Support for Britain's fighting troops: When will this be a land fit for heroes?

The 'IoS' panel (below) challenges the armed forces minister over what the Government is doing to honour the Military Covenant
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The Independent Online

The armed forces minister, Bob Ainsworth, yesterday attempted to defend the Government's policy on the Military Covenant after a week when ministers came under criticism from MPs and the Royal British Legion. While the Legion issued its own demand that the nation meet its responsibilities under the Covenant, 'The Independent on Sunday' has been flooded with letters and calls supporting its drive to repair the contract between soldiers and society, which has been broken by poor housing, inappropriate care of the wounded and compensation levels.

The 'IoS' Whitehall Editor, Brian Brady, invited our panel of military figures, politicians, welfare groups and relatives of serving, injured and deceased troops to question the minister. These are their questions and his replies.

Q. Are our forces really being provided with the correct tools with which to do the difficult job we ask them to do?

A. [It is] hugely improved in recent times. We are dishing out the best kit we ever have. You've got to watch what soldiers are providing for themselves, because you can get a lot of good ideas. If people are prepared to pay for something they are doing it for a reason.

Q. Are the soft-skinned "Snatch" Land Rovers safe enough for use by soldiers faced with the constant threat of attack from heavy weapons and roadside bombs?

A. Different vehicles are useful for different operations. Armour isn't the only protection. The enemy changes all the time and we are changing all the time and getting new equipment. Commanders in the field are saying Snatch has utility. What you've got to try to do is to make sure they have other vehicles available so they aren't using it in an inappropriate circumstance, because [then] they can put people's lives at risk.

Q. Are you embarrassed that members of the armed forces are still buying their own kit?

A. It's always going to happen. If I was in Afghanistan I'd probably do the same thing. I've been pleasantly surprised at how [MoD] people listen and pick up ideas from the front line.

Q. As injured soldiers pay taxes like the rest of us, why are they not receiving the specialist treatment they deserve, as they are following government orders and serving their country?

A. The horrible part is that while there is understandably an attachment to military hospitals, medical care for seriously injured people is better provided in hospital.

Q. And why is the MoD allowing the last remaining military hospital in Haslar and the land to be sold for housing?

A. The British Legion campaign is not saying "let's close down the Selly Oak hospital facility". Every bit of advice I get says you don't move out of Selly Oak. They are offering first-class, state-of-the-art treatment to injured soldiers.

Q. Do you really believe that the current medical set-up for 13,000 deployed troops, which are in operational fighting situations where the casualty rate is pretty high, is in any way adequate or satisfactory?

A. Nobody's telling me that it isn't. We've got good surgical facilities and the expertise to save lives in theatre. Our first priority is people who are putting themselves in dangerous situations in theatre. I'm not sure that we haven't got at the moment more comprehensive cover for reserves than we do for the regulars and that's something we've got to look at.

Q. To what extent does the MoD foresee the long-term mental health problems for service men and women who are being exposed to intense combat experiences in Iraq, but in particular Afghanistan, and what positive steps are being taken to ameliorate these?

A. Our understanding of this is growing all the time. Stress is a funny thing, and there's no doubt that soldiers do a stressful job. Providing that check on who is vulnerable when they've been in front-line situations is absolutely essential. Sometimes it's just a case of needing to talk to someone about the way they're feeling and to be reassured it's fine. It is an area we've got to keep under review.

Q. Are the amounts of compensation paid to people like Ben Parkinson a fair recognition of the suffering they have endured in the service of their country?

A. It isn't ever enough, is it? If someone's been badly injured in the service of their country we all want to do as much as we can. Everyone zooms in on the up-front payment [but] the most important part of the compensation package is the pension for life, security for those people that have been injured in service. What the Ben Parkinson issue has thrown up is, are we properly dealing with the multiple injuries – is the structure of the payment right? And that's the element that we're reviewing.

Q. Given that there is a backlog of more than 100 inquests for personnel killed in action, shouldn't there be a specialised military coroner capable of handling the complex circumstances that surround any military fatality?

A. You need an independent coroner. The last thing you want is a coroner's investigation that is attached to the MoD or the armed forces in any way. That's the whole basis of the coroners' services – they're able to look at the circumstances with a fresh set of eyes.

Q. Would you support the creation of a specific bureau charged with handling the affairs of war widows?

A. Nobody has come to me with that idea, and I am not sure what it would do.

Q. Do you agree with the defence committee's conclusion that much of the accommodation provided for service personnel and their families is "appalling"?

A. Overwhelmingly, the army estate was built in the 1950s and even earlier, and it was neglected for decades. We've got a huge building programme and it's very good, but there's so much out there. There's not a magic wand.

Q. Do you concede that your Government has neglected the Military Covenant during its decade in office?

A. We've asked an awful lot of the services. We've got to be seen to be doing all that we can in return for what we've asked. Our military aren't daft enough to think that everything can be right, but they need to see that there's real effort going in in return.

Our aims

We want soldiers to have the right to expect any war to be lawful; to have adequate resources; to have the right to be properly cared for in the event of injury; and the right to know that, in the event of their death, their families will be properly looked after.

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