Skip to main content

Military Personnel and Veterans (Children and Young Carers)

Volume 601: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

I am glad to have secured this Adjournment debate on the need to support the children, young people and young carers of military personnel and veterans. In the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday, I am glad that so many Members—at least on the SNP Benches—have chosen to stay for the debate.

Given that we are approaching Remembrance Sunday, I should not need to remind the House that communities and politicians across these islands will seek to commemorate the fallen. During a recent Adjournment debate on mental health and armed forces veterans, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), it became clear to me and to those watching that there is a glaring omission in this House’s public policy with regard to military personnel, veterans and those who suffer as a result of a familial connection with the armed forces. I am grateful to the Minister for Community and Social Care for taking an intervention from me during that debate, but I am sure that neither he nor the Ministry of Defence would have thought it would lead to this Adjournment debate on the support that should be offered to the children, young people and young carers of the families of military personnel and veterans. I hope that the House will forgive me for reiterating the title of the debate. It is critical, given some of the glaring omissions in public policy that we are currently seeing.

Academics are rightly continuing to explore the impact, effect and outcome of participation in combat. I am grateful to Mr Paul Watson, who, having listened to the debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, forwarded to me a range of research material and other information relating to the issue. I am especially grateful to Paul for highlighting the lack of research on the lives and experiences of children within the wider military family, which includes the Ministry of Defence.

It is always a pleasure to be involved in Adjournment debates, and I commend the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. According to Beyond the Battlefield, a charity in my constituency that looks after ex-service personnel and veterans, 18,700 of them are receiving some sort of care in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not only the veterans who suffer, but their wives and children, and that the effects are far-reaching and long-lasting?

I certainly could not disagree with the hon. Gentleman—who, indeed, has stolen some of the thunder from the rest of my speech—about the wider impact of service life on the partners, spouses and children of both veterans and those in active service.

I hope that I can add to the thunder of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I am sure that he was going on to mention the great work of Combat Stress, which—in Newport, Shropshire, which is in my constituency, and across the country—is doing a great job in helping veterans of not just the second world war but the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, among others, to reintegrate themselves in society. Will he join me in paying tribute to all those who do such a great job in supporting Combat Stress?

I am more than delighted to congratulate those who support any organisation that helps veterans and their families, no matter who they are. My family has a long service record—that applies to both my father and my brother—and I am gratefully aware of the support that is offered to all our veterans and their families.

Even in the recently published Ashcroft review, a document consisting of more than 200 pages, the impact of service life on the lives of children is mentioned only about six times. Little or no mention is made of the impact of pre-deployment—what may be a three-month period during which a member of the armed forces undergoes training before what is usually an eight-month deployment—on the children who are left at home. There is no mention of the children who become carers to a parent who is at home, or a parent who is returning from active duty; no mention of the children who are isolated from both their families and their peers; no mention of the increased likelihood of emotional detachment; no mention of limited access to services outside the military family; no mention of the fact that children and young people may be providing practical day-to-day care in the family setting; no mention of children who experience difficulties at school, such as bullying, owing to external caring roles; no mention of the destabilising impact of a three-month pre-deployment period or subsequent eight-month deployment; and no mention of the impact of constant moving on the life choices of children in military families. That is indeed a sad litany.

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, and he is speaking with great eloquence. Does he agree that some of the more forward-looking and progressive local authorities have alighted on the issue of children’s services in the context of a commitment—which, as he knows, exists in Scotland as well as the rest of the United Kingdom —to the military covenant, the profile of which has been raised significantly in the last four or five years?

I would welcome any local authority doing that and am grateful for the fact that all 32 councils of Scotland have taken the step to become either veterans champions or to promote the issue of veterans. I can commend that every council and borough, district or local, within the countries of England, Wales and Northern Ireland follows suit.

Research looks at a multitude of pre and post-combative effects on the health of service personnel, including post-traumatic stress disorder, pre-deployment stress, mental health, reintegration and the military family—that is for a spouse or partner. Again, there is limited literature in the UK on the issues faced by military children and young people and even less on military children and young people in a caring role.

The Ministry of Defence estimates that there are around 120,000 military children and young people both overseas and here in the UK, although the figures do not state whether they are “full-time” military children and young people or whether they include the children and young people of those who are in the military reserves—an increasingly important element of the UK’s military capabilities.

This is a complex and important issue. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we also consider the issues of service personnel who have been made redundant and the impact of that on their families and children?

My hon. Friend raises yet another complexity of the issue—the impact of military life on children and, critically, those service personnel who have been made redundant, as many have in recent years. I can only hope the Minister will take that on board in his response to the debate.

On the published figures, these children and young people represent 10% of the UK’s under-18 population, which is a substantial amount. Mental health research shows that child and adolescent mental health conditions are in truth common for all children and young people—that is true of both military and non-military children and young people. Office for National Statistics records from 2013 indicate that in the UK there are 13.6 million children and young people. YoungMinds has identified that mental health issues affect between 10% and 20% of all children and young people in the UK. Furthermore, these statistics show that 12% of five to 16-year-olds have a diagnosed mental health condition, with conduct disorder nearing 7% and emotional disorders being 5%.

The hon. Gentleman is doing the House a great service by raising this important issue. Is he aware that perinatal mental health problems among service families are much greater than for the rest of the population? SSAFA deals with these problems, along with the problems of higher than average domestic violence among service personnel families, with all the added pressures. It is one of the biggest employers of social workers dealing with child protection and child mental health issues and it does some very good work, but it is under huge pressure because of the problems not being taken as seriously as they might be.

That intervention goes to the heart of the subject matter and its complexity. Domestic abuse is a huge issue in military life, as it is in many other aspects of ordinary life. I am sure the Minister will take that on board in replying to the debate.

When contextualised, the figures I mentioned show that 12,000 military children and young people may have a problem with their mental health. In addition, research from the USA shows that there is an 11% increase in the number of children and young people who access mental health services when one or both parents are deployed into combat.

The issue of young carers in the military family requires further explanation. They are typically aged between five and 24 and help to look after a relative with a condition such as a disability, an illness, a mental health condition or a drug or alcohol problem, who is serving, or has served, in the armed forces. We are talking about a condition or disability that, in all likelihood, may have appeared during active service.

Why do we need to support these carers? Some 13,000 of the UK’s young carers care for more than 50 hours a week. Young adult carers aged between 16 and 18 are twice as likely to be not in education, employment, or training. Figures from the MOD show that 2,130 military personnel were severely or very severely physically injured between 2001 and 2014 in combat action, and the relevant current ratio is one child per nearly two and a half veterans—that cannot be maintained. MOD figures also show an increase of 19% in the number of veterans being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from 2013, with the relevant estimated ratio being one military dependant child to nearly two and a half veterans. The impact on children and young people must be recognised, not only by the House, but in policy and in its implementation to improve their lives.

As a Scottish constituency Member, I am mindful of the ongoing and leading work being undertaken in Scotland. Along with my colleagues, I am grateful to the leadership of our Government in Edinburgh and the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, Keith Brown, who has responsibility for veterans and is a veteran himself. This has been crucial in the appointment of the Scottish Veterans Commissioner, whose “Transition in Scotland” report of 27 March highlighted the myriad issues that have an impact on those in military service and their families. Like the Scottish Veterans Commissioner, I welcome the steps taken by the MOD in implementing some of the Ashcroft review recommendations.

My hon. Friend rightly mentions the Scottish Government’s role in trying to deal with the complexity of these issues, and other hon. Members have mentioned the role of third sector organisations in their constituencies. In my constituency, Cathcart old parish church has set up a veterans centre to support veterans and their families. Does he agree that the churches are equally as crucial in helping to deal with the complexity of the problems that military personnel and their families face?

My hon. Friend is correct in what he says. Not just faith organisations, but voluntary third sector organisations the length and breadth of these islands play a crucial role in the support provided to veterans and their families.

I am hopeful that the MOD recognises that as a Member of this House representing a Scottish constituency, I feel that there is little or no acknowledgment of the challenges facing service personnel and their families outside England, in terms of the policy context. This debate offers the opportunity for the Government to rectify the position in which they find themselves; they seem to be lacking in knowledge of the services in not only Scotland, but Wales and Northern Ireland, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) would agree.

I can at least take some comfort from the fact that the Secretary of State, and perhaps even the Minister, will meet my colleague the Cabinet Secretary shortly to discuss matters of common interest. I hope that, given the opportunity, the Secretary of State will use the occasion to advise the Department of the differing approaches in differing jurisdictions, which may offer some comfort and support to children, young people and young carers in families of military personnel and veterans.

Critically, I ask the Minister to consider the recommendation of the Ashcroft review and other MOD documents that are based predominantly on policy and service delivery models found in England and Wales, to the exclusion of those service families choosing to settle in Scotland or in Northern Ireland. The Ministry must recognise the differing policy geography in which it and the service families find themselves, especially in relation to housing, healthcare, employment, social care and education, which all have an impact on children in the military family. The sooner that is recognised, the sooner children across the services will reap the benefits of a transition from military life to civilian life when a parent ends their military career through discharge or, yes, through redundancy.

I am grateful to the organisations and individuals who have informed this debate, and, based on their recommendations, I leave plausible opportunities for the UK Government to improve the support offered to children, young people and young carers of military personnel and veterans. They include: supporting further research to understand service children and young people across the UK not in a silo, but in partnership with devolved Governments; utilising strengths within our military and civilian communities, critically learning from the other devolved Administrations, including Scotland; supporting military young carers to maintain good academic and emotional health and well-being outcomes, critically linking with differing policy approaches such as Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland, which leads the way in a more person-centred approach; and considering the creation of digital health passports to support health transition through the child’s military journey, reducing the times a child has to tell their health story to the NHS.

This matter has also been brought to my attention in my constituency. Very often the problem is that when military personnel move to a new constituency, it takes an imponderable time to get NHS data. Is it not the responsibility of the MOD to give both service and finance to help ease that across the devolved nations?

I would not disagree with my hon. Friend, not least because he is a lot taller than me. [Interruption.] Everybody is taller than me. Even my father is taller than me. That is enough of the light-hearted moment.

I hope that we can approach this matter in a collegiate manner across the Chamber. Critically, the Ministry of Defence must recognise the impact of its policy approach on other public services, such as the NHS. There is a need for resources, especially when we are talking about the recording of issues for children and young people who are part of the military family.

I ask the MOD to consider strengthening families at specific times during deployments. For example, we could have a wrap-around approach to service, especially for service forces children who, more often than not, are part of the military family. I am also talking about those who remain within their own distinct communities—critically, the children of those in the reserve forces who remain at home.

The MOD should also work with the devolved Administrations to educate and facilitate all involved with military families during both the deployment cycle and family reintegration; and to facilitate the empowerment of military families to enable the growth of resilience while supporting caring responsibilities.

I hope that the Minister uses this debate as an opportunity to improve things, particularly the support for children, young people and young carers in the families of military personnel and veterans, as we approach Remembrance Sunday.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) on securing this debate on the support for children, young people and young carers of military personnel and veterans. I thank him for the constructive way in which he has approached the subject. I have been a serviceman for some 27 years, and I remain in the reserve forces. Having been deployed on operations some three times, I appreciate the impact that service life can have on families —indeed it has had an impact on my own family—so I am particularly pleased to be able to respond to the debate this evening.

First, let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Ministry of Defence takes its overall responsibilities for service children and young people extremely seriously. In 2010, the significance of those responsibilities led the Ministry of Defence to establish a separate directorate for children and young people to ensure that all those with specific responsibilities for service children and young people understood, accepted and delivered on those responsibilities. Within that directorate, the MOD’s Children’s Education Advisory Service provides education-related information, advice and support to families and the military chain of command. I should point out at this stage that responsibility for service children and young people is not the exclusive preserve of the Ministry of Defence, and depends very much on where the service child or young person is living, whether they are in the United Kingdom or based overseas.

Within the four home countries of the United Kingdom, statutory responsibility for the care and support of our service children and young people remains with other Government Departments, the devolved Administrations, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, and local authorities. We expect our service children and young people to benefit from the same level of care and support as any other child, and that lies at the heart of the armed forces covenant. However, we recognise that a parent’s military service will often place additional pressures on service children and young people, particularly when families are required to move to new duty locations and when a parent is deployed for a lengthy period away from home, especially if deployed on active service. Recognising that, the MOD works closely with the statutory organisations to help them understand and mitigate these additional pressures. The work under the armed forces covenant has led to many significant improvements, not least in schools admissions codes and special educational needs and disabilities codes.

For its part, in 2011 the MOD created the MOD education support fund, which now disburses £6 million each year to assist state schools and settings across the United Kingdom in mitigating the impacts of family mobility and parental deployment on service children and young people. I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge the effective use that schools and settings across the United Kingdom have made of the fund. The list is almost endless, and includes setting up clubs to record and send electronic messages to deployed parents and recording school plays and other activities to be shared with those deployed parents, keeping them part of the family while they are away. The fund also provides nurture rooms or quiet spaces where it is possible for children to spend quiet time away from the noise of school during difficult times.

To underpin that financial support, an enormous amount of effective collaborative work takes place at regional and local levels. In partnership with education departments across all four home countries, the MOD has established a number of effective practitioner networks to identify and share best practice in the support of our service children and young people. I recognise that across the four home countries there are different practices, and I am keen to ensure that we share best practice to benefit our young people. Members of the networks support our children on a daily basis, and provide an early indication when things might not be going to plan. They provide the evidence that supports any changes in policy required better to support our children, and to remove any disadvantage that our children might be encountering.

Even though the MOD does not have statutory responsibilities for children and young people within the United Kingdom, our service children and young people can benefit from non-statutory support that the MOD provides. Each of the armed services maintains an occupational welfare service that operates below the statutory level and provides additional support to service children and young people through a range of services and activities, including community and youth work activities in addition to those provided by local authorities, as well as providing access to emotional support through trained and experienced counsellors. For service families who suffer bereavement when a parent or guardian’s death is attributable to their service, assistance with the education of their children can be provided from the armed forces bereavement scholarship scheme.

When our service personnel and their families are based overseas outside the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Defence acts in lieu of a local authority and delivers appropriate levels of near-statutory provision. In the case of our children and young people that means that the MOD provides, or provides access to, the normal range of children’s services: education, health, social care and safeguarding, and youth development activities. Our MOD schools overseas have an excellent reputation, and their Ofsted gradings and attainment results are routinely above the national averages. These schools have a rich history of mitigating the impact of mobility and deployment that our children can sometimes face. Importantly, this valuable experience is now shared widely and very effectively with schools in the United Kingdom attended by service children, either directly or via routine conferences held by the national networks that I mentioned earlier. In this context I would like to acknowledge the sterling work done to ensure that the over 2,000 service children who returned from Germany this summer under the Army’s basing programme experienced a smooth transition to their new schools and communities in the United Kingdom.

On the subject of MOD schools, I am sure the hon. Gentleman would wish me to reaffirm the Ministry of Defence’s commitment to our only remaining MOD school in the UK, the Queen Victoria school in Dunblane. Established in 1905 through public subscription and maintained in perpetuity by the Ministry of Defence, QVS plays an important part in providing continuity of education for service children with a Scottish connection.

In the case of our veterans, the MOD Directorate Children and Young People continues to provide educational information, advice and support to families during and immediately after their transition back to civilian life, and longer for any enduring issues directly attributable to their time in the armed forces. Thereafter, veterans who require welfare support can access this through Veterans UK, which is part of the MOD and was created in 2007 to help ex-service personnel get appropriate support from Government, local authorities, independent bodies and the charity sector. The Veterans Welfare Service can allocate to veterans a welfare manager who provides free and confidential advice on any sort of problem and works closely with voluntary organisations, local authorities and all areas of the Department for Work and Pensions to provide the best possible help and advice.

The issues raised in this debate are at the heart of the MOD’s welfare policies and will be further strengthened once the MOD launches the families strategy, which will be the sole topic of the MOD’s welfare conference to be held in London later this month. The strategy supports the Government’s manifesto commitment to supporting the unsung heroes—the partners and families of those who serve. Its vision is to facilitate resilient and self-sufficient families, and it is underpinned by the principles of fairness, increased choice, self-sufficiency and resilience.

I would like to express particular thanks to the group of people who contribute most to the support of our service children and young people. That group is, of course, those service children and young people themselves. The commitment that our servicemen and servicewomen make to our country places extraordinary demands on their families, and requires their children and young people to display enormous courage, resilience and stoicism, and they do so on a daily basis. The extraordinary thing is that when one speaks to our children, they make it very clear that they do not want to be treated differently from their civilian counterparts; they just want it recognised that, from time to time, the pressures of military life mean that additional support is required if they are not to suffer disadvantage. We all have a shared responsibility to ensure that they receive it.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.