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Veterans Welfare Services

Volume 741: debated on Tuesday 21 November 2023

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to update the House on the work that the Government are doing to ensure that our welfare services for veterans are fit for the future.

Under this Prime Minister, what it feels like to be a veteran has fundamentally transformed, with the introduction of defined pathways for veterans to access support, including with housing and healthcare, backed by record amounts of Government funding. As we continue to pave the way forward, we knew the time was right to look back and consider carefully the efficiency and effectiveness of pre-existing services, including some services under the banner of Veterans UK. That is why in March this year my right hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families and I informed the House that we had commissioned an independent review into a total of seven bodies, including the Veterans Welfare Service, Defence Transition Services and Veterans’ Gateway, which I was pleased was published in full in July.

The welfare services review contained recommendations to improve and simplify welfare provision for veterans across a variety of channels, and it marked the first time that those services had been considered in the round, looking at their role, scope and breadth. The Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families and I welcome the review’s findings as an important step in making the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran.

The Government have already committed to responding formally to the review by the end of the year, but Members of the House and their constituents rightly expect an update from me on what progress we have made so far. I am therefore delighted to announce that the Government accept the principles behind the vast majority of the review’s 35 strategic and operational recommendations. Thanks to close collaboration between the Ministry of Defence and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, I am pleased to update the House on how this Government are taking decisive steps to deliver a number of the review’s recommendations.

First, the “Veterans UK” branding will be retired in 2024, with the Government announcing a replacement in due course. Indeed, as the review acknowledged, staff involved in delivering welfare services for veterans sincerely care about their work, but sometimes analogue processes have historically hampered the level of service provided. With initiatives such as the Government digitalisation programme, backed by £40 million of Government funding, we are confident that the experience of service users will be genuinely transformed. The retirement of the “Veterans UK” branding marks a clean break from the past, and represents a vital step forward in regaining trust between the service and its users.

Secondly, The word “Veterans” will be removed from the title of the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families—the title will be renamed “Minister for Defence People and Families”. We agree with the review’s recommendation that that will provide clarity about the responsibility for co-ordinating veterans policy across Government. Indeed, although the MOD will continue to provide support—including on pensions and compensation, on transition from service for veterans and their families, and beyond transition on issues resulting from service—the change to the ministerial title further clarifies that the primary duty for co-ordinating veterans policy across Government sits with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, at the heart of Government in the Cabinet Office, and with me as the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs reporting directly to the Prime Minister in Cabinet.

Thirdly, I can announce that the OVA is currently exploring options for transforming Veterans’ Gateway, which has already had more than one million visits to its online guides. The House will be pleased to know that we have recently launched a refresh project for the gateway, and are in the process of bringing the service into central Government, within the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, ensuring that the gateway delivers streamlined access to the plethora of support available to veterans. Tied into that work, the Ministry of Defence and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs will jointly assess the relationship between Veterans’ Gateway and Veterans UK helplines. We will be mindful throughout of the need to simplify how veterans access support, and ensure that veterans who are unable to access services online, or who have more complex needs, are still supported.

Finally, the welfare services review will, alongside the Veterans and Advisory Pensions Committees Act 2023, contribute to clarifying the future role of the VAPCs in a way that supports the Government’s vision for veterans’ welfare services. Today puts us yet another step closer to delivering on this Government’s ambition to make the UK the best country in the world to be a veteran. I pay particular tribute to the review team, the independent veterans adviser, and all 150 contributors to this review, for the considerable amount of work that went into producing the report in a relatively short space of time. I look forward to publishing the Government’s full response to the review later in the year, and to ensuring that our welfare services for veterans and their families, service leavers and the bereaved community, are as efficient and effective as possible.

This country has an unwavering duty to those who put their life on the line for our freedom. As today’s statement demonstrates, this Government are committed and determined to discharge that duty with the honour and respect that our courageous ex-service personnel deserve, and I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minster for advance sight of the statement. Labour is deeply proud of our veterans, and for the enormous contribution they have made and continue to make to our country.

There was not very much in that statement, but what there is I can welcome. There seem to be two bits of rebranding, and two things that the Minister should already be doing, and that seems to be about it. I was expecting the Minister to have published the full Government response to the independent review of UK Government welfare services for veterans, instead of a statement that is just designed to look busy. When can we expect that Government response? It is due by the end of the year, but we are already in late November so there is not much time left.

As we head into the winter months, the Conservatives are still failing to deliver the support that our veterans and their families deserve. This review is long overdue, but Ministers have been responsible for worsening veterans’ services over the past 13 years. They have created a postcode lottery for veteran support, they have cut employment support for veterans, and they have continued to make little progress in the slow roll-out of veterans’ ID cards. As temperatures drop, the cost of living crisis is going to be tough on families across the country, and our veterans are no exception. People are worried about how they can afford to pay bills, and many could be making that horrific choice between heating and eating, as many did last year and the year before. This is why it is essential that they are able to access the services and support they need here and now.

The veterans’ welfare system can feel “almost impenetrable” for those seeking support. It is “overwhelming and off-putting” leading to a

“distrust of the Ministry of Defence and Veterans UK”.

Those are not my words; they are the damning conclusions of the independent review.

Our veterans do not need empty promises. They need action. As there was not much in today’s statement, we are left with more questions than answers—and here are some more. When will the Government design and articulate a single strategy for veterans’ welfare services, and will that be inclusive of family members and the bereaved? What steps are being taken to prepare personnel throughout their entire military career for civilian life, not just as they come into the transition timeframe? Will the MOD commission a review of tri-service welfare support provision, with a particular focus on transition and the wider discharge welfare provision processes?

Paragraph 4.7 of the independent review states that casework management in veterans welfare services is not fit for purpose due to

“a significant (and out-dated) reliance on paper records”,

and a lack of interoperability with other MOD IT systems. I therefore welcome the introduction of the £40 million digitisation programme that has previously been announced, but will the Minister tell us what proportion of that is being spent on veterans’ welfare services and in what timeframe? Will that end the outdated reliance on paper records that was made clear in the independent review?

Paragraph 4.18 of the review says that welfare managers are “over-stretched”, and paragraph 4.19 says that they are

“fundamentally…not professionally trained to undertake these roles”,

which are part financial adviser, part trauma caseworker, and part social worker, which is

“in stark contrast to…the charity sector”

and has contributed to

“a high turnover of staff in recent years”.

What is the Minister doing to address the training needs and capacity shortages?

It was disappointing that the content-light King’s Speech contained no new legislation to put the armed forces covenant on to the statute book. Labour has been clear that in government we would fully incorporate the armed forces covenant into law. Why does the Minister not agree with us on that? Why does he oppose that Labour policy?

We all understand that veterans’ identity cards will speed up access to services, but throughout the last year the Minister has used various language, which has changed, about when he will hit the targets for delivering them. This time last year, he promised that by summer 2023 all veterans should have received a veterans’ ID card. In April, he moved the goalposts, saying that it would be completed

“by the end of the year”.

Now, as we approach the end of the year, he is claiming that he is delivering on the promise, but not every veteran has an ID card. When will they?

Labour is deeply proud of our veterans. They deserve better than Ministers repeatedly breaking promises, moving the goalposts and failing to deliver the welfare support that our former service personnel and their families deserve. The next Labour Government will stand side by side with veterans and their families, because we are a party committed to fulfilling the important promises our society makes to those who serve. The Conservatives like to talk up their support to veterans, but it is clear—very much like today’s statement—that although there are a lot of words, there is not always a lot of substance.

I will be brief, because I am afraid that whenever the hon. Member rises to talk about veterans, he simply demonstrates his vast lack of knowledge in veterans’ affairs. He asked me questions that he knows, or he should know, are questions not for me but for the Ministry of Defence. For example, how we prepare people when they are in service is nothing to do with veterans’ affairs and veterans’ services. If he wants to stand up in the House and say that veterans’ services have got worse over the last two, three, five or seven years, that is fine, but everybody listening and watching knows that he is simply trying to make a political point and play politics with veterans. I will not waste the House’s time by going into too many of his points.

I have been consistent on veterans’ ID cards. I ask him to look at this and write to me with a time when I ever said that every veteran would have their ID card by the summer of this year. That never happened, and it is important that in this House we do not say things—inadvertently—that may not be correct. We are delivering ID cards by the end of the year, which was always the promise. By January, we will be printing 10,000 a month, and the veterans I speak to are happy with the process.

The hon. Member asked plenty of questions that do not relate to the statement or this area. Again, I implore the Opposition to move away from glib statements about veterans. They need to intellectually apply themselves to how policy can change to improve the lives of veterans. There is a desert on the Opposition Benches, and that is deeply disappointing.

I thank the Minister for his statement. He will recall that last year the all-party parliamentary group on veterans did a survey on Veterans UK, and I hope that survey played a small part in the statement. What is his vision for what comes after Veterans UK?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work that he has championed over many years in the APPG, along with all its members. He has specifically focused on Veterans UK. The ambition is to make it far clearer and easier to navigate and understand the functions of Veterans UK, and simultaneously to improve outcomes. The quinquennial review into armed forces compensation, which will report by the end of the year, tied into the full response to the veterans’ welfare review and will go into detail about some of those issues.

I would like to put on the record my sincere thanks to all the staff who work at Veterans UK. I will always rally hard in their defence, because I have been there myself and seen how hard they work. They genuinely care and they are committed, but the resource envelope that they operate in has not been good enough for a long time. The Government have changed that, and I am proud of that, as it will change what it means to be a veteran in the UK.

I thank the Minister for the statement, but he cannot escape from the fact that this is quite thin gruel. It amounts to a rebranding exercise, and I cannot think of many veterans who will be excited about what he said.

There is a cost of living crisis, and what veterans want to hear from the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is what he is doing, or what lobbying he is undertaking, to have practical steps put in place to help them right now. Nothing was said about that, despite that being a matter most pressing for so many veterans who are finding it hard to secure the dignity in retirement to which they should have a right.

The Minister said that veterans must be given the recognition they deserve because they have put their lives on the line on our behalf. He also said that he wants to simplify welfare provision for veterans, yet we continue to see too many veterans struggling to pay for essentials. I am sure he will say that that is not a matter directly for him, but I am keen to hear what lobbying he is undertaking—with his Cabinet colleagues and the Prime Minister, to whom he reports directly—on their behalf. This goes to the heart of veterans’ welfare, which is surely his business.

In the 2021 census, 1 million UK veterans were aged over 65, and an estimated 146,000 were eligible for pension credit, but, by treating military compensation awards as income, some of our poorest veterans and their families are pushed beyond the pension credit threshold and missing out on thousands of pounds of support that other civilians can access. Of course, that extends beyond national support and includes benefits paid out by councils such as housing benefit, council tax support, discretionary housing payments and disabled facilities grants.

When I raised that in the Chamber yesterday, the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families told me that compensation is calculated with an understanding of how it will interact with welfare benefits. I must tell the Minister that the MOD has not said that before, and that has not been understood heretofore by the British Legion. Perhaps he could explain why compensation incurred as a result of service in the line of duty is not included in mean-tested benefits for civil servants but is for veterans. Will he support—

I get the gist of the question. When it comes to issues that affect the veteran community and what is going on in that space, these are not just ideas that come from Ministers or others sitting around and thinking, “What is the most important thing for veterans?” Cost of living support is one of them, and that is why a number of funds are available. The Royal British Legion has done a terrific job on that over the winter, and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs leans into the armed forces covenant trust fund money as well. Consistently, the No. 1 issue in veterans’ affairs over the last seven years has been the identification of military service among the service charities. That is why between the Ministry of Defence and the OVA we have put so much effort and resource into delivering on our promises on veterans’ ID cards.

The hon. Member raises a legitimate point about the Royal British Legion’s current campaign on separating allocations of income for armed forces compensation scheme awards or similar. We will look at what can be done on that, and we are meeting representatives of the Royal British Legion—I think before Christmas—to work out what is the art of the possible. But I am afraid that I do not agree with her assertion that life is a misery as a veteran in this country. Things have improved exponentially in the last seven to 10 years. Never have opportunities or the support available been like they are now, but we continue to work hard. I always listen to the veterans community and work hard to ensure that we meet that need.

From his maiden speech onwards, the Minister has relentlessly promoted the cause of service veterans, and the whole House should be grateful to him for it. Even longer in their service are tremendously experienced charities such as Veterans Aid in Victoria, under the inspirational leadership of Dr Hugh Milroy. To what extent is Government strategy drawing on the vast experience of such organisations, which know so much about the frontline issues faced by veterans who fall on hard times or even into destitution?

I pay huge tribute to the charities in this space. I know the work of Veterans Aid, and Hugh does a terrific job down there. The key in all this work is collaboration. Nobody will deliver this by themselves. The expertise in the charity sector is unrivalled. In Op Courage, we have delivered a dedicated mental health care pathway for veterans, which is commissioned centrally but delivered by different charitable partners all over the United Kingdom. It works for the Government, because we know that the services are happening; it works for individuals, because they know that a service is available for them; and it works for the vital charities in the sector, which can have longer-term contracts. We are doing that on homelessness: Op Fortitude has set up a network of wraparound service provision to end homelessness this Christmas. I know that there is always more to do, and I would love to see Veterans Aid and to catch up with where it is with its work.

The Minister has recently been shown evidence that blood testing was carried out on servicemen in the ’50s and ’60s—testing that the MOD denied existed. His response was to say that he could not do anything and that the nuclear veterans should sue the MOD. To dismiss those veterans in that way is a dereliction of his duty as Veterans Minister, is it not?

I recognise the politicisation of the campaign on nuclear test veterans. The truth is that no one has done more than those on the Government Benches to deliver that medal, more than 70 years later, to our veterans who served.

There is no cover up; I have worked extensively with the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families to uncover records in this space. Some records were taken, some were not. There is no cover-up policy to discriminate against that cohort. It is simply does not exist. What would be the reason to cover it up rather than look after these people? I have travelled halfway round the world to Fiji to meet them, to look after them, to give them their medals and to try to support them. I rally against the politicisation of this veterans cohort, who will of course continue to drive down this space. We all have a responsibility to act maturely and to ensure that they receive the answers they deserve after a very long time.

I welcome the Minister’s statement. Last year, I ran my first half marathon to raise money for Forces in the Community, a Broxtowe charity that supports veterans through all walks of life. Such small organisations do life-changing work and desperately need our support. Will the Minister lay out what support is in place for small organisations such as Forces in the Community?

Of course. The Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust is fantastic in that regard. It is an independent body that receives at least £10 million a year from the Government to support vital charities and what they are doing. The charity space is made up of large and small charities, and they are all equally important. They save lives and work on the frontline every day. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his fundraising, and to all colleagues across the House who support veterans charities, which are a vital part of delivering this nation’s commitment to our armed forces veterans.

I am sure that we are united in this House in wanting to secure the best outcome for veterans. An important part of that is remembering their service and ensuring that we never forget the sacrifices that they made on behalf of our country. I am conscious that the Minister is sitting next to the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families, who knows a little more about commemoration, but he will also know that we are very privileged to still have some veterans from Operation Overlord and Operation Market Garden. On behalf of the Government, will he say what work is under way to ensure that there will be a fitting 80th anniversary tribute to them next year?

I pay tribute to the relentless way that the hon. Member provides a voice to veterans in his community and across the country. Next year is an incredibly important year. While we contemporise remembrance, as we did this year in the way we changed the parade and such things, we are incredibly privileged to have people still with us who experienced a conflict that none of us could ever imagine. They are a living and breathing example. The Government are determined to honour that in the correct fashion next year. I look forward to sharing those plans with him in due course.

I had cause to raise problems with the UK’s handling of some Stroud veterans, particularly those with complex cases, and I thank the Minister for his time in that regard. I can see what an extremely difficult but necessary step the fearless Minister has taken in relation to VUK in his quest to help veterans. Will he talk through the transition period towards the new services, particularly to reassure anybody who is already involved with VUK, and expand on the Veterans’ Gateway timeline and approach?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for championing these issues over many years. Retiring the brand of Vets UK may seem like a small thing to people who do not know much about veterans. In the veterans community, it is a massive moment to retire that brand and look at what the organisation does in relation to the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. We need to make sure that it does what it says on the tin for our bereaved families and delivers an improved service through the maturity of these reviews, which will be delivered by the end of the year.

Veterans’ Gateway was a fantastic idea when it came in, and it has been run very well by the Royal British Legion over many years, but I have always had an ambition for it to do more. I have a vision of everything being in the palm of your hand in future, so people can go somewhere like Veterans’ Gateway to access support, submit an armed forces compensation scheme application or geolocate support services in the community. It is an exciting vision and we can only do that by bringing it back into Government. It is now back in Government. We are working on those plans, and I will have more to say on that development in due course.

Veterans and their families are twice as likely to be unpaid carers or in receipt of sickness or disability benefits. Some of the announcements being trailed ahead of tomorrow’s autumn statement have indicated that benefits might see a real-terms cut. It has been suggested the benefits might be increased by 4.6% rather than 6.7% to reflect the October inflation figure rather than the usual September one. Has the Minister discussed with Department for Work and Pensions or Treasury colleagues how the trailed changes might affect veterans and their families?

I welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend and his work on behalf of veterans across the whole United Kingdom. He takes very seriously the impact on their families, particularly those who have lost loved ones fighting for their country. A lot of good work has been done by the Ministry of Defence and the UK Government on the war widow’s pension issue, but I have been contacted by constituents who are concerned that things have changed somewhat since the original announcement in May, and a significant proportion of the fewer than 400 women may not get the money they were expecting from the UK Government. Will he agree to take that back to the Department to look again?

I work closely with my Ministry of Defence colleagues on that. I started working in 2017 and 2018, and then in 2019 as a Minister, on some sort of recognition of war widows. I am pleased with the work of the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families and with the ex-gratia payment we have ended up with. That will never replace a pension and it does not value what has been lost on behalf of the nation, but it is designed to recognise that. The Government are clear that that should be available to everyone who is entitled to it, and I will work with my Ministry of Defence colleagues to address the points that my hon. Friend raised.

It is estimated that some 60,000 ex-service personnel are victims of frozen pension arrangements because they have chosen to live abroad. Whatever the Government’s position on frozen pensions generally, surely these people could and should be treated as a special case. Given the Minister’s responsibility for co-ordinating veterans policy across Government, does he agree that they are a special case and will he represent their concerns across Government?

This is an incredibly difficult issue, with which I am familiar. I have just been on a visit to Australia, where it was raised with me in person. The truth is that this is a Treasury policy area. I recognise that individuals who leave the country want to see their pensions uprated. That is not current policy, but I will always advocate for veterans to be a special case. I continue to make those representations every day that I am in government.

I agree with the Minister that these issues really should not be politicised. I came into the House nearly 20 years ago. I grew up in an Army city, Hereford, and I now represent a constituency in Shropshire. When I came in 20 years ago, there was a lot less provision for veterans in every single aspect of what the Minister outlined today. I commend the fact that the Government are supporting the majority of the 35 strategic and operational recommendations in the review. I put on record my thanks to all the staff and volunteers at the Royal British Legion-backed Battle Back Centre for wounded veterans in Lilleshall in my constituency. May I take this opportunity to say that he has an open invitation to visit?

That is very kind. I try to get around as many such centres as possible. The RBL has done an incredible job over many years with a lot of Battle Back Centres. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I became a Member of Parliament after my experiences in conflict in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010. I am here now in 2023 and veterans’ care has been transformed, whichever way we look at it. On dedicated pathways for mental health and physical health, ending homelessness, the criminal justice system and sector initiatives into employment, there has never been a better time to be a veteran. However, we continue to press hard, because we want to make this the best country in the world to be a veteran. I am absolutely determined that we will get there.

Simply rebranding Veterans UK seems like a superficial move. I am not clear how just changing the name recognises the deep problems that exist in that set-up. What assurances can the Minister give the House and the many veterans who contact me regularly that there will be a root-and-branch review to ensure that existing complaints are dealt with and that veterans receive the service they richly deserve?

I am just looking over my statement again and at no stage have I said that this is a rebranding exercise. The Veterans UK brand is being retired, absolutely, but that is not a rebranding exercise, because then we would have come forward with something else that would be exactly the same. The overarching organisation is being removed, as well as the interrelationships under that between the bereavement services, the compensation services and the welfare services that operate out of Norcross. Look, if people want to take it as a rebrand, that’s fine. I have not said that and that is not what it is going to mean for veterans, but if it fits their narrative, that’s fine by me.

I welcome the statement, but not as much as I welcome my right hon. and gallant Friend’s role and his enthusiasm to continue to undertake it. That role did not exist under previous Administrations. We all know there is nothing worse than seeing a veteran on the street begging. Recently, I came across a man called Danny at Edgware Road tube station and he was indeed begging. I wrote to the Minister with Danny’s contact details and I am eternally grateful that Danny is now getting the support he deserves, but I do not believe that he should have had to beg for that. I look forward to the Government’s response to the review to ensure that it does not take a Member of Parliament to write to a Minister in the Cabinet Office to get the support that people not only deserve but require.

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for bringing that case to us. I also pay tribute to those in my private office who work on individual cases like that for veterans every single day and change lives. That is what has happened in Danny’s case.

I do not want to see any veteran sleeping rough because of a lack of provision. Under this Government, we will end that by this Christmas through Op Fortitude, a dedicated pathway out of homelessness, with 910 supported housing placements and £8.5 million. We are incredibly proud of it.

On the point about this position not existing before, I welcome any political debate around veterans. There is a new shadow Minister talking about veterans today; the other one is not here any more. There is no commitment to follow through on what we have done with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. I have no idea why the Labour party would want to seek a fight on veterans’ affairs. We just want the country to look after them and I think Labour needs to have another look at that tactic.

Let me say on behalf of the people right across Chesterfield that we have an absolute respect for the role played by veterans. I know that people across my constituency want veterans to get the support they need. We have an organisation in Derbyshire, Stand To, which does fantastic work in providing veterans’ support services. I will be writing to that organisation following this statement. I was expecting to be writing to say that the Government were now in a position to provide their response to the review. From what the Minister has been able to say today, he seems keen to make the point that this not just a rebranding exercise; Veterans UK is being stood down, but there will be a replacement. Can he say any more about what will actually replace it, so I can put that in the letter that I am writing to Stand To?

What I try to do in this space is set the objectives. We all know the problems around Veterans UK: the lack of accountability, and the challenges the staff face through the lack of resourcing and the lack of digitisation. We have set out where we want better outcomes, for example in the compensation space. We have set those objectives and what it comes back with we will implement. It will all be tied into the Veterans’ Gateway.

We have an ambition that no one comes in through the wrong front door, does not have to tell their story a number of times, and receives the care and compensation they deserve for their service, but that is a journey and not something I can implement overnight. I know colleagues know this, but it is clear from having conversations with anybody in the veterans space about Veterans UK that it is not where I want it to be. That is what today is about: acknowledging those challenges and understanding why they exist. That has nothing to do with the staff, who have worked incredibly hard over many years but have been traditionally under-resourced by Governments of all colours. They now have a new resource envelope and a real opportunity to deliver professional veterans care, which is what this is all about.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for his ongoing work to support veterans right across the United Kingdom. The Minister will be aware that new research from Queen’s University Belfast has found that Northern Ireland veterans who have been exposed to traumatic events and experienced barriers to care have increased levels of PTSD symptoms and diagnosis. What further assurances can the Minister give me that the needs of veterans who served in Northern Ireland will be supported, given those findings? I am led to believe that the Minister will be visiting Northern Ireland. He would be most welcome in my constituency to visit some of those veterans in the not too distant future.

I thank the hon. Lady for her continued advocacy in this space. As everybody knows, levelling up what it means to be a veteran in Northern Ireland has been absolutely critical to the Government’s work, whether through the very, very difficult legacy Bill or the Northern Ireland Veterans Support Office. The NIVSO is the first directly funded workstream of £500,000 coming out of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, which we are working with the Veterans Commissioner over there to deliver. There are key areas in the veterans’ ecosystem that are delivered by devolved authorities and we respect that. All we are asking is that all veterans get the standard they deserve and I am determined we will get there in Northern Ireland. I am going to Northern Ireland again on 4 and 5 December. I look forward to seeing her and everyone else who is always very kind to me when I come over.

I thank the Minister for the update. I wonder if he would listen to this voice from the desert from east Durham. Can I draw his attention to the terrific work the East Durham Veterans Trust does to provide mental health support, counselling and advice? It is a much neglected area. Indeed, the Minister’s colleague who is no longer in her place, the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), mentioned the Veterans’ Gateway. There is some excellent work on a telephone-based app that I have seen, which was pioneered by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. I hope we will see a lot more of that. May I draw the Minister’s attention to early-day motion 51 in support of a veterans’ bank holiday? Will he look into that suggestion? In this country we are way behind in the number of bank holidays. I think it would be significant for the whole country to highlight veterans’ welfare through a new bank holiday.

You will not find me arguing against more time off, Mr Deputy Speaker! I am always fighting for better services in the veterans space, and I will take that idea of a veterans bank holiday away with me.

When it comes to the issue of mental health, the hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Some small groups have done extraordinary work on the frontline over many years, sitting with veterans throughout the night when no one else is awake or watching, and plugging them into services. We have transformed mental health care services through Op Courage, spending between £22 million and £24 million a year, and there were 19,000 referrals in its first year. There is still a massive amount of unmet need, but we are determined to drive that down so that all these groups feel connected and plugged into services. It is my mission to ensure that no veteran, especially when poorly, does not know where to turn, and I will not rest until we get there.

I welcome the Minister’s statement. His understanding of veterans’ issues has been nurtured by his service in the Army but also by his nature, which leads him to try to help people who are less well off, and I appreciate that very much. I understand that just in the past week his Department has been able to assist people on whose behalf I have been acting for some time, and I thank him for that as well.

Last month it was announced that the Office for Veterans’ Affairs would be providing about half a million pounds of pilot funding to level up medical and welfare services for veterans in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister confirm that all those veterans—every one of them—will qualify for the funding, and that there is no criterion relating to length of service that they will have to meet in order to gain access to the right care?

There is no criterion of that kind. The qualification in this country for being a veteran is 24 hours’ service. We can disagree on whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it is the basis of the allocation and all the data that we have had to collect over the last few years to understand what the veterans cohort is actually like. I am not sure what sort of exclusions the hon. Gentleman is referring to—he may wish to speak to me offline—but I have rallied hard against the way in which the politics changes in these things. Individuals’ commitment to the nation is unwavering. There is a standard to which we will adhere when it comes to looking after them following their service, irrespective of where they served in the United Kingdom, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for helping us to deliver that over the years.