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Armed Forces Covenant

Volume 657: debated on Monday 25 March 2019

7. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the effective delivery of the armed forces covenant. (909993)

16. What steps he is taking to encourage more commercial organisations to participate in the armed forces covenant. (910002)

17. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the effective delivery of the armed forces covenant. (910003)

The armed forces covenant not only obliges Government Departments to recognise their duty to support armed forces personnel and veterans and their families, but encourages organisations and businesses across the country to do the same. I am pleased to say that there are now more than 3,300 signings, and we are signing about 25 companies or organisations each week.

A recent Defence Committee report stated that

“some serving personnel, veterans and their families who need mental health care are still being completely failed by the system.”

We have heard about engagement with charities and mental health support, but a local charity that is doing great work in Midlothian, the Lothians Veterans Centre, has confirmed the sentiment expressed by the Committee, and told me that charities helping veterans are under a huge burden and huge pressures. What are the Government doing to encourage service personnel to report mental health problems without fear of reprisal, and to ensure that there is a greater focus on the provision of mental health care?

The hon. Lady has packed a lot into one question, and it is very important indeed. The critical aspect is removing stigma and enabling people to step forward and say “I’m not okay” without feeling that there will be reprisals, and, thanks to the mental health and wellbeing strategy of 2017, we are doing exactly that. It is taking a while to change the culture, but more people are now willing to step forward and say “Let me get checked out, let me get sorted, let me get back into the line” without fearing that doing so might damage their promotion prospects.

Why should commercial organisations take this matter seriously when the Ministry of Defence has not yet managed to change its demand for British meat so that our armed forces can be fed the finest meat in the world?

I understand that this issue dates back to a former armed forces Minister’s time many years ago. When we were back in office a couple of decades ago, we discussed it ourselves. I will certainly look into it, but I encourage all those organisations—despite their issues with meat—to sign the armed forces covenant and support our brave veterans and armed forces personnel.

The acute care for armed forces personnel who have had acquired brain injuries in the course of their duties is second to none—no one would doubt that—but the anxiety is that when they leave the forces, or sometimes even before they enter the forces, an acquired brain injury will go unnoticed and therefore untreated and uncared for, which is why so many veterans end up homeless and living on the street. What are we going to do about that?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the personal interest that he takes in this issue. He is absolutely right: people need signposts so that they know where to go. We are working far more closely with NHS England and the devolved Administrations to understand where the complex treatment services are, and to ensure that when people make the transition, they are handed across to the civilian agency that will look after them.

It is wonderful for me, as the founder of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant, to see an Order Paper that is full of those three words, which did not exist a few years ago. This is a conversation that is critical to the House. Will the Minister meet me to move forward the discussion about the creation of an armed forces covenant ombudsman, so that when the issues raised by colleagues get stuck and we cannot find a solution, we have a real authority to fix things?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done on this issue as chair of the APPG. I should be more than delighted to meet her. It is important that we carry out the necessary scrutiny and are seen to be doing so, and that we do what is best for our veterans.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley), but does he not agree that when 0.01% of the NHS budget is spent on veterans’ mental health care, we have a great deal further to go? Will he at least endorse fully the recommendations of the Defence Committee on the issue?

I was delighted to address the Committee on this matter only the other day, and to discuss it. It is absolutely true that we need to follow the money. We know that £21 billion has been given to the NHS to cover the next 10 years, of which a proportion will go to mental health. The Prime Minister herself wants to see parity between mental and physical health and wellbeing, so let us make sure that we can identify where those funds are. I hope that I, or the Defence Secretary, will have a meeting with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care as soon as possible to see what more can be done.