Military 'should have preferential NHS treatment'

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Military families should get preferential access to public services such as the NHS, schools and dentistry under proposals backed by the head of Britain's armed forces.

Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of Defence Staff, said that families of servicemen and women should "get a little bit more" because of the sacrifices they make for the nation. He is negotiating with Gordon Brown and Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, to secure a "level playing field" for military families as part of a new strategy on personnel due to be published in the next few weeks.

But in comments yesterday that will pile pressure on Gordon Brown to offer a better deal to service families, Sir Jock said many people lost out as they were unable to maintain places on hospital waiting lists or get their children a place at local schools if they were moved around the country.

He said: "My objective is to see as an absolute starting point that there is a level playing field for our people. But then from my perspective that there should be a little bit more. That actually they should be treated a little bit better because of the service they give to their country and the sacrifices they make for the country."

Sir Jock added: "In all of this there are opportunities to make life just a little bit better for our people. I don't want to go into the details of how one might do this but there are ideas out there which are not massively expensive, which are not to the detriment of other people in society, but they are just another reflection of the country saying we recognise that you give up a lot compared to other citizens and because of that, here is this good deal."

Sir Jock used a speech at Westminster to warn that bread-and-butter issues of public services ranked among the greatest concerns of military families.

He said: "They are about access to dentists when they move home, access to doctors, getting their children into decent schools when they are posted to different areas. They are about making sure they get the same level of service from society that everyone else gets. At the moment the families are disadvantaged by their spouses' service."

Last week the Conservatives proposed giving service families guarantees of a place on dentists' lists even if they were full, and offering them a pledge that they would not lose their place on NHS waiting lists if posted elsewhere.

Yesterday Liam Fox, the shadow Defence Secretary, backed Sir Jock's comments. He said: "This government must ensure they treat our armed forces and their families with the respect they deserve. To date this has not been the case."

But Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said there was a case at looking at the "unique circumstances" but was not convinced about "across the board preferential treatment".