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Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees Bill

Volume 728: debated on Friday 24 February 2023

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I cannot help but observe that today is 12 months since Putin invaded Ukraine, which we marked in the Chamber earlier today. I make clear my admiration and support for the stubborn resistance of the people of Ukraine, which has inspired all in the free world and put fear in the hearts of their would-be conquerors. This grim spectacle of the return of war to Europe must serve as a reminder, if one were needed, that the privileges and freedoms we enjoy have been hard won and, in many ways, are a gift offered by those willing to stand guard over our nation and democracy and, when required, to fight to protect it. It is their interests that this Bill seeks to promote.

I start by thanking Members on both sides of the House who have supported the Bill to this stage, many of whom have a service background. In particular, I thank Lord Lancaster, whose work on an amendment to the Armed Forces Act 2021 was the forerunner to this Bill. I also thank those across the veterans community, including many of my constituents, and the supportive charities and organisations for their feedback and thoughts.

Although the Bill contains provisions of particular interest to veterans and their families, it is clear from my conversations with Members from all walks of life and all political leanings that a desire to support our services community is widespread across the House, which should not be a surprise. After all, British forces were deployed to conflict zones in every year from 1945 to 2021. For service personnel, the last 25 years have been defined by relentless conflict, with deployments to wars in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Mali. These former servicemen and women, to whom we owe so much, represent about one in 25 of our fellow citizens—1.9 million people. Since world war two, they have seen their colleagues fall in 29 conflict zones across the world. They have provided vital aid, disaster relief and peacekeeping in dozens more.

As I stand here today, British forces are deployed to support our allies across 17 nations. They continue to ensure safe passage on the world’s oceans and, of course, they watch and stand ready in defence of our borders. They are the vital deterrent against those who would threaten our freedoms, our borders and our way of life. I know the whole House will agree that we owe a great debt to these men and women.

Conwy has the highest proportion of veterans of any county in Wales and, when I have met them, it has been a privilege to discuss life after service and, on occasion, their time in the armed forces. I have also had the privilege of meeting many serving men and women through the armed forces parliamentary scheme. The opportunity to discuss their lives and mission today has been incredibly insightful and humbling, a feeling that I know is shared by many colleagues here this afternoon. It is one of my key motivations in introducing this Bill.

Most veterans will speak of the benefits of fulfilling careers and excellent training. They will live long, happy and fulfilled lives after leaving service. Indeed, many make an invaluable contribution to our life in Aberconwy, to their family, their community and wider society. For some, however, the transition to the civilian world is a challenge. Their struggle to deal with the practicalities of everyday life is very real. They may require help to access services, tailored mental and physical healthcare, appropriate housing, opportunities for employment, simply adjusting to the conventions of civilian life, timely financial support or, indeed, some combination of these. These stresses point to a clear duty owed by us and society to veterans, one that this Bill aims to further in a modest but important way.

In Aberconwy, I have been impressed by the work of established institutions such as Blind Veterans, which operates its principal facilities, serving veterans from across the UK and beyond, from its hospital overlooking Llandudno. I have been moved by the spontaneous emergence of groups and initiatives from within the community in Aberconwy, such as Military Minds football club and the Troop Café. These are the organic and dynamic organisations—the network of Burke’s “little platoons”—that need encouragement and enabling in their work of support for veterans more than they need any direction or regulation. It is that spirit of enabling volunteers that the Bill is intended to promote.

The Government, of course, have the first responsibility in the care and support of our veterans, and I have been proud of this Government’s pursuit of making the UK the most supportive society in the world for veterans and their families. Among other changes, we have enshrined the armed forces covenant as a statutory duty at all levels of public service. Last year, that helped 13,000 veterans’ families improve their accommodation, supported the education of 80,000 service family children, and brought into operation the veterans’ mental health high intensity service.

It would, however, be disingenuous not to recognise the long-standing concerns over the delivery of support services to veterans and their families. That can at times be disjointed, uneven and even untimely. It can also be over-bureaucratic, fostering a complexity that both prevents access and creates gaps through which the deserving and needy may fall. By way of example, just three weeks ago my office was contacted by an RAF veteran in need of a hip replacement. He was aware of the veterans orthopaedic centre in Gobowen and the services it offers, but neither he nor his GP knew how to access that referral process, despite the presence in the local health board of an armed forces champion tasked with disseminating information about working with veterans to relevant organisations such as councils and GPs.

You will be pleased to know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that this brings me to the substance of the Bill. The pressing issues of co-ordination and consistency in support for veterans point to the need for scrutiny, feedback and support at a local level. VAPCs are a less well known part of Government support for veterans. Formed as war pensions committees almost a century ago, they advise and liaise with veterans, their families and relevant organisations about their needs, issues and concerns. The VAPCs—or veterans advisory and pensions committees, to give them their full name—aim to assist, raise awareness, act as advocates and provide governance to the veterans community, and to champion the rights of veterans and their families where there is injustice, inequality or a lack of fairness.

I believe that the VAPCs have enormous potential. There are currently 12 across the UK and they are distinctive, identifiable and independent points of reference for veterans. They are staffed by volunteers. It has been my privilege to meet some of the current and former volunteers in preparing this Bill, and I would like to recognise their contribution to it. Their clear commitment, considerable efforts on behalf of veterans and, dare I say, their forthright opinions on these matters have been striking. They are a credit to their cause. They have spoken to me candidly about their desire to do more and about their frustration at the current legislative constraints. At present, VAPCs are limited in the services they can offer. They lack a clearly defined remit; as a result, their relationships with other stakeholders can be frustrated.

I hope that this Bill will start to address these concerns. First, it would move the statutory powers of the advisory committees into the Armed Forces Act. That is fitting, given the proximity of VAPCs to the implementation of the armed forces covenant. The Bill would also allow Ministers greater flexibility to amend the functions of the committees over time so that they can best serve the needs of veterans and their families. That should enable greater ministerial responsiveness to the challenges that have been highlighted by volunteers, veterans and families, and to recommendations arising from periodic reviews—notably the quinquennial review now under way, which will report in the coming weeks.

Secondly, the Bill would widen the scope of the VAPCs’ role and responsibilities. Monitoring and advising on the war pension scheme and the armed forces compensation scheme is an important but essentially limited function. A much broader range of support is now available to veterans, and there is a real opportunity to make a difference by linking and co-ordinating services on behalf of individuals. Broadening the role of the VAPCs will enable them to better identify gaps in provision and co-ordination. Such scrutiny, as all politicians know, has the potential to provide further helpful incentives for action. The groups who have spoken to me are hopeful that this reform can improve feedback from veterans on important issues, such as Ministry of Defence services to veterans, and can raise awareness of the armed forces covenant within the local community. Again, that will give decision makers an incentive to action.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I absolutely support the aims of his Bill, which, as he says, will give the committees greater powers and greater clarity about their role. Beyond MOD oversight, will it cover certain charities, such as one that operated in my constituency and—I have to say—let veterans down badly? Will it make it possible to intervene to fix the problems facing veterans who are let down by other bodies?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This is a complex landscape. As well as the statutory bodies, there are institutions and individuals who are keen and motivated to help; I am thinking of Military Minds football club, which was started by family members who recognised the impact of service on veterans and sought to help them to accommodate and cope with everything they had to deal with. However, it makes for a congested and, at times, overlapping and complex landscape. There are also organisations—the little platoons to which I referred.

My hon. Friend is right to mention clarification. In clarifying the role of the VAPCs and the link to Government, the Bill seeks to bring further clarity to the space so that better relationships can be formed. My hope is that, with better relationships, more effective functioning will follow and there will ultimately be a better outcome for veterans.

Thirdly, the Bill would widen the cohort of veterans and families who can access support. Currently, only those who are in receipt of funds from the war pension scheme or the armed forces compensation scheme are guaranteed help from the VAPCs. That hinders the committees’ ability to attend to the broad range of social support that families and ex-servicepeople often need. As my hon. Friend points out, it also limits their ability to communicate with the wider service community, which in turn limits their ability to advocate for veterans and provide representative feedback. By widening the remit of the advisory committees to include all veterans and their families, regardless of length of service and compensation entitlement, the Bill would strengthen support services and provide all veterans with a clear means of having their voice heard in Government.

By making provision to enlarge the veterans community cohort eligible for support, widen the scope of statutory functions and increase ministerial flexibility in response to veteran needs, the Bill will offer the opportunity for dialogue, comment and even advice, rooted in ground truth—a phrase that I have heard a lot in preparing the Bill—for Ministers from the VAPCs. Although this is not explicit in the legislation, I ask the Minister for a commitment that the MOD will respond in writing to the VAPCs when they make representations to the Government.

I am pleased to say that the Bill has received support from stakeholders across the veterans community, as well as from veterans charities and from Cobseo, the umbrella Confederation of Service Charities. All that remains is for me to encourage colleagues to support the Bill so that we can take another step towards achieving our ambition for the UK to be the best place in the world to be a veteran. We also acknowledge our debt to those who have already served and, most important, we make a promise to current and future servicemen and women: “This nation and its Parliament will support you.”

It is an incredible pleasure to follow the brilliant speech by the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar). I commend and congratulate him on bringing this vital Bill to the House today, which will make a difference to our veteran community in Wales and throughout the United Kingdom. It was a privilege to be with him yesterday on the armed forces parliamentary scheme at Pirbright, along with the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) and colleagues in the other place. As the hon. Member for Aberconwy rightly says, the armed forces parliamentary scheme gives us parliamentarians not only an insight into the brave men and women serving in our armed forces, but an opportunity to speak to veterans in our own constituencies about what life is like for them after they have left service.

Something that is regularly brought up with me at constituency surgeries, or when I meet veterans in Pontypridd and Taff Ely, is the lack of support with and awareness of all the things the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his speech, particularly with respect to pensions and the challenges in accessing information and services. That is why I wholeheartedly support his Bill and why I support everything he does for our armed forces. He is a dedicated champion for them, and I thank him for that.

In Rhondda Cynon Taf we have a proud history of supporting our armed forces, whether that is our brave men and women serving in our armed forces, our reservists, our cadet forces, our veterans or the wider community—the friends and family of serving men and women. We are proud to have been the first Welsh local authority to receive the gold award from the armed forces covenant scheme, which represents our dedication to our armed forces in RCT.

I commend Councillor Maureen Webber, our fantastic armed forces champion, for leading the way in Rhondda Cynon Taf. She runs a veterans’ breakfast morning in Rhydyfelin community centre, which is incredibly well attended; I have had the honour of volunteering myself, serving our veterans a fry-up and even singing for them. I know the hard work of the men and women there to make that event happen, and it is brilliant.

There is much more work to be done for our veterans in this country, and the Bill is a vital step forward. It goes some way to tackling some of the challenges but, as we have said, there are myriad issues facing our veterans and their families, including unemployment and access to employment.

Does the hon. Lady agree that when veterans are looking for support with next steps in their career, they can often feel there is a bit of a stigma, and that therefore the access to veterans’ work coaches should be varied? Many say to me that the service is only by appointment and that they would like the option of a drop-in service as well.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He, too, is a member of our armed forces parliamentary scheme this term, and we have seen at first hand the impact on our serving community and the concerns they have about what will happen when they leave the forces. Where will they access employment? How will they get that support? That is a big concern and more needs to be done in that area. Having a drop-in service, or someone friendly who knows that information and who they can turn to and talk to, is vital.

As I have said, there is more to be done, but I do not wish to take up unnecessary time today championing this Bill. I just want to put on the record my complete support and my thanks to the hon. Member for Aberconwy for introducing it. We need to do more in this House to support our armed forces community and the wider community. I look forward to working with the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), who I know is also dedicated to that, and to hearing from the Minister in his response what more we can do collegiately as a House to support our armed forces community.

I rise to support this excellent Bill, both as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on veterans and as a veteran myself. I take my hat off to all of our 2 million-plus veterans in the UK for what they give to our society; it is entirely right that we support them as best we can. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) for bringing the Bill forward. It is an excellent Bill and I am happy to support it today.

Back in the day, as a new and younger MP, I chaired the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. Members may recall that Lord Lancaster tabled an amendment that the Committee decided not to support. The reason was simple: the MOD asked the Committee to pause so that it could look holistically at the proposal. In complete deference, I say that it is to the full credit of the MOD that it has looked at it; the fact that we are discussing this very Bill on the back of that recommendation is testament to that.

I do not want to cover the Bill itself in too much detail, but we know that there are 12 veterans advisory and pensions committees across the UK: nine in England, one in Scotland, and one each in Northern Ireland and Wales. Their statutory function is to engage at a local level with war pensioners and armed forces compensation scheme recipients, and to make recommendations and representations to Government.

The policy changes in the Bill will provide for VAPCs to be given additional functions in law—that is important. Why is that important? The language in the Social Security Act 1989, which currently underpins this work, is interesting: “engage”, “support”, “represent”, “recommend”, “assist”—it is pretty flowery stuff. My view of VAPCs currently is that they are great organisations—they have good people, are well led and have considerable horse power—but they have no statutory teeth at all. The Bill is about giving VAPCs the statutory teeth they need to be able to provide defined influence—on which more in a minute. At the moment, a whole raft of people in society do great work for our veterans. We have the armed forces champions, VAPCs, fantastic charities, the third sector—the list goes on. I feel strongly that the VAPCs are the right statutory vehicle for taking that forward, and I will explain why and how in due course.

Back in November 2021, the MOD, working closely with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, provided VAPCs with new non-statutory supplementary terms of reference. That has been looked at over the past 12 months, and the decision has been made to widen those statutory functions and enable matters in the TORs to be set out in secondary legislation. This is about giving the VAPCs teeth. Why are we doing this? It is to better serve the needs of veterans and to better reflect modern-day concerns of the veteran community. Again, that is really important. Is it good that we are doing this? Absolutely, yes.

Clause 1 creates a new enabling power for the Secretary of State to make regulations establishing VAPCs for the specified areas—yes. Clause 2 repeals section 25 of the Social Security Act 1989 to make those consequential amendments in law—yes. Clause 3 is about the time period over which that will be enacted. In my view, it needs to be as soon as possible, and I urge the Minister to push the Bill through as quickly as possible.

Here is the issue: why are we doing this? Why is there a requirement for more powers in law? There is a simple reason, which I will explain. Over the past three months, the all-party parliamentary group on veterans has been running an unprecedented nationwide survey into the experience of our veterans when claiming compensation, war pensions or financial support from Veterans UK. There is no question that the majority of our 2 million veterans in the UK live happily and successfully and have fulfilling lives. But anecdotally, the APPG has been presented over many months with evidence that the experiences of individuals when dealing with Veterans UK are not always positive. The claims process right now is deemed to be too confrontational, too bureaucratic and too antiquated, and it takes too long. It may be that greater scrutiny is needed for that most important task.

In terms of trends, we know that Veterans UK has been under-invested in for years. Some staff may still be working from home, decisions take too long, calls take too long to answer, and the migration from paper records to digitisation has been too protracted. We also know that some veterans remain on a knife edge, with the prolonged, impending nature of life and death outcomes. How is Veterans UK governed? At a superficial level, the levers needed for making the changes that we think are necessary already exist in the MOD. The simple reason is that Veterans UK sits under the MOD. It forms part of Defence Business Services, and therefore the authority for its core outputs does, should and must come from good command and control within the MOD.

Again, why is that? Let us take the brief example of Corporal retired John Smith—we all have a Corporal retired John Smith in our constituencies. Having experienced an issue with Veterans UK, and exhausted his own personal options for redress, he might write to his MP. The MP writes in due course to the Minister—he is sat in his place—but the Minister then writes directly to Veterans UK for the answer. Given that there is currently no independent body dealing with grievances or challenges, Veterans UK today is both judge and jury, and effectively marks its own homework. That is not acceptable.

I have yet to meet the Minister—I will do so next week—but let me give a fleeting insight into what the survey told us. It is a cross-party survey—each of the four co-chairs is from a different party—and it received more than 1,000 responses. The headline statistics are that 76% of the veterans and personnel surveyed would rate their overall experience of claiming compensation through Veterans UK as “poor” or “very poor”, compared with just 6% rating it “good” or “very good”. Likewise, 77% of veterans and personnel rate the communication they received while awaiting the results of the application as “poor” or “very poor”, compared with 6.5% rating it “good” or “very good”. One respondent said:

“Veterans UK make it so difficult for all veterans and you feel like a criminal, there’s no compassion whatsoever.”

That is not acceptable, so we have work to do.

So what? The purpose of the survey is not to situate the estimate, but to generate the evidence needed for further scrutiny. We have now done that. I have some questions for the Minister. Does Veterans UK require a formal structural review or a dedicated delivery board? How do we know that Veterans UK is governed appropriately and whether our veterans are given the best deal? Those questions need to be answered.

To come back to the VAPCs Bill, in my view a ready solution may now exist for providing oversight to Veterans UK if that is deemed necessary. Although service charities such as SSAFA, Cobseo, the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes, along with the new veterans commissioners, all play their part in supporting our veterans, the more formalised body of the veterans advisory and pension committees could offer that statutory solution. I again commend my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy for bringing forward the VAPCs Bill, which will release VAPCs from some of their legal constraints so that they can be more adaptive and innovative in working with veterans.

On the back of the Bill, the VAPCs—a significantly untapped resource—might be able to reshape the extant relationship with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs to add value. They could be given the formal task of holding Veterans UK to account by providing an ombudsman or assurance-type entity. Equally, they could be given formal oversight for decisions that become subject to challenge or independent adjudication.

I think it is so important that this Bill goes through, and I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) for his work on it. I have done a lot of work with local organisations in my constituency of Watford. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) agree that everyone who works to support veterans deserve a lot of credit, given that so much of that work is done voluntarily? If there is the opportunity through the Bill to create a statutory body, that is fantastic. We should applaud everyone who is so supportive of veterans now, who has been in the past and who will be in the future.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. So many people in our fantastic communities across the UK are doing great work in support of our veterans, but of course we can do it better. In my view, giving VAPCs a statutory responsibility and role could be just what we need.

I will wrap up very quickly. This timely Bill, which frees VAPCs from statutory control and limitations, offers a potentially fantastic framework for enhancing their role and outputs to the benefit of all our veterans.

I rise to support the Bill. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) for his tireless work and effort to ensure that our veterans and their families are supported. It is no surprise that the Bill has received wide support, including from the Government. That reflects the utmost respect that Members across the House have for our veterans, and our strong desire to ensure that the highest possible standards of support are provided to them. The Bill reflects that desire and the Government’s drive to make the UK the best place to live for the whole armed forces community. That is something I wholeheartedly support as a strong supporter of the Royal British Legion, SSAFA and Help for Heroes.

In Bexley, there are 4,958 veterans, including many Gurkhas. That is approximately 2.5% of the borough’s population. I welcome the data being made available, for the first time, from the 2021 census, which, as we have heard, has also highlighted the difficulties that veterans often face. For example, in London, 12% of veterans self-reported that their general health is very bad or bad, which is three times more than the general London population, of whom only 4% self-report in those categories.

Veterans face difficulties not only in physical and mental health, but with housing, employment and welfare. It is often a direct consequence and reflection of the sacrifices that they have made for our country, so we owe it to them to ensure that they are appropriately supported in those areas to help them to live secure and healthy lives with purpose. I welcome the help in the Bill to achieve that.

The veterans advisory and pensions committees have played an important role in providing vital advice and support for veterans—including the 4,958 in Bexley—locally. As we have heard, however, they are limited in the scope of advice that they can provide and which veterans can access them, so the Bill is important in expanding that.

It is also worth noting the significant progress that the Government have made in a range of veterans’ support services, particularly through the creation of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs in 2019, which sits at the heart of Government in the Cabinet Office—and sometimes in the heat of Twitter battles.

Given the lack of time, I conclude by reiterating my support for the brilliant role that our veterans have played in keeping this country safe. It is our duty to ensure that those who have served our country receive the best care. At its heart, the Bill helps to deliver on that duty, as is reflected in the support that it has received from brilliant veterans charities, including the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes. I commend the clear passion of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy for ensuring that all veterans and their families receive the support that they deserve after they have made such honourable sacrifices for our country and safety.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) on bringing forward the Bill. Our veterans and their families have made an invaluable contribution to the security and freedoms of our nation. Broadly, only about a quarter of them are in receipt of a pension that entitles them to support from the veterans advisory and pensions committees as they exist. The Bill will broaden that out more widely to give them access to a better range of services to ensure that they are better looked after. It is our duty in this House to ensure that those who have served our country continue to receive the best possible care, particularly those who need extra support.

I echo my hon. Friend’s remarks about the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which it has been a privilege to take part in this year. There have been too many trips to mention, but I pay particular tribute to the Royal Marines, who hosted a bunch of us last week at Camp Viking in Norway. They are doing essential work to deter Putin from his aggression in the high north.

My hon. Friend also referred to yesterday’s trip to 22 Field Hospital at Pirbright. They dressed us up; everyone can see the evidence on the @22FieldHospital Twitter account. He made an excellent field medic and the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who made a fabulous speech earlier, made a very fetching anaesthetist—I do not mean that she sent people to sleep; I would never say that.

On the point not of sending anyone to sleep, but of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, there was also a trip two weeks ago to the Falkland Islands, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) and I were fortunate to participate. It was a timely reminder of the sacrifices that were made 41 years ago, which are still palpable in the minds of all Falkland Islanders today. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is in testament to the veterans who fought then that we need to introduce measures such as those in the Bill?

I could not agree more. Through that scheme, we are incredibly lucky to have not only the trips week to week, but the opportunities to go to places such as the Falklands and Norway—there was a trip to Oman last week as well—to see soldiers serving in the garrisons now and to pay tribute to past service. Today, we remembered Ukraine with the minute’s silence and, if Avanti West Coast will allow me, I will be at a vigil in Newcastle-under-Lyme at 6 pm this evening with the people there who have done such good work to welcome Ukrainian refugees into our community. We should always remember the sacrifice of the past and the sacrifice of the present that is going on in Ukraine now.

Briefly, because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Tri Services and Veterans Support Centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, which does fabulous work in all the areas that hon. Members have spoken about, such as mental health, particularly preventing suicide, and homelessness for people at risk. It is currently engaged in fundraising to buy the building that it occupies. To support that endeavour, I have written to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs; I have had a response but I would like further engagement with him or the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families about what more we can do to support it so that it can stay in that building and renovate it.

I join my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour in congratulating the Tri Services and Veterans Support Centre on the fantastic work it does in my constituency and across Stoke-on-Trent. I want to raise another point with him. Ten years ago, I signed the armed forces covenant, and it seemed to me really important that the Armed Forces Act 2021 made local authorities more mindful of the needs of veterans. I think putting this Bill on a statutory footing is important, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) on bringing it in, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is equally important to enforce and monitor such statutes?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend and neighbour. The work the Tri Services and Veterans Support Centre does is across Stoke, as I should have said. It also has a retreat in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis).

My hon. Friend is completely right about the covenant. I think all public sector bodies—councils, schools and everybody else—need to take their responsibilities seriously. Only yesterday, I was speaking to soldiers serving at Pirbright about the difficulties of moving with families with young children and getting them into new schools. That is an example of where the covenant can make a difference, so I thank her for her point.

I will leave it there because I know a lot of people want to speak, but the change my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy is making with his Bill will make a real difference to veterans and of course to our serving soldiers when they themselves become veterans in their turn, and I commend him for his work.

It is a genuine honour to be here to support a Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar), who is genuinely one of the most thoughtful and great men of this Parliament, so I am delighted to be here.

I do not want to be a merchant of doom or negativity about this, and I defer on just about all matters to my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), but when I looked at the Bill after it was first published I had a question. We talk about the importance of providing statutory services and the vehicles for that—our Government should certainly be proud of everything they have done to support veterans—and the point of the Bill, as far as I understand it, is to make sure that the statutory functions of veterans advisory and pensions committees reflect and serve the needs of veterans as they are now, not as they were when the initial legislation was put in place. However, I struggled to find evidence that these bodies are effective at doing what they are doing now. As my hon. Friend says, I am sure they are great people, but they have to be effective, and if they are not effective, this is just all words, although I fully agree with the ideas behind what we are requiring them to do.

We all have our own individual veterans groups in our areas, and I am very lucky with those in Bury. Clause 1 makes provisions about the membership of VAPCs, and perhaps those memberships can be widened to people who are doing good work on the ground. In Bury, that could be Owen Dykes of the Borough of Bury Veterans Association, Baz and Sam Phillips and Shirley Simmons of the Bury Veterans Hub, Steve Butterworth of another veterans group and Stewart Spensley, the fantastic landlord of the Two Tubs. Let us not keep these services to a certain group of people, but broaden them out and make sure the membership reflects the good work that is done on every street in every town in this country.

I am pleased to respond on behalf of the Opposition to this important debate. I want to thank the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) for bringing forward the Bill. Again, we met and got to know each other better on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, as others have. I, too, think that it is a fantastic scheme, and I encourage all Members to learn more by going on the AFPS.

We welcome the intention behind what appears to be a common-sense Bill. I want to recognise the very important role that veterans advisory and pensions committees undertake to support our veteran community across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Their tireless work is admirable and essential. Their current statutory functions engage at a local level with war pensioners and armed forces compensation scheme recipients—including when that relates to the Defence Business Services, the armed forces welfare services and the Veterans Welfare Service—and make representations and recommendations to the Government on any issues that veterans experience with those services.

However, we know that the environment in which the committees operate has changed over the past 10 years, with committees informally taking on broader roles in raising awareness of other initiatives that affect veterans and their families, specifically the armed forces covenant. I am sure the Minister agrees that local authorities, health bodies and other organisations must understand their obligations to veterans and their families under the armed forces covenant. That covenant is vital, as it represents a promise by the nation to those who serve or have served that they and their families will be treated fairly. That is why Labour has promised to fully incorporate the armed forces covenant into law and fulfil the important moral contract our society makes with those who serve. We strongly argued that case during the passage of the Armed Forces Act 2021, and pushed Ministers to ensure that all areas of the covenant were covered by the duty in that legislation. I note that the definition of “covenant matters” in today’s Bill reflects the same focus on just housing, education and health, but could that be expanded to include social care, employment or immigration?

With regards to the VAPCs, I recognise that in 2021, the Government introduced non-statutory supplementary terms of reference for 12 months, giving those committees a clearer, more wide-ranging role in standing up for all veterans and their families. To have a more sustained impact, the expanded role of those committees may understandably need to be put on a statutory footing, to enable them to carry out additional functions related to other aspects of the MOD’s defence business services and armed forces and veterans services; to continue to carry out the functions currently contained in the War Pensions Committees Regulations 2000 in respect of war pensioners and armed forces compensation scheme recipients; and to widen the cohort of veterans within the scope of the VAPCs’ statutory functions to include all veterans and their families. That all seems very sensible.

The Bill enables the Secretary of State to make regulations relating to the membership of the VAPCs, the appointment and removal of members and the period and terms of membership, as well as to give those committees functions related to eight topic areas. That raises a number of questions that I wish to explore further, to understand how the Bill would work in practice. First, how will members be appointed to committees under the Bill, and will there be accountability to Parliament? Building credibility in this process is a priority, as ensuring that the process is democratically accountable would enhance the perception and impact of the committees’ work. I would also like to hear how the Secretary of State will approach determining those committees’ areas of work under the powers in the new Bill. For example, will measures be implemented to ensure that the Secretary of State’s decision making on function areas is debated by Parliament? I would greatly appreciate reassurance on that matter.

I am sure the Minister agrees that listening to the independent voices of veterans and their families is key to ensuring that the provision delivered by the Government meets their needs. Understanding that lived experience is essential to making the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran, and as we know, veterans come from all walks of life and from across the UK. As such, does the Minister agree that the membership of the committees should reflect the breadth and depth of our veteran community, in order to put the many veterans’ voices at the heart of those committees’ activities? Not all veterans will have the necessary means to pursue a public appointment, so we should make sure that the appointment process is as accessible as possible to a wider pool of candidates with lived experience.

The Bill also notes that new regulations will be made under the negative parliamentary procedure. I am sure the House would welcome the opportunity to debate regulations made under these wider powers, as that would enhance accountability and cross-party opportunities for scrutiny.

Once again, I am pleased to have been given the opportunity to respond to this debate. Veterans advisory and pensions committees undertake important work to support our veteran communities, and have a vital role to play in helping make Britain the best place in the world to be a veteran. Therefore, the Bill could be a common-sense step forward, and I look forward to discussing the legislation in further detail with the hon. Member for Aberconwy and with the Minister.

First, I declare my interest as a veteran. I offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar), both on the content of the Bill and the manner in which he has presented it. I also congratulate the hon. Members for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) and for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bracknell (James Sunderland), for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) and for Bury North (James Daly) for their contributions and their support for my hon. Friend’s Bill.

It is an auspicious day, which we have marked appropriately in this place. On Monday, I visited Ukrainians training on Salisbury plain, at Tidworth and Larkhill, and they are a remarkable group of individuals. Our veteran community stands shoulder to shoulder with them. Slava Ukraini. Heroiam slava.

VAPCs were created in the immediate aftermath of the great war, as war pension committees. They have evolved over time and are, as my hon. Friend said, Burkean little platoons. They are there to support our veterans and their families, and they do so to the best of their ability, but we have been listening to them and to others. We agree that their structure needs to change, which is what lies at the heart of the Bill.

This Government continue to uphold the covenant between our nation and our armed forces. As part of that, we will do all we can to ensure my hon. Friend’s Bill becomes statute. It is fully supported by the Government. At present, the VAPCs’ statutory remit is solely focused on engaging with the recipients of benefits related to the armed forces compensation and war pensions schemes. Under this new legislation, however, their statutory remit will include a broader range of issues such as gauging veterans’ views on the support they receive from the Veterans Welfare Service and raising awareness of the armed forces covenant. This will provide me, as Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families, and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs with a source of independent advice on how the MOD supports our veterans and their families.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) for not being able to be here earlier.

The Minister will be aware of the recent research showing that a very large number of homeless people sleeping on our streets are veterans with brain injuries that were not properly diagnosed during their time in the forces. Will these committees be able to advise on how we can better support those veterans?

Yes, under the regulations and statutory instruments that fall from this Bill. I am more than happy to discuss this complex and nuanced issue with the hon. Gentleman on a future occasion, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I suspect you would call us out of order.

I recently visited Norcross near Blackpool, the home of the Ministry of Defence’s armed forces and veterans services, to witness at first hand the wide range of very good work undertaken by dedicated people to support our veterans and their families. It ranges from administering the compensation and war pensions schemes to providing advice and support to service leavers through the transition process and beyond, to the running and oversight of the little-known Ilford Park Polish care home. The VAPCs have a key role to play in providing Ministers with a regional insight into the experiences of veterans and their families in accessing MOD services beyond their current statutory confines. I give my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy the commitment he seeks on responding to representations by the VAPCs.

In addition to modernising the VAPCs’ statutory framework, this Bill moves the statutory basis for the VAPCs into the Armed Forces Act 2006, which is considered to be a more suitable home, as the MOD is that Act’s sponsoring Department. This Bill will also ensure that the VAPCs can continue to evolve to best serve the needs of veterans and their families into the future.

VAPCs, as non-departmental public bodies, are being reviewed as part of the public bodies review programme, in parallel with this Bill. That might give hon. Members some comfort, given some of the remarks made today. I hope it will.

Although the MOD remains the sponsor body of the VAPCs, I have agreed with the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs that we will consider the review’s recommendations together to ensure the best outcome for our veterans, recognising that much of the support for veterans lies outside the Ministry of Defence.

I say for the record that the MOD considers that this Bill raises no issues under the European convention on human rights and is ECHR compatible.

I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy for his work to develop this Bill, which I wholeheartedly support. I commend the Bill to the House.

With the leave of the House, I thank the Minister for that commitment from the Dispatch Box. It will have been heard. I also thank hon. Members and hon. Friends from across the House, and in particular the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who is representative of the cross-party support that exists for this Bill. If I may, I would just like to mention the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland). In his remarks, particularly on the work of the APPG that he chairs so ably, he hinted at the breadth, depth and weight of support in this House for action on these matters, and that is the point on which I conclude. I hope any veterans watching or listening today might take heart from the support for them among Members today. I only hope that this Bill will find its way swiftly through Committee and its remaining stages and on to the statute book. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).