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Veterans Charities: Covid-19 Support

Volume 683: debated on Monday 2 November 2020

What support his Department is providing to veterans’ charities during the covid-19 outbreak. (908040)

The Government have been proactive in providing support to the charity sector in response to the covid-19 pandemic. The MOD and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs have played a leading role in this effort by providing £6 million in funding for the armed forces community through the covid impact fund.

In June, the Office for National Statistics reported that almost one in five adults were likely to experience some form of depression during the covid-19 pandemic. Given that service and veterans’ charities have seen a spike in demand for their services, can I ask what steps the Department is taking to support veterans, serving personnel and service family members during this very difficult time?

It is completely accepted that this period of lockdown and the lockdown that is coming present particular challenges for a veterans community that, in some small parts, may be struggling with the situation. We have worked hard to go down the pathway of blending the statutory and state provision, working with our third sector to make sure that people are being looked after, on time, in suitable care pathways. We have more to do, but we are a lot better than we used to be and I am confident that we will be the best country in the world in which to be an armed forces veteran in due course.

The north-east sends a higher proportion of people into the armed forces than any other region and we are proud of our veterans. Forward Assist helps them to transition into civilian life. When it moved online, it found that referrals quadrupled, with those coming from as far afield as Germany, and there was overwhelming demand for mental health support. It needs funding to improve its digital infrastructure and find mental health professionals to provide support, the need for which will go up again, with the second lockdown. Will the Minister provide that?

I pay tribute to Tony and all of the team at Forward Assist, who do an incredible job in the north-east and are a good template for others to follow across the country. More money is going into veterans’ mental health than ever before, in terms of the transition liaison service, the complex treatment centre and the high intensity service that we are bringing on board later this year. We are always happy to look at doing more, but I am confident: the need is expanding and we are meeting a great deal of it at this time.

The Liverpool Veterans headquarters has seen a significant increase in demand for its services throughout this pandemic and especially for mental health support. This situation is likely to worsen in the coming months and the support this local charity offers will be in greater demand. The resources it has are stretched beyond capacity and the £6 million just alluded to is not enough. Can the Minister explain how he will redress this shortfall?

By using the transition liaison service, the complex treatment service and the high intensity service. Those are the three frameworks through which all mental healthcare pathways for veterans in this country will go. There is an opportunity for third-sector companies, such as Forward Assist and the others that have been mentioned, to bid into those programmes—indeed, they are already running some of the programmes in the north-west and north-east. That is the future: a blending of third sector and statutory provision. There is resource in the sector and we need to do more to make it easier for people to understand, but I am confident of the way ahead.

Each death by suicide is a tragedy. Suicide is of great concern to the military and veterans community in my constituency of Jarrow and throughout the country. Will the Minister outline the scope of the Department’s study on the cause of death of military personnel who were deployed on combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan? When will the study be published?

We currently have a number of studies going on. This country has traditionally been a poor collector of data when it comes to veterans’ affairs. We are looking at a cohort study of 20,000 people who went through Iraq and Afghanistan and what happened in their lives. We are also looking into each individual who takes their own life and studying the 12 months prior to that incident to work out whether there was anything that any Government or third-sector provision could have done to intervene. I accept that we come from a low base when it comes to data, but that is now changing and I hope we be able to do the best job that we can in fighting veteran suicide.

The Minister will know about the recent announcements of job losses at Help for Heroes, in addition to the closure of all but one of its recovery centres because of a reduction in funding as a result of covid-19. As that is the case for one of the UK’s biggest household names, which is under huge financial pressure and having to make such difficult decisions, what further support will the Government give to service and welfare charities to fill the gaps in the coming months? We know that the demand is there.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. I spend every day fighting to get more money into the sector. The veterans care sector is changing, and aspects of it needed to change. We have seen a decrease in giving as the overt nature of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has faded, yet the demand continues to go up. That delta is being met through the new programmes that I have outlined. There is always more to do and I am happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman outside the Chamber to hear his particular concerns.

At the previous Defence questions, the Minister said:

“For too long we have over-relied on the third sector”—[Official Report, 21 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 611.]

when it comes to veterans’ care, and I totally agree. As far back as June, Cobseo reported that one in 10 armed forces charities will have to close in the next 12 months as a result of coronavirus. The pressures will only intensify with the second lockdown imminent, so what urgent action will the Minister take to ensure that no gaps in charity provision and vital support arise over the next four weeks?

I want to be clear with the hon. Lady. A rationalisation and professionalism is definitely currently going on in the veterans’ care charity sector, and in respect of many aspects that needed to happen. My concern is veterans, the provision for them and what it looks like to the veteran. We are working hard to bring together seamlessly the panoply of care, whether it is in the third sector or statutory provision, and we will get there. There are financial challenges, but I am confident that we can meet them and that this country will be the best place in the world to be an armed forces veteran.