Commons Debate on the Rehabilitation of ex-service personnel


Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I wish to speak to new clauses 2 and 3. As the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) has just pointed out, the Secretary of State has asked me to lead a review into these matters. I would like to pay huge tribute to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for the work they have done on that. There has been a very good cross-party focus on the matter over the past few years, and I have a huge amount to learn.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee visited Washington last summer and saw at first hand some of the stuff we are talking about? Is he willing to take evidence from some of the Members who were on that trip to ensure that it is included as well?

Rory Stewart: I would be delighted to do that. My hon. Friend’s intervention reminds me just how much expertise there is in the House. I see that there is an enormous amount of expertise on the Opposition side of the House. He has a great deal of expertise on the matter, as do many other Members in the Chamber this afternoon.

We need to focus on this for three reasons: first, because we have an obligation towards individuals in the criminal justice system as a whole; secondly, because we have a huge obligation specifically to those who have served in the armed forces; and thirdly, because we have an obligation to society as a whole. The US experience suggests that there is something we can do. It is unusual in such a situation to find that we have concrete levers that might be able to improve our relationship to reoffending.

There already exists enormous expertise, for example in the Howard League for Penal Reform, Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion, and in the work that has been done by all the forces charities—29 different forces charities are currently working on the issue. There is also deep expertise in our universities. For example, King’s College London has done an enormous amount of work on some of the trauma elements, and in the past 24 hours I have been contacted by seven doctoral students doing theses on these issues. I hope not to try to reinvent the wheel, but to learn an enormous amount, including from Opposition Members, to make this as much of a cross-party enterprise as possible and to bring in the expertise that is here.

Alison Seabeck: I look forward to the results of the work that the hon. Gentleman is undertaking, which I know he will do with a great deal of care and intelligence. We are talking a lot about trauma and front-line experience being among the key issues, but surely the institutionalisation of young men in particular has an impact on how they behave when they come out. That must also be part of his review.

Rory Stewart: That is a very important intervention. First, essentially we need to be looking at the base data. We need to understand what exactly is happening because, as hon. Members have pointed out, we do not yet have enough data on that. Secondly, we need to look at the causes of the incidence of offending and reoffending by people who have formerly been in the armed forces. Thirdly, we need to look at our response. In doing that, we need to be absolutely sure that we are not stigmatising. We must make it absolutely clear that we are not trying somehow to portray people who have been in the armed forces as more likely to offend. In fact, a lot of the data suggest that they might be less likely to offend than those from similar socio-economic backgrounds. We need to get that clear. It is important in terms of the recruitment and employability of people leaving the armed forces.

On the specific issue of causes, most of the research, according to my preliminary reading, suggests that the hon. Lady is absolutely right that there are different elements, one of which may be experiences before people join the military. For example, people who join the infantry tend, comparatively, to come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. A second element is experiences in the military, such as combat stress, and another is that raised by the hon. Lady, namely the question of what happens when individuals leave the military and go from what for many of them may be a very fulfilling institutional framework in which they feel a strong amount of team work and esprit de corps, to suddenly finding themselves in an environment in which perhaps less support exists.

That said, people coming out of the armed forces already benefit enormously from the forces charities and even from individual regimental associations, so we should not underestimate the amount of support that exists or try to reinvent the wheel.

Oliver Colvile rose—

Rory Stewart: I will give way for a final time.

Oliver Colvile: Will my hon. Friend also recognise that in the United States of America all veterans are given a mobile phone when they leave the military and receive a couple of telephone calls during the following six months to a year, which means that there is permanent contact?

Rory Stewart: That is a good point on which to conclude.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind) rose—

Rory Stewart: I can see that the hon. Lady wishes to intervene and I will let her do so.

Lady Hermon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking an intervention from me as a Member who represents a constituency in Northern Ireland. I know that he will be very sensitive to the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland, which has in the past been very divisive for some sections of the community. May I urge the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind, when he does his research in Northern Ireland, that former members of the Royal Irish Regiment and the Ulster Defence Regiment are very reluctant to raise their profile, because they are anxious not to be targeted by dissident republicans? I would be keen to meet the hon. Gentleman when he comes to Northern Ireland to do his research and to be as helpful as I possibly can be. I am sure I speak for all Members who usually sit on these Benches.

Rory Stewart: I thank the hon. Lady very much for her offer and I would love to take it up. On the penultimate intervention, the provision of mobile phones is a simple example of a very important point that every Member has raised so far: what we do know about veterans who offend and reoffend is that the military provides a very powerful possible support network. Unlike other sectors of society, it provides an instrument or lever that could be incredibly helpful and supportive to backing people in their recovery process. Trying to make sure that we get the very best out of institutions that already exist will be the key. We have an obligation to the individuals who offend and reoffend; we have a particular obligation towards the military; and we have an obligation towards society as a whole.

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