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Welsh Liberal Democrats

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The Welsh Armed Forces

November 9, 2011 4:12 PM
By Peter Black
Originally published by Peter Black and South Wales West Liberal Democrats

Peter Black: I move amendment 3 in my name.

I note that the amendment is almost identical to the Government's amendment. The reason for that is not because there has been any collusion between us, but because the commitment in the motion to develop and implement a dedicated armed forces card, although commendable, is open-ended and not clearly defined. It is right that we should look at how that will be implemented and undertake a consultation on what exactly it will apply to before making that commitment. It does not mean to say that we are not supportive of it, just that much more work needs to be done on it so that we are clear about what the armed forces card will deliver. I am sure that the Conservative group will make some points to clarify that for us, but we believe that there should be some form of consultation and greater consideration as to how it will be implemented before we commit to it.

It is highly appropriate that this motion is being discussed today, just a few days before Remembrance Day, and, as the motion says, with the 100-year anniversary of the great war in a few years' time, although, of course, many other wars have taken place since then. A minister at a church service yesterday asked me whether I was going to the annual Remembrance Day service in Swansea, which I hope to do so on Sunday. He told me that he had noticed that the soldiers attending the service were getting younger because so many wars are now being fought, and so many soldiers are suffering. Although I have no direct experience of war, I have seen for myself a number of people in my community suffering the effects of PTSD and I have seen the impact of that on their lives. One person whom I knew who was a veteran of the Falklands war unfortunately died as a result of his dependence on alcohol as a result of that experience. The impact of that illness on the lives of many individuals as a result of experiences in the theatre of war was a great tragedy.

Eighteen thousand people leave the armed forces each year, some of whom have significant physical or mental health problems. Up to 30 per cent of people exposed to a stressful event or situation of an exceptionally threatening or catastrophic nature will go on to develop PTSD. We need to bear in mind that that does not just apply to the armed forces; it also applies to members of the emergency services who often work in stressful situations and who often see some horrific things as part of their work. We need to bear that in mind as well.

3.30 p.m.

The Ministry of Defence is obliged to support service personnel for a year after they leave the forces, and I think that Lindsey Whittle made an absolutely correct point that not enough work is done to assess the likelihood of someone developing PTSD, although it sometimes develops many years afterwards. However, it is the case that priority care in the NHS is already available for forces veterans, but that is not widely known by GPs or, often, by veterans themselves. According to an Ipsos MORI poll, 81 per cent of GPs across England and Wales did not know that this existed. Therefore, we clearly need to do much more to promote the existing scheme before extending it. We know that the Assembly has debated the council tax benefits that are available to members of the armed forces.

I am particularly concerned about the issue of tackling PTSD in Wales, which should be a priority. Lindsay referred to the excellent charity Healing the Wounds, with which I have also had contact in the past. Most armed forces personnel would probably rather see improved availability of PTSD services than have free entry to leisure centres and Cadw sites. Currently, the provision for treating people with PTSD in Wales is inadequate to meet the levels of demand. Wales has no specialist residential treatment centre for PTSD. Similar establishments in England are heavily oversubscribed and waiting lists are long.

PTSD could affect anyone exposed to a stressful situation. I would have liked to have tabled an amendment to this motion to include people working in emergency services as well as the armed forces, but the scope of the motion did not allow for that. However, we must tackle this issue, and although the Minister for health will not be replying to this debate, I am sure that she will take on board the concerns that have been expressed around the Chamber about the availability of treatment for people who have PTSD and perhaps look again at the services that are available to see how we can possibly strengthen that treatment for people.

I hope that Members will support our amendment 3 or the Government's amendment 2, because we need to take the armed forces card forward, but in a considered way and after proper consultation.

Paul Davies: It gives me great pleasure to take part in today's debate on the Welsh armed forces. It is a timely debate, given that the cross-party Westminster Welsh Affairs Committee will investigate whether the Ministry of Defence, the Wales Office and the Welsh Government are working together to give veterans the best help that can be provided. I sincerely hope that the Welsh Government will feed into that consultation process and work with the Welsh Affairs Committee throughout the duration of that inquiry. We know that there are almost 0.25 million armed forces veterans in Wales, and I am sure that we all acknowledge and respect the incredible contribution that our armed forces make, even as we speak, on active duty all over the world. It is essential, therefore, that proper care and support are available to our armed forces personnel when they return home.

The second part of our motion refers to post-traumatic stress disorder and the need for the Welsh Government to do everything that it can to address the needs of our armed forces and ex-forces personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder. That includes recognising that this will require direct engagement with them. As we are all aware, during the last Assembly, the Health, Wellbeing and Local Government Committee conducted an inquiry into post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the committee's recommendations urged the then Welsh Assembly Government to address the need for increased capacity in the NHS to provide specialist therapeutic treatments for veterans suffering from PTSD, including the use of talking therapies, such as those provided by Talking2Minds. In the Welsh Government's package of support document, it clearly states that:

'The Welsh Government is also currently taking forward the recommendations contained within the Health Well-Being and Local Government Committee Inquiry into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Services for Veterans'.

Perhaps the Minister, in his response, will give us an update on the work that the Welsh Government has done on taking forward the recommendations since the publication of the committee's report earlier this year.

It is also important to note that, during the inquiry, evidence from the Royal British Legion suggested that 81 per cent of GPs and other clinicians in the health service were not aware that veterans were entitled to priority treatment for conditions that were related to their time in the forces. This is something that must change. I hope that the Minister for Health and Social Services will address this issue and do everything that she can to ensure that general practitioners and other clinicians are fully aware of the entitlement of veterans to NHS treatment for service-related conditions. The Royal British Legion, in its manifesto for the Assembly elections, called on the Welsh Government to make the NHS priority treatment system work for veterans with injuries caused by service in the armed forces, to ensure that local authorities meet their statutory obligations to provide disabled facilities grants to veterans who need adaptations to their homes, and that all local authorities publish consistent and transparent data on waiting times. As the Welsh Labour manifesto states that they will 'continue to provide priority NHS treatment', perhaps the Minister will be kind enough to outline the progress that has been made by the Welsh Government in supporting armed forces veterans with aftercare since the elections in May.

As has already been said, it is our view on this side of the Chamber that there should be a veterans card that would recognise the loyalty and courage of our armed forces by improving their access to NHS treatment. Clearly, the purpose of this card would be to formalise the benefits available to our veterans, which would entitle all service personnel resident in Wales to priority treatment for service-related conditions or injuries on the NHS, as well as the priority delivery of disabled facilities grants for home adaptation. It would also give them free bus travel, and free entry to council-run leisure facilities and to Cadw heritage sites. We also believe that we should increase the amount of support for veterans to access leisure facilities to help them integrate into society and meet new people. While we do not wish to be dismissive of what the Welsh Government or any public bodies have done to support veterans and their families so far, we simply believe that more can be done to support our ex-army personnel. We are currently living in difficult financial times, but this is a matter of priorities, and we on this side of the Chamber believe that this is an issue of priority for the Welsh Government. I urge Members to support our motion.