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Office for Veterans’ Affairs

Volume 805: debated on Wednesday 9 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent steps the Office for Veterans’ Affairs has taken to support veterans.

My Lords, since establishing the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, the Government have brought the Strategy for our Veterans to life. We have improved access to social housing, we are hiring Armed Forces champions in jobcentres, and we are announcing a high-intensity mental health service. The Government have also announced a veterans’ railcard, guaranteed interviews in the Civil Service, and a national insurance holiday for veterans’ employers. We awarded £6 million of Covid-19 funding to service charities.

Next month will mark the first anniversary of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. I commend all those involved, especially Johnny Mercer, for putting the welfare of our veterans front and centre. In these difficult times, can the Minister tell us what the office is doing to maintain and strengthen the mental health of our veterans? Will he agree to meet with me and Katie Reade of the campaign End Frozen Pensions to see what can be done for the 60,000 or so veterans living abroad who have been denied annual increases to their UK state pensions?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind words about the work of officials; he is a great campaigner on these matters. He is absolutely right to signal the importance of work on mental health. The existing services we have established— the Transition Intervention and Liaison Service and the Complex Treatment Service—benefit from over £10 million of investment per year and have collectively received over 10,000 referrals. However, we want to do more, and the forthcoming veterans mental health high intensity service will see even more investment, providing crisis care, therapeutic in-patient support and help with co-ordinating care. We are currently recruiting for this service. I will certainly talk to Mr Mercer about a meeting with my noble friend and we will see what we can arrange.

My Lords, when does the Minister envisage a full service returning to the Veterans UK helpline, which is offering only limited information to veterans over the phone at the moment? I tested it myself yesterday. Also, when do the Government plan to revisit their totally unsatisfactory policy on war widows’ pensions as a result of the letter from the Secretary of State for Defence to the chair of the War Widows’ Association on June 29? As a vice-president of the WWA, I know that war widows cannot wait much longer.

My Lords, the noble Baroness asked two extremely important questions. Government services for veterans have continued throughout Covid, but she is right that there have been changes to ensure safety and social distancing. For a period during the peak of the pandemic, the helpline was closed as it could not operate effectively, but support continued to be offered through email, digital means and a call-back service. I am advised that matters are now returning to normal. I will certainly pursue that in light of what the noble Baroness has said. On war widows, for whom she is a consistent advocate and I praise her for that, we are now exploring the full financial and legal implications of the options in making the move she is seeking so that the Defence Secretary can decide how to proceed. I assure her that work is continuing at pace in the Ministry of Defence and across government.

Will my noble friend join me in congratulating Mr Danny Kinahan on his recent appointment as veterans’ commissioner in Northern Ireland and wish him well? The Minister will be aware that the military covenant has been the bedrock of support for veterans for many years. That requires work with the devolved Administrations. They are required by the Act to report annually to the Secretary of State for Defence, who then puts their communication in a report that is laid before Parliament. Is the Minister aware that the Northern Ireland Executive has never complied with that requirement? What steps can the Government take to ensure and guarantee that services for veterans in Northern Ireland are properly delivered?

I thank my noble friend and add my personal congratulations to those he offered. The covenant is of enormous importance. I am not aware of the position as concerns the Northern Ireland Executive, but we will certainly look into the matter.

My Lords, will my noble friend join me in expressing our enduring debt of gratitude to those veterans who upheld democracy and the rule of law in Northern Ireland and without whose contribution there would never have been a peace process? Does he agree that these veterans would be greatly supported by legislation to limit the scope of the Human Rights Act so that it cannot be applied retrospectively in cases that happened many years before the Act came into force and which have already been extensively investigated?

My Lords, I wholly endorse my noble friend’s opening sentiments. I understand and share the frustrations he espouses. We will implement the Stormont House agreement in such a way as to provide certainty for veterans and justice for victims, to focus on reconciliation and to end the cycle of reinvestigations into the Troubles in Northern Ireland that has failed victims and veterans alike. This is an ongoing matter.

My Lords, when the Government launched the Office of Veterans Affairs, they said that the United Kingdom would lead the world in the care of Armed Forces veterans. That is obviously welcome, but could the Minister enlighten the House as to whether that is intended to include all veterans of the British services, including those Commonwealth citizens who have served us, particularly the Fijians, who occasionally have difficulties with their residency and immigration status?

My Lords, the position of Commonwealth veterans is of great importance. The Government highly value the service of all our veterans, including Commonwealth nationals and non-UK personnel. For example, Ministers are continuing to discuss visa fees with the Home Office, and I am confident we will find a positive outcome.

My Lords, I declare my interests as deputy chairman of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, which in 2019 distributed £28 million in support of 70,000 members of the RAF family. To what extent will future funding become available to enable the Armed Forces charity sector to continue to deliver the emotional, practical and financial support that our Armed Forces veterans have come to rely on, especially as charitable income has been affected so significantly by the impact of Covid-19?

My Lords, the work done by charities such as that my noble friend is associated with is vital. As a supporter of some of those charities, I know what good work they do. In June we announced that 100 UK Armed Forces charities would benefit from nearly £6 million of extra funding to support serving personnel veterans and their families during the Covid pandemic. I hope that is a sign of the importance the Government attach to this work.

My Lords, while I welcome the Minister’s response to the noble Lord, Lord Caine, can I press him on the particular situation of former veterans and members of the Royal Irish Regiment and the former Ulster Defence Regiment, who have recently given voice to complaints that they have been ignored in many aspects of support, particularly medical support? This is of particular concern to those of us in Northern Ireland at this time.

I understand the noble and right reverend Lord’s point. I repeat what I said to my noble friend Lord Caine: we attach importance to this and will continue to pursue it.

Some years ago I spent a day as a fly on the wall with a combat stress support worker helping veterans with PTSD. Sadly, another veteran has recently taken his own life in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister update us on progress in improving data collection to help prevent veteran suicides, as set out in the veterans strategy?

My Lords, I regret to say that I found it extremely difficult to hear the question. I believe it was in reference to suicide. Of course, any suicide is a tragedy and we are committed to addressing it. There is not an epidemic currently, as is often said, but there is an ongoing important problem, which our mental health initiatives are in part intended to address.