Ministers' war of words over treatment of ex-servicemen

A furious row broke out between Whitehall departments last night as a Defence minister publicly pilloried his senior government colleagues over what he said was their failure to provide health services for former members of the armed forces.

The Veterans minister Kevan Jones accused Health ministers of "not listening" to the needs of troops suffering severe – and sometimes hidden – traumas from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has insisted that former servicemen and women are given priority on the NHS.

But a Department of Health strategy launched yesterday to improve mental health services makes no mention of veterans. The New Horizons programme will host "listening events" around the country to consult a "wide range of people", and will promote the mental health benefits of mother and toddler groups, lunch clubs for the elderly, inner-city sports societies and community arts projects. A health spokesman conceded there were no plans to talk to armed forces organisations as part of the programme.

Mr Jones berated his colleagues. "This makes me very angry," he said. "As Veterans minister I have raised this directly with the Department of Health. The fact that they don't appear to listen to veterans is not acceptable and I will be taking this up directly with the minister responsible."

That minister is Phil Hope, who is responsible for care services, and the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson.

Former military commanders also attacked the Department of Health's decision to ignore the armed forces in the programme. They insisted that this showed that veterans, far from being a priority, were being ignored.

Colonel Tim Collins, a former commanding officer with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish, said: "It smacks of incompetence that it does not occur to them to speak to Combat Stress, who are the leading experts in armed forces mental health issues."

Patrick Mercer, a former Lieutenant-Colonel and commanding officer with the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, criticised the lack of reference to the armed forces: "It is disgraceful," he said. "The amount of publicity that has been given to mental sickness occasioned by combat makes this unforgivable."

With increasing numbers of personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, serving and past soldiers have been calling for a specialist mental health unit. Many complain that they are forgotten in an overburdened NHS system and do not feel comfortable opening up to people with no understanding of the horrors of war.

Mr Mercer said: "MoD employees have got to be a priority even when they are ex-employees. These are men and women who have been willing to lay down the lives for their country. There is a debt of honour.

"The MoD must continue to monitor these individuals and put pressure on the Department of Health."

A Department of Health spokesman said the mental health of veterans would be considered if it was raised as an issue.

Mr Hope insisted: "The health and well being of those in the armed forces is a priority."

He added: "There will be a full public consultation later in the year that will be as open and inclusive as possible."