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Veterans: Cost of Living Crisis

Volume 722: debated on Monday 7 November 2022

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to answer these remarkably similar questions together.

The Government are committed to supporting all households with the current cost of living through initiatives such as the energy price guarantee, cost of living payments—

Order. May I help the Minister? These questions are grouped by the Government, not by anybody else.

I absolutely accept that, Mr Speaker—I was simply pointing out that they are very similar.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

We are working at pace across Government and the service charity sector to understand how the veterans community may be impacted, including in the forthcoming national veterans survey and in the recent Cobseo-led survey relating specifically to the cost of living.

With up to 80,000 veterans currently in receipt of universal credit—a benefit that was, like others, uprated by only 3.1% in April, which was far below the rate of inflation—what are Ministers doing to step up to support our veterans and their families?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. It is important to understand the extent of this, which is why the Government have backed Cobseo to do a deep dive in October on how the cost of living is impacting on our veterans. In advance of the outcome—the Secretary of State and I will have meetings to discuss that shortly—I point out that we have accepted the armed forces pay review body’s recommendations in full, we have frozen the daily food charge to our personnel, we are limiting the increase in accommodation charges, we have increased the availability of wraparound childcare, which is vital for families, and we intend to have a cost of living roundtable before the end of the year.

The Royal British Legion has identified a 20% increase in requests for support from veterans in urgent need—that is a deeply concerning figure. The RBL has also put forward information stating that veterans who receive sickness and disability benefits now face extra costs of £500 per month as a consequence of the cost of living crisis. What are Ministers doing to support veterans in this country, who are, frankly, being let down by this Conservative Government?

I do not accept that. I have just explained what we are doing to address that. We are trying to understand how the cost of living crisis is impacting on our service and veteran community, and we have already put in place a large number of interventions that will go some way to addressing it. I expect to meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State shortly, with representatives of the service community, to discuss the matter further.

During the cost of living crisis, veterans need to access support such as the war pension scheme and the armed forces compensation scheme, but the latest veterans satisfaction survey shows huge dissatisfaction with Veterans UK, and I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are struggling to make claims. What will the Minister do to address those concerns?

There have been issues with some applications for both schemes, but I think the position has improved since last year. Nevertheless, the Government have injected further funds to ensure that matters are expedited. I urge veterans who are concerned to contact the welfare office provided through the veterans agency, to help them to fill out the claims, which can sometimes be complicated. The hon. Gentleman will be very pleased to hear that the Secretary of State is expediting the quinquennial review on the armed forces pension scheme, which will hopefully give him some reassurance on the seriousness with which we are taking that issue.

It perhaps might help the Minister if I give him a real-life example. My constituent, Leslie Constable, is an Army veteran who receives a state pension, war pension, Army pension and attendance allowance. He tells me he is finding it increasingly difficult to heat his home and feed himself when prices are rising so quickly. He relies on charity shops and a coat given to him nearly 40 years ago. What is the Minister doing to ensure that veterans such as Mr Constable are receiving the support they need for a dignified retirement, and will he finally commit to keeping the triple lock?

The hon. Lady will know that that is not in my gift, but I point her to the veterans’ strategy action plan published in January 2020, which contained over 60 policy commitments at a price of more than £70 million. I just think it is not right for her to suggest that the Government are not exercised by the situation faced not just by veterans, but by people across the country at this extremely difficult time in the economic cycle. We will continue to do what we can to alleviate the pressure on veterans in particular. It is just a pity that in office the Labour party did not come anywhere close to designing an action plan of the sort we published in January.

Veterans in Crisis Sunderland is a brilliant organisation that supports veterans in Sunderland, the city I represent and one that sends a huge number of people into the armed forces. The cost of living crisis is having a huge detrimental effect on the mental health of veterans, and many are using food banks. One big issue is people receiving forces pensions who then have to pay that money to universal credit. Will the Minister look at whether leeway can be given for people who have gained their pensions fighting for our country and who are having to pay it back because of the universal credit rules?

Universal credit is paid right the way up the income scale depending, as the hon. Lady will well know, on circumstances, number of children and the cost of accommodation. She mentions mental health, which is important to me, too. She will therefore presumably approve of the extra money going into the Armed Forces Covenant Trust to support people with mental health issues. She will also, I hope, approve of the £17.8 million going into Op Courage.

I welcome my right hon. and gallant Friend to his well-deserved place on the Front Bench. I look forward to working with him over the years.

My right hon. and gallant Friend will know that in Wiltshire alone we have 7,000 service children in our schools and that some 96% of all schools in Wiltshire have service kids in them, many of whom benefit from the services pupil premium. That is great, but it ends at age 16. Surely there is an argument in favour of continuing to help those children from 16 to 18, as we have changed the education system as a whole and education at 18 has become the norm.

I am very grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend and near neighbour. He invites me to ensure that Wiltshire gets more cash, in particular the excellent Wiltshire College. That is very tempting indeed. I hear what he says, and nobody is keener than I am on improving skills, particularly post 16. I am more than happy to discuss the issue with him, but I suspect that what he suggests would have a significant price tag and our colleagues in the Treasury would rather I did not commit.