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Veterans: Handforth

Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 6 September 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered veterans in Handforth.

It is a pleasure to have you chairing this debate, Dame Angela. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for listening to the concerns of my Tatton constituents. This topic should and, I am sure, does concern each and every one of us, as it is about the support that we provide to our servicemen and women as they leave the armed forces and prepare for civilian life. I am here today representing veterans and their families in Handforth, who feel “forgotten about”. Those words struck a particular chord. They said that they had served in the armed forces, but when they left service, they felt that there was an abruptness to that end of service and very little help for them to adjust back into civilian life. To be blunt, they have struggled with that transition. Most importantly, they feel that it does not need to be that way. With more structured support, clear signposting and ongoing checks—interestingly, they mentioned to me a check at the seven-year mark—the transition could have been so much easier.

The veterans felt that much greater care and attention was given to the whole process of getting them into the armed forces than was given to them when they left. Removing “the individual” and fitting them into an organisation had a lot of thought put into it, but reversing that process it did not. They explained to me that, on arrival, each was given a number. They would be drilled and trained, and pushed both physically and mentally. It is a form of training that makes them a team and part of a great institution—without doubt one of the best in the world. They were absolutely proud to serve in that institution, but it does become their life. They said that it did become their mind in a way, controlling what they did in their thought processes.

Therefore, my constituents are asking for a similar process in reverse, and with as much thought and consideration, as they step away from the armed forces. To give up life in the armed forces and regain one’s autonomy might sound easy, but it had not been. They had had their time managed and their life controlled, so to now get the freedoms to do what they wanted and fill the hours was actually quite daunting. Without that drilled schedule, without every moment being filled, they felt that time dragged, allowing loneliness and depression to sink into their lives.

I commend the right hon. Lady for bringing this debate forward. She truly is a champion for veterans and she should be congratulated on her determination to do right by those who have done right for us. Does she agree that tremendous work is carried out by veterans charities such as the Royal British Legion or SSAFA, which I have helped over the last number of years? On Saturday past, I did a coffee morning with SSAFA and we raised some £5,500—just through coffee and scones—which is quite something. Such charities do a tremendous job, yet that does not and cannot absolve Government of the responsibility to our veterans and their families. The right hon. Lady is saying that. I fully support her and hope that the Minister is listening.

The hon. Member is spot on. It is absolutely the case that those charities do a wonderful job, but greater structured support is needed. My constituents are asking the Minister to make the process easier even before discharge. They are asking that people be signposted and helped even before leaving, so that they know the local area that they are going back into, the local groups and the local community. That would make leaving so much easier; it would provide them with stability and a clearer transition to their new life.

In my constituency, there is a very interesting group. These people are passionate about not seeing the experience they had repeated. Sebastian and Gianna Edwards-Beech have set up a support group called NAAFI Break. They welcome veterans and their family members for support. Each week, 18 to 25 people turn up, and they have those discussions, those talks and that helping hand, which is offered over, as they say, a hot beverage. It was at one such session that they asked whether I could relay to the Minister their overwhelming concern that, once discharged, they felt they had nowhere to go. They felt there was a distinct lack of signposting and no central point where information was available. While they appreciated that there was an array of charities, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has said, they felt that somehow the Ministry of Defence needed to do a little more and not contract out its responsibilities to others. They felt the support was bitty, piecemeal and the exact opposite of the training they were given to enter the armed forces, which was precise and regimented.

For example, when Sebastian was discharged and started showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, his wife Gianna felt as if she had nowhere to turn. She said that the lack of signposting both by the Government and the MOD left her feeling angry and rejected. She was sent from one organisation to another, and found the delay in receiving support for her husband quite shocking. When I asked Gianna what exactly she would like to see happen, she said she would like to see something simple and quite tangible, such as a book, issued to each service member and/or their family member when leaving the forces, containing a list of contacts and the assistance on offer. That way, they would have a first line of response. Therefore, my first question is: will the Minister look into providing something like a physical booklet? Gianna said that that tangibility—if I can say that—was important. Yes, it would be good if that simple advice were online, but she felt that having a book—which she might not need straight away, on day one, or in week one or year one, but which she could go to later as things emerged—would allow her to feel comforted.

I commend my right hon. Friend for her excellent speech. I am a serviceman. I left the Army in 2019 with no resettlement and no termination but through choice, to become a candidate for the Conservative party. I do not regret it, but having gone through that process and been left on a cliff edge with that immediate loss from the Department, I would say to my right hon. Friend that I empathise greatly with all the concerns raised by veterans. I am also chair of the all-party parliamentary group on veterans, and my experience of veterans, having left the Army myself, is that the issue in most cases is not that veterans once served, it is that they are no longer serving. There is a distinction.

We have highlighted a number of issues today, and I wish to make two points very quickly. First, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, there are a lot of agencies, charities and organisations that can help, such as RBL and SSAFA. I would urge everyone to make contact with them. I would also want to see the MOD, with the Minister in his place, doing a catch-up, reaching out a bit more to those who have left and having that single point of contact or repository, whereby people do not feel quite so isolated from the organisation they served. Yes, there is a plethora of support out there, but a bit more from the MOD for those who have left the forces would be welcome.

Before I call Esther to reply, can I say that interventions have to be brief, especially in debates of this kind, where other speeches are not allowed? I have been lenient once; I will not be again.

Thank you, Dame Angela, and I thank my hon. Friend for that honest contribution, particularly with such great first-hand knowledge.

To continue with my other point, I was sat next to a very impressive woman who had served and done well in the Army, but who was struggling now that she had left. She, too, felt abandoned. She had gone into the Army to get away from her life. The Army was a fresh start and a new beginning for her. She had grown there and done well. However, on leaving, she felt she was put right back into the place that she had tried to escape from. That left her depressed, as if she had walked back in time, back into the problems that she had tried to get away from. She felt it was worse for her, as there were no other women close by who she could relate to and who shared her experiences. She had seen a lot during her time in the Army.

That woman is based in Cheshire. The support groups for women were in the cities, in Liverpool and Manchester, and meeting online for her was not the same as seeing people face to face. She wondered how she could connect with other veterans, particularly female veterans, who are scattered across the country, without having to incur all the significant travel costs.

All at the session were concerned about support for those with PTSD, particularly those who had been in Afghanistan and Iraq, understanding how it develops and the treatment accompanying it. I have another question for the Minister. How much research have the Government done—or are doing—into PTSD and its treatment, as well as into traumatic brain injury, which is linked to PTSD? Traumatic brain injuries are often overlooked, but they can have devastating effects on physical and mental wellbeing. They can cause memory loss, cognitive impairment, mood swings and a range of debilitating symptoms that can significantly impact a veteran’s ability to reintegrate into civilian life.

Many believe that, despite the growing body of scientific evidence linked to traumatic brain injury and PTSD, the UK Government have failed to allocate the necessary resources and funding for a comprehensive researched diagnosis into the treatment and conditions. If that is the case, we are doing a disservice to our veterans, which does not live up to the promises made in the armed forces covenant. I hope the Minister can reassure me that that is not the case, and that much work is being and has been done.

When he responds to the debate, will the Minister let me and my constituents know what the Government are doing to support veterans with mental health conditions and how they intend to support them and their families? My constituents are helpfully proposing that, either prior to or after discharge date, the MOD sends individuals to a medical facility for an all-round health screening, to diagnose any injuries that have been missed while on active service. That could also lead to an understanding of what might happen to them in future.

The armed forces covenant, established in 2011, was intended to be a solemn agreement that our Government and local authorities would provide adequate support, recognition and assistance to those who had served our Army in uniform. I would like an update on what the Government are doing to adhere to that covenant.

My right hon. Friend raised the armed forces covenant. She is right to raise those concerns, which will be relevant to all armed forces veterans. In my constituency, despite the armed forces covenant, individuals in MOD accommodation find that, when they come to the end of their service, the time allowed to move to other accommodation, in a place where it is difficult to get housing, is far too short and must be reviewed. Does my right hon. Friend agree, with all the work she is doing, that the best place to start is to ensure secure housing? Should that be reviewed by the Minister?

My hon. Friend is right that they need a safe home. That is part of the connection to the local community, before they even leave the armed forces. What is that signposting? Who are those local groups? That of course includes, where do they sleep? Where is that roof over their head?

Apart from the anti-discrimination policies in the armed forces covenant, there are concerns about the wording. It is not definitive enough, such as when a local authority or business is tasked with supporting a veteran. The wording is “where possible”. That means there is no obligation, and veterans often feel that they are “palmed off”—in their words—to charities or other voluntary bodies, because there is not a sufficiently worded obligation in the current form. Will the Minister talk a little more about that wording and that obligation that I know we would all like to see?

Finally, I come to the armed forces compensation scheme. Those who had applied and qualified felt the experience was of delays and complicated process. Will the Minister give an update on how that process will be made smoother and faster? I know we all believe in honouring our veterans, and that means ensuring that when they leave the armed forces they can reintegrate into civilian life in a smooth, coherent, supported way, so they do not feel abandoned and lost. The one way that can be done is to provide the assistance they so rightly deserve.

I start by declaring my interest as a veteran and an active reservist. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on securing the debate and the way in which she has presented it. I know she has a deep interest in veterans’ affairs, which shines through, and she has been a passionate advocate for her Handforth constituents and veterans in general. Her aim is to make life better for the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way in the service of our country, and I certainly share that goal.

My right hon. Friend reflected thoughtfully on the question of what we might call signposting. At the time of my first stint as a Defence Minister a decade ago, there was an impenetrable maze of veteran provisions without any realistic road map for navigating it. It was bitty—I think that was the term that my right hon. Friend used. In the meantime, there have been significant improvements, although I am the first to admit that we are not there yet. The MOD actively supports vulnerable service leavers to make the most successful transition possible to civilian life, building on the substantial skills and experience they have accrued in the armed forces.

I am bound to represent to my right hon. Friend the Veterans’ Gateway, which offers a pretty good first point of contact for all former personnel and their families who need access to both the state and charitable sectors. It offers help with pretty much everything, from finances to families, housing to health and independent living to mental wellbeing, and I really commend it. We should all be concerned about delays in getting assistance to veterans, which my right hon. Friend touched on. Ideally, there should be no gap between the request for and the provision of help. Realistically, the system caters for approximately 1.85 million veterans, each with individual issues that may or may not be related to service and requiring different contact with myriad organisations, from Government and local authorities to the charitable sector. To give an idea of the scale of the work, some 450,000 veterans receive an armed forces pension—happily, me included—and last year the veterans’ welfare service handled calls from almost 40,000 people.

Unfortunately, even with the best efforts of the dedicated staff who fill out the forms and operate the phone lines, people can slip through the net; usually we hear from them, not from those who are satisfied with the service they receive. I have visited Norcross near Blackpool to talk to those whose job it is to manage those sometimes quite difficult calls, and I have been impressed by a couple of things: first by their longevity in the job, and secondly by the sense of dedication they have to servicing the needs of their clients’ community. Claims for compensation, for example, have long been hampered by a reliance on paper records—a theme that I have talked about before. The staff at Norcross operate in, frankly, an outdated environment that does not match their commitment and expertise. We need to do away with all those paper records. While it may sound boring, I am convinced that those paper records are at the heart of some of the delays we have seen. They are not the only reason, and I am more than happy to describe at greater length the cause of those delays, but we must drag the systems at Norcross kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

The Minister will recall that we met earlier this year in the all-party parliamentary group on veterans and discussed the much-needed reform of Veterans UK. As part of his closing address, or perhaps in the near future, is he able to provide an update to the House on where we are with the review of Veterans UK and any subsequent work that needs to be done?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He and I have discussed this before. I am afraid that I will not be able to show very much ankle on this occasion, but in my remarks I will certainly touch on where we are with the two commissioned reviews, which will improve matters as part of the process I described. In the meantime, we have invested £40 million to digitally transform veterans’ services and phase out paper, which is so much impeding the quality of the service we want to offer our veterans. We are introducing online verification, which will make it much quicker and easier to establish veteran status, and that is also why we have introduced the reviews to which my hon. Friend refers.

There have been calls for medical checks when people leave active service to allow for the early spotting of traumatic brain injuries, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton rightly touched on. It is an issue that I, as a military medic, have a long-standing interest in. Remarkably, in Afghanistan a British combat soldier was likely to face exposure to between six and nine improvised explosive device explosions, with the consequent risk of mild traumatic brain injury. That is a staggering figure.

Moderate to severe traumatic brain injury should be detected at the time of injury and managed accordingly. The diagnosis of mild traumatic brain injury is generally made clinically on referral to the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Stanford Hall, which operates a dedicated treatment programme for TBI of all levels of severity.

As for medical assessments conducted at discharge, their purpose is to assess and record the physical and mental health status of individuals at point of departure. All episodes of ill health during service will be reviewed at that time, and an assessment will be made and recorded about whether there has been any interaction between health and work. Our duty of care to people is principally to ensure that any disadvantage that they have suffered as a result of their service is remedied as best we can; that is at the heart of the military covenant, as my right hon. Friend will well appreciate. That assessment, at that time, is part of that duty.

The real sticking point here is that mild TBI is generally not visible on routine clinical imaging. The US has something called magnetoencephalography, which it has deployed to try to detect who has mild TBI and who does not. We have our own Independent Medical Expert Group that assesses these things, and it has assessed magnetoencephalography twice. It has found that magnetoencephalography is not sensitive and specific enough to be of use as a screening test at the moment, but naturally it keeps all evidence under review and that position may well change. In the meantime, our own Defence Medical Services is part of a national civilian and military collaboration called mTBI-Predict, and that is looking for reliable biomarkers, which may include—but are not confined to—magnetoencephalography.

I turn to the possibility of rewording the armed forces covenant to encourage authorities to treat veterans as a priority more energetically. I share my right hon. Friend’s appreciation of the value of our armed forces covenant. Indeed, I wrote the book on it 12 years ago, which is sadly now out of print, although a colleague said he had seen a copy recently in a charity shop. He then went on to spoil the story by saying that he did not bother buying it! Nevertheless, I am particularly proud that this Government, in their very early days, put the covenant into legislation—at about the time that I was writing my book—and that organisations are now able to sign up to it, as so many have, including all local authorities in Great Britain.

We should not forget that the covenant is not about advantaging members of the armed forces community; it is not about placing them at the front of the queue or mandating outcomes. I do not think that is what veterans and the service community want. The covenant is about ensuring that people are not disadvantaged by virtue of having served. That “no disadvantage” enjoinder lies at the very heart of the covenant we have built.

The Armed Forces Act 2021 introduced a new statutory duty to promote better outcomes for the armed forces community when accessing key public services. That duty came into force in November 2022. It requires certain public bodies to have due regard to the covenant’s principles when carrying out specific functions in the key areas of housing, healthcare and education. In other words, it is there to give veterans a fairer hearing and to ensure that service providers have the needs of the armed forces community in mind when making policy decisions. We will evaluate the impact of the new legislation as it beds in; we will report on it annually in the armed forces covenant and veterans annual report; and in any event, as we are bound by statute, we will report on it formally after five years.

All service people, from private soldiers to Chief of the Defence Staff, come to defence from civilian life, and to civilian life they will return. Preparing for that inevitability is not something that should happen in a rush in someone’s last few weeks spent in uniform, but from day one. That is why accredited training, skills and education are so important and is why issues like facilitating spousal employment and encouraging personnel to buy their own homes early have been, and will continue to be, firmly in our sights.

I would like to sound a cautionary note. The tabloid press likes to suggest that the veteran living in a cardboard box underneath the arches is typical. That is a complete 180° reversal of the truth. Overwhelmingly, our service leavers transition brilliantly, as one might expect considering that they are resourceful, enabled individuals with in-demand skills and attributes, but there are exceptions and we should be constantly kicking the tyres to see what more we can do to maximise the resilience of our service leavers.

Our holistic transition policy, published in October 2019, was designed to better co-ordinate and manage service personnel and their families transitioning from military to civilian life. Whether that means helping with the basics, such as registering with a doctor, or offering more intensive assistance for those with complex needs including those related to housing, budgeting, debt, wellbeing, employment and children’s education, it is there for them. Holistic transition builds on the success of the career transition partnership, which has provided employment support and job finding services for the last 20 years. Last year, 87% of service leavers were employed within six months of leaving their service. I want that to improve, but that is 12% higher than the UK employment rate, which validates the remarks I made about the majority of our service leavers being in a good position by virtue of having served. The holistic transition policy gives tailored interventions to service leavers assessed as needing extra help. That is done through the defence transition service. It is one to one, provides tailored information and guidance and facilitates access to support services, including from other Government Departments, local authorities, the NHS and trusted charities.

I underscore the contribution of charities. Some disparage charities and say that it is all the responsibility of the state. I disagree. I think our service charities do an absolutely fantastic job and need to be encouraged in what they do.

Mindful of the compensation touched on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton, in July the Ministry of Defence and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs published a review of the Government’s veterans’ welfare services alongside the statutory quinquennial review of the armed forces compensation scheme. I will not pre-empt the Government’s response to the reviews. That will come later this year—I hope very much not too much later. Suffice to say, those reviews prove that the only way to meet our aspiration of making the UK a truly great place to be a veteran is to continue to listen to what they say, both directly and through their elected representatives as in this debate.

A fortnight ago, I was honoured to be asked to speak in Kyiv at a conference for veterans hosted by the Government of Ukraine. I am pleased that a country that will, as a result of Putin’s aggression, have a large number of veterans, some with the most complex of needs, should, at both ministerial and official level, be looking to the UK for advice and looking at our structures as it works out what it should now do. I find endorsement in that and I am humbled by it.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.