The London Libraries Development Agency was an example of that being done successfully. It was founded in 2000 with one key aim: to develop and implement a co-ordinated strategic vision for library and information services across London. It was born from a recognition that the 400 public libraries, 30 mobile libraries, 1,500 service points, 17 million books and 2 million other items were

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one of London’s unsung success stories. That amazing asset resulted in 50.5 million visits each year, 42 million loans and 10 million inquiries, at a cost of just £23 per head.

It was equally clear that, although each of the 33 boroughs gave a distinct emphasis to their services, they all had much in common and were potentially much stronger together than apart. Council staff, of many different political persuasions, recognised that the sum should be greater than the parts and that, when they worked together, they could add real value to the libraries in their borough. That led to the creation of the first library development agency for the capital.

There is now a clear need for a bigger, more co-ordinated, more passionate voice for libraries at a national level, to provide strategic leadership and advocacy across Government for public libraries. We need a clearer sense of who will drive a workable vision of the sector’s future. I envisage an agency dedicated solely to libraries—one that will be lean, but not emaciated, and action-focused, with a mission to make a real difference to front-line services and the millions who use them. That needs to be absolutely rooted in delivery—always.

Established within the DCMS, the responsibilities of such an agency could include actively sharing best practice in and beyond the sector to maximise impact and make the best use of resources at every opportunity; driving efficiencies and saving as much money as possible to be spent on front-line services; pushing a national offer of actions for the years ahead so that everyone is clear about what the focus and direction should be; commissioning public, not-for-profit and private sector bodies to deliver on specific outcomes that secure a core national offer and drive innovation; advocating the case for public libraries across Government, reaching out beyond the DCMS and delivering on a co-ordinated, prioritised set of key actions; advising the Minister of State responsible for public libraries to successfully discharge his or her legal responsibilities; and reporting to the Secretary of State annually on the state of the public library network, highlighting best practice, identifying opportunities and noting areas of concern.

I urge the Minister, who is not a bad man, to take action now. He should make it his legacy. He should give us a commitment to produce a further report—actually, no, please do not give us a commitment on that, because I do not want to see any more round tables and circular arguments that go nowhere. We do not want empty pledges, and nor do the library sector and library users. We want the Minister to act with clarity, vision and determination.

When the Minister responds, I hope he will address the issues I have raised and those that my hon. Friends will raise. I hope he will recognise the need for greater leadership and clarity on an issue that, I am sure he will agree, is of great national importance.

3.17 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) on securing the debate and, much more importantly, on making a really excellent speech, a first-class speech, a committed speech, an informed speech, a knowledgeable speech—possibly a speech that was written in a library. She knows a lot about libraries;

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she was involved with them when she was in local government in London, and it showed. She would make a fantastic Minister for Libraries—if it was not for the fact that I will be in that role if the Labour party wins the next election.

My hon. Friend pointed to the value of public libraries, and she was absolutely right to do so. Libraries are trusted by the public. They are not just places for learning, but community meeting places, where young people go to find information about jobs, children without computers can do their homework and grannies meet for knitting circles. Last week, BBC 6 even announced it would be broadcasting programmes from a series of Manchester libraries to celebrate libraries’ role in inspiring musicians.

However, as my hon. Friend set out, libraries are under extreme financial pressure. Over this Parliament, there will be a 40% cut in central Government funding to local authorities. That means that local authorities are making difficult decisions, often resulting in library closures, cuts to opening hours and staff, and the transfer of libraries to the control of voluntary groups.

Mr Vaizey: Given the hon. Lady’s statement about a 40% cut to local authorities, will she enlighten us as to what a future Labour Government would do in terms of restoring those cuts?

Helen Goodman: I am happy to do that, although I was going to come to that at the end of my speech. Resources are clearly one of the most important problems. The worst thing about what the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government have done is take out the needs element from the local authority funding formula. That means that in Surrey, Berkshire and Dorset the local authorities have received 1% increases in their resources, whereas in Durham, Liverpool and Hackney, the places where council services and libraries are most needed, the cuts are the biggest. A Labour Government would rejig the formula within the overall envelope, to take the pressure off the hardest pressed local authorities.

Mr Steve Reed: Is my hon. Friend familiar with the way Croydon and Wandsworth councils, which were at the time both run by the Conservatives, attempted to secure value from their libraries by putting them all out for tender jointly? Wandsworth chose the best value bid in the tender operation. Croydon chose the worst value bid, and happened to go with a firm of builders with which it had a £450 million property development joint venture. Will my hon. Friend comment on that example of Conservative values?

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend has set out something that is of extreme concern to the people of Croydon. I wonder whether what the council did was legal. To issue consultation, ignore it and then take into account completely different factors does not seem to me to hold water.

In Lincolnshire a Tory local authority decided that it wanted to close three quarters of the libraries. It is very different from Croydon—a large rural area needing a totally different library service. A consultation was held, which was so inadequate that local library campaigners took the council to the High Court and won. It had not

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been properly carried out and the council must now do it all again. Would not it have been better to carry it out properly in the first place? That is what we think. It is similar to the Croydon case and shows that local authorities must take their responsibilities seriously, which is not happening at the moment. The Minister does not provide the leadership that he should.

Mr Vaizey: My recollection is that Brent also lost a judicial review for carrying out an inadequate consultation. Does the hon. Lady not undermine her argument by being so partisan and focusing only on Conservative councils? Surely she should also hold Labour authorities to account.

Helen Goodman: The point I was making about cuts to local authority grant, which were overseen by the Secretary of State, is that the Tory-led coalition made the funding decisions that were imposed on Labour and Tory councils around the country. There were unfortunate results in local authorities led by Labour, the Tories and presumably the Liberals as well. The problem was driven by the unfortunate way in which the Secretary of State carried out, or failed to carry out, his responsibilities.

The Minister is a cultivated man who reads books and may even have visited a library on occasion. The problem is that he has failed to persuade his colleagues in other Departments of the significance of the cultural life of the nation. For the country to have a good cultural life, all the Departments must work together. We need the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government to be on board. We need them all to understand; we even need the Ministry of Justice to understand that it is a good idea if prisoners can read books.

Lyn Brown: I agree with everything my hon. Friend is saying and welcome her passion for the sector. The Government are also missing a trick on the economic development role that libraries can play in their communities. It is not only the obvious Departments that should be involved. All Departments would benefit from understanding libraries’ community role.

Helen Goodman: Once again, a colleague has anticipated what I was going to say. My hon. Friend is right.

There seems to be quite a lot of confusion regarding numbers. The Minister says that he produces an annual report. We have figures from the trade unions and from the Carnegie UK Trust. I do not want to debate statistics, but it is clear that library provision is down, and that is not helpful to many communities.

Mr Reed: Will my hon. Friend consider visiting the Upper Norwood joint library, which will be opening five days a week instead of just three because the newly elected Labour administration in Croydon has reinstated £50,000 of the funding that was cut by the previous Conservative administration?

Helen Goodman: I am very pleased to hear what is happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency and congratulate the Labour local authority responsible.

Despite the unhappy austerity that libraries face, there is a growing consensus about the role of libraries in modern Britain. The professional bodies have done a

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lot of work on that. The Society of Chief Librarians feels that every library should offer four things. The first, obviously, is books and reading; the second is information; the third is action to facilitate digital inclusion; and the fourth is health and well-being. I have sparred with the Minister on several occasions about the need for more Government action on digital inclusion, and the Government’s failures on broadband, and there is no need to go over it all again today. Suffice it to say that 5 million households are not online, and 11 million people lack basic online skills. Digital exclusion is a problem for many groups of people—not just old people, but also young people and, particularly, people on low incomes. Under the previous Government we had the People’s Network. A massive investment was rolled out through the library service. The present Government do next to nothing on digital inclusion. I have urged the Minister more than once to switch £75 million from his failing SuperConnected Cities programme into digital inclusion. I further urge that the best location for that would be in the public library service, which would give a boost to the libraries and to digital inclusion.

The geographical aspect of access also matters. It was fantastic that campaigners in Lincolnshire won some of their points in the High Court. It goes to show how, when a determined group of local people put their mind to it, they can achieve things for their community. It is not acceptable that people in a rural area should have to travel for more than an hour to reach a public library. I do not know why the Minister did not intervene, but I know why one of the professional bodies has passed a vote of no confidence in him, given that he has not intervened in any of the places in question.

Mr Vaizey: Which local authority would the hon. Lady like me to intervene in?

Helen Goodman: Lincolnshire would have been a good start.

We also need to consider where mobile provision would be most effective. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham set out very well how such provision has been reduced, which is very significant. The mobile provision in my constituency is extremely valued by some people.

Governance is another issue that needs attention. When I have talked to councillors involved in library provision, and to the professional bodies, they have praised standards in Wales. We should perhaps go back and borrow from the Welsh model for our system. The Government seem to be taking a completely laissez-faire approach. The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 requires local authorities to have a comprehensive and efficient service, but the Government have not fleshed that out in any way or form. At one point the last Labour Government had 24 indicators, and I agree that we do not need to be quite so bureaucratic, but we do need to think about the key measures for a good library service so that we do not have a postcode lottery.

My hon. Friend raised the important matter of professional leadership, and she made a good point. The Government got rid of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, and I do not know whether the Minister has completed the abolition of the Advisory Council on Libraries or whether he is just in the process of doing so.

Mr Vaizey: In the process.

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Helen Goodman: I have no doubt that the Arts Council is doing its best, but its best is clearly not good enough. Arts Council staff are not professionals in this area. A part-time professional is working on it, but one part-time professional for a national network of public libraries is not nearly sufficient. The different stakeholder groups are not being brought together at the moment. The Society of Chief Librarians, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, the trade unions and the British Library all have a role to play in helping to share good practice, develop the library service and advise the Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham made a very good suggestion, and it is one that I will seriously consider.

To achieve those things we might need to update the 1964 Act, which is so brief that it lacks the teeth necessary for a proper library service. The most important thing is that libraries remain a statutory duty of the local authorities. Although it is great to have volunteers helping in libraries, particularly in certain communities or where libraries are extremely uneconomic, it is obvious that we cannot hand over a whole library service to a voluntary group. The problem is, first, that there is a big skills gap and, secondly, that there will be initial enthusiasm for such ventures—there is often initial enthusiasm for such things—but we need a professional library service that is well managed in the medium term.

It is important to have professional librarians in every library authority. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I worked for a charity called the National Association of Toy and Leisure Libraries. We ran children’s groups in libraries, which was great. Mums and toddlers would turn up and, as well as having story time and the chance to share books, there would be an opportunity to borrow toys and engage in different kinds of play, which helped mothers and babies to learn together. All that is fine, and some of that work is well done, and perhaps better done, by volunteers who are in tune with the people coming into the library. However, stock control and purchasing policy are professional jobs: we need to have professional librarians on whom volunteers can depend—that is key. We need to make it clear that there is a good role for volunteers and a good role for staff, but we need to distinguish those roles and have clearer guidelines and a code of conduct so that we do not jumble them up.

I have spoken about resources and what we would do. It is also clear that back-office functions can sometimes be shared between library services in different local authorities. I understand that people who have looked into this in detail think there is still scope for more savings from such sharing. Despite the fact that libraries face tough times, we must assert that libraries are not about the past—they are about the future. We want a successful, modern economy, and the modern economy is knowledge-based. Where better to build that modern economy than the library?

3.35 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Bayley. I apologise profusely for the number of interventions that I made during the excellent speech by the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown)—it is brilliant that she has secured this debate. I also apologise

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for intervening on the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), but it is probably clear that I feel, to a certain extent, that much of the Opposition’s position on public libraries, and indeed on my role as a Minister, is somewhat distorted, if I may put it that way. I would not accuse either hon. Lady of doing that themselves, but four and a half years of pent up frustration may be apparent because this is the first real debate on libraries in this Parliament. Given the importance that the Opposition spokesman attaches to libraries, it is surprising that there has been no official Opposition debate on this subject. There was a debate on arts and culture two or three years ago, and I look forward to her using her influence to call an Opposition debate in the main Chamber so that we can properly debate libraries.

Although both speeches were excellent, another element that added to my frustration is that the only library authorities to be criticised were Conservative-controlled. If someone made it back in Philae from the comet that is spinning hundreds of millions of miles away from us and landed in this debate, they would think that everything was perfect both under Labour authorities and under the previous Labour Government. It may surprise people to learn that libraries did close under the last Government, and that many Labour local authorities have closed libraries over the past four years.

The main reason for my receiving criticism is because it is alleged that I have not used my power under the 1964 Act, an Act that is 50 years old, to intervene and order an inquiry into some of the closures that have been announced over the past four and a half years. It is important to put that in context. The power has been used only once in the 50 years that the Act has been active—it was used in 2009 by the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), to intervene on Wirral metropolitan borough council’s proposed closure of half its libraries.

I was then the Opposition spokesman, and I came off the fence to give my views on the Wirral. In fact, there were two causes célèbres at the time: there were the Wirral library closures and the proposed closure of the Old Town library in Swindon, of which my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) will be aware. I visited both local authorities and listened to the case of both local councils. It transpired that although Old Town library was closed, it was moved to the museum next door and is now more popular than it was in its previous location. I made it plain that I thought there should be an inquiry on the Wirral, and eventually there was. It is interesting that the Opposition spokesman has not called for a single inquiry into any local authority closures except, most recently, in Lincolnshire, which happens to be Conservative-controlled.

Helen Goodman: The Minister is slightly over-egging the pudding. There is a difference between what he has done and what I have done. When I went to Lincolnshire to meet the Lincoln library campaign, I did not sit on the fence; I jumped on a wall to make a speech. Apart from that, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport about libraries before the summer recess, so I am not coming late to this; I did this months ago. I am sorry if the Minister did not know about that.

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Mr Vaizey: The hon. Lady points out that she did that in the summer of 2014. The first local authority to propose significant closures was Brent, a Labour-controlled authority that proposed to close half its libraries. Were I a man of a partisan nature, it might be expected that, as a Conservative Minister in a new Government, that would have been a political gift. I could have called a public inquiry into that Labour-controlled authority to embarrass the Opposition. However, from the get-go I made two decisions. First, I decided that my officials would investigate every council proposing to close libraries. Secondly, I decided that I would accept my officials’ advice about whether the proposed closures breached the “comprehensive and efficient” test. In one sense, my job as a politician was made more difficult, but my job as a Minister was made easier.

Lyn Brown: One of the concerns that library campaigners have raised with me is that the Minister no longer has a library adviser in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—somebody who has come up through the ranks and understands the library service inside out and can advise him properly. That role no longer exists. I genuinely do not know the answer to this question, but I wonder whether the Minister can help us.

Mr Vaizey: I have a team of officials who have a great deal of experience of working with the library sector. They are able to seek advice where they deem it appropriate.

Lyn Brown: One of the problems that library campaigners have pointed out to me is that there is no longer a library adviser at the DCMS. The Minister has got rid of, or is in the process of getting rid of, the Advisory Council on Libraries, so he no longer has knowledge or professional advice that he can rely on when he takes action as Minister of State.

Mr Vaizey: First, as far as I am aware, the Advisory Council on Libraries was never used by the previous Government to investigate library closures. Secondly, the previous Government did not, as a matter of course, investigate library closures. I changed the policy when I became a Minister to ensure that we investigate every council that is closing libraries, and we took detailed evidence from those councils.

Before the hon. Lady’s two interventions, I said that my job as a politician was made more difficult but my job as a Minister was made easier because after the Wirral inquiry, Sue Charteris, who undertook the inquiry, set out a detailed analysis of what a library authority should do if it is contemplating changing its library service. My problem with the Wirral closures is that there was simply a review of infrastructure and buildings, not a review of the library service. Since the Wirral inquiry, every local authority that we have investigated has conducted a detailed analysis of its library service before proposing closures.

Lyn Brown: Some have lost in the High Court.

Mr Vaizey: It is true that Brent lost in the High Court, but the courts have never overruled a council’s decision on the basis that it was breaching the “comprehensive and efficient” test. They have mainly called out councils

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on their consultation processes—most notably on the basis of the Equality Act 2010, which is a relatively new piece of legislation.

It is important that I sum up the first part of my defence, as it were. We investigate every local authority that is closing libraries, and I take the advice of my officials. The power to review closures has been used once in 50 years, and so far I have not found a breach of the “comprehensive and efficient” test.

Lyn Brown: The Minister is being customarily generous in giving way. When will he publish his response to the Sieghart report?

Mr Vaizey: We intend to publish the Sieghart report and our response to it in the next few weeks. As the hon. Lady will know, getting a slot in the Government grid is sometimes difficult, but we have worked closely with William Sieghart, and I will talk about that at the conclusion of my remarks.

My difficulty with the Opposition is that numerous libraries have been closed by Labour councils. There has been no official Opposition debate on library closures and there is, as far as I am aware, no official Opposition library policy. Apart from Lincolnshire—one can draw one’s own conclusions about why the hon. Lady called for an inquiry into Lincolnshire’s proposed closures—the Opposition have not called for me to investigate any other library closures. Indeed, when it was rumoured that I might intervene in the Sheffield closures, the local Labour MP said that any intervention by me would be “breathtaking cheek”. That goes back to a fundamental point that we can debate endlessly.

In 2009, the hon. Lady produced a brilliant report on libraries under the auspices of the all-party group on libraries, literacy and information management. It is worth remembering that there were debates on the viability and future of the library service under the previous Government. The report recommended that local authorities should continue to carry responsibility and accountability for the provision of public library services in their area.

Libraries are a local authority service, and when a Labour MP told me that I would be acting with “breathtaking cheek” if I were to intervene, he put his finger on the dilemma. Quite a few local authorities have called for the statutory provision and the power for the Minister to intervene to be removed. When the previous Government consulted on library policy, they included that as a possibility. Libraries are a service that has always been paid for and run by local authorities.

Lyn Brown: And I do not want to change that one iota. Libraries must be seated at the heart of their communities, so they must be the responsibility of the local authority. The Minister is failing to understand the thrust of the 2009 report, which called for national leadership to enable councils to work together to get the best out of our library service and to make it fit for the century we live in. Providing wi-fi in our libraries is a minimum. Understanding what libraries can mean to the cultural and economic development of our communities is a must. The Minister does himself a disservice by refusing to address the central thrust of our argument, which is that the Government have failed to take leadership on the crisis in our libraries and our communities.

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Mr Vaizey: I reject that accusation, because when the hon. Lady says that the Government have failed to take leadership she is effectively saying that I have failed to take leadership.

At the end of last year, we published our first report under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, which the Select Committee asked us to do. It asked us to do it at the end of 2014, but I was anxious to have a public document around which people can debate the future of public libraries. We published our first report at the end of last year, which recorded that fewer than 100 static libraries have closed.

It is important to remember that when I was the Opposition spokesman, I was keen not to say that the public library service was in crisis. Yes, I called out the Wirral, but at no point would I have said that the public library was in crisis. Time and again, we see only the bad news reported about libraries, as though the library service is being laid waste.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said in a passing remark that I have probably visited a few libraries. Yes, I have. On a couple of days I visited the fantastic Liverpool central library, in which there has been a £40 million investment. It is truly a cathedral of learning, and it has had more than 1 million visitors in the less than 18 months that it has been open. The hon. Member for West Ham referred to Birmingham, which has the biggest library in Europe. It has had 3 million visitors since it was opened by the Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Manchester central library has been refurbished, as has Wakefield’s library. The hon. Lady will know about East Ham, which has had a £40 million investment in its library. There are Havering and Streatham libraries, and the tri-borough model of Westminster, Hammersmith and Kensington, which saved £1 million and kept their libraries open. Bexley and Bromley merged their library services to save money. There is the Suffolk model—the independent industrial and provident society model—which has kept libraries open for longer. All around the country, one sees innovation in libraries and hard-working people in the library service making a real difference to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. We should celebrate those people.

What can one do from the centre? I cannot and do not want to run 151 library authorities, not only because it is physically impossible for me to do so, but because I believe local authorities should run their library services. I can encourage them and work with them.

When we abolished the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council, one of the first things I did was to put libraries with the Arts Council. If one looks at the framing of the 1964 Act, in terms of the White Papers that led up to it, a lot of the tone was about the merging, as it were, of cultural and library services—about putting culture at the heart of our libraries. With the Arts Council working with local authorities on arts provision, it is a totally natural move for it to work with libraries.

Helen Goodman: I just want to help the Minister, because he seems to be in a complete mess about what the role of central Government is in this sector. Could we just draw a little analogy with another public service that is delivered by local government—adult social care? However, that fact does not mean that the Department of Health does not have policy, does not provide the legal framework and that we do not have the Care

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Quality Commission to carry out inspections. Obviously, libraries are not as large as adult social care—what needs to be done is not as big—but it is just a little model, a little inkling, for the Minister about how he might approach libraries.

Mr Vaizey: But it is important to say that most adult social care is funded by central Government, so of course the Government will have a much more hands-on role in that area.

As I said earlier, libraries are funded, paid for and run by local authorities, and they always have been since the first public libraries emerged in the middle of the 19th century. The debate then was about putting money on the rates to pay for local libraries; it was not about central Government funding or running local libraries.

The Arts Council has taken a role with libraries, and with it we have set up a £6 million fund for libraries; 75 projects have already been funded. The Arts Council has worked with the British Library and the Department for Communities and Local Government on enterprising libraries, which put libraries at the heart of the business community, whose members are a good audience for libraries. Six major city-centre libraries and 10 hubs are planned, to provide advice for small businesses and intellectual property advice. We have paid for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy statistics to be made public and freely accessible, to help library campaigners and people involved in the provision of library services to compare and contrast their library service with that of neighbouring councils; in this context, “neighbouring” does not mean geographically neighbouring, but councils with similar topography and demography.

We have worked to extend the public lending right to audio-books and e-books. We have also worked with William Sieghart to put together four pilots on e-book lending, bringing together publishers and libraries. They are obviously natural bedfellows, but on this issue there is some concern from publishers that e-lending could potentially cannibalise their business model. Consequently, we have worked to bring both sides together, so that they can work together for a solution that all sides can be happy with.

We work closely with the Society of Chief Librarians, which promotes its own campaigns to make libraries as relevant as possible; there is, obviously, a reading campaign, but also an information campaign, a digital campaign and a health campaign. The SCL has also launched a highly successful Books On Prescription scheme with the Reading Agency, which 91% of library authorities are signed up to. And the Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge continues to draw in hundreds of thousands of children, and every year participation in the scheme increases.

To me, that is not the depiction of a library service in crisis. Of course, there are incidents where the modernisation, adaptation or change of a library service causes extreme concern, but everybody acknowledges that closing a library does not necessarily mean that the library service is no longer comprehensive and efficient. When we talk about a closure, sometimes we are talking

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about a merger of two libraries. Also, we rarely talk about the number of libraries that are opening across the country.

Earlier, the hon. Member for West Ham asked me about the Sieghart report. I would not have asked William Sieghart to produce a report unless I thought there was some opportunity to build on what I see as a highly successful public library service in England. The reason I asked him to produce this report—he has been ably assisted by a distinguished panel of publishers and other people working in worlds related to libraries—is to see how we can push forward, and the reason I asked him in particular is that he is an extremely practical man. He was the man who brought together the publishers and the libraries to support e-lending. He is now proposing a series of practical recommendations to move forward, one of which is a task and finish group that will work with local authorities to make practical recommendations to help library services to survive in what is not only a difficult financial climate but a difficult period of transition as the world itself changes, with the move to digital. It is important to emphasise that that group will meet, with local authorities at its heart, to make practical recommendations to take matters forward.

This has been a good and full debate. I completely understand the concerns of library campaigners across the country who would be concerned if they saw their local library closing its doors. However, a lot of heat and not enough light is generated in this debate. The number of library closures has been severely exaggerated. The number of closures that you, Mr Bayley, and I would regard as a library closure—that is, a building with its doors shut, empty and the lights off—is, by the Government’s estimation, fewer than a hundred. Libraries have opened up and down the country. I have already referred to the reams of central libraries that have been refurbished. In Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, literally millions of people are visiting libraries and there are new library members.

Helen Goodman: The Minister is, of course, right to point to the success of the new library buildings in Liverpool and Birmingham is. However, is he not a little bit worried about the library service being a postcode lottery, because he is not seeking to have a secure policy framework across the country?

Mr Vaizey: I do not know what that means. For example, Liverpool reopened its central library; a million people have visited it; and until recently, Liverpool was proposing to close 10 of its 18 branch libraries. That proposal has now been withdrawn. Is it being suggested that I should have personally intervened three or four years ago to tell Liverpool, “No, you don’t run the library service like this. You don’t put money into refurbishing your central library. You’re going to keep all your branch libraries open”? Liverpool is seeking to deliver a comprehensive and efficient library service, and one of the ways it seeks to do that is to refurbish its central library to make it a hugely attractive hub for thousands of people living in that great city. That was a decision for the local authority, just as it was a decision for Birmingham to invest in a new central library, which is now the pride of the city and already one of the most well-known libraries in Europe.

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Such decisions must be taken by local authorities but, as I said earlier, the number of static libraries that have been closed is often exaggerated; the actual number, while it may be regrettable, is far lower than people say. The action taken by this Government has been active: bringing on board the Arts Council, to provide leadership for libraries; providing a £6 million fund to support cultural work in libraries; extending e-lending to the PLR; working to introduce pilots with publishers, so as to promote e-lending; and now commissioning the Sieghart report, to continue to take libraries forward during the next decade or so.

As I have said, while I may understand the frustration and sometimes even the anger of some library campaigners, I feel that I can hold my head up high, in terms of being a proactive campaigner for the library sector.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. I thank all Members who have participated in the libraries debate; it was a good debate. I now ought to explain the procedure for what happens next.

During the libraries debate, we had two Divisions, which meant we were suspended for 26 minutes. Therefore, we could continue the next debate, which I will be happy to start as soon as Members have taken their seats and got themselves ready to debate, if there was a will from Members for us to do so, until 4.56 pm. If there is such a will, the debate will be rather longer than a half-hour debate. I see a number of Members here in Westminster Hall, so some people might value the additional time, but of course you do not have to use it. And since the next debate was granted as a half-hour debate, the rule is that the Member who secured the debate, Stephen Twigg, will introduce it and then the Minister will reply. So if any other Members seek to catch my eye, they might be in luck, but it would be courteous to let me know beforehand.

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Central African Republic

4 pm

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): Mr Bayley, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I refer hon. Members to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I am pleased to bring the current situation in the Central African Republic to the attention of Westminster Hall, and I do that particularly in my role as chair of the all-party group on prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. I will set out later why I am making that express connection. I pay tribute to colleagues in both Houses for questions they have asked the Government about this important issue in recent months, particularly Lord McConnell and Baroness Berridge, who recently visited the Central African Republic and saw first hand some of the problems that it faces.

I am speaking about this matter because it is surely better for us to prevent mass atrocities from happening in the first place, rather than have to deal with a crisis when such atrocities occur. Aside from the humanitarian considerations that we face in seeking to prevent an escalation of violence, considerable security and economic benefits come from early action to prevent mass atrocities.

I am sure the Minister and other hon. Members will be aware that the Central African Republic has not had an easy recent history in its transition following independence from France in 1960. It has endured a number of coups and periods of shocking brutality and today, despite its considerable natural resources, it is considered one of the least developed countries in the world.

The recent period of instability began in 2012, when a rebel militia called the Seleka—meaning, roughly, “alliance” or “coalition”—began to advance across the country. This predominantly Muslim militia held deep grievances against the then Government, under President Francois Bozize, who it felt left the north-east neglected. In March 2014, the Seleka seized the capital city, Bangui, and ousted Bozize’s Government. It then began a campaign of looting and killing against the non-Muslim population.

The militia’s commander, Michel Djotodia, appointed himself as interim President but lost control over his forces, and over the months that followed the Seleka committed horrific human rights abuses against civilians, often targeting people in churches and even burning entire villages to the ground.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): This issue is very close to my heart, because of the people and the persecution that has taken place. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Central African Republic is predominantly a Christian country, and this year it entered at No. 16 on the world watch list of countries where persecution is high. He rightly said that the Seleka group of terrorists who are dissatisfied with the regime have particularly targeted those of Christian faith. They have desecrated churches and have raped, murdered, kidnapped, tortured and killed 13 pastors. Does the hon. Gentleman feel, as I do—and as I suspect the Minister feels—that something has to be done to try to stop that persecution in a predominantly Christian country, specifically of those of a Christian faith?

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Stephen Twigg: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who I know from previous debates takes a particular interest in the important matter of protecting Christians and other religious majorities or minorities around the world. He is right, and I hope to address some of the specific issues he raised. We cannot be content to allow the present situation to continue. We in this country have a responsibility to act both bilaterally and in concert with other countries, including our European Union partners, an issue to which I will return.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I am probably the only Member of Parliament—I appreciate that Members of the House of Lords have been there—who has visited the CAR. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one big problem is that it is surrounded by three broken states—Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan—and becomes a black hole for all the failures of those surrounding states, with all the bad people from there going in and causing even greater problems? That is a major problem that we need to deal with.

Stephen Twigg: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have not visited the CAR and I did not know until he told me just before the debate that he had done so. It is always helpful for the House to hear such first-hand accounts from Members. If the time allows us—it may do, with the extension—perhaps we could hear a little more from him about that experience after I have spoken. He is right: CAR has its own issues, which I am addressing, but it is surrounded by countries where there are challenges, including the ones he described. Also, Nigeria is not far away and issues such as Boko Haram and the insecurity and instability there may be relevant to the CAR’s security situation in future.

Returning to what has happened this year, Djotodia eventually declared the Seleka disbanded, but of course many of those who had been members of it continued with their destructive actions regardless of that decision. In response to the attacks and violations committed by Seleka, we saw the formation of another group, known as Anti-balaka, meaning “anti-machete”. This group is comprised predominantly of Christians, but there are also animists, and although it was initially formed as a counter to Seleka, increasingly it stopped distinguishing between the Seleka and the wider Muslim population. Sadly, estimates suggest that more than 5,000 people have died since December in that sectarian violence, affecting initially the Christian community but later, with the response from Anti-balaka, the Muslim community as well.

The current transitional Government are not fully established and they struggle to stop the violence. Just last week reports emerged that Seleka rebels had blocked key roads in Bangui and exchanged fire with peacekeepers.

It is welcome that a number of international missions are in the country, with the purpose of increasing stability, including from the European Union and France, and now the United Nations mission. In September, the UN mission took over from the early peacekeeping response of the African Union. We should pay tribute to the important and difficult work being undertaken by these forces. However, it is clear that they remain undermanned and are not always able to take the steps necessary to stop violence in the country. They often come under fire themselves, including in an attack on

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the current President’s home, showing that rebel forces are often confident that they can act with complete impunity.

Peacekeepers and the state—in so far as the state exists —are therefore unable to stop fully the violence, and that violence can of course lead to reprisals, which lead to further violence; and so a vicious circle is maintained. It is therefore essential that member states ensure that the UN mission comes to full strength a soon as possible.

Greater humanitarian intervention is also needed to help alleviate other pressures that the country faces. Crops have been looted or destroyed, creating food shortages, and more than 900,000 people have been displaced during the conflict. The International Rescue Committee has stated that women and girls in the CAR listed sexual violence as their No. 1 fear.

More work also needs to be done to promote religious tolerance and understanding. Bringing various communities together is vital if we are to see a peace that lasts. I take heart from just one example that I should like to share with the House: that set by Father Bernard Kinvi, a Catholic priest whom Human Rights Watch has recognised. Father Kinvi had been helping both Christians and Muslims who were hurt during the fighting. In one incident, the Anti-balaka rebels had been targeting Muslims in the area in which he lived. As he was helping the injured, they approached him and singled out for execution a 14-year-old boy who was clinging to his robes. The priest stood his ground and told the Anti-balaka rebels, “If you have to kill him, then you will have to kill me first.” He put his life on the line to uphold universal values of human dignity, and that example is a powerful message on the importance of religious tolerance and understanding. I am sure we would all want to put on record our praise for his courage and determination.

We have a window of opportunity to act to stop the CAR returning to a state of full civil war. The United Kingdom, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development have significant experience in helping countries to rebuild after conflict. We should consider doing more to bring that knowledge to bear in this situation. The CAR is due to hold elections in February, although they may be postponed until later in 2015. We should do our best to help ensure that they are free and fair and that moderate forces are able to compete effectively. We know from history in all parts of the world that elections, particularly in fragile countries, can create difficult periods where extremist politicians and parties can polarise and manipulate the population, feeding off fear and stirring hatred. Should further violence be triggered and escalate to the level we saw this time last year, the population could well lose faith that a Government can provide the change the country needs. With that in mind, will the Minister explore whether there is scope for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy or the British Government to carry out work in the CAR in the run-up to the elections to try to ensure that they are as free and fair as possible?

The UK can help to provide some practical solutions to end the conflicts in the CAR. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, and there are a number of respects in which Rwanda can be used as a positive case study in attempting to replicate some of the successes we have seen with the rebuilding of the capacity to govern in Rwanda over the past two decades. Replicating that could not only help the civilian population,

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but strengthen the CAR’s regional relationships. Rwanda has been supported by the British Government. We have helped it in a number of ways, including through aid, but specifically relevant to today’s debate is that we have strengthened Rwanda’s capacity for good governance. If we encourage Rwanda and the Central African Republic to work together, we could help to strengthen the CAR Government through programmes where Rwanda helps to train the civil servants and Ministers of the CAR in modern governance practices.

More needs to be done to promote religious tolerance and understanding. Bringing various communities together is surely vital in building a peace that lasts. In April, I was in Kigali in Rwanda for the Kwibuka 20 commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide. I had the chance to hear the mufti of Rwanda—he is a leader of the Muslim community in Rwanda—speak powerfully about how faith groups in Rwanda, both Christian and Muslim, viewed the signs of violence in the CAR with great concern. In April the faith groups were in the process of creating a forum to bring together Christian and Muslim leaders from the two countries to exchange experiences. Twenty years after the Rwanda genocide, they hoped that lessons could be learned for the Central African Republic.

That process of dialogue has developed considerably since. The faith leaders from the CAR visited Rwanda in August and were impressed by the success of the peace education and reconciliation programmes they observed. They wish to establish similar programmes in the CAR to promote social cohesion. To that end, they have forged a partnership with the Aegis Trust, which provides the secretariat to the all-party group that I chair. The Aegis Trust is a British-based non-governmental organisation whose reconciliation work in Rwanda is funded by a number of organisations, including DFID.

Jim Shannon: On the persecution of Christians and those of Muslim faith—I am aware of both factions being deliberately targeted—Seleka is mostly formed of Muslims from outside of the Central African Republic, so there is an outside influence. The hon. Gentleman has referred to this, but along with all the effort that can be made within the Central African Republic, direct action needs to be taken on neighbouring countries, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark). While it is good to see what is happening, effective action has to be taken outside of the Central African Republic to prevent the influence of terrorists—perhaps Boko Haram—who are directly targeting whatever good work has been done in the country.

Stephen Twigg: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The question of peace education and the promotion of mutual respect, tolerance and understanding between religious groups must go hand in hand with a strengthening of the security situation in the country, to face up not only to the internal threats that we have talked about, but to the external threats from forces that might be based in neighbouring countries, to which he and the hon. Member for Braintree have referred. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for making that important and powerful point.

The programme that is being developed could be a unique one in which those who have experienced mass atrocities and, in the case of Rwanda, those who experienced

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genocide 20 years ago, can talk about how best to overcome some of the dangerous forms of hatred that feed human rights violations, mass atrocities and, in the most extreme cases, genocide. I am sure the Minister will agree that the programme is a positive step forward for both countries that warrants appropriate support from outside, including from the United Kingdom, not least because the Aegis Trust is a UK-based NGO.

Before I finish I will share a quote from the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said in February:

“Our commitment to protect civilians is only as meaningful as the political, military and financial muscle deployed to defend them...Our responsibility is clear: We must stand with the people of the Central African Republic.”

That is an incredibly powerful message on behalf of all the nations of the UN, but we in this Parliament can say that we want the British people, the British Parliament and the British Government to stand with the people of the Central African Republic.

Will the Minister outline some of the steps that the Government are taking through his Department and through DFID? In particular, what are the Government doing to protect civilians in the CAR? Will he outline any plans to increase the strength of peacekeeping forces and the support given to them? Secondly, what are the Government doing on aid for the humanitarian needs of the population of the Central African Republic? Thirdly, what is being done to improve the safety of women and girls facing violence in that country?

In the arena of promoting sustainable peace, what are the Government prepared to do to support peace education programmes to overcome hatred and to support the transitional Government in the CAR in establishing the rule of law and good governance? What are the Government doing to provide opportunities to improve the economy and infrastructure of the CAR? Will they consider increasing the British diplomatic presence in the CAR? The United States has recently reopened its embassy. Can we look into the potential for increasing the British diplomatic presence? That would show our commitment to the transitional Government and to the elections due in 2015. Will the Minister comment on the support that the UK Government will give to the European Union trust fund for the Central African Republic?

I am grateful for the opportunity to ask some important questions here today on behalf of the all-party parliamentary group for the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. To return to the theme that I outlined at the beginning of my speech, prevention is so much better than cure. If we can stem the tide of hatred in the CAR and prevent the country from returning to the civil war that it faced a year ago, that would be a positive example of our learning from places such as Rwanda, which witnessed some of the worst mass atrocities. I look forward to hearing the Minister speak about the Government’s approach.

4.20 pm

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I was not going to speak in the debate, but I have been inspired by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). I think that I am one of the only Members of Parliament who has had an opportunity to visit the Central African Republic. I was inspired to visit CAR

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following a trip to Rwanda, thinking, “Here is a broken state that we can perhaps have a constructive role in.” For anyone who is interested, a good primer would be to read the excellent “Malaria Dreams: An African Adventure” by Stuart Stevens. It was written several years ago, but sometimes things never change. I highly recommend that people read it.

CAR is a broken state that is surrounded by three other broken states: Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan. It is a remarkable country, because it is rich in natural resources that have never really been taken advantage of. I visited with Merlin, a health care NGO that was recently taken over by Save the Children, and I want to make a couple of suggestions to the Minister.

I visited eight regions with hospitals that are effectively white elephants. There is nothing there. The problem is a lack of medicine. I costed fixing up the hospitals and providing medicine for five years, and it would cost something like £7 million to £10 million, which is not huge given the size of the Department for International Development’s budget. If anyone from DFID is listening to the debate, one way that we could help the country is through better health care.

The second way, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned, is by looking at Rwanda as an example of government and how Governments can change. If we can work with the CAR Government to help them try to have some form of proper governance and a proper transition, we can perhaps grab them out of the French orbit, as we did with Rwanda, and it can perhaps one day be the third African country with no link to Britain to join the Commonwealth.

4.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for securing this debate on the situation in the Central African Republic. The hon. Gentleman and I are old friends. We first discussed politics—we did not spar—in the ’80s when he was president of the National Union of Students and I was president of Loughborough students’ union. It was clear then that we were both probably destined to pursue a career, or at least an interest, in politics. Even then, however, it was perhaps clear that we would pursue paths of different political hues. It is a real pleasure to continue that friendship and an honour to respond to the debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge, passion and interest in this area.

I also apologise that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), the Minister with responsibility for Africa, is unable to respond. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby may be aware, the Minister has been quite gravely ill and we wish him well. I will do my best to respond to the points made and to place the Government’s position in context. If am unable to cover the hon. Gentleman’s points, I will write to him in more detail.

The UK Government remain extremely concerned by the situation in the Central African Republic, where the security environment remains volatile. There have been

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some modest security gains in Bangui, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby outlined, but the situation has deteriorated outside the capital. October saw a spike of violence, including attacks against the personnel and property of humanitarian organisations. Violence against the civilian population sadly remains high.

The UN estimates that more than 2.5 million people—over half the total population—are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. There are some 410,000 internally displaced people and there are 425,000 CAR refugees in neighbouring countries. A third of the country is suffering from food insecurity as the production of food crops has dropped by between 50% and 75%. The situation is likely to deteriorate further as the food supply reduces due to missed planting seasons. The country’s state, justice and economic structures have all but collapsed and will need to be rebuilt from scratch, requiring significant international support. Our immediate focus is on working with the international community to improve security, protect civilians from violence and provide humanitarian support.

In line with the conclusions of the international contact group on CAR, which the Foreign Office attended on 11 November 2014, we welcome the deployment of the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, and the efforts of the EU force, EUFOR, the African Union, MISCA, and French troops. It is important that the international community continues to show support for such efforts. We welcome the three-month extension of the EUFOR mandate to maintain security in Bangui while MINUSCA reaches full operational capacity. We condemn in the strongest terms, as the hon. Gentleman did, the attack against a MINUSCA convoy on 9 October, which killed one peacekeeper and injured several others, and we are concerned by the recent resurgence of violence and continuing attacks against civilians in Bangui. The UK also condemns all instances of sexual violence that have occurred during the conflict. The African Union’s recent deployment of sexual violence experts to CAR, co-financed by the UK, will support sexual violence victims.

The UK has played a strong role as part of international efforts to address the situation. These efforts have included aid to refugees, logistical support to the French and EUFOR missions and agreeing substantial EU funding for MISCA. A British diplomat, Diane Corner, is also currently serving as the deputy special representative in the capital for the UN mission. The UK has committed £23 million in humanitarian support to the Central African Republic since the crisis began in 2013 and £7 million in support to refugees in Cameroon and Chad, funding the Red Cross, NGOs and UN agencies to provide access to protection, food, water, shelter, health and livelihood. We remain the third largest bilateral provider of humanitarian aid to the CAR.

The UK welcomes the signing of the Brazzaville agreement for the cessation of hostilities on 23 July as an important step towards a lasting peace in CAR. However, military efforts alone cannot bring about long-term stability in CAR. The UK recognises that it will be critical for the agreement to be applied and for an open and inclusive dialogue to be held, including the holding of free and fair elections, which will require sustained international support. The UK therefore welcomes the international engagement seen in the high-level

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meeting on CAR in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly on 26 September in New York and in the international contact group meeting held on 11 November in Bangui.

Turning to the hon. Gentleman’s question on humanitarian aid, the UK, via the Department for International Development, has committed £30 million in humanitarian support to the Central African Republic and its nationals who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries since the start of 2013, funding a range of NGOs and UN agencies to provide access to aid. That consists of £23 million in humanitarian funding in CAR and £7 million for refugees in Cameroon and Chad. DFID does not intend to engage in development programmes. This year, the UK has provided £18 million, including £3 million for the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide health services and water distribution for hundreds of thousands of people as well as protection services for the vulnerable, particularly women and children, which the hon. Gentleman was keen to point out. The aid also includes transportation for aid workers and relief supplies to remote parts of the country through a £1 million contribution to the UN humanitarian air service.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby made some specific points. On Father Bernard Kinvi, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID officials have just had an extremely useful meeting with him and were able to hear about his experiences at first hand—my thanks for that. On the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, all international support for democracy and elections needs to be co-ordinated carefully so as to avoid overlap and waste, and we expect that the UN will play the key co-ordinating role in the country, but we remain alert to the possibility of the foundation playing a role if we do not see any advances under the UN.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the involvement of Rwanda, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark). He and I, as well as others, have travelled to Rwanda a number of times and I am more familiar with that country than with the Central African Republic. It is a curious thing to learn that my hon. Friend is the only MP to make it in and out of the CAR safely. The House is wiser for his experiences, as the hon. Gentleman said. We have long encouraged and supported Rwandan involvement in supporting peace in Africa, but the hon. Gentleman is in no doubt that the Rwandans—or is it the right hon. Gentleman? [Interruption.] He says, “Soon.” The hon. Gentleman was aware that the Rwandans are participating in the UN force in the CAR. It is important that that takes place.

UN and Government officials are helping to develop thinking on dealing with the violence and conflict in the light of Rwanda’s own experience, with which the House is familiar, and of the UK experience in places such as Sierra Leone. We have increased our engagement considerably, including frequent visits from the Foreign Office and DFID officials and the secondment of a senior British diplomat to the UN mission in Bangui. We have put in place a new regional political officer in Yaoundé, who will have responsibility for the Central African Republic. At the moment the selected officer is undertaking the required language training.

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Jim Shannon: I am conscious that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) in his introduction referred specifically to the persecution of Christians, which I also mentioned in my two earlier interventions. I was hoping that the Minister might be able to come back to us and give us some indication of what we can do through the Foreign Office to ensure that the persecution of Christians can be curtailed or stopped, with some direct action taken. Under influences from some neighbouring countries, people are specifically targeting Christians for their beliefs.

Mr Ellwood: I will have to ask the Minister for Africa to write to the hon. Gentleman on that important issue with more details—unless I am swiftly handed a piece of paper before the end of my speech. That is unlikely to happen, so I will certainly be back in touch.

There are no easy answers in the Central African Republic, and certainly no quick fixes. We need to encourage all parties to follow up on the Brazzaville agreement of July to establish an open and inclusive dialogue. Without peace, justice and reconciliation, there can be no future for the CAR. We need to be committed in the long term to assist in rebuilding the country, its Government, its institutions and its infrastructure, as well as maintaining humanitarian support for as long as the high levels of need persist. We will do so by working with international donors and through bilateral and multinational humanitarian assistance programmes.

It is tempting to recoil from and reject the horror, to back away and almost to give up and lose hope, but we cannot. We have a responsibility to remain engaged and to support the people of the CAR. This week I read the inspiring story of Father Kinvi, a Catholic priest in the north-west of the country who put himself at great risk when he sheltered at his mission thousands of Muslims threatened by sectarian violence. There is no doubt in my mind that his brave actions saved many lives. Human Rights Watch has rightly acknowledged his efforts and I express our gratitude for and recognition of the many people who have worked to prevent an even higher toll of death and destruction in the country. Father Kinvi and the people of the Central African Republic deserve our support. We have the capacity to assist them in the short term, by providing security and humanitarian aid, but we must also support the country in its long-term reconciliation and development.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): We now come to the debate on support and rehabilitation for veterans. While Members move around and take their places, it might be helpful for me to say a brief word about the procedural situation. Earlier we had two Divisions in the House, so the timetable for the afternoon debates is running 26 minutes late. We will start the debate in a moment, when the next Minister has had the opportunity to take her seat, but it could run until 5.26 pm—it does not have to run that long, but it could run that long. The debate is on the Order Paper as a half-hour Adjournment debate, which would normally give the Member who obtained the debate, Jack Lopresti, time to speak and the Minister time to reply, but if I receive indications that other Members wish to speak and they can assure me that they will get the say-so from the Minister and Mr Lopresti, I am happy to accept additional speeches.

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Veterans (Support and Rehabilitation)

4.36 pm

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley.

I hope to outline the ongoing need to support people who have served our great country in the armed forces, once their service is complete. The issue is close to my heart and I must declare an interest, because I am a veteran. I had the honour and privilege to serve with 3 Commando Brigade in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick 9. I am also vice-president of my local Stoke Gifford Royal British Legion branch. I know at first hand how important the support network and welfare are, and in particular what is offered by the Royal British Legion.

First off, not all former service personnel need help once they leave the armed forces, as noted in the excellent veterans’ transition review by Lord Ashcroft earlier this year. It is important to point that out. As is too often the case, negative media stories mean that there is a perception among the public that veterans are likely to be physically, mentally or emotionally damaged by their time in the armed forces. In fact, the majority of ex-service personnel go on to good careers where the skills that they have acquired during their service in the military are highly valued. The negative perception, as Lord Ashcroft’s review states,

“in itself constitutes an unnecessary extra hurdle for service leavers, restricting their opportunities by lowering expectations of what they can do.”

I was proud to have served on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill, through which the armed forces covenant was enshrined in law for the first time in 2011. I find it incredible that, as a nation, we had never previously ensured through statute that the armed forces community did not face any disadvantage in getting access to public services due to their service and that special consideration was, of course, appropriate in some cases. I am pleased that South Gloucestershire council, which serves my constituents, signed the covenant on Armed Forces day in June 2013. I wrote to Bristol city council in January this year to encourage it to sign the community covenant, and it has finally done so, as have, I understand, 100% of local authorities in the country.

The armed forces covenant has created change for the better. Alabaré, with its homes for veterans, two of which are in my constituency, tells me that across all its work with veterans in the south-west

“a noticeable shift is taking place regarding the recognition and support of homeless Veterans by Local Authorities; and housing procedures are reflecting this. This, we believe is a direct consequence of the Armed Forces Covenant.”

Alabaré is, however, concerned enough to ask whether it will be the case that

“once the ‘gleam’ and positive media put upon Local Authorities for signing up to the covenant has died down…the Local Authorities remain true to their word”.

Will the Minister assure us that cross-departmental work will continue to enforce the covenant and that local authorities that are found lacking will be held to account? I await with interest the next report, due imminently, on how well the armed forces covenant is being implemented, and in particular how it supports our veterans.

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I welcome the Government’s response to Lord Ashcroft’s veterans’ transition review and am pleased that the Government understand that support to ex-service personnel is needed to aid their move into civilian life. I am pleased that the Government have already started to implement many of Lord Ashcroft’s recommendations. We definitely need to be developing and maintaining contact with personnel on their transition to civilian life, which should be for longer than the six months currently proposed.

It is good that the Ashcroft recommendations on how to support service leavers into new careers now include those who do not finish their contract or who serve for less than six years. I understand that early service leavers who have served up to four years are the most likely to have experienced unemployment and other problems. We need to recognise that they, too, have volunteered to serve their country.

I hope the Minister will confirm that the career transition partnership will be permanently extended to all service leavers. It is encouraging to see the figures for the first quarter of 2013-14, which showed an 82% employment rate for service personnel who used the CTP resettlement services within six months after leaving the armed forces. However, the statistics for ex-service personnel also show that 10% are unemployed and 9% are economically inactive, meaning that up to 20% have not started new careers after six months. I would also like to know what follow-up there is to find out how ex-service personnel are doing after one year, two years and then further on. There is a risk that CTP providers could be getting veterans into jobs that are not suitable for their skills and future prospects in the long term.

The Government’s implementation of personal development pathways for all service personnel will definitely help future veterans take responsibility for their own development and should give them guidance on how their skills are transferable to the civilian world. Initiatives such as the Troops to Teachers programme and provision of free further or higher education for services leavers with six years of service and for members of the enhanced learning scheme are definitely a step in the right direction.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that we should congratulate organisations such as SSAFA that do an amazing job to help veterans? I draw his attention to Lieutenant Colonel John Arthur in my constituency, who does an amazing job supporting veterans in Braintree.

Jack Lopresti: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We owe a huge debt of gratitude for the ongoing good work done by organisations and charities such as SSAFA. What they manage to achieve is remarkable.

Looking after our veterans is not only our duty; it is practical. For this country to continue to have the world’s best armed forces, we need to recruit the best and those recruits need to know that their service will be recognised and can be part of a successful long-term career, both while they are serving in the military and when they leave. It is encouraging to hear from Alabaré homes that the south-west veterans multi-agency mental health service, provided through the Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust, has been well received. It shows promise in making a difference in the support and rehabilitation of veterans.

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I know the Government have been working with the NHS and service charities such as Combat Stress and Help for Heroes on helping those with mental health issues. Help for Heroes received £2.7 million from the LIBOR fund in 2013 to work in partnership with Combat Stress to develop the “Hidden Wounds” psychological support programme, which supports veterans suffering from early symptoms of mental injuries such as stress and depression, as well as supporting their families. The problem is often that symptoms do not show until many years after the person affected has left the service. I hope that the MOD’s “Don’t bottle it up” campaign will help to mitigate that in the future.

Alabaré homes has also told me, however, that accommodation for those receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, who may need 24-hour support throughout their treatment, is almost unheard of. I understand that care as a whole for those suffering from PTSD is improving and it is encouraging to hear that 16 departments of community health around the country will provide support and treatment to personnel from all three services. Facilitating GPs’ ability to obtain service leavers’ military medical history should help further, as should the GP e-learning programme.

Research on homeless ex-service people carried out by the homelessness charity Broadway showed that 3% of people sleeping rough in London in 2012-13 were former military personnel. That is not as high as a percentage as is sometimes cited, but obviously we would all prefer the figure to be zero. Besides, sleeping rough is not the true measure of homelessness, which also includes those who do not have a permanent home and are sleeping on a friend’s floor or sofa.

Lack of affordable housing remains an ongoing issue, and one that is particularly prevalent in the Bristol area due to a shortage in the private rental sector of suitable affordable accommodation for people who charities such as Alabaré work with. Again, I am pleased to report that the veterans nominations scheme has been used by Alabaré residents as a way of securing accommodation. That seems to be working better in the Bristol and south Gloucestershire area.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Big congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate; I consider him a real friend in this House. I thank him for his service to this country during his time in Afghanistan.

One issue I have found when working with veterans is that some of the statistics are very hard to collate. In the north-east, we have worked with people who have gone to prison. The figures for those people vary from around 4% to almost 12%—we are talking about huge differences. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is something that we can work on together to try to make sure that the statistical information that we get on veterans is much more accurate?

Jack Lopresti: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—my honourable friend—for his kind comments about my very modest and short military service. I will touch on veterans in the legal system and in prison later in my remarks, but as far as the figures go, he is absolutely right that it is very important that we try to put figures together that stack up across the country, that people can take seriously and that are credible.

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I know that the MOD has committed over £1.3 million in support of homeless and vulnerable veterans. In October, the Minister said in response to a written parliamentary question on homeless veterans that she hoped to announce

“further funding in support of homeless hostels, drawing on the £40 million Veterans Accommodation Fund.”

Will that be happening? If so, what is the time scale?

I welcome the difference and the positive change in how local authorities treat veterans: their being allowed to apply for housing in the area where they have served instead of where they originally came from; the disregarding of any lump sum received as compensation for an injury or disability sustained in active service; and the cessation to occupy certificate given six months before leaving forces accommodation. That will all help veterans find permanent accommodation, as will the recently introduced forces Help to Buy scheme, along with Money Force.

The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) mentioned veterans in the criminal justice system, a subject I wish to touch on now—I know that we are awaiting a review of the issue by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips). I understand that an estimated 3.5% of the prison population are ex-service personnel—those are the figures from 2010, and, as I have said, it is important to get those figures right. I look forward to hearing what the Government will do to make sure that the needs of ex-service personnel are met while they are in the criminal justice system or in prison, and that once they have served their sentence they are referred to specialist rehabilitation services to help reintegrate them into society.

One of the biggest issues that a lot of veterans struggle with is where to find help when it is needed at a particular time. The review of the Veterans-UK website is a positive step, although I am nervous about the site being hosted on the website, which can be difficult to navigate and is often confusing. A directory of accredited third sector providers and accredited armed forces charities, run by a central body and with a 24/7 contact centre—as recommended by the Ashcroft review—would be invaluable, as would the proposed advice app for veterans. I know the Government are taking steps towards that and I would be interested to learn from the Minister what progress they are making.

To summarise my feelings on this matter, the issue of caring and looking after veterans is not a new one. It goes back to the inception of the nation state, from the ancient Romans giving land to their veterans to provide them with a livelihood, to Elizabeth I, who recognised the responsibility the country had to wounded veterans by passing an Act of Parliament in 1593 that levied a weekly tax on parishes for the relief of soldiers and sailors, to the modern-day enshrining of the military covenant in law. We have a duty of care, not just as individuals, politicians and law-makers, but as a nation, to ensure that the people who have served our country and have been prepared to pay the ultimate price in defence of our way of life and our freedoms are not in any way disadvantaged by their service. We must ensure that all veterans are treated with the respect, appreciation and honour they absolutely deserve.

Several hon. Members rose

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Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. I understand from the body language of the hon. Gentleman and the Minister that neither objects to other brief speeches being made.

4.48 pm

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I reiterate my earlier comments about the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti).

It is true that organisations such as SSAFA and the Royal British Legion do great work, and that the military covenant has been a big help through its recognition of the debt we all owe to our veterans; the role of local authorities has also been critical for development work on the ground. I want to talk about some of the work being done by smaller groups, in particular a group I am involved with in the north-east called Forward Assist. That was set up by a former marine, and a colleague of mine before I came to this place. All he had ever wanted to do with his life was to join the Royal Marines. After 18 months of training, he ripped his shoulder and despite two years of medical treatment was unable to carry on in his service. He left what had been his dream job, and fell into a downward spiral of drink and drugs. Thankfully, he was rescued by a counsellor who got him back on the straight and narrow and he was able to go back to university and learn a new trade. Now, in his later life and after working for a long time in child care and in the probation service, he has decided to set up a charity to take care of veterans. He was seeing young men coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and going through what he had gone through 30 years before, and he felt that something had to be done.

Some of these guys had been kicked out of the service for various reasons. They had gone into low-level crime or got involved with drink and drugs. They had terribly low self-esteem and were guilt-ridden because they felt they had let their families, themselves and the nation down. Many of their problems are mental health related, which is natural when someone has been in the services. They will not admit that they have mental health problems because it is a big issue for anyone, but for those coming out of the services it is a huge issue.

The role that Forward Assist plays in dealing with these people across Tyneside is about telling them, “You are not a failure. We want to help you get back into the normal way of living and get used to living in a world that is completely different from what you have experienced.” A lot of these people have been in the services for 20 years and the world today is very different from what it was in the 1990s and 1980s. Through a variety of interests, Forward Assist is working with people in the north-east. For example, in the north-east the National Trust have been very supportive, as have local councils, and big and small businesses have been tremendous. They have got involved in a huge raft of work, which has enabled these people to feel now that they can contribute to society again.

I want to mention three small things that are very important to these gentlemen. Veterans have been enrolled on cookery courses and some have obtained qualifications to enable them to cook for the public. They go round community centres and cook for elderly people and community groups, so they feel that they are giving something back. Similarly, some get angling qualifications. A community centre in the town I live in took 16 people

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with learning difficulties to a local fishing lake and is teaching them the skills of fishing. It is absolutely brilliant stuff. When fishing, those people can release and speak openly about what they are going through and it is very therapeutic for them to work with the people who are taking care of them. People have also taken sports qualifications. Some are working with Sunderland and Everton football clubs to develop community sports on the ground. That is happening only because of the work that people have done and the huge support they have given to veterans.

One reason why I wanted to speak is that a gentleman called Tony Wright, who won a Winston Churchill travelling scholarship three years ago, spent his time in the United States looking at how they look after their veterans, and as a result we set up a twinning link between Arkansas, Texas and Tyneside. There was already a sister city relationship between Little Rock in Arkansas and Tyneside, and out of that we have developed other work. I had the privilege of going there in December two years ago and I have been there during the recess in the last few years. Some of the things we learned from them are really important.

In no way would I ever denigrate the national health service. What happens in this country is that if someone has a problem, we point them to the national health service. Everyone has problems, but veterans have greater problems. One thing the American Veterans Health Administration has learned is that the issues involve more than health problems. It has learned through the terrible experience of men who came back from Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, which was horrendous. They were treated like pariahs in America and were seen as failures, with people spitting on them and calling them all sorts of names such as “traitor”. People who had been in the forces were treated like dirt; people who were opposed to the war were treating them like dirt. It was not the fault of those guys that things went the way they did; it was the fault of our counterparts in various US Administrations over the years.

Thankfully, the light came on in the States, and as a result of that and some huge commitments by their Government, they now have the Veterans Health Administration, which works much better, possibly than anywhere else in the world. It is well resourced and provides a wrap-around service. When someone leaves the services they are provided with a mobile phone and are regularly contacted during the first year to see how they are doing. That might seem a simple thing, but it is vital for some of these people. Their education, housing, work and health needs are looked after.

We had the privilege of sitting in with a psychiatrist who was linked by CCTV to a gentleman who was 200 miles north in Arkansas. Because of benefit cuts, he could not afford to drive to meet the psychiatrist, but the Veterans Health Association had paid for the link. The gentleman knew we were there and to me it was one of the best things I have seen in my life. The guy was 65 years old and it was 40 years since he had left the services. He had worked in a mortuary in Vietnam. He had survived the trauma of that with a lot of black humour—people doing inappropriate things with body parts.

The veteran told the psychiatrist that 40 years later he was lying in bed trying to sleep, but could not. After 25 years of drug addiction he had managed to kick the

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habit because a judge had said, “If you come back here again, you are going to jail for life.” He had been clean for seven years and had got his dream job working in a golf club, but he said, “I am terribly fatigued because I go to bed at night and I can’t sleep, so I am going to work in the morning and I can’t concentrate, and I am terrified I am going to lose my job.” The psychiatrist said, “Look, we are going to bring you down to the hospital, monitor your sleeping patterns and monitor your medication, and make sure you can do what you want to do.” The veteran, who was a simple, old-fashioned working bloke, was delighted. That is the sort of thing we could learn from the people over there.

Another lesson from America involved the criminal justice system. The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke—my hon. Friend—referred to people who have been in prison. One thing they are doing in the States that is really innovative, is to stop them going to prison in the first place. People who have been involved in low-level crime must, first and foremost, admit their guilt. A system was set up that was developed from drugs courts. Someone goes in front of a judge in a veterans treatment court, where every one of the staff and the officials has been in the services. Their motto is that no one will fail.

The experience of the court in Buffalo, which was the first veterans treatment court, was that of 300 people who went through the system there, not one went back to crime. It worked for the benefit of the individual and society. It was economic and there was low crime. I am not saying it is foolproof because nothing is foolproof, but we should look at that seriously in this House. My party is committed to that, on the back of the experience that we brought back from over there. There will be serious discussions. I know, from discussions that we have had in the main Chamber of the House of Commons, that as part of the review that was mentioned earlier, the Government are looking at that example as a way of developing support for veterans.

When we raised the matter in our local area, I went on the radio and was assailed by someone who said, “Hang on. If someone has committed a crime we should bang them up. Why should we treat them differently from a window cleaner, a bricklayer or whatever? Why should veterans be a special case?” Well, we are a special case because of what we do.

We ask these people to go round the world and be prepared to kill for us and be prepared to die for us. We ask them to do abnormal things. If someone starts shooting at us, we do not run towards them, we run away from them, but those in the services are not allowed to run away from them. We ask them to kill people and if they do not kill people they end up in jail, whereas if anyone else kills someone they end up in jail. So veterans are a special case and we owe them the best possible support we can give them. I hope that in future discussions —I hope they will be cross-party because we should all be able to agree on this—we can learn the lessons not just of what people have experienced over the last few years, and work closely with the Americans.

During our discussions with the Veterans Health Administration in America, someone said that they are seeing a tsunami of health-related issues coming at them as a result of what people have gone through, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. People were exposed to the pressures over there for 24 hours a day, which we have

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not seen in the past—those who served in Northern Ireland and so on. During the second world war and so on, the pressures were not there every waking moment of their lives, but for the men and women I am talking about they have been and we must give them the best support we can.

Hugh Bayley(in the Chair): I call Jim Shannon and gently remind him to leave sufficient time for the Minister to reply.

4.59 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I will leave plenty of time for the Minister because it is important to have his response. I congratulate the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on giving us the opportunity to speak about this matter. It is good to be able to participate in the debate. I commend him on his service in Afghanistan. It is good to have MPs of that calibre and experience in this House so that they can relate their experience to the rest of us.

Recently, I had the chance to be in the armed forces parliamentary scheme; I declare an interest as a former part-time soldier for 14-and-a-half years. The scheme gave me a chance as a Member of Parliament to meet today’s soldiers and to hear what they were about. Opportunities that we had in Afghanistan, at the training camps in Canada, Kenya and across all the places in the United Kingdom, on the mainland and elsewhere, enabled us to hear just what they were thinking.

We heard from soldiers getting sent back to the United Kingdom about the battlefields of Afghanistan—we heard strong memories of those—and about stopping over in Cyprus. That let them step down from the pressure that they were under while patrolling in Afghanistan and relax, and it got them ready for an ordinary life back in the United Kingdom. The armed forces parliamentary scheme gave us a better chance, as Members of Parliament, to see those things.

We also had a chance to speak not only to the officers, but to the soldiers. Sometimes we got two different opinions, but it is always good to hear what the men and women think, and we got that straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Whatever issues they brought to our attention we then brought to the attention of the Minister.

In Northern Ireland, we have a tradition of service in uniform, and our level of recruitment is the envy of the rest of the United Kingdom, as Members know. Service in the Army could mean the full-time Army—the Regulars —or the Territorial Army, and our levels of recruitment in the TA and in the Reserve forces are the envy of many parts of the United Kingdom. We meet soldiers and their families every day in my office, and I want to make this point: sometimes we focus on those who served in Afghanistan and maybe we forget—not intentionally—and need to be reminded of those who served in Iraq.

A gentleman came into my office the other week, and Iraq had clearly had an impact on him. He was one of those who was vaccinated, which, as Members are probably aware, had a detrimental effect on some people. That was not the case with everyone, but it certainly affected him. When he returned, his life became very different from how it was before he went to Iraq. He lost his family, his friends and his health, and he now exists

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on benefits, but he is still a bright guy, which is good. At the same time, when I spoke to him, I realised that inside was a guy who was taking on the troubles of the world.

This is short notice, so if the Minister cannot answer today I will be happy to receive a response later, but what are we doing for the veterans of Iraq and those who had vaccinations detrimental to their health? It is so important that that matter is addressed. I know the Democratic Unionist party held a debate in the Chamber and the Minister responded, but none the less, today is an opportunity to hit upon that as well.

The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) referred to some of the good work being done in his area. I am amazed by the people who make the effort—the volunteers and organisations that give so much. Where would we be in this country if we did not have the thousands upon thousands of volunteers, in whatever sphere of life that may be?

In terms of the armed forces, in my constituency we have the Ards & North Down Phoenix Group, which has some 600 people on its books. It draws from those in the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Ulster Defence Regiment, and it does tremendous work—not just for them, but for the families. That is critical to integrating people back into society and to dealing with the issues that they have every day. Members have spoken about SSAFA, and those of us of a certain vintage know that organisation. SSAFA has been doing tremendous work for many years.

I want to take the opportunity to mention some of the people involved in this work in my town of Newtownards, in the middle of my constituency. Georgina Carlisle and Yvonne Ritchie are just two of the ladies who meet those who are coming back directly and who help those excellent volunteers. There is no money involved; they do that work because they want to, and we are greatly obliged to them.

There is the Royal British Legion as well. Today, there was a small reception here. I went to it because one of my friends in the Conservative party said, “It’s on today if you want to take a run down”, so I did. It was specifically for the MPs in southern England, by the way, but none the less, it was good to speak to people there and to hear what they wanted us to do. There is a wee issue there that can be addressed through the Department for Social Development and through the Minister responsible. It is a devolved matter and I would certainly be glad to take that up with them directly to make sure that we can address that issue. I believe it is important to do so.

In my area, there is a group called Beyond the Battlefield, an established charity in my constituency that does tremendous work for veterans. Rob McCartney and Annemarie Hastings are two people involved in that. Both of them do lots of interaction with veterans who return—mostly those with post-traumatic stress disorder and with serious problems. They usually fight appeals for veterans when it comes to getting pensions, disability living allowance and employment and support allowance, and they make sure that these people are looked after and not forgotten about when they come home.

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When all the pressure is on veterans, the group helps them with financial, emotional and relationship advice. It is a tremendous effort. I know the Minister is coming to Northern Ireland, and I have invited her to my constituency. In advance of that, I offer to show her what the group does so that she can meet some of the people. I think she will be impressed by the group’s work. So many charities offer services, but Beyond the Battlefield is very close to my heart, because it provides help for veterans.

The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland will ensure a better and more constant level of support for veterans right across the Province. Over the last five years, I have had the privilege of participating in SSAFA’s coffee morning in Newtownards, and the good people of Newtownards have contributed some £15,000 to its coffers.

In terms of housing, benefits, employment and relationships, the military covenant is as important in Northern Ireland as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. When we debated it in the House a few weeks ago, the Minister said that things were 95% in place in Northern Ireland. Obviously, we want to make sure that we nudge along the other 5%, but I am greatly encouraged by her efforts and by her response and that of the Department. None of us is unimpressed by our veterans—by those who serve today and those who have served in the past.

I come to my last point. Sometimes I look back and think of the repatriation of those who gave their lives in Afghanistan. One thing that brought it home to me and to the nation as a whole was Wootton Bassett, because that was a reminder of their sacrifice, and today, through this debate—through the support and rehabilitation of veterans—we can be reminded of the good work that they do.

5.8 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Anna Soubry): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and it has also been a great pleasure to listen to this debate. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing the debate. However, I think we made a bit of a mistake, because really we could have done with a 90-minute Backbench Business debate. If any of my hon. Friends—everyone is now an hon. Friend in this debate—wanted to put that forward, we could exhaust 90 minutes quite easily.

I am grateful for the contributions that have been made and I hope to address all the points raised. As my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will know, my usual rule is that if I do not respond to a particular matter, issue or topic, my officials will address it in writing. Members can be assured that my officials will address all the important points that have been made; I apologise if I do not cover them all.

I start by stating the obvious. We are all grateful for the service of my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke and all those who serve in whatever capacity. We did a survey last year where we looked at why people were joining our armed forces. It was interesting to discover that they did so for the same reasons that people have always joined our armed forces: a sense of adventure and a desire to see new places and experience new things, as well as a recognition of the huge skills that they gain through their service.

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We heard mention of Lord Ashcroft’s report. I pay full tribute to the noble Lord for conducting the review on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Lord Ashcroft explored all the difficulties with transitions. It was a very positive report. We know that the overwhelming majority of people have a good experience when they leave service and go into civilian life, but even though the number of people who do not have a good experience may be small, it is nevertheless an important number. The issue affects each and every one of them and their families. We often forget the sacrifices that the families have already made. It is imperative that we ensure that people transit into civilian life as well as they can and that, when they fall on difficult times, we have everything there to support them. We know that the transition does not work out for some people, and it is incumbent on us to do our best for them.

The covenant is, if I may say so, one of the best things that we have achieved in government. We have put it into statute. I accept that it does not have legal force, in that it is not a principle that anyone could take legal action on, but it is very important. I am delighted that it has been signed up to by all the local authorities, apart from those in Northern Ireland. For obvious reasons, there is a difficult situation there, but all the other local authorities on mainland UK have signed up to it. To repeat, it means no disadvantage for anyone who has served or is in service or for their families, and special consideration for those who are bereaved and for those who have been particularly badly injured in service.

We talk about how we are going to enforce the covenant, and my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked about its enforcement. We in the national Government have started to deliver on it, the decision about widow’s pensions being a very good example of that, but it is incumbent on all the local authorities, which have signed up, now to deliver on it.

That does not necessarily cost a lot of money. I pay tribute to the extremely good local initiatives that hon. Members have mentioned in this short debate, because it is at local level that we actually do the work. Yes, there is stuff that Government can do, but it is locally that it is delivered. There is a real role for MPs acting in their local area, as a constituency MP, and a real role for councillors. Let us be honest: there is nothing that a councillor enjoys more. Many councillors do not have the sort of responsibility, the ability to make a difference to their communities, that they want to have. That is perhaps a feature of modern life, but councillors really can start to deliver on the covenant. I do not care which political party they belong to. They should be able to say proudly on their leaflets, “This is what we have achieved as an administration” or “This is what I have achieved as a local councillor in delivering on the covenant.”

That is so important, which is why I will write to every leader and chief executive of every local authority to ask them, “Have you or would you appoint an armed forces champion and then will you test all your policies against the document that you have signed up to?” I think that asking those questions and making them see that they can do something without, as I said, having to spend a lot of money will mean that they willingly take up the challenge.

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Jim Shannon: The Minister talks about speaking directly to all the councils. Given that this comes from Westminster, is that something that she would do for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? I think that it would be important that we did do that.

Anna Soubry: I intend to write to every single local authority, so that will include all the Welsh and all the Scottish authorities; I see no division there. However, I said, after the hon. Gentleman had to pop out of the Chamber, that I know the situation is different in Northern Ireland. We discussed that at length in the main Chamber. It was an excellent debate, and I look forward to my visit and all that I will learn.

I began this part of my speech by talking about Lord Ashcroft’s report, which looked specifically at the transition to civilian life. I think that I can sum the position up in this way; it is certainly a view that I share. It seems a bit perverse to say to someone on the day that they sign up, “We want you now to start thinking about the day you leave. Plan your service accordingly.” An 18 or 19-year-old will have some difficulty with that, but it is the standard that we seek to set. The view that we take is, “You are great when you sign up. That is obviously the case or we wouldn’t take you on. But by the time you come to leave the service, you will be even better, not only as a human being but because of the skills and the other things that we will give you.”

Jack Lopresti: My youngest boy is joining the military next year—he is hoping to be a paratrooper in the Army —but for more than a year now I have been trying to explain that when he chooses the branch of service, he needs to be thinking already about what he wants to do afterwards and to act accordingly, which is very difficult.

Anna Soubry: I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend has said, as he did in his speech, all the things that I would want to say, so I will not repeat everything; he puts it far better than I can.

I join in the tributes paid by my hon. Friend to the big, national charities. We have talked about SSAFA. That charity is often forgotten, but it is a fabulous charity and does great work. We know the Royal British Legion. I am reminded of a study that it has just done. I am happy to share the results by way of a letter, because I cannot go through all the statistics now. It has done a big survey of veterans, and some of the things in it concern me. I am talking about the rates among veterans of, for example, long-term illness and depression. It says that they are higher, although if we look across the mental health piece, we know that actually our veterans, people coming out of service, do not suffer higher levels of mental health problems than the rest of the population. That does not mean that the issue is not important, but we have to set these things in context, because as the RBL says, there are a number of myths. One is that most people are damaged by their service. That is not true. The majority of our veterans enjoy good mental health, for example. We are told that many are homeless. We have heard the stats; it is only 3%. I know that 3% is still 3% too many, but 3% of London’s homeless population are ex-service personnel.

There is also the issue of the number of veterans in prisons, and I shall deal with some of the very good points made by my friend the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) in his excellent speech. We think that

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3% to 7% of prisoners are veterans, but I heard the figures that the hon. Gentleman gave from his extensive experience in his own constituency.

I want to give a quick mention to Help for Heroes. It does a fabulous job, but when I go, as I have gone, to Tedworth House, I can see that it is a place that could take more people. I want us to get into the position whereby someone who is being medically discharged from service has the opportunity to go to Tedworth House, so that it can put them in the very place that the hon. Gentleman wants them to be in before they leave service. I want people, if they do hit troubles, bad times and all the rest of it, to have somewhere to go back to—an organisation to go back to that can then pass them on to a local charity.

Mr Anderson: The figures that I cited were not actually from the local area. They were from the rehabilitation advisory service, which works closely with the veterans project. The work involves going into prisons and talking to people; it is not just a case of writing to someone and saying, “How many veterans have you had here?” It is good evidence, and we gave it to the Minister’s predecessor.

Anna Soubry: I am very grateful. I would very much enjoy having a conversation with the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter further. I pay tribute to the work that he does and the knowledge that he has brought to this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked specifically about veterans’ accommodation. There is £40 million of LIBOR funding for that. Nine out of the 16 projects that have been successful have been announced; a further seven will be announced next month by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

There are schemes to support veterans involved in the criminal justice system. I was really interested in the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Blaydon. I have always been resistant to the idea of veterans courts, but he has begun to convince me. Certainly I am going to keep an open mind on it; he has persuaded me to keep my mind open to it. The danger, I am told, is that many of those who have served say, “Why should we be seen as something different or special? We do not need our own court.” My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke addressed that argument. My experience in the Crown court was that when a judge knew that someone was serving or had served, they took that heavily into consideration before deciding whether to pass a custodial sentence, because they recognised the sacrifice and the duty that the individual had performed by serving in one of our armed services.

In the time that remains, I want to deal with the some of the points that have been raised. In particular, I want to talk about mental health, which always comes up, and I know that it concerns so many people in this place and outside it. I give full credit to the charity Forward Assist, which the hon. Member for Blaydon has mentioned and of which, I believe, he is a patron. He brings to the debate insight and understanding. I think that the charity is a good example of how we should deliver on the covenant, namely through local delivery by a good local charity that knows the people who need help and knows how to go and find them. Knowing how to find such people is one of the big problems.

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I have confidence, and I hope I am not overstating it, in where we are now. We have heard from the hon. Member for Strangford about Cyprus. We know that in respect of people who were involved in Afghanistan in the theatre of war, our armed forces have really woken up to mental health. As a society, we have woken up to mental health, and much of the stigma has been removed from it. In our armed forces, the rather macho attitude of “We do not talk about these things. Be a man and get on with it,” has given way to a much healthier attitude to mental health. It is seen much more as part of general health. People look after their weight, and they look after their head at the same time. Looking after their mental health is part of being fit for service. We are building resilience and we are encouraging people to talk about mental health. As the hon. Gentleman has identified, people go to Cyprus from Afghanistan, where they go through a period of decompression. They are encouraged to be open and to talk.

It is hugely significant that our former Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Peter Wall, chose to become president of Combat Stress when he retired, even though he had many charities to choose from. That shows that people are no longer afraid, and no longer feel that it is some sort of slight, to talk about mental health. People recognise how important it is that we get it right, and a lot of good work has been done. I am concerned about people—they are mainly men—who served in previous combats, such as Iraq, the Falklands and Northern Ireland, who did not have many of those facilities and do not come from that generation of service. I fear that they have slipped through the net. They may end up in trouble or in a bad place, and they may feel that there is nobody to support or help them.

That is where the fabulous local charities come into play, because they have the ability to scoop up such people at a local level and get them into the right place. In my constituency, there is a fabulous local charity called Forces in the Community, which is looking at schemes with the local police. If the police pick up someone who is drunk, misbehaving, or engaged in low-level crime and they discover that that person is a veteran, they do not go through the normal process of giving the individual a caution. Instead, they look sensibly and intelligently at doing things differently by, for example, placing the individual with an organisation such as Forces in the Community. If, for example, someone has a problem with drugs or drink, if they are homeless or if their marriage is falling to pieces, they are put together with local organisations that can help them. In such a way, we can deliver what we should be delivering for all our veterans.

The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned vaccinations in Iraq, and I will take that issue away and deal with it. Mr Bayley, I think I have enough time to talk quickly about the career transition partnership—

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Two minutes.

Anna Soubry: Two minutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke asked about the partnership, which offers transition and employment support for up to two years pre-discharge and two years post-discharge. From 1 October next year, the career transition partnership contract will include all service leavers. I hope that that is good news.

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I fear that there are all sorts of other questions that I should have answered and matters that I should have dealt with, but I am running out of time. I thank all who have contributed to this debate. As I have said, it could easily have taken up 90 minutes, and probably more, and we should have such a debate. I have certainly learned a lot, and if I have missed anything, I will write to my hon. Friends and cover those points in better detail than I have done.

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Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): I, too, have learned a lot. It has been a privilege to listen to the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

5.25 pm

Sitting adjourned.