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Veterans: Support

Volume 724: debated on Thursday 8 December 2022

The Government are committed to ensuring that our veterans and their families have the support that they need to thrive in civilian life. The Government have established the first UK Office for Veterans’ Affairs and the first Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, who attends Cabinet. As part of the role, the Minister will deliver the veterans strategy action plan, which sets out 60 cross-Government commitments that will make the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran by 2028.

The Minister will know that the all-party group on veterans is leading on a bespoke survey of the experiences of veterans when they deal with Veterans UK. Will the Minister commend that survey, alongside the OVA’s survey, and undertake to take our findings seriously? Does he agree that we must leave no stone unturned in all Government Departments to make sure that our veterans get the best possible support?

Certainly, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his campaigning, as well as the work of the APPG and the survey that it has put out on Veterans UK. I have been clear—my position has been unchanged over the years—that there are good people working at Veterans UK. That part of Government has been underinvested in by Governments of all colours over many years, and too many people have an experience that is not acceptable. We are working on that. A £44 million investment in digitising Veterans UK will see a significant improvement in its service, but this is an ongoing conversation. I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to make sure that we deliver the service that we all want for our veterans.

Support for our veterans is not just appreciated, but absolutely vital for the physical and mental wellbeing of our ex-servicemen and women. We are well represented in Blyth Valley, with the Royal British Legion in Blyth and in Cramlington, but we also have the Forward Assist organisation in Dudley, which offers support for services and campaigns such as “Salute Her” and its “One Stop” café. I recently had the privilege to meet up with veteran Jack Hearn as he celebrated his 100th birthday. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing Jack a belated happy birthday and thanking those organisations for the great work that they do on a daily basis?

Of course I wish Jack a happy birthday, and I pay tribute to “Salute Her” and the many people involved in third sector provision across the country, who work tirelessly to support our veterans. The Government are committed to building an ecosystem of veterans care that works with them to make sure that we all work together and realise our country’s responsibility to our veterans.

It is welcome news that the Commonwealth veteran who was medically discharged from service and returned to Fiji can settle in the UK and access medical care. That is thanks to the new waiver on visa fees for non-UK service personnel, for which the Minister and I long campaigned. Does he agree that those who travel here to put on a uniform and serve our country deserve our support, and that we should do everything that we possibly can to assist them and their families when they complete their service?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his tireless campaigning on this issue over many years—years before I did—to make sure that our foreign and Commonwealth service personnel are looked after properly. There was a change of policy as result of his campaigning, in terms of waiving visa fees, and he knows that my views will be unchanged whether I am in ministerial office or not. We have a duty to these individuals, and my aims and ambitions do not change. I am determined to keep working with him.

I met Help for Heroes, which has done great work to support veterans and to utilise LIBOR funding, which has now ended. What assessment has the Minister made of potential replacement funding streams to support veterans with the cost of specialist wheelchairs and mobility aids, and what internal discussions have there been about reinstating the veterans mobility fund?

I am well aware that the veterans mobility fund is coming to an end—that project was LIBOR-funded and LIBOR funding has come to an end. We are seeking to replace that with a more sustainable, more evidence-based process that will make sure that we look after the specialist needs that some of our amputees will have. I am absolutely determined that they will see no reduction in service, but will, in fact, see a better service through the understanding of their needs as they progress 10 or 20 years beyond their injury. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member and go through with him what we are looking to do.

Last month, the Minister said that the roll-out of veteran ID cards would be completed by next summer. The Government have said that issuing ID cards to veterans

“will help them access specialist support and services”

where needed, but only 3% of veterans have received an ID card since they were announced nearly four years ago. Can the Minister explain how the remaining 97% will receive an ID card in only a matter of months?

Yes, of course—I am more than happy to explain that to the hon. Lady. The issue is that we have managed to issue veteran ID cards to those who are leaving, because we can easily verify their service. We have never before been able to easily verify the service of veterans in this country; that is why we are investing £44 million in Veterans UK. I am confident that we will achieve the digital success we need early next year, in the spring, and start issuing these cards next summer. I look forward to working with the hon. Lady to make sure we deliver on that.

I note that the Minister says he will “start” delivering rather than complete it, but I welcome his determination to get veteran ID cards finally rolled out. However, making bold statements will not divert from the fact that his Government have failed to deliver for our veterans and their families. Whether it is due to incompetence or to negligence, at the current rate it will take more than 100 years to issue all those veteran ID cards. How does the Minister expect our armed forces communities to believe that the Government will make the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran by 2028 when this is the Government’s record?

I am afraid that I just do not accept the premise of the hon. Lady’s question about this Government’s record on veterans. Clearly I came to this place because our veterans provision was not good enough; that has markedly changed since we started campaigning. Of course I accept that there are challenges—there are historical challenges around veteran ID cards—but my experience with the veterans community is that there is no doubt in people’s minds that if we commit to something, we will deliver it. When it comes to ID cards, the hon. Lady is more than welcome to hold me to account in the year ahead.