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Homelessness: Veterans

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the increasing levels of homelessness among former armed forces personnel; and what steps they are taking to tackle homelessness among veterans.

The Government doubt that the statistics available prove that there is an increasing level of homelessness among veterans. However, any homelessness among veterans needs to be tackled, which is why we have established a number of policies to achieve this important objective. We are committed to ensuring that no veteran is rough sleeping due to a lack of provision.

My Lords, we surely all agree, across your Lordships’ House, that the very least we owe those who have served this country in our Armed Forces is that at the end of their service they should have either affordable supported housing with wraparound support or a General Needs home. Sadly, because of the national housing crisis, that is no longer the case. Last year, in spite of the pledges made under Operation Fortitude, there was an increase in homelessness among Armed Forces veterans of 14%, with 2,110 households affected, up from 1,850 the previous year. What steps are the Government taking to join up the work done by the Ministry of Defence, DLUHC and local government to ensure that no one who has served our country ends up sleeping on the streets?

I should say first that the level of veteran homelessness remains very low: less than 1% of households are owed a homeless duty. I agree with everything the noble Baroness has said about the importance of looking after our veterans. The increase can mainly be attributed to improved recording at local authority level. Local authorities now report on all support needs and relevant life experiences, rather than current support needs only. She rightly asks what we are doing. We have a large package of measures. There is Operation Fortitude, a hotline to support veterans into housing—the first of its kind—which has housed over 477 veterans. We have a dedicated £8 million fund, establishing 900 units of veteran supported housing. There is a whole range of help, including online help by the Veterans UK helpline, which helps to join up what we are doing. These different packages were championed by Minister Mercer, but co-ordinated very much with DLUHC and the MoD.

My Lords, everyone regrets anyone being homeless, especially veterans. As a veteran myself, I can say that. When I was the Minister responsible for veterans in the Ministry of Defence, which was immediately after the Labour Government left office, there was a lot of talk about veteran homelessness then. I went to see Veterans Aid, an excellent organisation that operates out of London. The man in charge of it, an ex-RAF wing commander, said, “Not everyone who says they’re a veteran actually is one, but they get better treatment if they are”. Does my noble friend agree that, as she has so rightly said, not everyone who says they are a veteran is one, but they get better benefits if they are?

The way I look at it, we need to help veterans. We have the veterans covenant, to say that those who serve or have served in the Armed Forces, and their families, are treated fairly. It was right that we changed the law in 2012 so that veterans with urgent housing needs are always given high priority for social housing. Of course, local authorities have to make sure that people who say they are veterans are veterans, but we must move forward and not be deterred by the odd difficultly. It is great that so few veterans are homeless; we should celebrate that.

My Lords, as the Minister pointed out, it is right we ensure that veterans are not homeless. One thing that it is important to remember is that the vast majority of veterans transition into civilian life without difficulty. However, for those who come from certain backgrounds, there must be opportunities, all the way through their serving life to talk about transitioning to civilian life and to think about future accommodation. A recent report funded by the Forces in Mind Trust put forward proposals for a road map to end veteran homelessness. Has the Minister had a chance to look at the report? Are the Government thinking about ensuring the opportunity for service personnel, while they are serving, to think about housing post-service?

I have not seen the report but I would be very interested to look at it, and I thank the noble Baroness. In my former life as a private-sector employer in the retail industry, we had many veterans working for us. As their term of duty comes to an end, service personnel must look forward and think about opportunities. The discipline that they learn in the Army, and so many skills, can bring great things to the workforce.

My Lords, homelessness among veterans is not an isolated issue; very often it is connected with other problems, such as mental health challenges. These are challenges that often present years after veterans have left service. What action are the Government taking to ensure that these various aspects of the problem are being dealt with in a holistic way and not just in stovepipes?

I certainly agree. We try to be as holistic as possible in the help we provide. On mental health in particular, we invest £17 million a year in an amazing scheme called Op Courage. We have had 30,000 referrals, which shows the scale of the issue, and we are working now with NHS England on a public awareness campaign to promote Op Courage and what we can do in places such as GP surgeries and trusts in the way that the noble and gallant Lord has suggested.

My Lords, I declare my interest as the chair of GambleAware. Veterans are 10 times more likely than non-veterans to experience gambling harms, and to gamble as a way of coping with distress. The financial consequences of gambling harms are more than likely to contribute to homelessness among veterans. Third sector organisations such as Beacon Counselling, which was commissioned by GambleAware as part of the National Gambling Support Network, do brilliant work to reduce the impact of the heightened risk to the Armed Forces community. Can the Minister tell the House how the Government intend to address the need to protect veterans from experiencing gambling harms and, to that end, how they intend to work in partnership with charities doing vital work in this area?

Veterans can access a range of support, including via the 24/7 Veterans’ Gateway, which deals with gambling, as well as housing and so on. There is also, of course, a national gambling helpline giving advice. There is dedicated support through Op Courage for mental health, which is often linked to gambling. The other things that I have mentioned can all help with this difficult issue, which obviously goes much wider than veterans.

My Lords, the data that supports the conclusion that homelessness among veterans is increasing is uniquely English data. The Scottish data, which was most recently published in August 2023 and relates to the period between 2008 and 2022, shows that the number of veterans assessed as homeless or, importantly, at risk of homelessness has halved from 1,335 to 640. Would it not, on this occasion, be an idea to find out what Scottish councils, NGOs and the Scottish Government are doing to have achieved this?

I am always glad to hear of good practice, wherever it is, but, as I tried to explain at the beginning, we have changed the way that we are counting veteran homelessness in local authorities. That does not mean that we should not do more or not learn from the devolveds when they do things better. A result that halves numbers is very good. However, as I said, there are almost no veterans rough sleeping now, due to the variety of provision that this Government have provided and the underpinning of the priority that homeless veterans get for social housing, which I think everybody supports.

My Lords, I sometimes worry that Questions such as this convey a wider impression that military service somehow leads to long-term social disadvantage. That is just not the case. A glance at the figures on the national census from England and Wales shows that, if you have not done military service, you have a 20% chance of reaching the age of 65 and only a 5.1% chance of passing the age of 80. By comparison, a military veteran has a 53% chance of reaching 65 and a 31.8% chance of passing 80—a remarkable statistic, even by the standards of this House. Does the Minister therefore not agree that, at a time of grave recruiting challenges, such irresistible evidence of the life benefits of military service should be celebrated and more widely reported?

I can agree that military service leads to many advantages, not only full-time military service but working in the reserves. We should encourage young people to look at this option.