This was the maiden speech from Johnny Mercer MP.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh).
I want to start by thanking my predecessor, Ms Alison Seabeck. She worked hard in the course of the past decade to help some of the most vulnerable people in Plymouth. She never waivered in her commitment to her party, albeit a different one from mine.
The great city of Plymouth, which I have been sent here to represent, has a history and stature to rival our nation’s capital. Some of our country’s defining moments have occurred in the “jewel of the south-west” that is Plymouth. It has a recent character defined in some of the darkest days of the conflicts that dominated the previous century.
In the carnage of the second world war, the sacrifices of those on the home front in cities outside London cannot always be first recalled. During the war, more than 1,100 souls perished on Plymouth’s streets, with a nightly exodus to Dartmoor keeping as many children alive as possible. I mention this because that period of war defined our modern history in Plymouth. From the ruins of those dark days sprang the spirit of a modern Plymouth. A huge period of regeneration saw the building of 1,000 homes a year in the 1950s under the Homes for Heroes plan.
It was those days of regeneration and rebirth and the spirit of discovery that engendered what we affectionately call our Janner spirit. In the general election just passed, I tried to knock on every door in my constituency—and I almost succeeded. I am pleased to report that the Janner spirit is truly alive and well: from local community projects to saving our football club; from pioneering mental health and substance misuse treatments to a world-class hospital at Derriford; and from cutting edge
businesses growing an increasingly resilient local economy to the plethora of ambitious and socially aware social enterprises in the city, we truly have a special place on the southern shores of this country that has recently seen a new dawn and is in serious danger of realising its potential.
We in Plymouth have contributed to this nation’s history as much as any other major city. This has continued through recent conflicts. It cannot be right that our transport, health and other spending settlements are less than half of what they are elsewhere. In a seat that once elected Michael Foot, I do not underestimate the burden of trust that the people of my city have placed at my door to ensure that we as a Government deliver a more resilient, stable and fair economy that must include better funding settlements from central Government for our core services in Plymouth.
I want to speak briefly about my two main missions in this Parliament. First, mental health provision in this country remains poor. There are some extremely dogged and determined characters who fight night and day to improve the services offered to those who struggle with mental health problems. Often, those who struggle with mental health problems cannot shout for themselves and suffer in silence because of the ridiculous stigma placed on mental health. That stigma ends in this Parliament. It is not good enough to have sympathy, empathy even, or simply to understand these issues when they affect someone close to us. It is time to get this right and I look forward to starting this crusade in Plymouth.
Secondly, the past decade and a half has defined a whole generation of us in often unseen wars against enemies of the state that only seem to grow darker. We have no complaints about the duty that we have chosen. It formed many of us; indeed, it made many of us who we are today. We were proud to defend this great nation in the same traditions of the immense sacrifices of our forefathers. However, last week my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke of the gravity of the end of combat operations in Afghanistan. For many families, that marks the end of the sleepless nights by the phone and the ever-dreaded knock at the door.
I am sorry to report, however, that there remains a great stain on this nation of ours when it comes to conflict. In 2012, we reached a very unwelcome threshold when, tragically, more soldiers and veterans killed themselves than were killed on operational service in defence of the realm. It goes without saying that there are some genuine heroes in our communities and charities up and down this land who work tirelessly night and day to look after and assist those who have found returning to a peaceful life the biggest challenge of all. A great many of these veterans are not only from Afghanistan.
My key point is this: there has been a fundamental misunderstanding by Governments of all colours over the years that veterans’ care is a third sector responsibility and that the great British public, in all their wonderful generosity, support our troops well enough, and any new initiative is met with the response, “Well, there must be a charity for that.” That is fundamentally and unequivocally wrong, and I make no apologies for pointing it out to anyone of any rank or position who may be offended by my candour.
I am not a charity and neither were my men. We gave the best years of our lives in defending the privileges, traditions and freedoms that this House and all Members
enjoy. It is therefore the duty of this House to look after them and, crucially, their families when they return. I would be grateful if you would grant me your patience, Mr Deputy Speaker, to bring just two of them to the attention of the House this evening.
Lance Sergeant Dan Collins of the Welsh Guards was typical of the soldiers I was privileged to command in my tours of Afghanistan. His story had a profound effect on me. I implore Members to look him up tonight before they go to bed and to read his story. He endured events that were atypical of a fighting man’s deployment in that theatre. He returned to Britain’s arms a deeply scarred man and entered a dark, dark place that too many are familiar with. Dan worked hard to try to find treatment that worked for him, but repeated changes of staff and six-hour round trips for appointments did very little indeed. He fought his demons with the same spirit and courage that he had demonstrated on a daily basis against the enemies of the state in foreign fields. When he returned home, however, unlike when he was in his battalion, we did not have his back.
Dan liked to take on his demons alone in the mountains, where perhaps the outside arena made him feel more empowered. However, in 2012, during the period of new year’s celebrations—that time of year when all the world is celebrating—Dan recorded a video message for his mum on his mobile phone. He said:
“Hey Mum. Just a video, just to say I’m sorry. Ever since I came back from Hell I’ve turned into a horrible person and I don’t like who I am anymore.”
He went on to say:
“I’ve tried everything, and there’s nothing that seems to be working. I love you, and I’ll see you, okay? I love you.”
With that, our nation failed one of her bravest sons once more, as yet another victim of the Afghanistan war lost his life, not bleeding out in some dusty foreign field in the intense pressures of combat but in his homeland, which he had fought so hard to defend.
Next Monday, it will be five years to the day since I conducted a particular dawn patrol in southern Afghanistan with my troops. We were enduring one of the most contested fighting seasons of that campaign in 2010, and fear was rife. I was particularly blessed to have with me in my small team a man of colossal courage called Lance Bombardier Mark Chandler, who in our role was duty-bound to protect me in close-quarter combat while I continued in our primary trade. While most people in this country were still in a morning slumber, we closed in on an enemy position, and in an intense close-quarter gunfight Mark was shot in the face right next to me and died in my arms.
In the five years since, I have become intimately familiar with another quiet yet very stoical group of casualties of this country’s war. Mike and Ann Chandler, Mark’s parents, like parents, wives, sisters and brothers up and down this land, now endure a daily sacrifice. It is very difficult for those of us who have not experienced it to truly grasp the bottomless well of grief that comes from losing a child, husband, brother or sister in war as a result of a grave decision made in this House. Theirs is the greatest sacrifice on the altar of this nation’s continuing freedom, and it is a price that is paid daily. For many families up and down this land, it is indeed at every going down of the sun and every morning that we remember them.
I come here unapologetically to improve the plight of veterans and their families. The last Government under this Prime Minister did more than any before it in this cause, but there is still some way to go. It is a deep privilege to come to this House with the hopes of tens of thousands of Plymothians, and I do not underestimate the duty that is incumbent upon me in the years ahead. I cannot promise anything but noble endeavour, relentless positivity and an abounding sense of duty to look after those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves on the fringes of society, and who find life an interminable struggle. I look forward to the challenge.
Powerful and important stuff, remembering that when all said and done, it is about people.