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Criminal Justice System: Veterans

Volume 646: debated on Wednesday 12 September 2018

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered veterans in the criminal justice system.

It is good to be holding this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank you for the support I know you will give me throughout the debate. On several occasions, I have had the opportunity here in Westminster Hall to highlight the amazing, innovative work with offenders at Her Majesty’s prison Parc in my constituency. The Parc Supporting Families initiative has changed lives. It has brought a focus on being alcohol and drug free and on the impact on families, friends and communities. It has built relationships with families and taught prisoners parenting skills. It includes substance misuse programmes, prisoners reading with their children and making visits more family friendly, as well as building links between the schools of prisoners’ children and the prisoners, so that the children are largely protected from the impact of their parents’ sentences.

Many of the ideas successfully launched at Parc were picked up by the Farmer report and have been applied elsewhere. This new holistic approach to offending, which places increasing responsibility on the offender to address their behaviour while professional staff support and enable change, has had a radical impact on offending. Parc has built on that and in 2015 opened the first ever ex-military offenders unit, Endeavour. I visited just before the recess and promised the staff and prisoners I met that I would seek a Westminster Hall debate to emphasise the impact of the work they are doing on themselves and the wider community.

I commend the work of the staff at the unit. They go beyond just going in to do their job. It is their whole focus, knowing the change that they can bring across Wales. I also emphasise the eagerness I felt from the veterans and their willingness to tackle the issues that had led to their offences, and I pay tribute to the wide range of partner agencies involved. The work has had a huge impact on the lives and futures of the 270 men who have passed through the unit since it was opened. I urge the Minister or someone from the Ministry of Justice to visit and see the work, and the leadership that the unit has from Janet Wallsgrove, the director of Parc, and Corin Morgan-Armstrong, the inspirational head of family intervention, custody and community—does that not just say exactly what prisons should be about?

We have to recognise the task the staff, the volunteers and the inmates at Parc are trying to do. They are tackling years of failure—failure of families and of the state, particularly the education system and the way in which, in this country, we do not teach emotional and relationship education. They are tackling quite a high degree of failure from the Ministry of Defence to address not only the problems that military personnel bring with them into the military, but the negative experiences that they may have had while serving that leave them ill-equipped to deal with life back in the civilian world. Those problems are then left for the criminal justice system to deal with. Quite honestly, society has for far too long dealt with those problems by locking them and the people away.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and pay tribute to her considerable experience in this area. Does she not think this is part of a wider problem in terms of society supporting, or rather not supporting, our military veterans? That is why it is vital that there is a question on this subject in the next census.

It is absolutely vital that we know how many veterans we have and where they are, but many veterans do not want to self-identify. There is a question of shame and not wanting to be identified, so there would have to be some nuancing around that whole question.

We are failing people who have served their country and that cannot be acceptable to anyone. Let us be clear: not every service leaver is likely to end up in prison, in the same way that not every service leaver will end up with mental health problems—I am deeply concerned that that image is being allowed to grow. For many, the transition to civilian life, while challenging, is successful. The MOD has improved its programmes, although it still lacks anything more than a one-size-fits-all approach.

A recent report from the Forces in Mind Trust and King’s College London looked at data held by liaison and diversion services, and shows that we do not even really know how many offenders have served in the armed forces. I have seen figures for the last five years that vary from 2% to 9%. That has to change; we need better, more effective statistics, so that we know the problem we are dealing with.

Military life provides structure and comradeship, which many may have lacked in their lives before they joined the services. That comradeship and structure might not equip people with the education, skills and coping mechanisms that they need for transitioning into civilian life. Some may not have the emotional skills to cope with relationship issues or their change of status. Emotional issues had played a part in almost all of the cases of men that I spoke to, but all also talked of the trauma of going from hero to zero. One minute they are heroes, respected by family and community, and the next minute, they are nothing and nobody. For many of them, that trauma led in some part to their offending, which exacerbated the feeling of zero-ness, because they were totally rejected by family and community after offending.

Like many MPs, I have dealt with numerous cases of veterans who have hit hard times. In the majority of cases, it was not the veteran who approached me—it was their family and friends. Ex-service personnel are not good at asking for help. They are used to being problem solvers—indeed, that is what they are taught to be—but many also need training in seeking and accepting help. One of the men had been offered help and had turned it down because it was not exactly what he was looking for and he did not want to compromise. He made his life harder as a result.

The hon. Lady has mentioned HMP Parc and the excellent work done there. I have also visited the prison. Would it not be a proposal to have armed services support officers in every prison and every probation area?

Certainly, the military covenant has meant that individuals with an armed forces focus are spreading out across services. Among the prison service, there is definitely a wider acceptance and recognition of the need to look at ex-service personnel. That awareness is growing, but we do always need to do more.

We all know about post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health problems within the military and I do not intend to go through that again. We are seeing increasing numbers. We need to examine how many of those who are in our prison system and are exhibiting signs of mental health problems and post-traumatic stress have served, and where they have served. We need to do that research as we cannot work just on the basis of “we think”.

I appreciate that the Minister is having to respond to other Department’s failures, but that goes with the job. The Forces in Mind Trust has summed the situation up well:

“more efforts could be made upstream of the”

criminal justice system,

“for example during transition out of the military, when some of the risk factors for offending behaviour may be targeted. Interventions to improve employment, housing”—

a big issue, fundamentally important—

“mental health and alcohol and substance misuse outcomes could reduce the rates of offending following transition.”

Identifying veterans in prisons is not straightforward, as I said. Since January 2015, new arrivals in prison have been asked to self-identify themselves, but that relies on people being willing to do so, and not everyone is. The feeling of letting others down is significant, and they might not want that identification. Consequently, numbers vary. Before 2015, estimates of the number of veterans in prison varied between 3% and 9% of the prison population, as I said, but now we simply do not know. Will the Minister look again at how offenders who are ex-military are identified, and work with the Ministry of Defence to improve identification?

Identifying individuals is only valid, however, if we provide the right kind of help, so that veterans are not failed again. To quote the Forces in Mind Trust report again,

“veterans have a different profile of welfare, mental health, alcohol- and substance-misuse, and general health needs than general population offenders.”

We therefore have to produce a different form of response.

Parc prison provides a good place for such work to start. In the past 18 months, 207 veterans have been identified, 153 of whom served in the Army—but there are likely to be more—19 were ex-Navy, 18 were ex-Royal Air Force and 17 would not disclose their service. Those in the group are serving sentences for a wide range of different offences but, among them, a disproportionate number have been sentenced for sex offences, 89; violence offences, 35; and drugs, or drugs and violence, offences, 24.

The role of the unit for the ex-military, as for other programmes at Parc, is to prepare prisoners to rejoin society successfully. That is what prison should be about. Considerable thought went into establishing the unit: 160 Brigade visited Parc to discuss the idea beforehand, and General Nick Carter visited and talked to the people in the unit, including the prison officers who support it, and I cannot begin to tell the House the boost that that gave to ex-service personnel.

Great efforts have been made to build partnership links with organisations appropriate to work with ex-military. There is a steering group and it provides a comprehensive programme to address everything from employment to housing. There are too many organisations to mention—although I have a list for the Minister—but they include SSAFA; the Royal British Legion, as one might expect; SToMP, or Support Transition of Military Personnel; Care after Combat; and Emmaus.

The practical aspects of civilian life are not the only ones that need to be addressed. Emphasis needs to be put on tackling relationship issues, and prisoners’ personal lack of self-respect—low self-esteem was very apparent among the ex-military personnel I spoke to, with that sense of going from hero to zero. The partner organisations carry on the work started in the unit, providing vital continuity once a veteran is released. We cannot allow that transition from prison into the civilian world to fail, because if it does it is devastating for the ex-service personnel.

My hon. Friend lists myriad organisations that do excellent work in support of our veterans, but availability is scattergun, and it is almost a postcode lottery for many parts of the UK. Does she agree that the unit at Parc offers a national benchmark, the basis for a national programme?

That is exactly why I secured the debate. Prisons other than Parc are doing such work, but I have to say—with a sense of pride—that Wales is doing the best work in the UK with offenders who are ex-military. We are leading the way. Parc is an exemplar that I hope the Minister will look at to see how we can roll it out across the UK.

Not every veteran at Parc is in the Endeavour unit— 39 ex-military sex offenders are in the vulnerable persons unit, and initially charities were reluctant to work with this group, but that has now changed, which I am pleased about—but its results are encouraging. In the unit, veterans look after each other. Interestingly, the old ethos of respect between prisoners and prison officers is back—it is like stepping back in time, say officers who served then—and there is a real sense of trust and looking out for each other. Individuals I spoke to during a visit said that they feel safe. Cells are left open, there are no thefts and there is a sense of working together to overcome problems. Comradeship is key to people feeling that they can keep working to confront some quite difficult things that have happened in their lives, and to deal with the tensions and fractures within their families.

Emmaus, for example, rehomed three ex-military offenders from the unit, with one of them gaining full-time employment as a store manager. Two veterans secured full-time employment following release from the unit, one of whom now even employs others.

All of the prisoners I spoke to were eager to re-enlist. All of them wanted to know something, and this was the big message that they wanted me to tell, although I appreciate that it is not the Minister’s responsibility: they wanted an opportunity to serve. They wanted to make good on their failures. Somehow we need to look at whether there is an opportunity, case by case, for individuals who have offended to re-enlist in the regulars or the reserves.

The MOD needs to work with the Minister to address when and where people served, and when and how they transitioned out. An awful lot of them seem to have been discharged from the military and so re-entered society with no support, so they moved into the criminal justice system, and wider society had to pick up the risks and the problems. A review of the military justice system needs to look at how we can make that process more effective.

Parc has a wraparound service, as is needed at the point of transition. Will the Minister look at what is being done at Parc? I also recommend that he looks at the excellent work at HMP Oakwood on peer-led veterans’ life skills and support training. In brief, therefore, the issues are employment and employability; housing and support; capacity to re-enlist; relationship education; transitional issues to be addressed before leaving the services; and moving from hero to zero, or self-worth and self-esteem. May we have research into whether there is any correlation between those who have suddenly moved into our criminal justice system and those who formed part of the sudden reduction in the size of our armed forces in 2010 and 2011? There are concerns that that might be part of the issue, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. There also needs to be a greater effort to tackle sexual offences in the military, and domestic violence.

The military justice system of course has a responsibility, and I appreciate that I have given the Minister a lot to think about that is not within his brief, but if we as part of wider society do not tackle the problem, we will only see it grow and continue.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) for securing the debate and for her typically thoughtful speech on an important issue. I am sorry that we have so little time today for it.

I also pay tribute to all those who serve, or who have served, in Her Majesty’s armed forces, and to the families that support them. The British armed forces are the best in the world; it is those who serve in them who make them so. The armed forces covenant reflects the huge debt that, as a society, we owe to all who serve. It is a pledge to all who have served, or are currently serving, that they will be treated fairly, looked after and not disadvantaged due to their service. I am proud to work alongside colleagues from the Ministry of Justice, across Government and on both sides of the Chamber in this important area. I particularly highlight the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). I will ensure that he is aware of the points the hon. Lady made for the Ministry of Defence.

Our criminal justice system is there to do a number of things: to punish and deter those who break the law; to provide redress for victims of crime; and to protect society—in many ways, the overriding aim. In that respect, we must focus on reducing reoffending through our system by providing effective rehabilitation. That applies to all those in our custody or in the criminal justice system, regardless of background. We are determined to ensure that those in custody are held in safe and decent conditions and receive the support they need to meet their rehabilitation and physical and mental health needs.

In that context, it is right to recognise the sometimes very specific needs that former armed forces personnel in custody may have. The Ministry of Justice was pleased to welcome in 2014 the Phillips review of veterans in the criminal justice system, which looked at that issue. It highlighted that ex-military offenders have similar profiles to non-military offenders, but with multiple mental health and socioeconomic risk factors, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. We must seek to address those factors. The latest Ministry of Justice offender management statistics show that, across our 85,000 prisoners, around 3% of new receptions declared themselves as having served in the armed forces. This figure has remained fairly stable for several years.

I commend the Minister on his very accurate speech. Self-declaration is a really serious issue. Care after Combat, which is in most prisons—frankly, the big charities were not in there doing the work the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) talked about—knows that the guys and girls who go to prison, for myriad reasons, will not self-declare, even though we know they have served, because their national insurance number has a marker. When I was a Minister and sat where the Minister is sitting, I called for that situation to be reversed so that, rather than people self-declaring, they have to declare that they do not want to be declared. We must address their safety in prison; it is not just pride—some of them are at risk. I commend Care after Combat, in particular, for going into prisons and not caring what people have done, just so that it can get people back out and not reoffending.

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. I pay tribute to him for his work when he was a Minister in the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice; if I recall correctly, he initiated the Care after Combat pilots, and I pay tribute to the work of that charity too. If I may, I will come on to that and the point about self-declaration shortly, because the hon. Lady made a powerful point about it.

We have begun gathering data on the percentage of veterans among the population of offenders in the community, because, although they are not in custody, we have an obligation to them too. The data is being analysed and will be available in due course. The statistics are important because they highlight that, although some have suggested there is an over-representation of former armed forces personnel in the criminal justice system, that does not appear to be the case. However, as the hon. Lady and others have highlighted, the statistics are vital; if we wish to help former armed forces personnel in our criminal justice system, knowing who they are and understanding them is the only way we can do that.

My strong belief is that we must emphasise that, for someone coming into the criminal justice system, their service connection is an asset, not a liability. As has been alluded to, the Ministry of Justice made changes in 2015 so that every individual coming into custody in England and Wales is asked if they have served in the armed forces. A mandated self-declaration form is also completed by the national probation service. The hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend made a powerful point about the deep pride many former armed forces personnel have in their service and in who they are, which can sometimes inhibit them from making that declaration. The hon. Lady asked if I will have another look at that issue, and I am happy to tell her that I will look into it in more detail following the points she and my right hon. Friend made. It is important to these people’s rehabilitation and reintegration into society that we know who they are, so that we can ensure that the services we provide meet their needs—for example, by addressing identified needs such as mental health issues or PTSD.

Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons noted in 2014 that 26% of ex-service personnel—those we knew about, to go back to the point about self-declaration—reported having a current mental health or emotional wellbeing problem in its survey. That statistic was similar in the general prisoner population. What was distinct for veterans in custody, however, was that they were more likely to report feeling depressed or suicidal on arrival—the figure was 18%, compared with 14%—and more likely to have a higher incidence of physical health problems.

If we do not understand the nature and extent of the problem, how can we possibly hope to address it? For an individual who has served, being able to disclose that is a step towards helping themselves as well as allowing us to help them. It opens the array of support networks available, and it draws down the social capital that that group has earned and invested in from their time in service.

Many talk about letting the services down by ending up in prison, but what lets these people down is not understanding them. A key principle in desisting from crime is that people should be able to define themselves positively. To see oneself as ex-service, not ex-offender, gives people a chance to have a positive self-view.

I am conscious of time, but I would like briefly to touch on a few of the wider changes that we are anticipating as a Government with regard to veterans generally, and on the importance of partnership working with other organisations. I also want to say a few words about Parc, which was the focus of the hon. Lady’s speech.

The veterans population is changing, and the prison population is changing. The large cohorts of ex-servicemen and women who experienced the forces as part of their national service, or who served during the cold war years, are now giving way to a much younger group who have served in recent conflicts. A much younger veterans population has different expectations of how they want to be supported. They may be more open to asking for support—for mental health problems, for instance—and possibly less concerned about where it comes from. Across Government we will try to bond together and co-ordinate the support available, but we will rely on the first-hand knowledge of networks operating at grassroots level to look at trends, use data and keep us on top of how services should be shaped and designed in future.

The hon. Lady was right to highlight the hugely important and innovative work being done at Parc. I join her in paying tribute to the staff and the team there for what they are doing—I know her visit went down very well, and they were very pleased to see her. I hope to visit Parc soon as part of a tour of a number of prisons in Wales. Partnership working is key to what they do there, not just within Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service—I hope lessons from Parc can be learned across the system—but with forces charities.

I stand behind all those working in this area, and particularly the wide range of military charities that work across the criminal justice system to provide for the specific needs of veterans, in parallel with the ongoing provision available for all offenders. Those charities include, for example, SSAFA, Forces in Mind, the Royal British Legion and, of course, Care after Combat, which my right hon. Friend mentioned. I encourage those groups to continue their networks and their work, and particularly those specific pieces of work that show us where we need to go in future. It is through the knowledge and sharing experiences of voluntary sector and service charities that we are able to continue improving services for veterans. My door is always open to them to talk to me about their work.

I will conclude, to give the hon. Lady a minute to speak if she is permitted, Mr Hollobone.

Order. I am afraid that is not permitted. We really must get the message round all Government Departments that, in a half-hour debate, the Member leading the debate does not have the right of reply. The Minister has almost one minute remaining.

I am grateful, as ever, for your sage guidance, Mr Hollobone.

I am clear that more could be learned from the Endeavour unit and the particular focus placed on targeted work with veterans. I welcome the benefits of the day-to-day peer support that former service prisoners can share, but I am cautious we do not go too far in separating individuals from the mainstream prison regime and the work that can be done in it. I am keen to explore what more can be done in this area to capture and share good practice.

I welcome the chance to take part in this debate and to play a role in representing the work that is being delivered so expertly across our prisons and probation services on behalf of those individuals who have stood up to serve their and our country. I am only sorry that time is so short. The need to work with and for that group is one that every person in this House, regardless of party, will acknowledge.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).