My Lords, I have the pleasure of repeating a Statement made in the other place. The Statement is as follows:
“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 honourable 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 to publish 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 welcomed 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 this 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 1 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 the 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 Advisory and 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”.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for reading the Statement presented yesterday by the Government. I must admit, though, that I was expecting something a bit more meaty when I saw the Statement was to be made because, as far as I can see, there is a bit of rebranding, a job title change and a commitment to explore some options about the gateway, but we do not yet have the full response referred to in the Statement. We are told that it will come before the end of the year, but we are almost at the end of November and we have about three and a half weeks left of parliamentary time, so what was it that the Government were hoping to signal by making the Statement yesterday? It is really not very clear.
Having said all that, we on these Benches are deeply proud of our veterans, of the enormous contribution they have made and continue to make to our country, of their service in the Armed Forces and of their ongoing contribution to our community and the economy throughout their lives. The skills, knowledge and experience gained while serving is immense and is a solid foundation on which to build a successful career. However, there are well known challenges too, and this is something that the Office for Veterans’ Affairs was set up to address. That is why, given the extent of the need and the remit the office has, this Statement is such a non-event. It is virtually empty, with a bit of rebranding and nothing of substance—nothing for our veterans, who are really struggling with the cost of living crisis. We know that the number of veterans claiming universal credit has gone up by one-third in the last year alone: the Statement has nothing to say about that.
Yesterday, the Veterans Minister failed to answer a single question. I hope the Minister this evening can do a little better. Rather than getting into a dispute over which government department is responsible for which demarcation—if I did not know better, I would say one might be going on between the Veterans Minister and the Minister in the MoD who has just had his job title changed—perhaps we could hear how many veterans are still without a permanent roof over their head.
The findings of the review of the Armed Forces compensation scheme stated that the claimant process is “overly burdensome” and even “distressing” for particularly vulnerable claimants. How does the Minister plan on improving confidence in that scheme? There is nothing about that in the Statement. Some 1.5 million veterans still have not received the ID card they were promised. What has gone wrong? These cards are important, as they speed up access to services for veterans. There is nothing about that in the Statement.
The veterans action plan celebrates the success of the veterans Civil Service guaranteed interview scheme pilot, so can the Minister explain why more than half of all the veterans who applied did not get an interview? There is nothing about that in the Statement, either. While we are at it, can she let us know when the Government plan to respond fully to the Etherton report? I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, for reminding me about that this afternoon. The apology from the Prime Minister really was welcome, but the Minister will be aware that there were a number of other recommendations and that many veterans are keen to learn whether the Government intend to implement them.
Our veterans deserve the very best. They need to see the full government response to the Independent Review of UK Government Welfare Services for Veterans. To be honest, that is what I thought we would get yesterday. Can the Minister tell us when we can expect the full response? Yesterday’s Statement was hollow and a bit of a disappointment. Of course Governments can present whatever Statements they like, but this was an unusually thin event. Next time the Veterans Minister comes to the Dispatch Box in the other place to make such a Statement, it would be really helpful if we could have some solid answers to the questions that we and veterans up and down the country would like answered.
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, I pay huge tribute to all our Armed Forces for their work and to all our veterans and their families. We have 1.8 million veterans in England and Wales, according to the 2021 census. I welcome the ambition of the welfare services independent review to improve and simplify welfare provision, with its 35 recommendations mostly supported by the Government. We will see more of the detail in the next few weeks.
I also welcome the fact that the Minister is giving us an update—even though there is not much detail in it —so we know that the next step, when we get the formal response in a few weeks’ time, is the one that is going to matter.
It is good that responsibility for veterans policy across government will lie clearly with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. It is at the heart of government, in the Cabinet Office, and not isolated in the Ministry of Defence. Help for Heroes has wanted a single port of call for veterans, and it is clearly going to help that the Government are planning to do this.
When I had the privilege of leading Newcastle City Council, I was pleased that several housing associations in our city took action to assist veterans in need of specific help with housing and personal support, offering supported housing with personal advice on site about jobs, training, the development of life skills, form filling and so on. As so much is provided inside the Armed Forces, some veterans can struggle with managing for themselves when they are outside. The work of the voluntary and third sector organisations in support of them is of increasing importance. As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, the numbers claiming universal credit are rising. Veterans and their families are twice as likely to be unpaid carers or in receipt of sickness or disability benefits.
There was a sentence in today’s Autumn Statement in which the Chancellor said:
“I will extend National Insurance relief for employers of eligible veterans for a further year”—
that is welcome—
“and provide £10m to support the Veterans’ Places, Pathways and People programme”.
I think that this is a new £10 million—I see the Minister is nodding, so it is new. I am not entirely sure why it is a figure of 10 million and not something higher since, clearly, the work done particularly in relation to mental health is very important. One might have thought that a higher sum of money could be spent, so anything the Minister can tell us about that would be helpful.
There are issues around the availability and affordability of supported housing and helping those veterans who are at risk of homelessness. My noble friend Lady Smith of Newnham asked a question a few weeks ago about whether the Ministry of Defence was willing for empty MoD houses to be used in bad weather by veterans who are homeless. I hope the Government will continue to look at the possibility of doing that.
The Minister mentioned the digitalisation programme, backed by some £40 million of government money. I hope it will be accessible to all veterans in need of advice. What help will be given to those who will find difficulty with the Veterans’ Gateway? The Government have said:
“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”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/11/23; col. 215.]
That is very important indeed and anything the Minister can tell us, now or later in writing, about what is going to be done to assist those not able to access services online would be helpful.
The Minister cited the Government’s desire for the UK to be the best place in the world to be a veteran. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, pointed out, it would help to be clearer about exactly what benefits they will have that will make it the best place in the world. Finally, I wonder why the Government do not place themselves under a duty with the Armed Forces covenant to be the best in the world, rather than simply anticipating the possibility that they might become so?
My Lords, I should first say that it is good that we all agree on how deeply proud we are of our veterans, and on the importance of doing the right thing by them.
I will start by talking about why we made the Statement yesterday. We wanted to provide an opportunity for the Government to welcome the review’s findings, to say that we were accepting the vast majority of its recommendations in principle, and to demonstrate progress against some of them. Some are obviously complicated and need a bit more time. I confirm that we will address the full range of strategic and tactical recommendations made in the review in our full written response, which will be published later this year. By making the Statement we are demonstrating where we have got to after decades of too little being done, and the difference we now have with a Minister devoted full time to veterans’ matters sitting in Cabinet meetings and reporting to the Prime Minister. That has made a great deal of difference. Of course, the change to the title is meant to show that clearly and will help externally, making the priority clear and making clear who is doing what. It is a break from the past, as is the rebranding of Veterans UK. There have been some issues of trust and confusion as to what Veterans UK stands for, and that will help us to move ahead.
Both the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, talked about housing. As they will know, we are working towards ending rough sleeping and homelessness via Operation Fortitude, which is a new referral scheme to provide a single central point to support veterans into stable housing. The reducing veteran homelessness programme has provided over £7.2 million of funding for specialist help. I note the question about MoD accommodation; I will come back to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on that, if I may.
Compensation was mentioned. Of course, the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme provides compensation for injury or illness caused or made worse by service, or where death is caused by service in the UK Armed Forces, after April 2005. The quinquennial review by the MoD ensures that as time passes, the scheme is scrutinised and remains fit for purpose. We will respond to the veterans’ welfare report by the end of the year, and the MoD will also be responding to the quinquennial review, so we have these various things coming together at that time. The noble Baroness mentioned the Etherton review on LGBT veterans, so I should perhaps add that we are also hoping to respond to that by the end of the year. So these things are coming together well.
ID cards were mentioned, and they are very much regarded as a good thing by veterans. They help to make sure that they have eligibility for lots of different things. Of course, the first ones were issued by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs at Gosport in September. The team is working very hard to ensure we meet the users’ needs on that. Some 10,000 are due to be made available in January. We are moving forward on that and look forward to people finding it easier to identify themselves.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, rightly raised the issue that it is all very well having a much better system online—which we will have, and are spending £40 million on digitalising—but we also need to think about those who cannot access things online. We debate these issues quite a lot, and I think we all feel that this is important. Making sure that people who are not able to access our improved encyclopaedia of support are helped in other ways is certainly part of our plans. I take that point very well and I am glad that he made it.
I was obviously delighted to hear, unexpectedly, the Chancellor’s announcement on veterans today. He announced an extension to the national insurance relief scheme for companies that hire veterans in their first civilian job. That is the sort of thing that makes a difference. Noble Lords will know that I am a retailer, and we used to try to take on veterans. This kind of thing helps to spread a willingness to do just that, so I am so glad to see it extended.
I am also delighted to see the £10 million additional support for mental health. It is in addition to the work under Operation Courage, and it is over and above the NHS’s charitable support, which is brilliant in this area. That is good news, and I am delighted to be able to confirm it from the Dispatch Box.
The noble Lord also mentioned the Armed Forces covenant, which is very important. When I answer questions for my right honourable friend Mr Mercer on veterans, I cannot help but feel how important veterans are and how we have relied on them when all else has failed, not only in war but often in disasters, too. The Armed Forces Act 2021 introduced a new legal duty on specified persons and bodies to give due regard to the covenant when exercising functions such as healthcare and housing. That was very important.
I am grateful for noble Lords’ comments and look forward to coming back around the end of the year, after we have been able to take forward one or two of the slightly knottier problems.
My Lords, it has been useful to hear of the Government’s very firm commitment to improving the services provided to our veterans, to whom we are all in such debt, to know that progress is being made, and to look forward to fuller news by the end of the year. I will follow comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, on the extremely important report published in July by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton. LGBT veterans are waiting anxiously to hear news of the Government’s implementation of the recommendations in that report. I was delighted to hear from my noble friend the Minister that LGBT veterans will be hearing definite news by the end of this year. I point out that the relevant webpage on GOV.UK, which exists to provide news of the Government’s work and response following the noble and learned Lord’s review, has not been updated since 31 July.
I join the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and my noble friend Lady Chapman, and note the work done by my noble friend Lord Cashman. The report by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, deals with a stain on our country. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is right to press the Minister to say that everyone has accepted that the way that LGBT people were hounded out of our Armed Forces simply because of their sexuality was a complete disgrace. There is no debate now about that, and the noble and learned Lord’s brilliant report brought that to the fore, with the help of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and my noble friend Lord Cashman, so it is incumbent on the Minister to ensure that this is put right. People will have heard her commitment at the Dispatch Box that this will be done by the end of the year, and I hope that she will do all she can to ensure that this is made a reality, because it is of such desperate importance to us all.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and my noble friend Lady Chapman said that the Government defeated the amendment put down to apply the Armed Forces covenant to government bodies. The point that many would make is that the covenant is great, but why is not applied to government bodies?
My final point is on the military medical discharge scheme. The Minister is right to point to a couple of the things that were said in the Statement today, but there are real problems about those who are medically discharged and how they are then supported and looked after by the NHS. That is a consistent problem that has been raised, so I urge the Minister to look at how veterans are supported by the NHS when they have been medically discharged from our Armed Forces.
I am so grateful to the noble Lord for taking part in this debate and for making those points. Of course, a lot of them extend beyond my brief to the Ministry of Defence. However, one of the points I have been making today is on how we work together, so I will certainly take those points back. On the Etherton report, again, I will be talking to the Ministry of Defence about that. Of course, my noble friend Lord Lexden and the noble Lord are right to emphasise the awful history there.
Just to come back to the Minister on that, of course the really important point is that Johnny Mercer MP is the veterans champion—as indeed is the noble Baroness. So it is incumbent upon the noble Baroness to go to the MoD—that is the point of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs being in the Cabinet Office—and say, “This is what you should be doing” and bang heads together, being the voice of the MoD as someone external to it, not defending it as an institution. So, with respect to the Minister, I would say that I know she did not mean her first remarks about how a lot of these things are to do with the MoD. That is the whole point of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs: to say to the MoD, “Get it sorted out” with respect to LGBT and medical discharge. So be the champion, be the voice and tell the MoD to get some of this sorted out, and quicker than it is doing.
I think the noble Lord was trying to reverse what I was saying, which was that the experience is that we are working better with the MoD as a result of this work—we are moving forward on these items. I am coming to tell noble Lords that we are making progress and it is entirely appropriate of me to refer to other departments because the work is collaborative. However, as the noble Lord knows, when I get involved in things in the Cabinet Office—and this applies even more to Minister Mercer, who has been such an enthusiast for veterans—we try to knock heads together and make progress. A lot of this progress is now coming through and making life better for veterans.
Although I do not spend a lot of time on this, I have spent time in America, where veterans are really part of the fabric, and we really need to move things forward here. I am sorry this is a three-quarters empty House this evening, because this is really important and I am glad that we have had an opportunity to update your Lordships and I look forward to the next instalment of this very important work.
House adjourned at 7.48 pm.