I beg to move,
That this House has considered raising awareness of a new generation of veterans and Service personnel.
I hope that after a clearly rancorous and divisive debate, we might find more common ground as, in the season of remembrancetide, we consider the issues facing a new generation of veterans and service personnel across our country. I thank the Backbench Business Committee and colleagues from across the House for supporting the application for this timely opportunity to discuss these issues as we approach Remembrance Sunday. In particular, I thank the Royal British Legion for inspiring me to apply for the debate through its remarkable campaign to rethink remembrance, which I shall come on to shortly.
I am proud of the steps taken by successive Westminster Governments, as well as devolved Governments and local government, and the efforts of so many charities up and down the country to support veterans and service personnel. There are many areas in which we could do better and do more, and I will talk about some of those, but we also need to recognise the successes. In particular, I note the previous Labour Government’s efforts on the veterans badge, which was an important symbol of recognition to many veterans. I note the efforts of the Co-operative party, of which I am a member, to establish a military credit union to support people and avoid their getting into debt. We can cite many other examples, but it is important in such debates that we recognise that there is concern, at all levels and in all parts of government, to ensure that we do right by our service personnel and their families, wherever and whenever they served.
I have had the pleasure of meeting representatives, and seeing at first hand the work, of the Royal British Legion, SSAFA, Help for Heroes and many other charities, small and large, up and down the country, including in my constituency. Penarth pier pavilion has named a room in its fantastic new facilities on the pier in honour of 617 Squadron; Guy Gibson was famously a resident of Penarth. That room is being used for fellowship, and by charities to support veterans and former service personnel living in Penarth.
Another innovative step is the work of Pizza Pronto, a pizza service in Cardiff Bay and Penarth set up by former personnel: Kevin Halborg and Simeon Rabaiotti. Kevin is an ex-commando and takes great pride every year in ensuring that Pizza Pronto is covered with poppies in honour of remembrancetide. The funds that he raises from that go to the work of the legion and other charities, and to work supporting personnel who might have served alongside him, or might have served decades before. They do fantastic work.
For many people, the image that springs to mind when they hear about such work, particularly that of the legion, is the iconic poppy. I have my poppy on today, and my wristband, too. The poppy is distributed during the poppy appeal in late October and early November. We also see iconic scenes of poppies falling at the festival of remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall; I had the privilege of attending that two years ago.
The Royal British Legion makes it clear that although its role as the nation’s custodian of remembrance, and especially the ceremonies of remembrance, is important, its work and the work of other charities does not stop there. The legion’s Live On theme has made it clear that its focus is as much on the here and now, and on working to improve the lives of veterans and serving members of the armed forces—and their families, crucially—in every way imaginable. I have seen that work locally and nationally, whether it is the handy vans that can make quick repairs to veterans’ homes, or the excellent new pop-in centres. A pop-in centre is available to my constituents. It is in Cardiff city centre, not my constituency, but I have had the pleasure of visiting it and seeing the face-to-face support that is offered in new and innovative ways. The legion’s promise
“To the memory of the fallen and the future of the living”
sums up very aptly what it and others are trying to do.
I have been on my own journeys of remembrance this year, remembering the great conflicts of the past. Thanks to the efforts of the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), I was able to travel with other members of the all-party group for the armed forces to Normandy. We visited Southwick House before we travelled over. In Normandy, we saw some of the beaches where that generation of incredibly brave men and women from not just Britain, but across the Commonwealth, the United States, France and other countries fought to defend our freedoms and defeat the tyranny of Nazi Germany.
I also visited the Somme this year. I took my own trip; I wanted to see some of the locations, particularly on the 100th anniversary. I visited Mametz wood, so famous for the sacrifice of Welsh troops who fought so bravely there. I walked into the wood and saw many moving tributes, often left by descendants and family members of those who had lost their lives or been terribly injured there. I travelled to Beaumont-Hamel, the site of terrible losses by the Newfoundland regiment on the first day of the Somme. I travelled up to Pozières on the Albert-Bapaume road, where George Butterworth, the famous composer of “A Shropshire Lad” and “The Banks of Green Willow” lost his life 100 years before the very day that I visited. In a small mark of tribute, I played his beautiful, stunning and moving music as I travelled through that iconic French countryside that had been scarred so brutally 100 years before.
I attended the RAF Battle of Britain memorial in Penarth, which is an annual event. We had a brilliant turnout from the air cadets and service charities, particularly the local branches of the Royal Air Forces Association and others, recognising the role that people from our community had played in the battle for our freedoms.
We paid tribute recently to Members of this House—our predecessors—who lost their life. My predecessor as MP for parts of Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan, Lord Ninian Crichton-Stuart, lost his life when he was in his early 30s in 1915 in the battle of Loos. He is commemorated here on a wall, and on the memorial as you enter through St Stephen’s.
I attended a merchant navy memorial service in Cardiff Bay to recognise the sacrifice of mariners not only in our Royal Navy but in the merchant navy. Mariners came from around the world; their heritages were wide and varied. We have a strong community of people from Somaliland and Yemen in my constituency, many of whom served our country bravely during both world wars. Their names were commemorated at that inter-faith service; there were representatives from the Muslim, Jewish and Hindu religions and from different Christian denominations, all paying their respects to those who fell.
I thought about my own family. I have written about this and spoken about it in the House before, but I thought about my great-grandfather Peter Marsh, who served in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, we believe at the Somme. He returned from world war one having been gassed, and was traumatised for the rest of his life. My grandfather James Smith fought in the battle of Arnhem and also in the battle of Sicily. He was taken as a prisoner of war after he landed in a Horsa glider. He was shot running across the fields and was taken to Stalag 5B in Germany.
I also discovered a new story, which exposed for me the amazing role that women played in both world wars in keeping this country going through its darkest hours. My great-grandmother Hannah Marsh, Peter Marsh’s wife, served in a secret ordnance factory in the area of Gretna and Eastriggs. There is a museum there called the Devil’s Porridge. A former cotton worker from Wigan, she had gone up there with her sister and had been involved in producing the armaments that were needed in world war one. The women were exposed to great risk while mixing vats of nitroglycerine and other chemicals, and their skin was often stained yellow or green by those processes. The remarkable role that women played in active service and behind the scenes in both world wars must never be forgotten.
As the Royal British Legion said this year, we need to rethink remembrance. Although we must and will always recognise the sacrifice of the world war generations, we also need to think about those who served in conflicts since world war two. The legion has put out four very moving 60-second films featuring the experiences of a younger generation of armed forces members. In each film, a story of conflict or injury is narrated by a second world war veteran aged between 88 and 97, in military dress, some proudly wearing their berets and medals. At the end it is revealed that the stories belong not to the speaker, but to a younger veteran or member of the armed forces aged between 29 and 34. Those films have been released to emphasise the commonality in the experiences of veterans from age to age. The legion is urging people to support the poppy appeal this year in aid of younger veterans as well as older ones.
Let me relate a couple of the stories. Roy Miller, 92, a Navy veteran from Wallington in London, narrates the experiences of Stewart Harris, 32, who served in 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards for 13 years. Stewart Harris got remarkable help from ABF The Soldiers’ Charity when his family was burgled in 2014. He suffered brain damage and was left blind in his right eye and partially deaf after the Mastiff vehicle in which he was travelling was hit by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2012. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and said, his words being spoken by the older veteran, “I was so low, I was shouting at the kids, getting angry at my wife. I begged her to leave me. I felt alone, helpless. I was taught that soldiers don’t discuss feelings.”
Royal Navy veteran Marsie Taylor, 97, from London, reads the story of Corporal Ben Poku, 34, also from London, who is still serving; he works as a nurse on the neuro rehabilitation ward at Headley Court. Geoffrey Pattinson, 92, a sergeant with 9th Battalion the Parachute Regiment during the second world war, shares the experience of Sam Jack, 29, from Stansted in Essex, who served for five years in the Army with 33 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), like my cousin Kevin. Sam Jack was shot by friendly fire in 2009 while on patrol in Afghanistan. His story is narrated by the older veteran: “I can’t remember my injury. One minute my mates were all there, the next I’m in hospital. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t move.”
Royal Navy veteran Jim Radford, 88, from London, thought to be Britain’s youngest D-day veteran, narrates what happened to Anna Pollock, 34, from Catterick in north Yorkshire. She is a former medic in the Royal Air Force who completed two tours of Iraq but has been left heavily reliant on a wheelchair following a sudden bleed on her spine. She says, in words read by Mr Radford, “I love the feeling of being strong. I’m not weak, I’m a warrior. I’ll never stop mourning the person I used to be, but I’m beginning to like the person I’ve become.” Those are all very powerful stories, and I encourage anyone who has not watched the films to do so and to share them widely. They speak to the link between generations and the shared experiences.
The campaign is needed because one of the legion’s surveys showed that most adults associate remembrance, the poppy, and the Royal British Legion’s work with the two world wars and elderly veterans. Just over a third of those surveyed identified remembrance with thinking about those who are currently serving or who have recently left the forces.
I have done my own work with the legion locally, which gave me an insight into the experiences of veterans of more recent conflicts. I took part in a programme called Journey into the Legion, in which we spent a year looking at the legion’s four central activities—representation, comradeship, remembrance and welfare. I vividly remember during that year meeting two legion beneficiaries, Neil Adams and Dave Ireland. Neil served in the Royal Marines from 2005 to 2012 and saw active service in Afghanistan and numerous worldwide deployments. After leaving the Marines he took up a career in personal training and fitness and was trying to set up his own business. He received valuable support from the legion and other charitable trusts to buy equipment for his business and get going, taking the first step in civilian life and success in business.
Dave Ireland served with the Queen’s Dragoon Guards from 1988 to 1993. After service he worked in the telecoms industry, but he ended up being supported by the legion with essential housing goods and financial advice after he got into difficulties. He said:
“The Legion does vital work in so many ways and people need to recognise the broad range of work they do. The Legion was there for me when I needed a helping hand more than even, and because of that, I am now looking forward and getting on with my life.”
Most memorably, I met a gentleman called Andy Davies, who served as an RAF technician at St Athan. It is a location I know well, because my father was a councillor there and my mum taught in the local school—indeed, they had had contact with Andy when he was still serving there. For him to come and tell me his story at the remembrance ceremony in the field of poppies at Cardiff castle was incredibly moving. He told me that when he had known my parents he was doing well in his RAF career; he had a family and a home, and everything was going well. He then told me how he was made redundant when the various maintenance units were shut down in 2006. He descended into chronic alcoholism, ended up sleeping rough and lost his family. He was even in prison for a period. Thanks to the support of SSAFA and the legion, he got into rehabilitation and got sober. He has taken incredible steps in his life. It was a really moving story.
For Andy to have not only made that incredible journey, but been able to talk about it to other people showed the utmost bravery. That courage was already clear from his service history, but it was also clear when he told his story. He spoke powerfully about the challenges he had faced, for example in relation to benefits, housing and accessing services. I encounter many such cases in my work as a constituency MP, as I am sure many other colleagues do.
Andy told me about some of the other issues he had faced. He told me that identification is crucial:
“From time to time I call into the local service providers. They say, ‘Hello Andy. Were you a squaddie?’ I will tell…that is like asking a Canadian which state in the U.S. they are from! I am conscious that squaddies are very proud of the cap badge they wore, so in order to preserve dignity and self-respect the language of ex-service personnel needs to be properly understood, particularly if they are struggling.”
He had been an RAF serviceman. We can all see the types of mistakes that could cause.
We need to be aware of the scale of the challenge we face. How many of us are really familiar with the numbers regarding the most recent veterans? Kings College London and Help for Heroes have produced research showing that between 1991 and 2014, some 757,805 regulars served in the British armed forces; 235,187 were deployed on one or more major operations, and an estimated 36,506 were medically discharged. They have done an extensive study, and estimate that at least 66,000 ex-regulars—this does not include the issues for reservists—need or will need support with physical or mental health issues, let alone other issues. They told me that they have upwards of 9,000 people taking part in their fellowship groups, and over 800 taking part in their Hidden Wounds programme, which deals with anxiety issues, particularly lower-level anxiety. Referrals to Combat Stress are up by 71%.
There are many other statistics that we could go through to identify the scale of the challenge that we will face in the coming years. Help for Heroes really wanted to impress on me the importance of the right services being available to people. There is a tendency to focus on higher-profile conditions, particularly PTSD—Combat Stress and others do amazing work with people in those circumstances—but it is important that people with lower-level anxiety get the support that they need.
We also need to think about the needs of different generations, and the differences between people who did national service, and those who served in the cold war, the British Army of the Rhine, the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Germany, the Balkans, and the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also need to think about attitudes. The Help for Heroes study showed that 82% of respondents think that British troops and veterans need more support when they return home, and 75% think that veterans are forgotten once they return home. However, only 7% of the public knew how many troops actually served in Afghanistan, and less than 1% knew how many troops served in Iraq to the nearest 20,000. Less than 3%—this is quite shocking—knew that British troops are currently posted to over 80 countries globally. Only 5% knew how many conflicts the UK has been involved in since the Falklands war.
Those are among the issues that have led the Royal British Legion to come up with their campaign, and that led me to secure this debate. We need to rethink the profile of the veterans and service personnel in our country, and the scale of, and differences in, their experiences and needs, whether in health, housing, support on engagement with benefits and tax services, or getting into employment.
Younger veterans face particular issues. How are we ensuring, for example, that services are signposted properly through digital methods? The Government are setting up a new website, one-stop shop and one-stop phone line —great. But are we thinking about how younger people who have recently left the forces are engaging, through social media, online apps and so on? My experience with local veterans is that they often struggle to find the right sort of advice and progress.
I am sure that other colleagues will want to go into detail on some of the specific issues, but I want to make one last point. It is shame that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), is not here today. He has his own distinguished service record, and he and the Minister had an extensive exchange the other day about specific issues. The hon. Gentleman raised some really important points about the plethora of charities and different organisations.
The one point that I would like to open the debate with is how we can work better to co-ordinate and build partnerships and relationships. There are many good examples at local government level. Vale of Glamorgan has set up a community covenant and great work is also taking place in Cardiff. There is more great work in Cumbria, Lancashire and other places, but progress is too patchy. The armed forces covenant report from last year points out what the services charities say. We have to consider how we can better co-ordinate the different services, particularly when faced with the scale of the challenge and the needs and diversity of people who will need our support for the years to come.
It is crucial that we rethink remembrance, not out of disrespect for the generations before—they will always have our respect and gratitude for what they did for us—but because we need to think about the challenges facing the younger generation. I hope this debate will take some steps towards eliminating some of those issues.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this debate, which is so important in this important week. It is a great opportunity to stand up and talk about our exceptional armed forces—the personnel and their families, who quietly support them all. Our forces have the best training in the world. We are renowned; other nations come to Britain to be part of what we do here.
What I find extraordinary in the work that I am doing with the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust is the depth of patriotism in every single member of the armed forces as they put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. Their families quietly support that wish. Members of the armed forces are very happy to go and do exciting and dangerous things too, but fundamentally there is an extraordinary patriotism and belief in our great nation. The Royal British Legion’s work, which the hon. Gentleman highlighted so well, shows a profound respect for the patriotism, effort and risk that these individuals take on our behalf.
The key point is that every member of our serving armed forces will become a veteran; that is a self-evident truth in many ways, although we do not necessarily think about it. The fact that nearly three quarters of a million members of our communities have served in the armed forces since 1991 is extraordinary. Having set up the all-party group on the armed forces covenant when I arrived in the House last year, I am a huge fan of the fact that the former Prime Minister set into law the belief that the covenant should be a total commitment for the nation as a whole to embrace, to ensure that our military family suffer no disadvantage as a result of their service to our nation.
I begin by asking about how we are doing. This is a journey; to go from a standing start to creating a legislative framework, and moving forward in supporting those serving, and their families and veterans of all ages, is a long and complex thing. I pay enormous tribute to the Ministry of Defence, which drove forward the challenge set by the Prime Minister to put the covenant into law. Some really interesting work has been going on over the last six years to do that.
I have RAF Boulmer and the Otterburn Ranges in my patch, so I see a lot of young men and women doing training of all sorts. One of the key challenges I have found is that our serving personnel and their families have no voice, and that is part of the contract they make when they take the Queen’s shilling and stand at the frontline on our behalf. It is so important that we in this House can be their voice, because they want to serve, and they grin and bear it as they face all sorts of things that are unimaginable to a lot of us in our daily civilian lives. We must make sure that we speak up for them in this House, so it is fantastic that this debate is taking place.
I want to mention just a couple of charities I do a lot of work with. One, which I have recently become a patron of, is called Forward Assist. It is based in Northumberland, and it is run by an amazing man called Tony Wright, who is a former Royal Marine. He explained to me how he views the journey of those who serve, and his explanation sticks in my mind—if I could do cartoons, I would turn it into one. He said that we go out and seek young men and women to become members of our armed forces—they are the sheep, and we pick the sheep from the great flock that is our nation. We then turn them into wolves; that is quite a harsh statement, but that is what we do—we take them and we train them to the nth degree to become incredibly honed fighters, able to defend us with all the tools we provide them with. They then go out and fight, and they live in teams—in packs, if you like, as wolves do—fighting for us and taking on the enemy.
However, when they leave the armed forces, what do they do? They become a veteran. What is that? What we need them to become is sheepdogs. We will never turn wolves back into sheep, but if we get things right, we might just turn them into sheepdogs. The sheepdog is one of the farmer’s most important tools and a critical part of looking after the community. The challenge we have is to ensure that, as members of our armed forces become veterans and return to civilian life, we give them the tools to become sheepdogs and to lose the wolf—to park that as part of their history—so that they can live a full life as civilians, channelling their skills in new ways, and they have such extraordinary skills.
Forward Assist, this wonderful small charity in Northumberland, has developed a programme that ensures that, as these people—quite a lot of them are young men and women—come out, they maintain team activities. One of the key problems is that they live in teams—that is how they fight as military personnel—and they never work alone. However, they then come away from that environment, and ensuring that they maintain those relationships restores their confidence as they get to grips with civilian life.
We have to help veterans understand what their skills are. They have a very diffident view of the extraordinary talents they are given as they are trained to the nth degree, and they need to understand what those can be worth in the civilian world. So many do not value themselves, and we clearly have to challenge that. We have to ensure that we support the charities and organisations that help to empower these men and women to get into the modern workplace.
We also have to help veterans to get to grips with what one might call day-to-day life challenges. When people who have lived in an institutional framework as part of the armed forces, and who have been focused entirely on the defence of the realm, come back, they have to deal with a lot of stuff that they have not dealt with during that time. Those are critical things, which so many of our charities help these people to do, and we need to make sure that charities are able to do that.
Another charity that is a wonderful representation of how those who have served bring their talents to our communities is a small charity called Challenger Troop, which is run by Simon Dean. His team of veterans take the military ethos of discipline, self-belief, personal motivation and challenge and go into deprived communities. They take groups of children out into the big outdoors. Many of these children have never been beyond their small community, and he empowers them to discover who they can be. He tests them and pushes them to their limits, and that revolutionises the vision they have of what the world might offer them. It is extraordinary to watch the charity’s staff do that and to hear how they talk about the challenge of helping those in our communities who have probably had little, if any, contact with the military to discover just how far they can go and to do what they thought they could not do. It is extraordinary to watch what the Royal Marines would call “commando morale”, when at the point when someone thinks they cannot go any further, they keep going and find that they can do something extraordinary. That has been brought to our most deprived communities and children who otherwise would not have such opportunities.
A very small charity called PTSD Resolution does, in a baby way, what Combat Stress does, working individually with those who need psychological support to bring them through what can be a very traumatic side-effect of having dealt with these incredibly stressful environments, and quietly making sure that they can be supported. They may hold down really good jobs, but sometimes it becomes too hard. We have seen that this weekend with fireworks, which can often trigger PTSD-recurrent behaviour. It is extraordinary to know that there are people out there who understand and quietly provide that support so that we ensure that the wolves can be sheepdogs, doing amazing jobs while sometimes feeling that parts of them have been damaged by their service.
As the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth said, the big charities do extraordinary work across the board. They have been in the system for 100 years, looking after veterans from 1918 right through to now. We all support them at this time of year, and it is important that we make sure that people support them all year round.
The hon. Lady is telling us about lots of laudable charities that are doing excellent work with veterans, but does she agree that the state has a role in supporting them fully rather than leaving it entirely to the charity sector?
The hon. Lady makes an absolutely critical point. This is about the great question of what the covenant might become—how, as a nation, as a Government, and as Departments we might consider the best way to take it right through our nation’s consciousness so that we not only feel that it is a good thing but it becomes a reality across the board. Then, wherever serving personnel who come back into civilian life and their families live, the communities they return to understand, respect and support them, and can value and make best use of the extraordinary talents that they have brought back.
The hon. Lady is making some important points. Does she agree that one of the ways in which the Government could do more would be in ensuring the consistency of data on veterans? Many of us have been campaigning for the Count Them In campaign to ensure that there is a question on the census, but there are also issues about what is included on the service leavers form—for example, it has signposts to only two charities and not to others. There are things we could be doing a lot better to understand who needs our support, where they are, and how we can get to them.
I absolutely agree. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are working hard to see whether we can get the Cabinet Office to ensure that we have the census marker, because that will give us a starting point from which we can tackle the question of how big our military family is and how we are making sure that we look after them.
We all want our armed forces to be there when we need them, but in—thank goodness—times of peace here at home, we do not think that much about them, as the statistics prove, horribly and truly. In reality, though, our armed forces are not sitting about in barracks with nothing to do, or on the dockside twiddling their thumbs. Our Navy is absolutely at full stretch across the oceans and under our seas, our Air Force is fully engaged in the fight against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and our Army is going through an extensive re-basing programme as troops return from Germany and we prepare for ongoing NATO operations in the face of uncertain times ahead.
I have serious concerns about the impact of the current levels of undermanning on families and on the retention of our highly trained personnel whom we cannot easily replace once lost. I worry that we are putting too great a strain on the offer to our serving personnel. As one recent veteran said to me only last week, “Redundancies, pay restraint, pensions slashed, new pay model, CAAS, FAM, and now future base closures. What a way to boost morale!” With the impact on the next generation of personnel as we recruit and want to retain them, it is critical that we understand what it looks like from the inside and how we can support those who are serving now, because they will be our future veterans and we need to make sure that we surround them with the right package to ensure that they will be able to serve for as long as they choose and we can hope to keep them.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing the debate. Along with the new generation of service personnel, there will be a new generation of children, young people and young carers of veterans who are profoundly impacted by pre-deployment, deployment and reintegration. Does the hon. Lady agree that in existing policy documents, particularly around health and social care, we need to revisit the idea of the broader family supporting the veteran back into community and civilian life?
I agree. It is absolutely critical that we look at a whole-family approach to military family support, and there is a lot more work to do. We have a small charity in Northumberland that supports the children of military family carers. The charity is working, with some support from the Department, on how we can understand that better and provide support in a more holistic way, with the hope of achieving a more constructive outcome.
Although there was much in the statement yesterday from the Secretary of State about better use of MOD estate assets and the technical side of things, we must actively start to value in a financial way—I speak as a chartered accountant, and I apologise if that lowers the tone—our armed forces personnel. They are our human capital. Our armed forces are often thought of as big tanks, shiny ships and fast jets, but none of that works without the humans making it work. Human capital is a critical military asset. People are vital to the whole process, and without them we have no armed forces. We do not value our military personnel as an asset. They are listed in MOD accounts as an overhead, and that fundamental mindset is a huge challenge. I challenge the Department regularly, as the Minister knows, to think differently. In order to assess, for instance, retention risk—how to keep our finest when we really need them—we need to look holistically across the MOD, on a value-for-money basis, at how we value those individuals.
The Minister is a great advocate of our personnel and veterans at a personal level, but I urge him to encourage the Department to adopt a more holistic perspective on how we invest in our human capital: the men and women of our Army, our Navy, our Air Force and our Royal Marines. Those people have spouses and children, without whose silent commitment and loyalty to our nation’s protection we would not have the world-class armed forces that we are all so proud of and grateful for.
I had the unexpected privilege of attending the submariners’ remembrance parade last Sunday. I still do not know why it happens the weekend before Remembrance Day, rather than on the main weekend; that must be one of the mysteries of submariners. It was an extraordinary privilege to meet an enormous number of men who had served—they were all men, although there are a few women who are serving now—in what is known as the silent service. That remarkable group of people, with whom I have previously had very little to do, have spent decades under our seas quietly and continuously looking after us, protecting us and keeping an eye on our enemies. They continue to do so day in, day out.
It is so important that the nation understands that this is a continuum. People are putting their lives on the line for us every day and every night. People such as the Northumberland Fusiliers who died in the third-to-last week of the war in 1918, for whom I am going to lay a wreath this Friday in Tezze in northern Italy, and William Chapman, whose grandson still lives in Berwick-upon-Tweed and has asked me to lay a special wreath for his family, were extraordinary men whom we must always remember. But today there are people serving across the globe—British men and women who are putting their lives on the line, and whose families are quietly waiting at home, supporting them. As we remember those who serve today and those who have gone before, we must never forget.
It is a pleasure to be called to make a contribution to this debate, which is close to my heart and to the hearts of all of us in this Chamber. It is pertinent that the debate comes at this time of year. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on setting the scene so well. I think he speaks almost as fast I as I do.
This is the time of year when we see the poppy stands again. We are all wearing our poppies, and we are very much aware of the time of year. For the past few years, I have been anxious to see what new pins are available. The Royal British Legion usually brings out a new wee badge, and regimental associations do likewise. This is the time of year when we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives for the protection of Queen and country, and the families who have been left behind to grieve for them. It is always important to keep that foremost in our minds at this time of year. Every year, there are fewer veterans from the second world war. In the Royal British Legion, of which I am a member, we notice every year that some of the old soldiers have passed on. We miss them because they made a valuable contribution not just in uniform and on service, but in the Royal British Legion.
This is also the time of year when we remember those who have given their lives since the second world war—that is the thrust of this debate—in wars in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan and, of course, those who have lost their lives to terrorism in Northern Ireland. It is poignant that today is the 29th anniversary of the Enniskillen bombing, when the IRA directly attacked a number of service personnel and civilians. It is always good to remember such events. There have been many other atrocities in Northern Ireland, such as those at the Abercorn restaurant, on the Shankill Road and at La Mon restaurant. The atrocity at Ballydugan is pertinent to me, because three of the four Ulster Defence Regiment men who were murdered were friends of mine.
There was also the bombing in Ballykelly. I see that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) is in his place. As he knows, we are all very fond of him in this House. We thank him for his contribution in uniform, and for what he did during his time in Northern Ireland. The peace process today owes a lot to people like him. We thank him and several other hon. Members—I see them sitting in the Chamber—for their contribution in uniform, and for helping us in Northern Ireland to move, through a peaceful process, to a new beginning. I say that in all sincerity, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I want to put on the record that we wish to thank him in person.
This is the time of year when we show respect for those who have died, those who were left with irreversible physical and mental injuries, and the families who have had to live a life that would never be the same again. This is therefore an apt time to discuss and raise awareness about our new generation of veterans.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth mentioned his visit to the Somme. In my former role as mayor of Ards Borough Council back in 1990-91, I was very privileged to go to the Somme. I will never forget the sacrifice of the 36th (Ulster) Division, or indeed the sacrifice of all those who gave their lives. We feel very close to the 36th (Ulster) Division. In this the centenary year of the battle, we certainly remember their sacrifice at the Somme.
I recall clearly the youth of those who died. Some young boys said they were 18 when they were only 14. When you go around the gravestones, if you have had the opportunity to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will see their ages and clearly understand that these young boys thought it would be over by Christmas, but it was not. We are very conscious of that. There would not have been a home in Newtownards that was not affected by the loss of the youth at the battle of the Somme in 1916.
I am an ex-soldier. I served in the Ulster Defence Regiment for three years, in what I suppose was an anti-terrorism role and for 11 and a half years in part-time service in the Royal Artillery—14 and a half years in service. Some of my greatest experiences, other than the births of my sons, have been while wearing uniform. The births of my sons were obviously the best experiences of my whole life, although not for my wife; they were good experiences for her as well, but more painful ones.
I like to think that wearing that uniform has, in a way, shaped who I am today. I saw things and experienced things that are difficult to deal with, so I can easily understand that mental health support is needed by those in service if they are to make the transition back to civvy street. I will speak about that for a few minutes because we must always note that what happens to a soldier is not always physical. They may be mentally and emotionally affected, with the trauma remaining in their brain. There is no doubt that service shapes those who serve; the question we must ask, however, is: how are people being shaped today? How are those who leave our armed forces today being shaped by what they have experienced, and how are we supporting their outcomes? That is what the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth said in his introduction and it is what we seek to address today.
I have been an avid supporter of better mental health support for our troops, and I have worked hard for organisations such as SSAFA. I have been very privileged these past few years to hold a coffee morning—September or October is our coffee month—to raise money. This year, the people of Newtownards gave generously and committed some £5,500. Some of that was down to donations, of course, but at the end of the day, the people of Ards and the local district ensured that the £5,500 was there for SSAFA, so that it, in turn, could help those in need—those who have served in uniform but now find life very difficult. I understand that over the past seven years, £25,000 has been raised through those coffee mornings, which is good work.
What better organisation can there be than Help for Heroes? We all recognise its work in our constituencies and across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I have also been a supporter of Beyond the Battlefield, a project that seeks to make mental and physical health facilities available to veterans, not just in my area but across Northern Ireland. According to recent reports, those facilities are needed now more than ever before. The former Minister, the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), when she visited Northern Ireland, had an opportunity to meet them, and I must say that they were impressed by her commitment to and interest in veterans’ issues. I recognise, too, the commitment of the Minister here today but just wanted to put on the record my thanks to the right hon. Lady for making that time available. It left a lasting impression among the soldiers, and it was good to be reassured that at every ministerial level in the House and at home every effort was being made to address these issues. I also just wanted to highlight the work of Beyond the Battlefield
A few weeks ago, a BBC radio documentary highlighted the fact that 100 Army veterans in Northern Ireland had tried to take their own lives—that can only be described as epidemic levels. We need to recognise the enormity of what is happening. It is particularly tragic because the regimental associations, the health services, the MOD and the charities were not aware of those soldiers; they were under the radar. I asked about this in an Adjournment debate a fortnight or so ago, when the Minister was in his place, but it is good to put it on the record again, with a bit more detail, rather than in an intervention. There are serious issues in Northern Ireland when it comes to addressing the issue of soldiers and personnel who have served and come back with terrible memories from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. We need to address those issues at every level.
To my mind, one of the greatest tragedies is the loss of regimental headquarters, which are increasingly being cut, as a result of which people do not know about veterans and they just disappear. The more regimental headquarters there are, the more likely we are to know about people who others might not pick up. This is a big tragedy.
I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for his intervention, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. I greatly respect the Minister and look forward to his response, but there is an anomaly here: there are those who are under the radar and slipping by. Whether it is because the regimental associations are not aware of them, or because those with the responsibility are not there, they are being forgotten about. We need to address the underbelly of those who are missed by the charities and others.
The MOD has responded, but has it responded hard enough? I say, with the utmost respect for the Minister, that I do not believe that it has done so fully. The hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham has perhaps highlighted that point in his intervention, as I have. It is my duty in the House to say that with all sincerity.
After bringing up this issue in my role on the Defence Select Committee—some Committee members are in the Chamber—it was determined that a sub-committee would be set up to collect evidence on the mental health of our troops. The Committee members have kindly asked me to chair that sub-committee, which will take place in April 2017.
What are we looking for in Northern Ireland? We are looking for a rehabilitation centre. I have sought a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), who is a former soldier. He has agreed to meet us and representatives of Beyond the Battlefield in Newtownards to discuss these matters. We need to ensure better co-ordination between the Ministry of Defence and the health service so that they work better and closer together. If they are to work in tandem, it has to be a family—a marriage—with two organisations working hand in hand to ensure that we look after all those people. We need to make sure, too, that the counsellors and those who work in the health service have an understanding of what it is like to have severe trauma so that they are able to give them the advice they need.
When these people present themselves at the NHS we need to remember that they have often been through the utmost, most severe and horrible trauma. They sometimes find themselves facing someone at the other end of the desk who will say, “Well, what’s wrong with you?” There has to be training so that people understand how these traumas work and what post-traumatic stress disorder means.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking very persuasively, as he always does, about this matter. Does he agree that there is a role for charities to support the NHS, and that Combat Stress in particular offers an extremely impressive level of care that we cannot expect the NHS to match, because of the specialism required to deal with military personnel suffering from mental health issues?
The hon. Gentleman hits the nail on the head. That is the sort of co-ordination that we need to have with the MOD, the NHS, charities and so forth. If we can all work together better, we can achieve a whole lot more and collectively address those issues.
I had the chance to meet some of these servicemen. At the age I am, when I see a young man who has served in uniform, I can sometimes remember him being born. That is a fact of life. I am thinking of one man who came back from Afghanistan with serious head injuries. He was one of those people from Northern Ireland who had suffered greatly. I shall not mention his name—it would not be fair to do so—but his marriage is over and he is only just about holding on to a job. He is severely ill. Anyone who met him would know right away that there was something wrong with him—he just gives the appearance of someone who is not well.
I am conscious of where we are. The facts are stark and heart-breaking. One of our servicemen or women commits suicide almost every two weeks, and nearly 400 members of our troops killed themselves between 1995 and 2014. Those most likely to take their lives are male single soldiers aged 20 to 24, who comprise a quarter of deaths. Almost half hanged themselves, while 21% died of gunshot or explosive injuries. Others killed themselves by poisoning, suffocation, throwing themselves off buildings or from stabbing and cutting. In 2012, it emerged that the number of British soldiers and veterans committing suicide had outstripped the number that had died fighting in battle. What awful statistics they are to have to report in this House. That year, 21 soldiers killed themselves and 29 veterans committed suicide. That compared with 44 troops who died in Afghanistan, 40 of them in action. Today, veterans of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Falklands or even further back have their memories and their nightmares to deal with every day.
In the past 12 months, more than 100 British Gulf war heroes have asked for help from the charity Combat Stress, which the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) referred to in his intervention. Some 25 years after the end of the conflict, they are still fighting the wars. In a further possible indication that the true scale of the mental trauma caused by Afghanistan and Iraq is only starting to emerge, the number of claims rose by 35% in the last year, from 429 to 580.
The armed forces covenant is one that we are most concerned about. In responding to me in Parliament yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) said that the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland has achieved some 93% of its commitment. Let me say this gently to the Minister—we have a role to play in Northern Ireland, and I want to be quite clear about that. The 93% figure means a shortfall of 7%, and we need to address that 7% shortfall. It was 93% in the last Session of Parliament so we have not advanced at all. More effort is needed.
We know how important it is for soldiers to obtain suitable housing when they leave the Army. That can happen through the selection scheme and the points system, both here on the mainland and in Northern Ireland, which is good news, but we need to do more.
Healthcare is also important, particularly care for those with mental health issues. Has there ever been such a strong effort in this regard? Northern Ireland contains the largest number of veterans suffering from mental ill health. Is that due to the 30-year conflict that we experienced? It probably is, partly, but it is also due to the constant stress experienced by those who serve in uniform. Thank the Lord that, in partnership with the Government, we have moved to a better place which, although not ideal, has enabled the democratic process to secure the delivery of peace, and funds on the back of that. Perhaps the Minister will say something about LIBOR funding for mental health services. A fair amount of money has been set aside, but I should like to see a wee bit more of it coming to Northern Ireland so that we have a chance to play a greater part.
The Government, and the Ministry of Defence in particular, are doing many good things, including the armed forces compensation scheme and the armed forces pension scheme. Support can be drawn from the Government and go directly to the people who need it. The Northern Ireland regional disablement service specialises in the rehabilitation of patients, including veterans, who have experienced the amputation of a limb or limbs. We must ensure that we address issues relating to both mental and physical health. I thank the Government for what they have done, but I think that the regional disablement service could do more to address the issues affecting those who have fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq, including amputees and people with brain injuries.
Money has been set aside in Northern Ireland and, I believe, on the UK mainland to upgrade memorials throughout the land. That is a good thing, because it means that many people will be able to attend services at 11 am this Sunday with memorials that are clean and have been upgraded. The War Graves Commission does fantastic work in my constituency, involving both the forgotten graves of those who gave their lives in the first world war and whose families have passed on, and those who lie in far-off lands and whose families cannot visit their graves. We should never forget the families. We have been referring directly to the soldiers, but we should also remember the mums and dads, the wives and husbands, and the children.
There are indications that the true scale of the mental trauma caused by Afghanistan and Iraq is larger than we think. Where do we go from here? We must ensure that help is not simply out there if people search for it, but is there before they ask. We must ensure that every veteran has a place to go where they are able to talk—or not; whichever it is that they need. They may want to chat, or they may not. Sometimes they will just need someone to be close to them.
I have been a major supporter of the Beyond the Battlefield project in Newtownards, as well as other charities such as SSAFA and Help for Heroes. Our commitment should not end when the plane comes in and brings our men safely home; our commitment to our troops must equal their commitment to us. It must be more than a vision statement; it must be a reality. The new generation of veterans are no less deserving than others of complete support and help. When we say that we will remember them, that must be a promise and not simply a phrase.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who shared many wise words with us. His comments on the sacrifice made by the men of Ulster back in 1916 on the first day of the Somme were particularly poignant. Earlier this year I was pleased to visit Belfast City Hall and see the original of the famous painting commemorating those who went over the top. Those men had all volunteered of course; everyone at the Somme was a volunteer—nobody had been conscripted into the forces at that point. We will all of course be reflecting on the impact of their sacrifice on politics immediately following the war and for many years after. There are memorials across Belfast to the many hundreds who did not return, and they prompted me to reflect on the impact that would have had on communities, with so many young men signing up, going away as groups of friends, and then never coming back. That, for me, is the most poignant aspect of all of this.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this debate. It was a pleasure to hear his application at the Backbench Business Committee and I am glad we have been able to find such an opportune time for this debate, as we are in the centenary period, we are about to commemorate the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, and in two years we will be marking the actual centenary of that moment. This year’s event will follow the centenaries of the Somme and the Battle of Jutland. One of the things brought home to me by attending the 100th anniversary marking both those battles held at Paignton war memorial was how close together they were. I think of the families having just finished receiving the telegrams to let them know who had died at the Battle of Jutland—with a particular impact in south Devon, given its naval tradition—only then a few weeks later to start getting the first notifications of those who had been killed in the Battle of the Somme. Sometimes it is difficult to comprehend just how close together these events were—the bloodiest day for the Royal Navy and the bloodiest day for the British Army, just a few months apart—and the impact that must have had.
That helped inspire the idea of wanting to remember these events as more than just a series of battles and episodes in military history, but also as involving individuals. That is why we have the process of remembrance which has now started, which, for me, very much originates from those communities. I looked at the newspapers at the time, including some local papers, which at the start of the war had thought it would be good to commemorate those who had given their lives for their country and to put them on their front page. Some newspapers in the summer of 1916 were just a tablet of names, which made me think of the impact all of this must have had.
It is easy to think about these events as acts of historical memory—of black-and-white films of battles from the first and second world wars—but it is right that we focus on veterans. Many in Torbay proudly wear their veterans badge. To be fair, it was the last Labour Government who brought that in, and many take huge pride in being able to go around on a day-to-day basis and say they have served their country in that way.
One of the most interesting people I met in my first steps into politics was a veteran called “Johnny” Johnson and his wife. He was a former chairman of Torbay Conservative Association and former Torbay councillor, but most famously of all the last surviving British Dambuster. He was such an unassuming man and a true hero in every sense; he would never want to dwell on what he did, but was only too happy to do so. I first met him when I was doing a project for my A-level history course. I talked to him about the raid and got the sense of not just the sacrifice he made, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) commented on, the impact on the family. His wife was in the women’s air force at the time and they had no knowledge of what their husbands were doing. One of Johnny’s comrades had been disciplined for ringing his girlfriend up to say, “I won’t be able to make it tonight.” He asked in his defence, “What should I have done? We had arranged to meet at the cinema; she would have stood there for an hour.” The response was, “You should have let her stand there for an hour and the next time you saw her said, ‘There’s a war on’ and left it at that.”
I had not realised that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency had a connection with the Dambusters, just as mine does. I mentioned Guy Gibson earlier. Sadly, we recently also lost Eileen Younghusband, who famously served in the filter room on the night of the Dambusters raids. She had a distinguished career in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and beyond, and she told her stories with great vigour. We are very sorry to have lost her recently.
It is wonderful to be able to pay tribute to so many who have given so much.
To finish my story about Johnny, I want to mention his reaction to the campaign to get him knighted. A lot of us probably feel that that would have been an appropriate honour, but his reaction was typical of the unassuming gentleman he was. Basically, he said, “Why me?” He felt that he would rather be remembered along with the rest of his comrades. He had faced so much danger, he lost many comrades, and he was among the first to sign up to do his bit for king and country and defeat Adolf Hitler. It is wonderful to think about the past and to remember the huge sacrifices that have enabled us to have a free Parliament here today.
I want to pay tribute to the work done by the Royal British Legion, which was also touched on by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth. Its Rethinking Remembrance campaign is a thought-provoking project in which second world war veterans read out experiences that sound as though they are from the 1940s until, at the very end, we realise that they are experiences from Afghanistan, Iraq or the Gulf war. They are the experiences of people who are the same age as me, and that certainly cut through to me. I suspect that it will have the same effect on many others.
I took part in an event earlier this year in Paignton entitled the “22 for 22”. I am sure that many other Members took part in such events as well. The idea was to do 22 push-ups to mark the shocking statistic—it is an American statistic—that 22 US veterans take their own lives every day. We think of the controversy of the losses on the battlefield in Vietnam in the 1960s, but even today, 22 veterans will take their own life. A chap called Rich McDonald is a resident of Torquay and a constituent of mine. He is a veteran of tours in Northern Ireland and of the Gulf war, and he arranged what he described as a “press-up spectacular” for a few of us at the local leisure centre. It was designed to get us together to mark the campaign. It was all very interesting and enjoyable to show our solidarity, but I do not think he will mind me saying that he then shared his own story of how the non-physical impact of his service nearly defeated him not long ago. It was great to see him not only helping veterans but trying to get the message out to people that if they have a problem, they must tell someone by getting one of the veterans charities involved. He was prepared to use his own experiences to show how valuable those charities had been to him.
When considering the work done around remembrance, it is only right for me to pay tribute to the two very active branches of the Royal British Legion in Torbay. The Paignton branch has long-serving stalwarts in Kevin Jeffery and Major Ron Goodwin—better known as Major Ron—and its new poppy appeal organiser, Nigel Monks.
Major Ron Goodwin was the regimental sergeant major of my battalion and a very great man. It is delightful to hear my hon. Friend mention Ronnie, who is a legend.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his intervention. Yes, Major Ron is quite a figure in Torbay. I understand that he was quite a figure in the military as well, although there was someone that he had to try to keep in order—I am just trying to remember the name of that particular serving officer. Who might it have been? Perhaps my hon. and gallant Friend can tell me afterwards. Major Ron has certainly been a great figure in remembrance in the Bay, and in supporting the Royal British Legion branch and enabling it to help others today.
Sometimes we think that the poppy appeal is just about injured veterans from particular wars, but it is not. It is about giving support to the whole family that has been affected, perhaps by helping the son or daughter of a serviceman or woman to achieve a dream, or simply by dealing with more practical day-to-day needs if someone has fallen on hard times. That is why we should all rightly be proud to wear our poppies today.
One of the most thought-provoking things that I attended before being elected to this House was in St Marychurch on the 100th anniversary—to the minute —of war being declared in Europe, which led to the famous remark about the lights going out all across Europe. It was arranged by a local lady called Meg Jolliffe. As we stood there as a group, it occurred to me that there was a wall of 94 names—virtually all volunteers—from what was a small rural community at the time. They had all lost their lives in world war one, and every person named on the memorial was younger than I was. What really struck me was that these people did not go on to have families and that their hopes and dreams had all been lost in the maelstrom of world war one. It was particularly poignant. We naturally think of veterans as being a bit older—if one is younger—but the majority of people who lost their lives in those conflicts were younger than many of us who are considered young Members of Parliament today.
It is good that we are focusing on how we support the veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf war and ongoing deployments. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), I have taken part in the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, which included a survival night in a tent with six commandos. For those who are wondering, we were all assured that we would be safe.
Just for clarity, my hon. Friend and I had the great honour of sharing a tent in minus 23°C conditions 3° north of the Arctic circle with a group of 19-year-old Royal Marines—pretty much the same age as my son. They were extraordinarily gentlemanly and none of them commented on whether my hon. Friend or I snored.
It is always useful to have a bit of additional information.
I thank my hon. Friend for that thought-provoking intervention, which will go down in the annals of Hansard. The point was about being out there and seeing what people volunteer to do on our behalf. Accusations are sometimes made about MPs’ foreign travel, but when I told people about signing myself up for a trip to go camping in northern Norway in the middle of winter, it was not seen as particularly glamorous trip.
While maintaining our military traditions, it is also right to ensure that we give people the tools they need to fight in today’s conflicts. Having grown up in Plymouth, I know that there will be some significant feelings about yesterday’s announcement on the Royal Citadel. However, no one would want to go into battle with a 350-year-old rifle, so it is right to ensure that we have not only modern equipment and vehicles, but modern facilities where our troops can train. Some places will have much associated history, but the priority must be to create a 21st-century battle force. We would not give horses to the cavalry to charge into battle on because of tradition. There will be some sad decisions to make as parts of history come to an end, but it is right that the MOD focuses on the modern equipment and facilities that our soldiers need.
This is about how we rethink remembrance on the basis of our communities today. I support some of the comments about the best way of doing that being knowing exactly where our veterans are, which could be done through the census. It does seem rather bizarre that I can tell just how many Jedis there are in my constituency or how many people loved Terry Wogan’s radio show thanks to some, shall we say, entertaining uses of the “What religion are you?” question. It would be much more useful to know exactly how many veterans live in particular areas and roughly how old they are. That would be much more useful in working out what services need to be provided, allowing local authorities to plan and enabling Government to make informed decisions about funding to support veterans’ needs. I hope the Minister will outline what sort of discussions are being held with the Cabinet Office about the census to ensure that we can get that useful information.
Let me take this opportunity to say that although the national statistician is very much part of a subset of the Cabinet Office, it is right that Ministers do not have the power to influence exactly what questions are on the census. None the less, I would hope that the national statistician is listening carefully to the will of this House, as it is sending a clear message that that question should be included.
I thank the Minister for such a useful intervention. I agree that it would not be right or appropriate for Ministers to sit around deciding exactly which question is on the census and what areas it goes into, but it is right that we are raising this issue in this House. I welcome the comments he has made, adding his voice on those points. I hope the national statistician is taking them seriously and will bear them in mind when making the final decisions.
In conclusion, I am always clear that wearing a poppy and remembering those who have given their lives is not about glorifying what happened, adding a gloss to warfare or lessening its reality. It is not about showing particular support for one conflict or another, although I suspect that some are far less controversial than others, including those in more recent years. It is about fundamentally remembering the sacrifice made by people who have gone away from their families and their homes to serve this country and who have lost their lives or sustained the injury that meant they lost opportunity in their lives—that can be both physical and mental. It is also about remembering what Robert E. Lee famously said:
“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”
In the Remembrance season, that quote has added resonance.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in today’s debate, and I thank the mover of the motion, because it is timely to debate this as we mark the contribution of our armed forces and veterans, and the debt of gratitude that we owe them. I want to highlight some of the things being done in Scotland to support veterans, and touch on some of the issues that they face and the action being taken. I am sure that these issues will be familiar to Members from across the Chamber and across the UK. I hope that the positive experience in Scotland in recent years can provide the rest of the UK with ideas for developing policy in this area; the same happens in the other direction, too.
In common with the UK Government and other devolved Administrations, the Scottish Government have sought to ensure appropriate assistance and support for veterans in Scotland. Their stated ambition is to make Scotland the destination of choice for those leaving service, and to advance that, they have become the first devolved Administration to have a dedicated Veterans Minister. That has been part of a ministerial portfolio since 2012, when Keith Brown was appointed Minister with responsibility for veterans. Although other parts of the portfolio have changed, Keith still has the veterans portfolio as part of his own. That sent a significant message about the importance placed on supporting our veterans.
As an additional step, Scotland appointed a Scottish Veterans Commissioner, who researches and reports to the Scottish Government in order to properly inform policy and identify areas where further support is needed. The commissioner has operational independence, dedicated funding and a wide remit to improve outcomes for all veterans. The office is intended to be progressive, pushing at the barriers that prevent service leavers and veterans from realising their full potential, shifting thinking about veterans and forging a new image of them as tremendous assets to Scotland’s economy and communities. The areas that the commissioner’s work has focused on so far have included the transition from service and housing information for veterans. I know that those are important issues in other parts of the country, too. Forthcoming priorities will include skills and education, and healthcare provision. Although these issues undoubtedly affect veterans across the UK, there is recognition that Scotland is different from other parts of the UK in its demography, legislation, administration and culture, so it is important that an approach is taken that fits what happens in Scotland.
The commissioner’s work has aimed to develop partnership working; it encourages people and organisations to step out of professional silos, combine their efforts and work together towards a common goal, in the interests of both veterans and the communities of which they are part. The commissioner’s work has also sought to recognise the many benefits that veterans and their families bring to our communities and workplaces, to stop people seeing these individuals through the prism of need and obligation, and to ensure that we recognise them far more for their strengths and qualities, and their contribution to Scotland.
In 2012, the Minister for Transport and Veterans commissioned the report “Our Commitments”, setting out the Scottish Government’s strategic direction and complementing the values of the armed forces covenant. In February this year, the Scottish Government published “Renewing Our Commitments”, a review of progress that considered what further areas of work were required.
More than £1 million has been committed to projects and organisations supporting veterans, including £830,000 through the Scottish Veterans Fund. The armed forces and veterans champions network has been established, and includes senior representatives from NHS boards, the 32 local authorities in Scotland, Police Scotland and other bodies advocating support for the armed forces community through the public sector. The Scottish Government have also announced that from April 2017, they will exempt war pensions for veterans and guaranteed income payments under the armed forces compensation scheme from consideration in assessments for care charges in order to provide further tangible support to Scotland’s veteran community.
Scotland has made notable progress on specialist healthcare provision and mental healthcare. For example, Scotland has a state-of-the-art national specialist prosthetics service, which was announced in June 2013 and became fully operational in April 2014. The centre works through a single multidisciplinary team across two specialist centres in Edinburgh and Glasgow, with links to other limb-fitting centres in Aberdeen, Inverness and Dundee.
Another important element of health provision is supporting veterans in the area of mental health. In 2015, in partnership with NHS Scotland and Combat Stress, the Scottish Government committed more than £3.6 million in funding over three years for specialist mental health services for veterans resident in Scotland at the Hollybush House Combat Stress facility in Ayr. This will fund a range of specialist clinical rehabilitation and social and welfare support at the facility. The evidence-based treatment programme includes an intensive post-traumatic stress disorder programme, a trans-diagnostic programme, and stabilisation and anger management programmes. The Scottish Government have provided £1.8 million to establish and support the Veterans First Point, a one-stop shop for help and assistance for veterans and their families living in Lothian. It includes a clinical mental health service, and it is hoped that the pilot can be rolled out to other areas. Over the past year, work has taken place in 10 health board areas across Scotland to help each local area to establish key partnerships, identify premises, plan requirements and recruit and select staff.
Are these centres run by the Government or by charities, subsidised by the Government?
The ones that I am talking about are run by 10 of the health boards in Scotland. They are funded by Government but run at the NHS level, and these are things we should definitely build on. There is work to come on Tayside to advance that.
Housing for veterans is of central concern to the Scottish Government, as I am sure it is across the rest of the UK, and a number of actions have been taken recently to provide support in this regard. For example, it is now easier for veterans to qualify for council and housing association housing because of legislative changes to the way that veterans can establish a local connection when being assessed for housing need. The Scottish Government have also extended priority access for service personnel and veterans to the low-cost initiative for first-time buyers—a shared equity scheme—and has abolished means-testing for disabled veterans who need adaptations to their houses. A number of interventions have also been made to ensure the construction of dedicated housing for veterans in Edinburgh, Carnoustie, Inverness, Motherwell and Wishaw. Scottish Veterans Residences provides valuable housing support services to vulnerable ex-service personnel; it has facilities in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee.
On education, the Scottish Government, local authorities, schools and the armed forces in Scotland work closely together to make sure that children and young people in service families benefit from the same standard of and access to education as any other child in their area. Changes made by the UK Ministry of Defence on basing —which is in the news after yesterday’s announcements, one of which affects my constituency—have an impact on service personnel, their families and schools because of the movement of personnel that is often part of being in the armed forces. The Scottish Government set up the Scottish service children’s strategic working group to focus on the challenges faced by children and young people in service families, share best practice, and make support available. They also encourage and support applications to the Ministry of Defence educational support fund. Her Majesty’s inspectors are finding that a great deal of good work is being done to ensure that children and young people in service families are not disadvantaged in their education, and it is important that that continues.
Employment and skills are important areas for veterans and their families. Veterans are a great asset to the private and public sectors in Scotland, as I am sure they are across the UK. A growing number of employers are actively targeting veterans to fill their skills gaps. To facilitate this, in September 2015 the Scottish Government provided an additional £1.3 million to the Community Jobs Scotland pilot scheme to develop and deliver 100 additional CJS places, including places for up to 50 early leavers from the armed forces. Moving forward to 2016-17, ex-service personnel are now part of the core of people who are eligible to apply for the scheme’s 700 places.
Former service personnel aged 16 to 24 have been identified as a priority group eligible for support under Scotland’s employer recruitment incentive. The scheme offers employers funding over the course of the first 12 months of employment, which can be supplemented by a £500 payment if the employer pays the participant the living wage. That responds to the demands of employers by delivering a consistent and simple recruitment incentive that ensures that employing young people remains attractive to employers.
From April 2017, employment services for long-term unemployed people are being devolved to Scotland, and the Scottish Government aim to provide targeted employment services that meet the needs of unemployed people, including ex-service personnel. They will support ongoing collaborative, investigative working between the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the Ministry of Defence on accrediting military skills, so that those leaving the forces are in a better position to apply for jobs and are recognised by employers. That may be worthy of attention elsewhere in the UK. Perhaps the Minister could say something about accrediting skills learned in the armed forces, so that employers can see those skills when veterans apply for jobs.
In conclusion, Scotland has a long and proud military tradition, and we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to our armed forces, veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice. This time of year, as we commemorate previous generations of servicemen and women, is also an opportune time to consider today’s veterans and service personnel and their place in society. When personnel make the transition to civilian life, they sometimes need additional support; occasionally, they require specific help accessing public and support services that most people take for granted. The Scottish Government are committed to ensuring that our veterans do not find themselves at a disadvantage and receive appropriate support that shows how we value them and their service.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this important debate. It is notable that, although it has been sparsely attended, we have had contributions from every part of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) spoke for England; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke for Northern Ireland; the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth spoke for Wales; and my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) spoke on behalf of Scotland. I have deliberately not mentioned the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) because frankly we have still not accepted that we have lost you for good.
As we have heard so many times this afternoon, our veterans are an asset to our society and they deserve our sincerest thanks, our fullest support and our deepest respect. With Remembrance Sunday fast approaching, it is right to take this opportunity to consider today’s veterans and serving personnel as well as to remember those who have gone before them. It is right that today veterans are so highly regarded by their fellow citizens and that Governments of all the nations of the United Kingdom continually seek to improve the care on offer to those who have served their country and those who have suffered terribly as a consequence.
It is also right that we work tirelessly to ensure that our veterans are cared for properly, but let us be honest: we still have a long way to go before we get it absolutely right for those who have served in our armed forces. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made an important point about the funding of veterans care. I am reminded of the slogan “Justice before Charity”, which was coined at the end of the first world war by the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers. The federation, which was among the founders of the Royal British Legion, was a veterans campaign group which even founded a short-lived political party, the Silver Badge party, named after the small silver lapel pin that was given to each of those who served in the great war and on which were engraved the words “For Services Rendered”.
The Silver Badge party, under the banner “Every man once before any man twice”, fielded candidates in the 1918 general election on a platform of representing the political interests of former service personnel. Although it is no longer a campaigning political party, what it stood for—“Every man once before any man twice” and particularly “Justice before Charity”—remains just as true and as relevant to the debate today about our veterans as it was 100 years ago.
As I said previously, although we have come a long way, we are not there yet and I hope that the sometimes complex needs of those who have served are never seen as a burden on our resources, but rather viewed as a responsibility that we willingly accept in return for the sacrifice that they have made. We must never relegate that responsibility for veterans care entirely to the charitable sector which, although it raises hundreds of millions of pounds and does wonderful work, cannot become the primary source of assistance.
We are all too well aware of the statistics and we have heard many of them this afternoon—40% of veterans report having health or welfare issues, with a growing emphasis on the need for long-term care. According to research by King’s College London, an estimated 60,000 of our veterans who served between 1991 and 2014 will need support for mental health issues. Although mental health and other health issues are critical, the range of concerns facing our veterans extends to financial, employment, social and housing issues, and the need for relationship support. Worryingly, the research showed that a number of our veterans, when interviewed, called into question the commitment of the armed forces to supporting their transition and that of their families back to civilian life.
It is fitting that on this occasion, when we pause to commemorate service personnel, particularly those who have fallen in the past 100 years, we commit ourselves to honouring them by looking after today’s service men and women in the manner that they deserve. I have no doubt that every Member across this House wishes to provide the very best care for our veterans and their families, and I am sure we would be willing to learn from the example of others. Without going into too much detail, I point to the Danish model of veteran care, which provides continuous and comprehensive support for veterans and their families. That support is viewed as the responsibility not just of one Government Department, but of all Government Departments, and its success is examined and is evaluated every two years.
When creating the document “Our Commitments” in 2012, the Scottish Government looked to the Danish model and the comprehensive strategy that supports service personnel during and after their service. That document sets out the Scottish Government’s approach to our armed forces. Much of what it contained is already enshrined in the armed forces covenant.
Scotland has a large and vibrant armed forces community, encompassing both regular and reserve personnel and their families. In 2014, Poppy Scotland estimated the size of the community to be 530,000—in excess of half a million—including dependants. That is almost 10% of the Scottish population. Many were born in Scotland and, having enjoyed a fulfilling military career, have returned home, but more and more people who grew up elsewhere are choosing to make Scotland their home in retirement. I am delighted that many decide to settle in my constituency of Argyll and Bute, where they are very welcome indeed.
Approximately 1,800 men and women end their service career each year in Scotland. Most find the transition to civilian life straightforward and take it in their stride, but some find it a far greater challenge. In order to ease that transition, in 2014 Scotland’s First Minister—my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond)—appointed Mr Eric Fraser to serve as the first Scottish Veterans Commissioner. In establishing that unique role, Scotland has blazed a trail for the rest of the UK to follow. The commissioner, who is a Royal Navy veteran with 37 years’ experience, has operational independence, dedicated funding and a wide remit to improve outcomes for veterans. He has published a strategy and a work plan and already submitted two detailed reports, on transition arrangements and housing. He has extensive and regular engagement with the Scottish Government.
The Scottish Government have also introduced an armed forces advocate and created a comprehensive network of armed forces and veterans champions who are represented in the Scottish Government, local authorities, NHS boards and Police Scotland, among many other bodies, thereby embedding support for the armed forces community throughout the whole Scottish public sector.
The vast majority of people leaving the services settle into civilian life in Scotland with little effort. However, a small number experience difficulty accessing services and therefore require additional support tailored to their specific needs. The overriding principle of the Scottish Government’s approach to caring for our veterans is that no one should suffer any disadvantage as a result of military service.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, and I very much welcome the Scottish Government’s efforts on behalf of veterans, many of whom are English, Welsh and Irish, and many of whom retire to his constituency, as he has said. Does he not recognise, however, that this is not just a Government role; many charities and individuals have a role to play? For example, Mrs Pam Bates and Mr Carl Lewis in my constituency do an awful lot for local veterans in Kent. That individual effort is just as important as the Government effort of which he speaks.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Indeed, I have met one of his constituents—one of Britain’s finest—who is doing fabulous work. I commend the work that those people do. The point I was making is that the state must not abdicate its responsibility. I fully support the wonderful work that charities do, but we have to recognise that the care of our veterans is first and foremost the responsibility of the state.
The Scottish Government have fully embraced the responsibility to assist serving and former personnel and their families, both in the Scottish national health service, where a financial commitment has been made, and in housing, education and employment needs. We recognise that military service fosters leadership, organisational skills, resilience and specialist skills such as medical training and technical expertise. Veterans and their families are a great asset for the private sector, and a growing number of employers are actively targeting veterans and their families to fill the skills gap.
Earlier this year, the Scottish Government published an updated version of the document called “Renewing Our Commitments” in which they reaffirmed what they had said in 2012: making good jobs, affordable homes and excellent public services a priority for our veteran community. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling said, Scotland’s ambition is to be the destination of choice for those leaving military employment and seeking a fulfilling life while wanting to make an important contribution to society. Scotland values our armed forces community as a true asset, and we renew our commitment to support them and pledge to make our country the most attractive destination for those leaving the armed forces.
As we approach Remembrance Day, it is absolutely right that we stop and pay tribute to those who have served and remember those who have fallen. But let us also look to the future. In doing so, let us be guided by the words of 100 years ago from the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers, whose demand of politicians back then would be echoed by veterans today: it wanted justice before charity. As a nation, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to support veterans and their families. Yes, charity has an important role to play, but the primary responsibility for caring for our veterans must lie with the state—and we should never forget it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing today’s debate and all those Members from across the UK who have taken part.
My hon. Friend started by telling us about Pizza Pronto and its efforts down by Penarth pier. He also referred to the absolutely excellent work done by the Royal British Legion. Members on both sides of the House wish to thank the Legion and the many charities who do so much for our armed forces and veterans.
My hon. Friend referred to those of many faiths who will be coming together this week to pay their respects. He also looked back at the role of women in the first world war, including the Canary girls in the munitions factories, one of whom was his grandmother—
My hon. Friend is so young. He told us some very moving stories of veterans he has met who have suffered major trauma, both physical and mental.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), chair of the all-party group on the armed forces covenant, stressed how important it is for MPs to speak up for servicemen and women, as they cannot speak up for themselves. She spoke movingly of her own experiences, having seen the fine work done by many charities. She reminded us, too, of the current engagement of our armed forces, the stress caused by under-manning and the dreadful effect on morale of redundancies and base closures.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us poignantly of those who were killed or injured in Northern Ireland. He paid tribute to the work done by charities and talked of the high number of veterans who have taken or tried to take their own lives. He mentioned the problem of veterans who are under the radar and not known to the authorities or to charities.
The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) told us the wonderful tale of Johnny the Dambuster and paid tribute to the excellent work of the Royal British Legion. He mentioned his participation in the 22/22 challenge. I took the lazy way out: I just abseiled for Combat Stress, which is an awful lot easier than doing 22 press-ups. Many hon. Members have contributed to charities that are working hard for our veterans, and we appreciate the work being done.
The hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) described the specific provision for veterans in Scotland and stressed the need to recognise the strengths and qualities of veterans and the contribution that they can make to society, rather than seeing only problems. He also discussed the importance of working outside traditional silos.
Remembrance time is when we remember all those in our armed forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in service to our country. Later this week, people from all walks of life—young and old—will turn out for events across the country to pay their respects. For many people, the image they have of veterans is one of elderly servicemen and women at the Cenotaph or the local war memorial—an image that has been reinforced in the past two years by the events that have, quite properly, been held to commemorate the first world war.
This week is an especially poignant time for families and friends who are still living with the loss of loved ones. I was very privileged last week to attend a special service to unveil and dedicate a new memorial in Llanelli in readiness for Remembrance Day. The memorial commemorates the 15 brave servicemen from Llanelli killed in eight conflicts since the end of the second world war, including those killed most recently: Lance Corporal Ryan Francis, killed in Iraq, and Lance Corporal David Dennis and Corporal Jamie Kirkpatrick, killed in Afghanistan. On behalf of all of us, I would like to thank all those who have worked hard and given generously to ensure that we have a fitting and lasting memorial in Llanelli to those brave men.
I very much welcome the decision by the Royal British Legion to choose rethinking remembrance as its theme for this year’s Remembrance Day, reminding us that the poppy appeal is about not only commemorating those who died many years ago but remembering our modern-day veterans, showing our gratitude for their service and ensuring that the armed forces covenant really does deliver prompt access to the quality services they need.
It is important that our perceptions and priorities move with the times. In our parents’ generation, practically everyone personally knew a family member, friend or neighbour who had served in the armed forces. However, nowadays, not everyone knows serving members of the armed forces or veterans personally, so their perceptions may be more heavily influenced by what they see in the media. It is vital that, as we discuss the provision of the best possible services for our veterans, we do not let our focus on some of the problems lead to negative stereotyping. Many ex-servicemen and women adapt very well to civilian life: they use the skills they have acquired in the forces, or they develop new ones, and they settle well into workplaces and communities.
Regardless of whether veterans have any particular difficulties, all of them should have prompt access to appropriate services. The aim should be to provide a smooth transition and to deal with concerns before they develop into problems. When Labour was in government, we did much to pave the way for the introduction of the armed forces covenant. The first military covenant was published in 2000, and it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) who, as Health Secretary, ensured that veterans got priority treatment on the NHS. It is encouraging that there has been such enthusiastic recognition of the armed forces community covenant by many local authorities and local service boards, but application and outcomes are very variable.
In Labour’s 2015 manifesto, we recognised the need for the covenant to be strengthened. One action we proposed was to create a veterans’ register to make certain that our veterans receive proper support on leaving service. We therefore support the Royal British Legion’s “Count them in” campaign, as I understand Members on both sides of the House do, to have a question on the next census to identify veterans. That would be a simple way of acquiring an additional source of information, which would tell us about the veterans living in our communities and allow public services better to meet their needs.
Service leavers and older veterans could be given more encouragement to mention the fact that they are veterans. There may be many reasons why they do not self-identify: it simply does not occur to them, they do not wish to be pushy, or they feel there is some form of stigma attached. Therefore, identification needs to be done proactively, through a scripted question. One starting point highlighted in the best practice guide is the way that some local authorities have included a question about veterans on some of their forms to help them collate data on veterans. What consideration have the Government given to developing that into a standard format on a number of forms—for example, questions on GP registration forms or local authority forms?
It is simply not enough for the Government to say that the community covenant has been embraced by various public bodies. The will is there, but how effective is it in practice? It can be tempting sometimes just to visit those who are taking the lead and who are proud to show us what they are doing, whereas the focus needs to be on ensuring that there is effective practice everywhere.
My hon. Friend’s point about data—it is one that I made myself—is important, not least in the light of the comments from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about people who have fallen through the gaps, often with tragic consequences, in Northern Ireland, and what charities have told me about the difficulties they have in re-acquiring relationships with veterans because of that lack of information and data. Does she agree that we need to make a lot more effort to ensure that there is a consistent approach across the UK and across all services?
We do indeed need a much more consistent approach to the whole use of data, as the hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) said. Consistency of services is absolutely critical.
It is no easy matter when dealing with the many varied ways in which our public services are organised, with different systems of local government, health trusts and clinical commissioning groups—and that is just in England, never mind in other parts of the UK. We should not forget, either, that many of these public bodies are also under considerable strain as they face cutbacks and increased demand. The Minister may point to the annual report and to the best practice guide, but these alone will not drive change and improve outcomes, so what strategies are the Government proposing to ensure that service providers—health boards, local authorities and so on—are implementing the armed forces covenant effectively? Are veterans being effectively identified and helped? Has the Minister developed ways to measure not only the experience of veterans and their families, but what is being done and whether it is effective? The challenge is to find how to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the covenant in ways that are effective but not overly burdensome or bureaucratic.
There is a need to enable the Government to identify and rectify areas of weakness and to inform future policy. What progress is the Minister making in this respect? The forces charity, SSAFA, has reported that forces families are still facing real challenges when accessing housing or school places for their children. It is therefore clear that the Government need to do more to make councils aware of the local needs of forces communities. What consideration have the Government given to finding a consistent way of measuring and monitoring what is actually happening and the experience of veterans and their families?
Half the ex-service community has a long-term illness or disability, and it is therefore essential that the MOD ensures that all veterans get access to the healthcare they need—and likewise for mental health conditions. While most members of the forces community have good mental health, there is a higher prevalence of conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in the forces, particularly among groups such as reservists and early service leavers. Under the armed forces covenant, the forces community should receive priority healthcare where their condition relates to their service, but as the health service in England becomes more fragmented and there is growing pressure on the NHS budget, what monitoring are the Government doing to ensure that our service members and veterans get the help they need?
I am taken by the hon. Lady’s comment that there is a higher prevalence of mental health problems among our veterans. Could she possibly point to the evidence that supports that?
I think we all recognise that there are certain problems that may not have been identified, and perhaps people are reticent in coming forward. As the Minister suggests, many other people who are not veterans suffer from mental health problems as well.
The employment gap is not one of the four areas covered by the covenant—housing, health, education and inquests—although it is very much linked to the first three. However, there is help from some firms who are signed up to the corporate covenant. We should be very concerned that only 80% of service leavers are employed six months after leaving the armed forces. A lot more needs to be done to understand why that is and to remedy it. These are people of working age who have skills and experience, and who have recently been in employment, so the figure of 20% not in employment is far too high. Job centres do not run specific programmes for service leavers, but nevertheless, those seeking employment should have access to the usual support. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions to improve outcomes for service leavers? Is appropriate information about service leavers collected and analysed, and what analysis has been done of the effectiveness of the support given to those who were made redundant? Has anything been done to upskill jobcentre advisers to deal specifically with service leavers? Are those advisers fully aware of the skills that service leavers have, and are they matching those skills to appropriate job opportunities and interviews? Service leavers bring with them a whole range of skills: the job skills that they acquire, the personal qualities that they develop and the organisational and team-working skills that they learn. What are the Government doing to promote the advantages of employing ex-service personnel among employers who are not signed up to the corporate covenant?
Will the Government look at practical ways of helping veterans to access employment, such as the veterans interview programme, which Jim Murphy piloted, in which companies voluntarily guarantee to interview jobseeking ex-forces personnel? It is very worrying to hear anecdotal evidence that some employers seem to be prejudiced against service leavers, perhaps because of negative stereotyping. It is extremely important that we tackle any negative stereotypes, and I would like to ask the Minister what we are doing in this respect.
With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady—I am certainly not seeking to pick a fight—she talks about negative stereotyping, having just a moment ago talked about veterans having a higher prevalence of mental health problems. Although I asked her to demonstrate the evidence that veterans have a higher prevalence of mental health problems, she is yet to provide any. I have not seen any such evidence, but she runs the risk in her own speech of promoting stereotypes about veterans having problems, having just criticised such stereotypes.
The point is that I prefaced my speech by saying clearly that while we may be focusing on problems today, we should think as well of the good side of veterans and ex-servicemen and women, and the very many positive qualities that they can bring to employment and to their communities.
Before the last general election, Labour made a manifesto commitment to outlaw discrimination against the armed forces, because it is completely unacceptable for any service member or veteran to be denied a job interview or access to public services because they have been in the forces. Indeed, it goes against a core principle of the armed forces covenant, namely that our forces community should suffer no disadvantage. Sadly, that is not reflected in the experiences of some service members and veterans. Research by the Local Government Association recently showed that nearly 40% of those who had served in the forces felt that their service left them disadvantaged. We have all heard of completely unacceptable examples of service members being turned away from shops or restaurants because they were wearing uniform. Will the Government look again at outlawing discrimination against our forces community?
I turn to the worrying news that we had today that the Government have identified a £438 million shortfall in funding for the armed forces pension and compensation scheme. Can the Minister explain how that substantial error occurred in the estimates and give us categorical assurances that the money will be found to provide this vital support for our veterans?
Ahead of Remembrance Sunday, we remember all those who have served and we honour their sacrifice. We also need to see firm action from the Government to ensure that our veterans and our forces community receive all the support that they are entitled to.
It is a pleasure to reply to what has been an excellent and mainly consensual debate. This is certainly not a subject on which we would wish to find division across the House, but it is absolutely right that we should debate it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing the debate. He could not have chosen a more poignant time to discuss a new generation of veterans and service personnel than the week in which we mark Remembrance Day, and the issues that he raises are of huge significance. He really set the tone for the debate with his passionate account of the contribution that service personnel, including many of his own family members, have made to this nation over many years. I especially want to underline his acknowledgement of the often-overlooked contribution that women have made during the world wars and other conflicts.
Equally, we have had some fantastic contributions by other hon. Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), who has rapidly established herself in this House as a true champion for the armed forces in the various pieces of work that she is undertaking. I regularly have exchanges with her, and I welcome her challenges to Government about increasing support for our service personnel. I absolutely agree and I am ever mindful that our service personnel are the single greatest asset in our armed forces.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is an equally passionate supporter of our armed forces. I thank him for his 13 and a half years’ service.
Fourteen and a half years.
I apologise. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his 14 and a half years’ service, even if most of it was in the Royal Artillery. He will understand that comment from a sapper and take it in the good spirit in which it is intended. I acknowledge his commitment to veterans in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned about mental health. I will turn to that in a moment, but it is worth putting on the record that a bespoke aftercare package is in place in Northern Ireland to support former members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Rangers, and their dependants and widows. It consists of welfare teams across Northern Ireland that offer vocational resettlement training, medical support and a benevolent fund. In August 2015, we agreed that the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish aftercare service should continue to exist and continue to be funded. Although the circumstances leading to its inception have markedly changed, the need is still evident and the demand on its services is being met effectively. This is in addition to the services available to all veterans, including the Veterans Welfare Service, which has welfare representatives based across the UK, and service and ex-service charities, such as the Army Benevolent Fund, the Soldiers Charity, the armed forces charity SSAFA and Combat Stress.
The hon. Gentleman said a few words about the armed forces compensation scheme. He may well be aware that the quinquennial—five-yearly—review of that scheme is currently under way, and I hope that its report will be made available in late spring. That demonstrates that the scheme is constantly under review.
As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) demonstrated his support for our veterans, and indeed for the work of the Royal British Legion and other service charities in his constituency. He talked about the poignant moment while visiting various war memorials when he realised the age of many of those who had died. That is exactly the experience I had when I visited the Somme to see my great-uncle’s grave. I was hit by the shock of realising that he was just 19 years old when he died. I went there as a young man, but I was already seven years his senior. Such experiences very much dispel the image of veterans as being from a much older age cohort. That is not the case, and I will turn to that—it is very much the theme of this debate—in a moment.
I thought the hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) gave an equally excellent description of the ways in which the Scottish Government are addressing veterans’ issues north of the border. Despite our political differences, I have a very good working relationship with Keith Brown. I have spoken to him this week, and I will meet him again shortly. Such a cross-border relationship is absolutely vital, because we all recognise that veterans move around within the United Kingdom.
This is a broad-ranging topic, and it is at such moments that I realise what an honour it is to do this job. I mean that not only as a Member of Parliament, since we are all honoured to be in the House, but, given that I joined the Army almost 28 years ago—I remind the House that I still serve in the Army Reserve—as a Minister in a Department in which I have a passionate interest, as I hope hon. Members recognise. I am not yet a veteran, but my time will come, as it does to all of us who are servicemen, so I will start by discussing veterans.
There is a misconception that veterans are older people. In the popular mind, they are people who fought in the great conflicts of the mid-20th century—the second world war, the Korea campaign and the Suez crisis of 60 years ago. However, veterans are of course from a younger generation. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) served in a much more recent conflict in Bosnia. Such a picture is only partial: it omits the 220,000 personnel who served during a period of 13 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it fails to take account of the fact that some of our veterans will have served only for a very short period.
It is vital that we think carefully about this younger generation, lest we fail to give them the specific support they need. That concern is reflected in the Royal British Legion’s excellent Rethink Remembrance campaign. As the campaign reminds us, society as a whole has a responsibility to help all those who lay their lives on the line for the needs of this nation, especially as so many of our service veterans utilise public and private sector support across our devolved Administrations. At the same time, we believe that the MOD can play a critical role in joining the dots and ensuring that the right support goes to the right place at the right time. We are using the covenant as our mechanism to make this happen.
First, we are helping out on health and housing. The Government have channelled £13 million from the LIBOR fund into supporting mental health in the armed forces community. Meanwhile, NHS England is currently piloting a veterans trauma network, providing a safety net for those with lifelong healthcare needs who are returning to civilian life. Furthermore, as has been explained, NHS Scotland and the Scottish Government have put £1.2 million into providing specialist mental health services for veterans in Scotland.
I refer the Minister to figures from the Royal British Legion pointing out that whereas the general population has a 6% incidence of depression, the figure for veterans is 10%. Will he therefore withdraw his earlier comments?
Forgive me, but my comments were to ask for evidence. If that is the evidence the hon. Lady is providing, I look forward to seeing it, but of course there are many sources of evidence. I am concerned about the general point: we need to be careful in the House not to paint a particular picture of our veterans as a cohort in our society. There have been some disturbing newspaper articles recently suggesting that employers should not be employing veterans. We should be careful in the House not to fall into a trap—I would not dream of accusing the hon. Lady of doing so—but rather to spend as much time as possible talking up our veterans community and dispelling some of the myths. Otherwise, we could fall into an awful trap.
Questions were raised earlier about the ability to track our veterans. The health service might be one area where we have that opportunity. Work is ongoing to ensure that the electronic record system used in defence medical services matches that used in the national health service and—I would imagine—NHS Health Scotland as well, so that there can be a seamless transition of our service personnel’s records once they move out of the armed forces. Effectively having a marker on those records might be one way to begin that process of helping to track veterans.
On housing, the Department for Communities and Local Government has extended the period within which ex-service personnel and surviving partners are given priority for Government-funded shared ownership schemes from 12 to 24 months after service, and we have allocated £40 million of LIBOR funding to projects that provide veterans’ accommodation. When it comes to both health and housing, we are using the Cabinet Office-chaired covenant reference group to link up health, DCLG, the local government authorities and the devolved Administrations, so that covenant principles, particularly with regards to veterans’ access to healthcare and social housing, are applied consistently and correctly across the United Kingdom. I hope that that addresses one of the questions from the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith).
On employment, which was raised by several hon. Members, we are working with business to offer ex-service personnel job support. Our career transition partnership provides one-to-one guidance, training and employment opportunities to about 15,000 service leavers. Its success rate is significant: 85% find a job within six months of leaving the armed forces, compared to a 73% employment rate in the rest of the UK population. So our ex-service personnel are achieving a better employment rate than the average in the UK. All personnel—without exception—are eligible for this support. Furthermore, the employment support available to our service leavers through the CTP continues for two years after their date of discharge.
Separately, we are using the covenant to raise awareness of the benefits of hiring service personnel. Where else can business get highly skilled, highly motivated team players with leadership attributes tested in the most challenging of environments? Already, more than 1,200 businesses have signed the covenant and are offering veterans everything from skills training to guaranteed interviews.
We know, however, that we need to do more—we all absolutely accept that. With the end of the era of enduring campaigns and the drawdown from Germany coming to its conclusion, we can expect the numbers of veterans to increase in the short term. So we are making sure support is in place by using £2 million from our annual £10 million covenant fund to set up the veterans gateway. This will be a single point of contact, open 24 hours a day, that can give veterans the advice they need, wherever they are located.
Finally, we are keen to learn more about all those veterans who fail to make a smooth transition to civilian life. We need to know who they are, so that we can help them. As the Royal British Legion points out in its “Count Them In” campaign, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay said, after the 2011 census, we knew more about the Jedi population of the UK—or indeed about the fact that Rushmore in Hampshire has the highest concentration of Buddhists—than about those who have served in our armed forces. That is ridiculous, but true. So I am working closely with the Office for National Statistics and the chief statistician to include a question on veterans in the national census. As I mentioned earlier, we do not have the power to force Mr Pullinger to do that, but I hope that he is listening to this debate and gets the very clear message that it is this House’s will that that question be included on the next census.
Does the Minister agree that it is not only the veterans that we need to identify, but their direct families as well? The covenant is very clear that it supports the families against disadvantage and that it is important to identify the spouses and the children who will carry forward that military family—they need to be identified for ever.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful and reasonable point, and I will ensure that it is conveyed. The more we do to show that veterans are well looked after, the more we will encourage a future generation of soldiers, sailors and airmen and women to come through our doors.
That brings me to the second element of this debate. In the years to come, our armed forces will face an increasing challenge to recruit the people in the face of increased competition from companies that offer more money and more flexible ways of working.
That is why we are determined to transform the MOD into a modern force that does not provide its people only with modern equipment, but with better accommodation, better terms and conditions and even greater flexibility. We fully recognise that the current “offer” that we make to our servicemen and women is not keeping pace with modern needs, which is why we are committed to changing and improving it better to reflect the realities of today’s society.
On that very theme, I was delighted recently to attend the PinkNews awards, where the British Army was awarded the public sector employer of the year award for its work, particularly on the Army LGBT forum. Does the Minister agree that we have a particular issue with older LGBT veterans who were not perhaps treated the way they should have been in the past, and that we need to do more to right that wrong and show a good example as we go forward, just as the Army is doing today?
That is a very fair point, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman who, as I recall, has been a champion for such people in the past. That work will continue.
The new employment model represents a significant update to the offer, providing support to service personnel who want to buy their own homes; promoting greater domestic stability and lifestyle choice for service personnel and families; and delivering simpler and more transparent systems for pay and accommodation grading—but the challenges placed on defence and the needs of our people continue to evolve. In SDSR 2015, we committed to build on the foundations of the new employment model to ensure that the future offer remains competitive and sustainable. We have grouped this under the armed forces people programme.
For example, we are now looking to see how we can make life easier, where possible, for those struggling to meet their full military commitment. With the flexible engagement system, we will be able to offer service personnel the opportunity to work part-time and, when needed, protect individuals from deployments. This means that we can reduce liability for deployment for a period, so 27-year-old Sergeant Jenkins, for example, can support his pregnant wife and spend more time with his young family in those important early childhood years.
We know that the provision of affordable, good-quality accommodation is also central to our offer to service personnel. Yet again, though, we recognise that the current accommodation model does not always support how service personnel might choose to live, forcing some to opt out of subsidised accommodation or compromise on family life. The future offer will look to provide current service personnel with more choice of housing and help to meet their aspirations for home ownership—regardless of age, rank or relationship status.
That is just a glance at what we are doing. Let me reassure the House that the armed forces people programme will deliver real improvement, developing a future offer that will promote diversity and individual choice, support flexibility, and take account of personal circumstances. Above all, it will continue to evolve, reflecting changing needs and aspirations. In short, it will be more effective for our people and more efficient for defence.
Is not a change taking place in our requirements for the armed forces? The Navy is desperately short of engineers, but we should also bear it in mind that someone whom we send to deal with an event in the cyber environment will be a very different sort of person from someone whom we send with rifle and pack into the front line. Is that not an important reason for us to change the employment model, and ensure that people know they are exactly the sort of people whom we need in our armed forces?
My hon. Friend is right, and we are considering a variety of options to ensure that we can attract a greater variety of people. One of the biggest challenges that we face is the fact that, historically, we have been a bottom-fed organisation which people join either as private soldiers or as junior officers, although many of the skill sets that we need are possessed by people who have developed them outside the armed forces. We are considering carefully the possibility of some form of lateral entry to take account of that.
The issues raised by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth are topical, pertinent, and increasingly important. Support for a new generation of veterans and service personnel will be critical in the coming years, and the Government will continue to honour their covenant responsibilities. However, I began by saying that we all have a duty to serve those who serve us, and it is our job as Members of Parliament to keep reminding local authorities and businesses in our own constituencies of the needs of a new generation of ex-servicemen and women. Only then can we guarantee our heroes the fair treatment that their service deserves.
I am sure that this weekend Members will be returning to their constituencies to commemorate Remembrance Sunday, but for my own part, I shall not. I shall be travelling nearly as far south as it is possible to travel when I go to the Falkland islands to join the Falkland islanders, because I think it equally right for us to support them on that important day.
I thank all Members for taking part in the debate. Today’s attendance is heartening, and sends a clear message to our service personnel that they have the support of the House of Commons.
I call Mr Stephen Doughty to wind up the debate, very briefly.
I thank all Members—including those with distinguished service histories, not least the Minister—for their powerful contributions. I am glad that the House has discussed a series of issues affecting the new generation of veterans and their families. We discussed the most serious examples in detail, but we also discussed a range of issues—including the transition to civilian life, and access to housing and employment—which I think are just as important as some of the much more serious cases of which we are all aware. It is vital that we remember the present generation as well as previous generations, which is why the Royal British Legion campaign is so crucial.
Public perceptions of veterans and their families clearly present a challenge, and—this is particularly important—so do the perception of veterans and their families of whether we, as a country, are continuing to do our duty for them as they did their duty for us. Reports such as the SSAFA report, published in July, which stated that four in 10 veterans who contacted the charity believed that they had been disadvantaged by their military service when it came to housing or employment, must be of concern to us all, and serve as a stark reminder of the challenges that are out there.
I hope that all of us, when we stand at our cenotaphs and memorials on Remembrance Sunday, will not just say “We will remember them”. We also need to say that we will do right by them as they have done right by us, which will be a fitting tribute to all those who serve our country so bravely.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered raising awareness of a new generation of veterans and Service personnel.