Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to review and report to Parliament annually on the support provided to armed forces veterans across the United Kingdom in respect of access to health services, access to welfare schemes and access to other support; and for connected purposes.
We ask a lot of our armed forces, and it is appropriate that in this House we should regularly acknowledge our debt of honour to the brave men and women who put their lives at risk on our behalf in many different parts of the world. I am happy to do so again today. As our country has been embroiled in different conflicts in recent years, it is also right that at the beginning of Prime Minister’s questions each week, it has become the custom to pay tribute to those who have died serving our country—as we did again today, following the sad news of the death of Captain Daniel Read, of the Royal Logistic Corps, in Afghanistan. I should like to add my condolences to those already expressed by the Prime Minister and others.
The support given to the armed forces is actively debated in the House and rightly so, but today my focus is on the veterans—the millions of people who have served our country over many different decades and have returned to civilian life. In our own constituencies we come across them every day, contributing immeasurably to local communities while modestly playing down the roles that they had and the risks that they took.
I have been delighted in recent years to assist more than 400 constituents in obtaining their veterans badge. I have been honoured to present many of them and to listen to the experiences of the people who have earned them. Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I have been approached countless times to help veterans in their civilian battles as they try to get assistance with the health, financial or other problems that now confront them. Through Armistice day and other initiatives, we will not forget the sacrifices of those who have died, but it is equally important that we do not forget those who have survived but who need our help to cope. High levels of war fighting over the past decade have created a new generation of veterans with specialised needs at the same time as earlier generations who fought in the second world war and subsequently move into old age and experience the extra problems associated with their service.
In helping our constituents, we are given invaluable support by all kinds of organisations. My constituency includes the historic home of Earl Haig, whose eponymous charity plays a huge part in supporting veterans and their dependants and in raising awareness of the challenges facing them. There are countless others, such as the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, whose networks of volunteers across the United Kingdom tackle some of the most complex welfare issues imaginable.
The demand is great and I acknowledge that it is recognised by the Government. Beyond the introduction of the veterans badge, we have seen the establishment of the Veterans Agency, the publication of the service personnel command paper and, more recently, the pathway initiative. The shortcomings in the support available to veterans are obvious from the awareness campaigns undertaken on their behalf. Research on health services by my hon. Friends the Members for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) has established that 80 per cent. of local health authorities in England and Wales and 57 per cent. in Scotland have no idea how many veterans they have treated under the priority access scheme. Local health services do not understand the scheme and so veterans are losing out.
The British Medical Association has suggested simple changes that could transform the situation, including better training for NHS personnel on clinical matters affecting veterans and requiring a patient’s veteran status to appear on the front of his or her medical records. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People points out that a veteran in the UK has to endure hearing loss of 50 dB—twice that of their United States counterparts—before they will be considered for compensation in the UK. As many of my father’s generation found out to their cost, the five-year time limit imposed for applications for compensation is too restrictive and excludes many from accessing the support that they should have.
Away from health issues, Poppyscotland’s recent research shows that the second most common problem facing veterans after mobility issues was financial difficulty, yet as it points out, there is no single point of delivery for financial advice for veterans in Scotland. Research from the Royal British Legion has shown that many veterans have been forced to wait an unacceptable amount of time before receiving grants to which they are entitled and homelessness remains a real blight, with the charity Veterans Aid taking around 2,000 calls per year from veterans who are homeless or at risk of being homeless through debt and other problems.
Looking after veterans is complex and demanding, and it is made more so by the fact that the responsibility for care and support is divided among different agencies and Departments and between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. I accept that the Government’s 2008 Command Paper, “The Nation’s Commitment”, has sought to bring Departments together. It also seeks improvements in the ways in which local authorities and devolved Administrations consult the Ministry of Defence on veterans issues. Despite the myriad Government measures and voluntary schemes, however, assistance provided to veterans across the United Kingdom remains too fragmented. Organisations working with veterans keep reminding us that they are often reluctant to claim their entitlements and none of them wants preferential treatment.
We must recognise that we owe veterans a duty of care. We must spell that out. We must do better to make veterans aware of their entitlements and how to access them. We must transform the way in which health and other service providers fulfil their obligations to veterans and take care of their specialist needs. To help us achieve all this, we need urgently to reform the way in which we gather information about the needs of veterans and how they access help. In Parliament, we should debate a Ministry of Defence report on these issues every year.
This Bill seeks to address such issues and to allow Parliament to fulfil its scrutiny role more effectively. It would establish a legally binding code on veterans’ welfare, setting out a duty of care to veterans. That veterans covenant would include the right to an individual needs assessment, spelling out the services in which they should have priority or other access. It would also provide for monitoring reports on individuals’ experiences at appropriate points in their lives. The Bill would place a duty on the Ministry of Defence to implement the veterans covenant by maintaining a register of veterans, co-ordinating the work of UK Government Departments and liaising with the devolved Administrations. Finally, the MOD would be required to report to Parliament annually on the implementation of the code.
The debt of honour we owe to our veterans is vast. As a modest step towards tackling our dues, I beg leave to introduce this Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr. Michael Moore, Nick Harvey, Willie Rennie, Bob Russell, Mr. Alistair Carmichael, Mr. Paul Burstow, Julia Goldsworthy, Malcolm Bruce, Danny Alexander, Sir Robert Smith, John Mason and David Cairns present the Bill.
Mr. Michael Moore accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 February, and to be printed (Bill 47).