I beg to move,
That this House has considered veteran suicide.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry.
“I love my family but hate my life. I need help. I’m scared now it hurts.” Those are the words sent in an email to the mental health services by David Jonathon Jukes, who served in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq twice, and Afghanistan. David Jukes was incredibly brave, as is his wife Jo, who has given me permission to share his heart-wrenching story. Despite what he did for his country, Dave was let down in his time of need. He was let down in 1997, when he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder but still deployed to a war zone. He was let down in 2012, when he returned from Afghanistan and was not properly diagnosed with a personality disorder. He was let down in 2018, when his priority need was not properly recorded and he was forced to wait weeks to see a doctor.
I am horrified to hear that David was deployed if he had been diagnosed with PTSD. I am really surprised that that happened; I would not have thought any commanding officer would have sanctioned that. If the hon. Gentleman says that happened, so it did, but they should not have allowed him to deploy, because someone with PTSD can be a really big problem for his friends who he has to protect, as they have to protect him.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will carry on with my story, and explain a bit more about this personal case.
David was let down by the crisis team that turned him away because he was not in its records, and he was let down when a two-hour stand-off with eight police officers and two negotiators did not result in his sectioning for his own safety. He was let down by the home treatment team when it did not respond to 26 phone calls made by his loving wife, and refused to come out to support him. On 9 October 2018, David Jonathon Jukes, a veteran of five conflicts and a hero by anyone’s standards, took his own life. That truly harrowing tale is indicative of many other instances of veterans being passed around by Departments without any kind of tailored approach to their mental health services, and that is why we are here today.
There are about 5 million members of the armed forces community in the UK, and about 15,000 men and women leave service each year. It is important to stress that the majority of those individuals do not experience a decline in mental health upon their transition to civilian life, but we are here to talk about those who do. Last year, 58 veterans took their own life. That is a shocking statistic—but most important, a shocking loss of life.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate. While the official figures state that there were 58 veteran suicides last year, numbers from the third sector and supportive organisations suggest that there were closer to 100, if not more. Is it not the case that one challenge with this issue is that we do not have the data we need to assess the scale of the problem?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate; we can see from the number of Members present how this topic touches people’s hearts. He has made the point about 58 veterans taking their own life. Does he agree that the mental health of our brave veterans should be a top priority for Government, and that the Ministry of Defence and the NHS need to work more closely together to ensure that veterans get all the support they need and to treat those who risk so much to protect us and our country?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and she is absolutely right. There is more that the NHS and charities across our country can do, and I will say more about that later on.
I look forward to hearing views from colleagues across the House and working with them to improve the care given to the brave men and women who, day in and day out, put on their uniforms to keep us safe. I welcome today’s announcement of a £700,000 investment in veteran mental health in my Portsmouth constituency, following a long-running campaign by the Portsmouth News and local campaigners—a really good example of partnership working making a difference. However, there is much more that we need to do. No other job exerts the same control over a person’s life; no other job asks them to go into the line of fire. Our approach to veterans’ care needs to reflect those facts.
This morning, I received a very heartfelt and upsetting email from two women married to two former British Army infantrymen. Both men have been admitted to psychiatric wards in the past six months; both have attempted suicide, or caused serious risk to their health. The women described the shortfall in health resources and the lack of specialist expertise in dealing with combat trauma as “catastrophic”, and they say they are fighting with all their might to keep their husbands alive and for the future happiness and life prospects of their families, especially their children. Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as supporting our brave veterans, we need to do everything we can to support their brave families?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. We should not have to fight for people to get the support that they need; it is imperative that they are given that support in their hour of need.
We need an approach to veterans’ care that reflects a number of facts. Exceptional grassroots organisations such as Forgotten Veterans UK and All Call Signs—representatives of which are here in force—have said that we need tailored, bespoke mental health care that is in line with the experiences of brave men and women like Dave, who have put themselves in harm’s way for our benefit. That is mirrored by the advice given by organisations such as Combat Stress.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on veteran suicide. In the past decade, the number of new referrals to Combat Stress, the excellent organisation that he mentioned, has doubled; its helpline received more than 12,000 calls just last year. As my hon. Friend will be more than aware, it is estimated that one ex-serviceperson commits suicide every seven days. Does he agree that it is ridiculous that the Government currently refuse to collect any data on this widespread problem, so we cannot identify its full scale?
I have recently been approached by two veterans who live fairly close to the barracks in my constituency, and who are very concerned about this issue. Dr Walter Busuttil, who is the consultant psychiatrist and medical director at the charity Combat Stress, has said:
“In the UK, coroners are reluctant to call something a suicide unless it is obvious. They will often go with a narrative verdict…Other countries record more accurate suicide studies.”
Is it not a fact that many suicides in the Army and in other forces are not recorded because of narrative verdicts?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. There is a stigma around this issue, and it is crucial that we learn from our allies; we can learn a lot from them.
The need for tailored care is exemplified by a survey commissioned by Help for Heroes, which found that nearly 30% of veterans are put off from visiting mental health services on the grounds that they believe civilian services will not understand their needs. Serious funding issues are also hindering the provision of care to veterans: only 0.07% of the £150 billion NHS budget is allocated to veteran-specific funding.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend is so articulately putting forward the findings of the Defence Committee’s report on mental health services and the needs we have. I am interested in the fact that only £10 million of the NHS budget was spent on these issues last year. One of the biggest challenges that Help for Heroes has identified is that the Ministry of Defence has a responsibility to look after veterans for only 12 months after they have left the service, but some veterans are only coming forward with these challenges five years later. Does my hon. Friend agree that the MOD’s responsibility for veterans’ care should continue for five years after they have left the service?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank her for her valuable contributions to the Defence Committee, which has raised a number of the issues. That figure that I mentioned is less than it costs to buy two Challenger tanks. That is what we are dealing with today. How can we expect to provide care for veterans like Dave when such an insultingly small amount of money is on the table? It is not just funding that is damaging development in this area; we are lagging behind in so many other ways.
I am going to carry on. Canada, New Zealand and America are our allies and have similarly structured militaries and political systems. One thing we do not share with them is that their coroners record veterans’ suicides. How can we begin to address the problem if we do not know its true scale? Currently only one out of 98 coroners across England and Wales records the detail that the deceased in a suicide case is a veteran. That means the scale of the problem is unknown. Since my election, I have been working with experts in the field, such as All Call Signs and Combat Stress, which have been calling for the recording of veterans’ suicides. I hosted a summit on the matter in my constituency late last year.
Despite the cries from those who know best, the Government have repeatedly refused the requests, whose importance cannot be overstated. Current estimates project that the true figure could be as high as one ex-serviceperson killing themselves every seven days, but the problem is likely to be far worse, given that we do not have detailed recording. General Sir David Richards, former head of the armed forces, and Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander in Afghanistan, have called for coroners to start logging veterans’ suicides. That is absolutely right. As the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), has said that
“the Government could do better on tracking suicide rates among veterans”.
Grassroots expert organisations have been highlighting the importance of tracking those rates since their inception. As we heard earlier, the Defence Committee made it one of their key recommendations. When will the Government listen to the voices of those who know best and when will the Minister ensure that coroners begin to record the data? The disorganised, disjointed and disorderly approach to determining who is responsible for treating veterans, highlighted by Dave’s case, is an extension of the Government’s own ambiguity and confusion. When I tabled this Westminster Hall debate, that was exposed. Within 24 hours, two Departments had called me to express why they would be answering my questions, followed by an email stating:
“I believe there has been some confusion from our side and it’s confirmed that the MoD will be responding to the debate.”
With an issue of this magnitude, the Government should at least know who is responsible.
We can start making a change now. We cannot afford not to. The Government have initiated an inquiry into veterans’ mental health, but we need changes at the coalface now. We cannot afford to lose more of our servicepeople. I am committed to my party’s policy of a social contract for veterans, which incorporates a rounded approach to care that includes support for mental health, housing and retaining. That would begin with officially logging the numbers of veterans who take their own life and would see veterans given priority when it comes to mental health services.
I started my speech by telling Dave’s story, and I will finish by quoting someone to whom the issue could not be closer. Dave’s wife, Jo Jukes, said:
“If coroners began recording veterans’ deaths, the MoD would be forced to accept there was a problem and have to do something. It is a major failing. We need a far more joined up approach to veterans’ mental health care.”
It is clear that the Government do not know how big the problem is because they do not have the data. Some have said they are hiding behind their ignorance. I hope the Minister will take on board the comments in this debate. I look forward to his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) for securing this debate. I agree with much of what he said. He is right to say that, historically, there has been a disconnect between what the MOD and the NHS do in providing better care for veterans. When I was a Health Minister, I worked with the then Minister of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), to improve mental health support, first aid training and other support and help available to armed services families. We also worked to support the MOD in better tracking veterans immediately after discharge from the services. I entirely agree with the point the hon. Gentleman made about one year not being enough.
To put the debate in context—it is important that we have the right evidence and data to support the making of informed decisions about veterans’ care—overall suicide rates for those serving in the armed forces are low, with the exception of males in the Army aged between 16 and 19. Evidence suggests that elevated suicide rates among 16 to 19-year-olds are related to issues such as Deepcut-type events and difficulties adjusting to life in the armed forces, as opposed to being deployment-related.
In the US, veteran suicide rates are definitely higher than population suicide rates, but just as in the UK, and perhaps surprisingly, they do not appear to be deployment-related, and there is much speculation as to why higher rates of suicide are experienced by US veterans, as compared with UK veterans.
I defer to my hon. Friend’s considerable experience as a long-standing and distinguished soldier with a long-standing and distinguished record of service in our armed forces. I had the pleasure of serving in the NHS with a number of Ministry of Defence or armed forces doctors. I certainly know that they pay particular attention to these issues now, and the MOD has put a lot more into the training and support available to their doctors to better support veterans.
We have good data on suicide rates among Falklands veterans and veterans from the 1991 Gulf war. There is no evidence to suggest that the rates of suicide among that group of veterans are any higher than those in the rest of the armed forces; in fact, there is evidence that the rate of suicide among those groups is lower than expected population rates.
We do not have reliable evidence for the more recent Iraq and Afghan conflicts—the hon. Gentleman alluded to that in his remarks. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence and evidence emerging from coroners’ reports, but anecdote is not hard evidence. We need to work much harder on that to ensure that we have the hard evidence to make the right decisions.
In terms of gathering that hard data, the announcement by the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), that the MOD has agreed to carry out definitive research by tagging all those who have served in Telic and Herrick is very much to be welcomed. That work is starting with defence statistics, but it is difficult to know how and when it will be completed—these days, it is challenging and bureaucratic to get data out of the Office for National Statistics, and that is hampered by general data protection regulation issues. However, the work that Professor Simon Wessely and his team at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience are doing with the MOD will happen and should give us the answer. Hopefully it will build a strong evidence base for improving veterans’ care in future.
Finally, we need better to join up what happens when veterans leave the Army and register with the NHS. The current situation is not right, and we need to improve it. The MOD should compulsorily register veterans with civilian healthcare services when they are discharged from the armed services. To my knowledge, that does not happen, but it should happen routinely, because it would help serving men and women transition back into civilian life. It would also flag up to GPs that somebody is a veteran and has a serving record.
It is important that we get the data right. Anything that the Minister can do to help with the issues surrounding GDPR, make the ONS data more speedily available for population-based comparisons and support the work of Professor Simon Wessely and the IoPPN, would be greatly welcome.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on securing this timely debate. He made an excellent speech, and has done the House a great service in bringing this matter to our attention.
I am conscious that time is short, so I will be brief. I was reflecting earlier on the fact that it has been some time since I last wore uniform and was on operations. Over the period since, there have been many times when I have remembered with absolute clarity the faces of fallen friends. Regimental reunions, Remembrance Sunday and anniversaries all give pause for thought and cause to remember. In addition to those occasions, there are the unexpected triggers: a turn of phrase, an accent or someone’s gait when they are walking down the street. They can all prompt the memory of a comrade who is no longer with us.
That is the cost of combat and, to an extent, it is to be expected. However, what I did not expect is the roll call of new additions to that list of faces. It seems now that not a week goes by without the sad news of another veteran’s death—all too often, tragically, as a result of suicide. It is not because we are currently on major combat operations; we are not. It is because the impacts of the operations that we were on have lived longer in the memory, feelings and mental health of those who served than any of us could have expected.
On the length of time that it can take for trauma to manifest itself, we in Northern Ireland have had a number of useful research reports, some of which were authored by David Bolton, indicating that post-traumatic stress disorder, including among veterans, has sometimes not manifested itself for 10, 20 or even 30 years after active service. It would be useful for the Ministry of Defence to take those reports into account, and to learn from that experience in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. She raises an important point. The truth is that veterans who suffer from PTSD often report the trauma that they experienced serving our country many years after. It seems to me, and I think that the public would completely agree, that as a country and a society we have a lifelong commitment to those people who stepped forward and served our country. We all understand the cost of that service, and we have a responsibility to look out for, and look after, those people for all their lives outside the armed forces.
I will end by reflecting on the fact that this Friday there will be a memorial service for a great comrade of mine—someone I served alongside in my regiment—who took his own life just a few weeks ago. The terrible problem of veteran suicide has never felt more real to me than it does right now. The fact that we, frankly, do not really understand the problem, or even its scale, has never concerned me more than it does today. My ask of the Government, and of the Minister, who I know takes these matters seriously, is a simple one: please give this issue the attention that it deserves, help us all to understand it better, and let us work together to address it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and to follow the excellent contribution of the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on introducing this important debate. He represents a proud military and naval city. Indeed, my connection with this issue goes back to his city, because my first job on leaving university was working in Portsmouth on the Fratton Road at the then Radio Victory, which, as its name suggests, had proud connections with the military background of the city.
That was 34 years ago—I know that colleagues will find that difficult believe. It was then that I, as a student straight out of university, started to learn about the difficulties military personnel face in proud cities such as Portsmouth, and how we as a society need to do more to help them. The hon. Gentleman’s contribution illustrated that extraordinarily well.
I stand now, though, as the Member for North Devon, and I will proudly speak about the connections between our county and the armed services. Devon has the highest number of veterans as a proportion of its population of any county in the UK, and we are extraordinarily proud of that. An estimated 100,000 veterans live in Devon, many of them in my constituency, where we have a proud historical connection with the military.
North Devon is, first and foremost, home to Royal Marines Base Chivenor. I am delighted to say that, in the last few weeks, the Minister announced a reversal of the plan to close that base, so it will remain home to the Royal Marines and a number of other armed forces personnel. We are extremely pleased about that in North Devon. Until recently, we also had an Army base at Fremington. In addition, there is a military establishment at Instow, and Barnstaple is home to the Royal Wessex Yeomanry. So we have active serving personnel, as well as a large cohort of veterans.
Sadly, it is estimated that almost one in six of our veterans has complex mental health needs—an issue that will no doubt grow in importance in the coming years. Mental ill health often presents itself in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, but—this is one of my main concerns—it is, in many cases, an invisible condition. Not only do we, the state and the Government need to take greater notice, but society needs to change its attitudes too. That is something in which I take a particular interest—an interest that ranges across not just our former armed forces personnel, but many others who live with mental ill health.
I welcomed the Defence Secretary’s pledge last year to increase funding for armed forces mental health services to £220 million over the next decade. As we also heard last summer, NHS budgets across the board are increasing. That is a good start, but it all comes down to targeting. We need to be able to recognise those who need to receive that help and support, and we need to improve our understanding of the long-term impacts of active service and the changing nature of our veteran communities, which creates a further challenge.
As well as the work being done by the Government, an enormous amount of extraordinarily valuable work is being done by voluntary groups, charities and third-sector organisations. I will mention one in particular: the Veterans Charity, which is based in my constituency but does work very much across the country. Every May, the charity hosts an event called the “Forces March”, which has so far raised nearly half a million pounds to help the very people the hon. Member for Portsmouth South is seeking to raise the profile of this afternoon.
I say to the Minister that I recognise that a lot of good work has already been done. We need to keep working on this, and we need, as a society, to talk with pride about the service of our veterans, recognising that we owe them all the help and support that they need because of the service they have given us.
I congratulate my fellow dockyard MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), on introducing the debate. There are certain parts of the United Kingdom in which the prevalence of our veterans is at its greatest. Plymouth has nearly 20,000 veterans; as the son of a submariner, I myself am the son of a veteran. It is important that we recognise that veterans are not uniformly spread throughout the country, and that support systems for them are much better in some parts of the country than others. In places such as Portsmouth and Plymouth, the armed forces covenant—that bond between the communities, veterans and those who serve—is not something that gathers dust on a shelf, but a living document which people live and breathe every day. In looking after our armed forces veterans, we need to engage with it much more.
We need to talk about men’s mental health, because the vast majority of veterans who take their own life are men. Men are more likely to commit suicide than women but less likely to ask for help or get support. Those who have served face additional barriers and stigma when they try to access support.
I support the call that several hon. Members have made for data collection, because it is hard for us to come together without understanding the true extent of the problem. In localities such as Plymouth—I imagine that it happens in Portsmouth as well—we collect the data on a local level, but it is hard to know how it feeds into the wider national picture. Data collection is not simply about ticking a box to say that someone is a veteran—[Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I was talking about the scale of the problem of suicide, which affects men in particular. We must realise that, in many cases, suicide is the end of a process. Many veterans are caught in ruts of homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, relationship breakdown or insecure work. We need not only to look at how we collect data about veteran suicide, but to understand the steps towards that, and equally, how we can get support to veterans when they need it most. It is right that veterans have access to and, in many cases, come to the front of the queue for mental health support, but when the queue is already months long, being at the front is no good at all. Huge steps forward need to be taken.
I know the Minister is passionate about this issue, and I believe sincerely that some good options have already come out of the debate. I look forward to hearing his response.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on bringing forward the debate. I declare an interest: I was a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Territorial Army for 14 and a half years.
I fully understand why veterans feel so out of kilter when they leave service and return to civvy street. I believe sincerely that we must do more to help smooth not simply their occupational transition, but their social transition. Robert McCartney, the chairman of Beyond the Battlefield—he and I have met the Minister—constantly raises awareness of veterans’ daily struggle and of the need for more funding and support for those who have put their body and their mental health on the line for Queen and country. The fact is that they carry things they have seen with them for many years afterwards.
In a Belfast News Letter article just a few months ago, Robert McCartney said that 400 veterans attempt to take their own lives in Northern Ireland every year, and 30 of them actually do. He added that veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and associated suicidal thoughts often fall through gaps in the safety net provided by the NHS and service-related charities. He estimates that there are some 141,000 veterans in Northern Ireland, 12% of whom have some form of mental health problem. Some 10% of those who do—some 1,700—are currently in the health system. He said that leaves almost 9,000 veterans
“who have been, or currently are, in mental health services in Northern Ireland.”
A recent survey of 400 GPs in Belfast found that there are between 300 and 450 attempted suicides by veterans every year, and that 20 to 30 people actually take their lives. Unfortunately, coroners do not record that formally. Not all deaths related to service take the form of a culminating suicide episode; some fall into the realm of death by self-infliction—by alcohol, prescription drugs or non-prescription drugs. Although Northern Ireland makes up only 3% of the UK’s population, it supplies 7% of its armed forces personnel. Some 15% of Northern Ireland personnel have been on the battlefield in the past 10 years.
Now more than ever, we need to put this matter on the frontline. The Minister has always been responsive, and I appreciate that very much. I thank him for meeting me and the chairman of Beyond the Battlefield. Supporting our veterans is as essential as providing education or free healthcare; it is an obligation, and it must be viewed as such. We should not provide support because of the feelgood factor; it has to be more than that. I again thank the hon. Member for Portsmouth South, and I look to the Minister for the response we need on behalf of our veterans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on securing this debate and shining a light on this incredibly important issue. To be honest, it ought to shame us. The story of Dave Jukes is harrowing, and I am sure we all appreciate that it was probably not an isolated occurrence.
All those who serve our country make many sacrifices while defending our interests, and they deserve respect, support and fair treatment during and after their service. I thank all our armed forces personnel, past and present. I believe that how our veterans are treated should be a yardstick for what sort of society we are. My hon. Friend’s point about the lack of data on veteran suicides is important in that respect. If we do not know the scale of the problem, how can we begin to address it?
I would like to take this opportunity to make some practical suggestions about prevention. Like many hon. Members, I visit Veterans Day events in my constituency every year. In the light of this debate, I wonder whether the Minister could make a formal request for all NHS trusts to have a presence at such events, which are a clear opportunity to signpost mental health support. The general principle that NHS services ought to reach out and embed themselves in existing veterans services and events is a good one.
Last year, I visited the Veterans Garage project on the outskirts of Manchester, which plans to convert a world war two airport terminal building into a base for classic car and motorcycle restoration garages, alongside a coffee bar with food. The base provides support for veterans who are suffering from recent combat stress and gives them a place to meet other veterans. The project also provides mental health support, and the garage equips people with skills to increase their employability. Crucially, it is rolling out a full advice service on a whole range of issues and has a counsellor with specific experience with PTSD on site. That is exactly the sort of embedded service I believe we need to see more of.
I know that time is short, so let me conclude by saying that we can and should do more. Those who serve our country deserve the very best support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on securing this important debate.
Since my election, I have been pleased to attend the veterans Saturday club at the Marquis of Granby pub in Hessle. I have found the people there to be very warm, very welcoming, very robust, very opinionated, very challenging and very honest about the challenges they have faced since leaving the armed forces. In the brief time I have, I would like to mention the wives and husbands of those veterans. Care and support for them sometimes goes missing, but they, too, find it incredibly challenging when people return from service and face significant problems adapting to life outside the armed forces. Will the Minister talk about what support can be offered to veterans’ families?
Let me briefly mention an incredible man called Steve, who runs the Hull Veterans Support Centre. He is one of the unsung heroes of Hull. He is an incredible man. He is a veteran himself and is described as a father figure to so many veterans in Hull. He has given so much, at such great personal cost. He is also a cancer survivor, but that has not stopped him going out there to support veterans in Hull with accommodation and getting to appointments. He is changing people’s lives on the ground. I also pay tribute to Paul, who runs Hull 4 Heroes, and to that organisation for everything it does to support veterans to get back to some sort of normal life after life in service.
We need respect for veterans, but respect alone is not enough; warm words alone are not enough. I echo hon. Members’ calls for veterans to have access to Ministry of Defence mental health services for more than 12 months, because that is simply not long enough. I also call for those services to be made available to wives, husbands, children and the rest of the family.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on securing this important debate. I start by paying tribute to Irene Dennis, who runs the Grimsby breakfast club on Sunday mornings for those who are still in service and those who have been previously to reminisce, share and support one another. I am also pleased to mention Steve Baxter, a Grimsby man who was in the forces and has seen four friends die as a result of PTSD. He told his story clearly and movingly in the Grimsby Telegraph. That prompted him to set up the Veterans Still Serving group to support those suffering from PTSD.
North East Lincolnshire is a proud armed forces covenant borough. The former mayor and councillor Alex Baxter now co-ordinates our very successful armed forces weekend, which attracts families from across the country to show their backing for our armed services personnel, past and present.
I was prompted to speak today because of the impact of serving on my constituent Steven Sampher; I have had extensive correspondence with the Minister on this particular case. He is a remarkable man who, frankly, has been going through hell trying to work his way through the armed forces compensation scheme. He has been kept dangling about whether he is still employed, and he worries about the support for his family in the future.
I am concerned, as my written questions show, that the stress of going through this process, on top of his post-traumatic stress disorder and extreme pain, and now phantom pain as a result of his amputated leg, has been extremely trying for Steven and his family. Should the Government not do more to properly support veterans going through that process, to ensure that they get the compensation that they are entitled to, in full accordance with the injuries that they have sustained in the course of their service?
Finally, I will quickly mention homelessness among veterans. Unless we sort that out, the number of veterans committing suicide will increase.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this critical debate on our national life, Sir Henry. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) for speaking so touchingly and movingly about the cases he has had to deal with and the impacts they have had.
I will speak from my personal experience of friends who have served in the Army and how they have been affected. I have spoken about this issue several times in the last few months, because many of my friends and people I know have been affected. Indeed we lost four Jocks from the Royal Regiment of Scotland in July and August last year through a terrible spate of suicides. We really worried about what that meant. Reflecting further, more than 70 veterans have taken their own lives in the last year, which is really worrying. The death toll exceeded the number of battlefield fatalities in 11 of the 13 years that British forces were operational in Herrick in Afghanistan. It is a worrying rate.
More than a third of those who took their lives in 2018 whose details are known had suffered from PTSD, so it is clearly something we need to deal with. I spoke to Combat Stress about the issue and most worryingly, many of those people—particularly those in the Royal Regiment of Scotland—had identified themselves. One of the men who tragically took his life, Jamie Davis, had been recording video diaries of his experiences, which are particularly haunting to watch in the light of what happened and knowing that he ended up taking his own life. The descriptions of the difficulties that he encountered are harrowing, but they are not unfamiliar from what we have heard in the debate.
It is critical that we now recognise the urgency of the situation. More than 100,000 people have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade. This is not about veterans of the world war two generation, but about people in my peer group—people in their 30s and 40s—who served in those theatres and have suffered terribly as a result of losing their friends. I think about some of my friends I lost in Afghanistan, and I recognise the impact that that can have. This is critical, and the care review and the mental health review that the Ministry of Defence suggests do not go far enough. We need more grip around this, we need a proper casework service, and we need proper and more robust engagement as a matter of urgency.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on bringing this crucial debate, and on speaking so eloquently and poignantly of the harrowing tale of our services’ failure of his constituent, who continually reached out for help, only to find that it was not there when he most needed it.
We heard that 50 veterans took their life in the last year, but that that is probably an underestimate of the impact on our veterans; clearer data is needed. I have to say again that any veteran who is at the point of harming themselves or who takes their own life is a failure of our system. Much more must be done to address that.
I thank all hon. Members who took part, and I cannot help but notice that there is such vast experience on this issue in the House, including among those who have served themselves; those who have supported the care of those who served, through their work in the NHS and other services; and those who are supporting their constituents with mental health issues. Men’s mental health was raised again, and that is especially important. We cannot raise that enough. We must reduce stigma and ensure that people feel able to come forward and access services when required.
I declare an interest, in that my husband served in the armed forces in the Corps of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, including in Bosnia, and he suffered a head injury during his service that still affects him to this day. We know as a family how crucial it is that support is there for people when they need it at the point of leaving the armed forces and coming into civvy street. It is very difficult to adjust and gain understanding from those who have never served, so, as has been said, services must be bespoke and involve those who understand what it is to serve, putting themselves and their families’ future on the line at the same time.
I do not often pay tribute to my husband, but I will do so today. He has adjusted and now he has been elected as a councillor in South Lanarkshire. I am proud to say that he is our veterans’ champion. He wants to give back as much as possible to those who have come through the service. I also pay tribute to Veterans First Point in Lanarkshire and ask hon. Members please to sign early-day motion 1985, which pays tribute to the bespoke services it provides to veterans locally. It was launched in Lanarkshire in 2016 and so far has helped 400-plus veterans in aspects of welfare, housing and mental and physical healthcare. Access to psychology support by those specialist in this area is crucial, and I pay tribute to all those working in Veterans First Point across Scotland, in SSAFA, in Combat Stress and in all the other organisations we need to provide the care that is required.
Veterans First Point provides a tailored, bespoke service. Where there is such best practice, will the Minister try to look at it across the United Kingdom, work with other organisations and ensure that it is rolled out in all areas, so that there is not a postcode lottery, in which particular veterans fall through the net? We cannot allow that to happen. We have heard that the figures provide an underestimate, so it is crucial that we have better data. What can be done to take that forward timeously to ensure that we are doing all we can?
We know that PTSD develops over time; indeed, part of the diagnosis is that symptoms continue for more than six months. Services therefore need to be available past the 12-month period, up to a number of years, because often people do not develop symptoms until many years after they have left the armed forces.
The Scottish Government have a Scottish Veterans Commissioner to ensure that veterans never face disadvantage, with a remit to improve outcomes for all veterans. Local councils and health boards also have veterans’ champions, as I have mentioned.
I thank everyone for taking part in this cross-party debate, which we all feel very strongly about. We must give priority to our veterans and ensure that we do not fail them, as they have put their lives on the line for us.
What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on securing the debate on an extremely serious matter and delivering a thoughtful, compassionate speech in which he outlined the circumstances of his constituent, David Jukes, and his experience of a multitude of failures. There is obviously a need for more to be done to support veterans’ mental health.
Time does not permit me to go into the detail of the various speeches we have heard this afternoon, but I add to the comments of others and thank all those who have contributed—namely, my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), and the hon. Members for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I think that covers everybody. They all made passionate speeches, bringing their own experience to the debate.
The vast majority of ex-service personnel, as we know, have good mental health, but as we have heard from several hon. Members today, and as I have experienced in my constituency, there are challenges for too many people and heartbreaking cases such as those we have heard about, where veterans choose to take their own lives. We know there are no comprehensive figures for veteran suicides in the UK, as coroners are not required to record whether the deceased was a veteran. The Defence Committee has rightly recognised that collating and recording that data would enable the Government to identify whether there are particular groups of veterans or particular locations where more effort is required to prevent such tragic events from occurring. Will the Government consider ensuring that coroners record that important data, which would allow more targeted and necessary interventions?
Despite the lack of official data, veterans’ organisations and campaigners have estimated that 58 veterans took their own life last year, at least one third having suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. We can all imagine that the actual figures must be much higher. While veterans’ organisations offer much-needed aid to veterans who are struggling—I pay particular tribute to the group All Call Signs, which is represented here today—many others, such as Combat Stress, have admitted they are finding it difficult to cope on their own.
The Government have put money into this area recently, but it is not just about money. A recent Defence Committee report recognises:
“Despite…improvements, there is no doubt that some serving personnel, veterans and their families who need mental health care are still being completely failed by the system”,
as in the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South highlighted from his constituency. What thinking has there been in the Government about establishing a cohesive, joined-up strategy to deal with this huge challenge? Will the Government commit to implementing in full the recommendations in the Defence Committee report?
It is fair to say that our armed forces are known throughout the world for their skill, their renowned training capabilities, and the fact that they are highly skilled soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women. However, the Government do not always apply the same vigour to helping servicemen and women to transition back into civilian life. While many service personnel make that transition successfully, some none the less encounter serious problems, and there is growing evidence that that is the case.
According to a recent report by the armed forces charity SSAFA, 77% of veterans polled, all of whom had sought help from the charity, said that they felt they were not fully prepared for civilian life, with 19% saying that the resettlement package failed to provide them with suitable skills or qualifications to find a job. What efforts are the Government making to improve transition to civilian life, given some of the issues that we have heard about today relating to mental health and homelessness, and the whole package to aid that transition?
Finally, it is important that we recognise, as some hon. Members have already done in the debate, the impact on veterans’ families. Recent research by the Forces in Mind Trust found that greater awareness is needed of the challenges that families face, and the Royal British Legion has said that armed forces families have specific mental health needs. I ask the Minister to clarify that. This is a sensitive issue, as we are all aware, but I am sure we all agree that it is one that needs further support, so I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I fear 6.21 pm does not leave enough time to do justice to what has been an incredibly important debate. It is a real honour and a privilege to speak on behalf of the Government on such a critical issue, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on raising it. We can see from the number of hon. Members who are present and have contributed why it is important that we get this right.
There has been, I think, a modicum of consensus—certainly more in this debating chamber than the one we just came from, having been interrupted by the Division bell. I hope I can express the feeling in Westminster Hall by saying to all those veterans, “Thank you very much for your service; the nation is truly grateful.” I also thank those who endeavour to provide support to those veterans and their families. It is an indication of the society we are that we look after those people not only when they are in uniform, but once they retire.
I have scribbled a lot of notes, but I suffer from the fact that I now cannot read my handwriting. I will do my best to answer hon. Members’ important questions. There were some themes that developed. As always, I will write to hon. Members with more detail in response to the points they raised.
We are all familiar with individual stories. I am very sorry to hear about what happened to David Jonathon Jukes. It is a stark reminder of what happens when the machine does not work and we do not do what we can. The hon. Member for Portsmouth South is right to point out that 15,000 armed forces personnel leave every single year. I am pleased to say that the majority—more than 90%—are in education or back in employment, if they have done our transition course, within six months of departure. That is great news, but some require support. That support must be very visible and we must communicate it to our veterans, so that they know where it may be found.
For many of those who attempt suicide or, tragically, take their life, it is normally an accumulation of things that have gone wrong. It might be homelessness, mental health or other aspects of their life. We need to work out what those points are. We need to collect data; that was a recurring theme in the debate. I want that and we are working on it. As hon. Members will be aware, the coroners are fiercely independent. I cannot just tell them to collect that data. We are looking at ways that we can collate the information in order to understand better what is going on. We are also working with the NHS and are looking at programmes. We are fully aware that data will help us to understand this problem better and to move forward.
A lot of the issue is to do with stigma. It is difficult for people in the armed forces to say that there is anything wrong with them. Certainly, when I served, we were reluctant to do it. We were fearful of what it would do to our promotional opportunities—particularly if it had anything to do with mental health. We are changing that through our mental health strategy. We are getting people to recognise that if they have got something wrong with their mind and sort themselves out early, they can get back to the frontline and do what they love best: soldiering.
The consequence of that is that more people are stepping forward, either during their armed forces period or afterwards. That has put pressure on the system. Much as I want us to have money for operations and training—we have the spending review coming up, and I hope the Chancellor is watching this debate with interest—we recognise that we need funding for greater support mechanisms that need to be there for our armed forces and veterans.
The Minister said he cannot force coroners to do things, but the Government can legislate to ensure that the data is collected so that cause and effect can be seen. Just talking about the circumstances somebody is living in at any one moment in time does not take account of the fact that they served in the Army.
We can go down that road, but it will take time, and I want to get there faster. I want that data; I want to understand what is going on. The hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely valid point.
The Government are taking this seriously. We now have a Minister with responsibility for suicide prevention. The Department of Health and Social Care has a national suicide prevention strategy. There is also NHS England’s veterans’ mental health transition, intervention and liaison service, which is a really important stepping stone from serving to civilian life. Every NHS should now have a TIL operation in place. I have seen one in St Pancras—it is a fantastic outfit. However, veterans need to know it is there so they can get the attention that they need. There is a complex treatment process to look after those with more complex needs. We touched on the need for GPs to understand what is going on better. We are now training GPs to be more aware of asking the question, “Are you a veteran?” which is critical in realising what the diagnosis might be. Clearly, more work needs to be done.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), a former Health Minister, outlined the issue. I stress so much that just because somebody served in the armed forces does not mean that the suicide was caused by being in the armed forces. We need to make that very clear indeed. He stressed that people who have served are less likely to take their life than their civilian peers. Every suicide is a tragedy, and every effort must be made to get those numbers down.
My hon. Friend referred to a study from after the Gulf war. We are doing the same with Iraq and Afghanistan, to better understand, keep track of and recognise the concerns, and to be there to help those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there is a cohort of people that I am concerned about, it is those who served around the time of the Falklands war. They are stoic and still have that stigma—not wanting to put their hand up. They were not told prior to leaving where help might be found. The Veterans’ Gateway is a fantastic online portal showing where help can be found to provide the support that is needed. That is the cohort I am most concerned about, and that is what we need to work on.
My hon. Friend also mentioned Professor Simon Wessely and the work we are doing with the Royal Foundation. Studies are taking place, and part of our veterans strategy looks at that. Suicide prevention is a core aspect of what we want to do over the next 10 years.
My comrade, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), talked of the cost of combat, as well as of how PTSD can incubate. We need to recognise when it might come on—it may be quite some time after they have departed the armed forces.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones)—I would be delighted to visit Chivenor, and I am pleased that it is being retained—talked about the fact that one sixth of veterans may have some kind of complex health needs. I would add that one third of us—the whole of society needs to recognise this—will suffer a mental health challenge in our lifetime. As a society, we are still reluctant to talk about that. The armed forces are the worst, because of that stigma and that unwillingness to step forward. However, that is changing.
I am conscious that I have almost run out of time. I will write to hon. Members with more details. I apologise for not being able to answer all the points that were raised. I remain committed to looking at this. The changes that we have seen to date are good, but more needs to happen. Data is critical. If hon. Members can write to the Chancellor and ask him to recognise that more funding is needed here, because more people are stepping forward and saying, “It’s okay, because I’m not okay—let’s fix me.” We need to take them on board. Let us all work together to make that happen.