A quarter of the more than 60 cross-Government commitments have been delivered to date, with recent achievements including rolling out the Great Place to Work for Veterans scheme, the completion of the scoping study into digital verification, and the appointment of the first Veterans Commissioner for Wales. I will publish a formal update on progress in the autumn.
We have thousands of veterans in this country who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which can affect their ability to hold down a relationship or hold down a job. There is a lot of help out there, but veterans are a proud bunch and many are hard to reach because they are too proud to reach out for help. What more can the Government do to make sure these hard-to-reach veterans are reached and supported?
I thank my hon. Friend for his relentless advocacy for the small but very important cohort who struggle with life after service. We have now established Op Courage, the UK’s first single care pathway through NHS mental health services for those who need them. It had 19,000 referrals in its first year last year. I encourage people to engage with the service to talk about their mental health and not suffer in silence. Help is there, and I say to them, “You can get better, and the system is there to look after you.”
I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran. To achieve that, we must prioritise supporting veterans with their mental health. Will my hon. Friend set out how the new digital identification service will contribute towards that?
The digital verification service is an extremely important part of being able to identify the veterans cohort, of which no Government have ever really had a true understanding. We are making significant progress. I recognise that individuals want a veterans ID card, which will be a result of it. Alpha testing is going on now and we are looking to do beta testing next year. I am hopeful we will have something online by April next year.
I have heard lots of accusations over the past few weeks that Veterans UK is both judge and jury; in other words, it operates as the assessor and the awarder of assistance to veterans. Are there any plans to review Veterans UK or to conduct an inquiry?
First, I pay tribute to the staff of Veterans UK, who work incredibly hard in a very under- invested system that is still working off paper records. The Government have committed to a £44 million spend to turn it into a digital service, which will undoubtedly increase and improve its output. I share my hon. Friend’s concern, certainly about the data on how many appeals have been overturned. I understand the processes for it, but my very clear view is that the service is not good enough for our veterans at the moment. I will bring forward plans for how we can improve it in due course.
Just how long have this Government been in power, and how many more suicides of veterans will take place before we see firm action to follow through on mental health and get these men the real support that they want? I am the son of a veteran. I know what it is like for someone to finish service, having had traumatic experiences fighting for their country.
The topic of veteran suicides is incredibly serious. The data shows that someone is statistically less likely to take their life if they have served, but every suicide is a tragedy for the individual, the family and the nation that they serve. There is more help available now than there ever has been. Yes, we did start from a pretty low base, but the system is working, with 19,000 referrals through Op Courage last year. The help is available, and I urge all those who suffer in silence to understand that the situation has changed. We will continue to make progress until we have the world-class veteran care that veterans deserve.
What progress have Ministers made on giving further statutory standing to the veterans covenant?
This is the first Government to have brought in—through the Armed Forces Act 2021—a statutory requirement on health, housing and education. I am clear that that is a floor, not a ceiling. We are looking to expand what that legislation can do at some point. This is all about making sure that veterans are not disadvantaged, which was the whole point of the armed forces covenant. We will see how the legislation goes—it is the first time that this has been done anywhere in the world—and how it plays out in communities, and we will make sure that it delivers for those who need it. We are always prepared to look at doing more to ensure that veterans are not disadvantaged by their service.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his place and look forward to his contribution as a Minister on veterans issues. On funding for privately operated rehabilitation facilities, will he confirm his intention to make sustained grant funding available to charities such as SSAFA and Beyond the Battlefield—one of the charities in my Strangford constituency—which provide services that the Government seem unable to provide for veterans they seem unable to reach?
The beauty of Op Courage is that it does precisely that: it brings order to the various charities and enables them to bid in to run contracts, so that they can run the complex treatment service, the high intensity service and the transition liaison service. It gets them on a sustainable footing and away from year-to-year funding, providing certainty not only for those who do the brilliant work in the charities sector, but for those who need it, so that there is some permanence to the system and veterans can rely on that help.