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Veterans Welfare Service

Volume 680: debated on Monday 21 September 2020

The Veterans Welfare Service continues to provide the full range of support services to veterans during the covid-19 pandemic.

Last year, the Crawley armed forces and veterans breakfast club was established, and I have enjoyed meeting it several times since then, most recently on the VJ75 anniversary. What specific support can be provided to such grassroots groups that support our armed forces and veterans personnel?

When LIBOR funding came to an end two years ago, it was replaced by something called the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust. It is administered in a professional way, and all charities and such grassroots organisations can now bid into it for grants. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend with details of how we can pass that on to support the great work that those in Crawley do at their breakfast clubs.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure he will join me in welcoming the Royal Marines family centre at Lympstone, due to open in October, which will support serving Royal Marines, veterans and their families. The Commando Training Centre is a source of enormous pride for East Devon and the many former Marines who live nearby. Could the Minister outline what further support the Government have provided during the pandemic, particularly for those experiencing exacerbated challenges due to lockdown measures, such as mental ill health and alcohol addiction?

I pay tribute to the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines. I was down there in March, and it really is at the cusp, as it were, of family welfare. We have seen under this Government a significant transition to looking after our people through a number of schemes that they are benefiting from. When it comes to extra support, we have moved a lot of our veterans UK services online. We provide an extra £6 million in funding to the charity sector, but of course there is always more to do.

Captain Tom Moore’s fundraising was an inspiration to us all, reflecting the public’s continued strong support for our veterans. What additional welfare support is my hon. Friend’s Department providing to veterans in Havant and across the country to help them to access vital services and to find work?

There is an unprecedented number of options at the moment for two things that my hon. Friend mentions. One is dealing with mental health challenges and other is around work. On mental health, we brought online earlier this year the complex treatment service, which runs alongside our transition, intervention and liaison service. I am bringing the high intensity service online later this year, and I am comfortable that when that is there, we will have a world-class level of mental health support for our veterans. When it comes to getting people into work, there have never been more initiatives. I am clear that the single biggest factor that improves the life chances of our veterans is having a job. There are some extremely good examples around now, mirrored of course by the civil service with the guaranteed interview scheme.

As a veteran and a member of the Defence Committee, I would like to highlight the work undertaken by female charities, particularly by Salute Her, which is part of Forward Assist. Salute Her is a unique charity that offers and provides support to all three services. Does the Minister agree that, to some degree, women service leavers are a hidden population with certain unmet needs? Will the Ministry commit to working with me to tackle the problems faced by women in the armed forces today?

I thank my hon. Friend for her sterling work. I also thank groups such as Forward Assist for their work on this. I am clear that there are some very good veterans provisions in this country, but there are areas where we need to do a lot better. For example, the experiences of many females who serve are still not what I would like them to be, and similarly those of females who leave. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to continue my work with Forward Assist. I have seen the work that it has done recently. We are absolutely determined to make this the best country in the world in which to be an armed forces veteran—for both females and males—and we are determined to continue our work on this.

The Wigston review of inappropriate behaviours was published in July 2019 and estimated that it would take from five to 10 years to make a measurable difference. Why then is a review taking place of the Wigston review that was published just over a year ago? Why are charities, community interest companies and external stakeholders excluded from this review of a review?

The reason we are doing that is very clear. I am aware that, within Government, we are very good at doing reviews, but seeing the impact of those reviews in the real world is something else. What I have asked to do with the Wigston review is find out where we are with it one year on. The review was not for external organisations; it was an internal report that addressed some serious shortcomings.

This review is very clearly shining a light on the Department, showing where we are doing well and where we are doing not so well, and I would be more than happy to share that with the hon. Lady.

I believe that Sunderland recruits more people into the Army than any other city in the country, so consequently has a lot more issues and high demand for services to veterans. Will the Minister join me in thanking Veterans in Crisis in Sunderland, which does excellent and incredibly important work in this area? Will the Government pledge to look at providing more financial support from central Government for services to veterans?

I pay tribute to Sunderland for the extraordinary commitment that it has made to this nation’s defence. We are undoubtedly going through a transition in veterans’ care. For too long we have over-relied on the third sector, and that responsibility is slowly shifting towards the state. I am comfortable that we are meeting that demand at the moment, but it is a dynamic process, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the case in her constituency.

In January this year, the Minister promised to meet Combat Stress and other organisations to assist with their funding that had been cut. What extra assessment has he made since the start of covid of the risks of serious mental health problems among our veterans?

I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in this matter. I speak with the service charities on an almost daily basis, and, as I said in my previous answer, there is no doubt that, when it comes to veterans’ care, a shift is going on in this country at the moment from an over-reliance on the third sector to the state stepping up and assuming that responsibility, which is what I wanted. We have the transition liaison programme and the complex treatment service. There is a very small cohort of people who require the high-intensity service that will come on line later this year. I am absolutely determined to ensure that those three streams, as a pathway, are world leaders in veterans’ mental health care. I am monitoring the figures coming in on a daily basis. We are doing pretty well on meeting our timelines, but obviously there is always more work to do.

In June, the Office for National Statistics reported that almost one in five adults is likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the covid-19 pandemic. Given that service and veterans charities have reported an increase in demand since lockdown, and building on the previous answer, will the Minister tell us what steps the Department is taking to ensure that every veteran, all serving personnel and every service family member receive the support they need during this very difficult time?

I am acutely aware of the challenges around the denudation of the third sector at this time, and the other challenges it faces. I have talked about the veterans mental health care programme, and it is worth mentioning as well that we are looking to launch a strategy with the NHS later this year that clearly highlights a care pathway for service personnel and their families as they go through life: before they join, when they are serving and, crucially, what to expect afterwards, so it is a seamless pathway that both veterans and their families and service personnel can understand, but also that I can use to hold the NHS to account. It provides some wonderful services and I am determined to make sure that continues.

Wesley McDonnell, a 35-year-old veteran, decided to take his own life in the park opposite my home. This brave man served and defended our nation for almost 20 years and, sadly, there are still many others like him. Can the Minister please commit to further improving the spirit of the armed forces covenant by tasking the MOD to develop a health and wellbeing pathway, including the assessment and diagnosis of the mental health needs of our brave men and women prior to discharge, and commissioning so that they have the treatment ready?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and let me be absolutely clear on veteran suicide: any veteran suicide is a tragedy for the individual and for their family, but also for us as an institution. We want people to go away from their time in service enhanced, not damaged, by it. We have a job of work to do, and we have made significant progress over the past few years; by January, for example, mandatory mental health training will be delivered in every unit on an annual basis—that has never happened before. Through that, alongside a lot of our work with the Royal Foundation, we are changing the environment in which we find ourselves in delivering mental healthcare, resilience and fitness for our people. There is always more to do, but, working with partners, I am determined we will get there.