good progress, because I know that that issue has caused some angst across the House.

I pay tribute to all the right hon. and hon. Members who took the time to come to this House this evening to speak about a subject of national importance, which we are proud to have put on the Order Paper so that our national Parliament could debate it. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), a colleague of mine on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, on his powerful speech. He has shown a keen interest in our servicemen in Northern Ireland.

I end by echoing the words of the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle), who from the Dispatch Box said that no part of the United Kingdom is untouched by the effects of this issue. She got it in one: no part of this kingdom is untouched, whether it be Ulster, Scotland, Wales or the mainland of England. We are not untouched and we must make sure that we respond with valour, with decency and with honour for those people we hold in such high esteem.

6.47 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mike Penning): It is a privilege to wind up the second of this afternoon’s debates. Those who were not here for the first might be quite surprised that a Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office is winding up a debate on the military covenant. I will explain why in a moment, but first I want to say that I think this has been an excellent debate, although it is a shame it deteriorated a little into party politics. I do not think the military covenant should be about that. It is not about how difficult things are in certain parts of the country; how we do it is the most important thing for our veterans.

The reason why a Northern Ireland Minister is replying to the debate is that the Democratic Unionist party, led by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), has used its time this afternoon to discuss the military covenant in relation to Northern Ireland in particular. Perhaps the next time we debate the covenant, we will have a bit more time and be able to discuss the really pressing issues, but I think we can move on.

That 11 speeches were made in the short time allowed for the debate on the military covenant demonstrates the importance of its effects on our constituencies, no matter what part of the United Kingdom we represent. Listening to the debate, I have been proud to hear how representatives of our country who are not from the United Kingdom have also been honoured. I refer in

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particular to those from the Irish Republic. It is important that we recognise the dedication they have shown to Her Majesty’s armed forces.

The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) is not in her place, but in the previous debate she said that she was born in 1971. I joined the Army as a boy soldier in 1974, which makes me feel extremely old. I did my basic training at Pirbright, where the Household Division trained together. Two young lads there were 16 years of age, like me, and from Ireland—one from Belfast, the other from Dublin. They were clearly from a different religious background and culturally they were very different. They were the toughest two soldiers in the whole of that Brigade Squad. One of them went on to become the company sergeant-major of the Irish Guards boys unit. He was from Dublin and I think he served for nearly 22 years. He was as tough as boots and as proud as punch of being an Irishman and from the south. He served his country, just as others do today, in the way that we would expect of any members of our armed forces.

Some of my hon. Friends have drifted away to other duties, but I joined as a junior guardsman and left as a junior guardsman before re-enlisting as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps to try to keep my para pay. That did not last very long, so I left as a private. It was particularly moving for me to attend the funeral of Corporal Channing Day and wear the RAMC tie, which I am also wearing today.

The medics are an amazing group of people. During my time in the military they were developing techniques at great risk, literally on the front line. One of our servicemen had been blown up and a young man did a tracheotomy on him by putting a Bic pen straight into the front of his throat. He knew that, otherwise, that man would die. Our medics were not allowed to do tracheotomies, so he took a huge risk: either that person would die, or he would take the punishment. The guy lived and tracheotomy has moved on, particularly with front-line medics.

When I was a shadow Health Minister, I had the privilege of visiting Camp Bastion and seeing mainly NHS medics working on the front-line as Territorials. Much of the skill in our A and E and major trauma units today is a result of the work of our medics out there. Frankly, any soldier or serviceman from any part of the armed forces anywhere in the world will say that being a battlefield medic, which is what Corporal Day was, is one of the most important jobs and that they need them by their side.

Jim Shannon: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: I would like to make progress, if I may. The hon. Gentleman sat with me at the church. One of the most moving things is that Corporal Day’s father is a veteran of the Royal Pioneer Corps. She desperately wanted to be an engineer, but she was too short and became a battlefield medic instead, and thank goodness that she did.

Jim Shannon: The Minister’s comments are very kind. It was a poignant occasion for us all. Camp Bastion has the best care in the world—it has saved the lives of servicemen who have lost three limbs. Does the Minister agree that that is an indication not just of the good work that our medical services do, but of that of the medics on the field of battle as well?

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Mike Penning: That is a very important intervention. The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), has just whispered in my ear that 98%—I knew that the figure was good—of casualties who go into Camp Bastion field hospital alive come out alive. That is amazing and reflects the poignancy of part of this evening’s debate. People with physical and major trauma injuries are surviving today who would never have survived in the old days—sadly, we would have lost them many years ago. That means that our role when they come home is very important. An awful lot of the injured stay in the armed forces—a lot more than when I served—but many still leave.

Those are the visible signs and we need to do everything we can for them, and the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes and other units and benevolent funds are doing fantastic work. I completely agree that it will be really difficult when we come home from Afghanistan. That is true. When we come home from Afghanistan or from ops, donations to the Legion and Help for Heroes, which started during Iraq and Afghanistan, will drop. That is why it is so important that we get the money in now. The Government can do a lot, but those wonderful charities do an enormous amount of work.

When I was at the Department for Transport, I sat on the military covenant committee chaired by the Prime Minister. I am proud to have been re-appointed to that committee as the Minister of State for Northern Ireland. It is very important that the voice of Northern Ireland is heard on that committee. The Minister for Housing also sits on the committee. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) spoke about housing benefit. We know about that issue and the committee is working on how the benefit structure works. I, too, look forward to seeing the report when it comes out before Christmas.

I will now touch on Northern Ireland and, in particular, the conflicting legislation. Rather than looking at why it is preventing us from doing things for veterans and their families, we should consider how we can move forward. It would be a good idea to consider that between now and the meeting with the Prime Minister on 12 December.

Jim Shannon: It is on the 19th.

Mike Penning: Sorry, the 19th. I expect that it is being moved in my diary as we speak, as I hope to be at the meeting.

My one concern is that we must not be too prescriptive. As the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, a veteran might be living next door to someone who disagrees fundamentally with their serving in the armed forces. It is not as simple as turning up and saying, “I should be rehoused because I am a veteran.” In Northern Ireland, the situation is very difficult. In many cases, we might not want people to know that somebody is ex-service, where they are coming from or where they live, particularly if they come from the nationalist side. I have met many nationalist young people who have served in the armed forces. We have to be really careful not to make the situation worse for them while we are trying to make it better.

Mr Donaldson: I take entirely the point that the Minister is making, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) made it clear that we

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understand it. On the legislation, we are simply trying to create an enabling environment—not something prescriptive—in which we can do the things that we both want to do.

Mike Penning: I agree completely. That is exactly what we need to do. If we can do that, it will be excellent. However, there may still be circumstances in which we need to be very careful about how we proceed.

I raised this issue with the brigadier in charge of 38 (Irish) Brigade at Corporal Day’s funeral, which was the earliest opportunity I had to do so. He said that in the interim, and even afterwards, Members should come to see him or me if they have constituency cases in Northern Ireland of the issues that have been raised. The rapport that the brigadier and his staff have with a lot of local authorities, which can be difficult in this sort of thing, is actually very good. What they say publicly sometimes differs from what they say privately, so we can address many of these issues.

The Defence Minister will write to Members about many other questions that have been raised, but I will deal with one matter of which I am very conscious. I have lots of friends who served in the Falklands. One of my closest friends is Simon Weston, who has done unbelievable things for charity since he suffered his horrific injuries in the Falklands. He tells me all the time that mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder—the percentages do not really matter—rarely show themselves early on, but become apparent later down the line. The difficulty is how we get people to address such problems. Very often, people do not know that they have them. If they do, they often do not want to tell people how they feel because they are very proud people who have served their country. I experienced that when I was in the fire service. I knew many guys who were really struggling with what they had seen over their 15 or 20 years of service. We have to give such people the opportunities to come forward, or have the expertise available for them from the various organisations.

I have to sit down now. This has been an important debate and I am sorry if anybody is disappointed that it was a Northern Ireland Minister who summed up.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House acknowledges the service and sacrifice of the United Kingdom’s armed forces and veterans and supports the full implementation of the military covenant in each region of the United Kingdom.

Business without Debate

Groceries code adjudicator bill [lords] (programme0 (no.2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)).

That the Order of 19 November 2012 (Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows: In paragraph 2 (conclusion of proceedings in Public Bill Committee), for “Thursday 6 December”, substitute “Tuesday 18 December”.—(Nicky Morgan.)

Question agreed to.

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European union documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

EU Co-Financing for Actions in the Field of Asylum and Immigration

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 14123/12, a draft decision of the European Parliament and Council amending decision No. 573/2007/EC, decision No. 575/2007/EC and Council decision 2007/435/EC with a view to increasing the co-financing rate of the European Refugee Fund, the European Return Fund and the European Fund for the Integration of Third Country Nationals as regards certain provisions relating to financial management for certain member states experiencing or threatened with serious financial difficulties with respect to their financial stability; notes that the draft decision would be subject to the UK’s opt-in; notes that the draft decision may increase the ability of certain member states, including Greece, to fully utilise solidarity funds, which have been severely impacted by the ongoing economic crisis; further notes that the Greek-Turkish border is the entry point for more than half of all illegal migrants to the EU, and many of these migrants travel onwards to the UK; agrees that the UK has an interest in seeing an improved response to migratory pressures in Greece, and that the effective use of solidarity funds can play an integral part in this improvement; and supports the Government’s view that this draft proposal would also provide benefit to Ireland with whom the UK has a shared border.—(Nicky Morgan.)

Question agreed to.


Welfare Reform Act

7 pm

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The petition states:

To the House of Commons,

The Petition of members of the National League of the Blind and Disabled and of residents of Teesside,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that the Welfare Reform Act and the abolition of the Disability Living Allowance will adversely affect disabled people, including disabled workers at Ayresome Industries on Teesside. The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to review and reverse welfare reform and cuts to service that disproportionately hit disabled people.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


Emergency Life Support Skills in Schools

7.1 pm

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): In advance of the debate tomorrow, I received a petition from residents of the United Kingdom. The original petition organised by the British Heart Foundation received 124,665 signatures.

The petition states:

The Petition from residents of the United Kingdom,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that knowing how to stop bleeding, open an airway or perform CPR is an essential part of a young person’s education; and the Government should take steps to ensure that there is a new generation of life savers across the UK.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to make emergency life support skills a part of the curriculum to be taught in all schools

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


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0845 Phone Lines (DWP)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Nicky Morgan.)

7.2 pm

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): Some of the most important matters that MPs discuss in Parliament start with concerns that are raised with us by constituents, as is the case with this debate. People are routinely placed on hold for half an hour when calling the local jobcentre, or they are charged £40 in a single month for the cost of calls to Departments, when they simply try to report a change in circumstances. Such bills are run up because, as I established through freedom of information requests and parliamentary answers, the Department for Work and Pensions has 148 separate phone lines all using 0845 numbers that can cost up to 10p per minute from a landline and 41p per minute from mobile phones.

People who need to call those numbers are usually on a fixed, low income. They are elderly, vulnerable or unwell, and they are being charged rip-off rates to sort out problems or simply get information about sickness and disability benefits, carers support, jobs, pensions, child support, and even crisis loans.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the best way would be not to charge at all for such phone lines, which are used by the elderly, single parents, those on low incomes and those in poverty?

John Healey: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for my argument. He is right that thousands of people in his constituency, in mine and in the Minister’s will be affected by those premium-rate lines and the rip-off call charges that people can suffer. The cost of the call takes a big chunk out of already stretched budgets. That can put people off making calls to get the help they need.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

John Healey: I was not aware of the hon. Gentleman’s interest in the debate beforehand, but I will of course give way.

Henry Smith: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He will know from his time as shadow Health Secretary, which was more than a year ago, that phone lines are a problem not only for the Department for Work and Pensions, but for the health service. Contrary to Department of Health advice, many general practitioner services still have 0845 numbers. Surely the solution is to use geographical or 0300 numbers.

John Healey: I am glad I gave way and welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He is right, because guidance was issued in 2009—regulations were put in place in 2010, but they have not been enforced.

If it gives the hon. Gentleman any comfort, I ran a campaign in my local area because GP surgeries in Barnsley and Rotherham were using 0845 numbers for people who wanted access to the surgery. I am happy to say that all 16 of those using the numbers in Barnsley have switched to the landlines that the hon. Gentleman advocates, as have 22 out of the 24 GP centres using the

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numbers in Rotherham. I should tell the Minister, as the hon. Gentleman has, that change is possible and can be done. It requires the will of the Department for Work and Pensions, just as it does the will of the Department of Health and the NHS.

On calls to the Department for Work and Pensions, Mr Roger Clark of Goldthorpe put it to me like this:

“We cannot afford to do this out of our benefits with the cost of gas, electricity, water, food and fuel being so expensive”.

Quite simply, the Department is hitting the people that it is there to help. The situation is getting more serious. Many people now rely on mobiles. One in six people live in homes without landlines. Ninety-two per cent. of adults have a mobile phone, and the number is increasing.

The Secretary of State told me in writing in the summer:

“Jobcentre Plus is subject to the Department’s telephony numbering policy, which is that all calls should be free to our 0800 numbers to claim…State pension…Pension credit…Jobseekers allowance…Employment and support allowance…Emergency payments or crisis loans.”

That is correct, but it is misleading. Those are a small minority of dedicated DWP phone lines. As the Minister confirmed in a parliamentary answer last month, fully 87% of the Department’s phone lines use the 0845 number, including the disability living allowance and attendance allowance helplines; Jobseeker Direct, which helps people to find or make an appointment with Jobcentre Plus; all local jobcentres; Employment Direct, which is used for advertising jobs; the social fund; the winter fuel helpline; and the child maintenance line. The list goes on, and time is limited. In other words, people can pay up to 41p a minute in phone call charges for almost all inquiries to check the progress of applications, to ask for information and advice, to report a mistake or change in circumstances, and to make claims for some benefits and other support payments.

The other day, someone locally who helps others to deal with the problems they face in the benefits and tax credits system said:

“I called the Jobcentre and tax credit office last week for a lady only to find after looking at her itemised”


“bill it had cost her £4.55; and this was only the calls that could be checked as calls under 50p are not itemised.”

She added:

“To someone in this lady’s position as a single mum this is the equivalent of her daily food bill.”

This is not just a problem of call rates. We have an excellent welfare rights service, run by Rotherham district council. Staff there told me of a client this week who needed to check on the progress of her employment and support allowance claim. She has debts, as well as mental health difficulties. The advice worker said that

“she needed a great deal of encouragement from the adviser just to use the phone and she simply couldn’t afford to call the DWP. So she used the office landline, and the length of the two calls was over 30 minutes before she was then told she’d have to call back another time, as all the staff were busy.”

There are almost 8,000 people on jobseeker’s allowance in Barnsley, nearly 9,000 in Rotherham, and more than 45,000 across south Yorkshire. A further 38,000 across south Yorkshire receive income support and 37,000 get incapacity benefit. This is a scandal on a massive scale. The Department’s response to my FOI request showed

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that well over 30 million people call just seven of the DWP’s most commonly used inquiry lines each year—never mind the 141 other lines.

These 0845 numbers are formally called number translation services. The NTS is dialled by a caller and is diverted to its destination. This process can include features such as distributing calls between multiple sites, routeing calls according to the caller’s location and, of course, transmitting recorded announcements. But the key feature of these number translation services is that the call revenue from the customer can be—and normally is—shared between the telecoms company and the organisation receiving the call, the former receiving the access charge component and the latter receiving the service charge or the termination rate as it is known.

The Minister is relatively new to his brief, but the Government have had plenty of notice about the problems with the 0845 numbers. Back in 2006, Ofcom said:

“Ofcom continues to recommend that public bodies should not use NTS numbers exclusively…especially when dealing with people on low incomes or other vulnerable groups. The new 03 country-wide numbers, proposed as part of Ofcom’s Numbering Review, would be well suited to the needs of many public bodies currently using chargeable 08 numbers.”

Those 03 numbers were introduced the following year, and Ofcom recommends the use of these numbers, which provide the same additional functionality as 08 numbers but are priced the same as a geographic numbers and—crucially—have no revenue sharing.

The long-standing campaigner and expert David Hickson and the fair telecoms campaign take the same view—that 03 numbers are

“a perfectly acceptable option for normal engagement between citizens and public bodies”.

I go further, and Ministers make three arguments in response to my challenge. First they say that the DWP will ring people back, but too many constituents tell me that this is not offered and does not happen. The FOI figures I have show that hundreds of thousands of callers each week give up on getting through after being kept on hold and charged. More than one in three calls to the employment and support allowance helpline are abandoned before they are answered, but on average more than five minutes after they have been connected. Callers to the incapacity benefit reassessment line wait nearly 13 minutes without being answered before they hang up.

Secondly, Ministers say that there are customer access phones in most—but not all—jobcentres. Let me again quote from a constituent in Goldthorpe in Dearne who says that

“in my case the jobcentre at Goldthorpe the phone is in the corner where everybody who goes in to the office can overhear your conversations not in a sound proof booth so your conversations cannot be overheard.”

Frankly, people are having to give very private, personal and financial information through these phone lines. It is not acceptable to say, “There are these phones in the Jobcentre Plus office in the public space.”

Thirdly, the Department says that it does not benefit from the premium rate charges that people have to pay to ring it, but someone is making money from these calls. If the Government are not sharing the extra revenue and are letting the telecoms companies keep all

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the extra charges, the 0845 numbers are not just a bad deal for benefits claimants, but for the taxpayer.

Change is possible. I mentioned the changes to GP surgeries and the approach of the Department of Health and the NHS. The Minister might also care to look at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, because it ended a consultation on implementing the consumer rights directive, which was agreed by all member states in the EU last year. This will

“prohibit excessive phone charges for consumers contacting traders about existing contracts.”

In other words, all post-contract customer helplines will have to charge the consumer no more than the basic rate for a telephone call. According to the Department, the intention is

“that traders should not use high charges to deter existing customers with legitimate queries, complaints or cancellation requests from contacting them nor derive revenue benefit from such contacts”.

The parallels are clear; the lessons are clear. I hope the Minister and his colleagues in the DWP will learn those lessons. Because things are poised to get much worse now is the time for him to act. I fear that there could be an explosion of inquiries and problems for people because of the current turmoil in the benefit system at the very time the Government are cutting face-to-face service staff and forcing people to use phones instead. The combination of sudden cuts in benefits payments, delays in decisions and the introduction of universal credit next year could lead to chaos and much higher costs for those making calls.

What should the Minister do? Responsibility for running an efficient and equitable system of benefit support lies with the Government. I see contact centres and phone lines for access as part of the running costs of government. Therefore, there is a strong, principled case for making free the phone access that people need if they are to claim and to continue to receive their benefits, tax credits, pensions or child support. I want the Government to make these changes.

After all, the Department makes calls free with the 0800 numbers for new claims for some benefits. With the Ofcom changes to come in shortly, that will apply to all mobile calls, not just landline calls. As a minimum, all lines for all dealings with the DWP should be switched to 03 numbers, so that the cost is never more than calls to a 01 or a 02 number, and they must be part of any inclusive discount schemes in the same way. These numbers were launched five years ago for Government, public bodies, charities and not-for-profit organisations to use. Ofcom has reserved 0345 numbers for each of the equivalent 0845 numbers, so that the switch could be made with minimum cost and minimum confusion.

Finally, I called this debate to expose the extent of the rip-off rates that many of the poorest, most distressed and highly vulnerable are paying to get the welfare support to which they are entitled. I leave the last words to a local man from Barnsley who said:

“You haven’t the money to pay to phone these numbers, and yet you have to phone them. It’s a poor person’s trap.”

It is unfair and unjustifiable, and it must change.

7.20 pm